All the guts with no glory

By: Liz Lycette, housekeeper extraordinaire

Back of house is the part of the hotel that customers never see. All being well they never even have to think about it either. Luggage invisibly appears, rooms are kept spotless, restaurants serve dishes as if out of thin air, and all the staff you do happen to come into contact with are charming, smiling and efficient to a man. But behind the scenes frantic activity and heroic organisation within cramped quarters are the norm, and nowhere is this more true than for the housekeeping department.

The life blood of the hotel, for if it sells nothing else the main reason to stay in one is to have a room to sleep in, housekeeping is responsible for those all-important first impressions (cleanliness and order, upkeep and maintenance).

A successful housekeeping team can do as much if not more to influence the profit margins of the hotel than any other department – yet its role and staff members are often looked down upon as ‘just a bunch of cleaners’. GSA turns back the cover on the job that is less glorified cleaner than guest relations, technology adviser and interior expert, by talking to Liz Lycette of Liz Lycette & Associates, a former super-housekeeper, who has set up her company to unravel the myths behind the role, train future housekeepers and instill a sense of pride in a job without which no hotel could run.

GSA: What is the common perception of the role of the housekeeping department of a hotel?

LL:These vary geographically. In Australia and Europe the perception is more of being just the cleaner, the work is considered menial and there is low social recognition. In Asia, housekeeping is more accepted as a valid career path and is a more socially acceptable profession.

GSA :How does the hierarchy breakdown?

LL:The usual hierarchy is the executive housekeeper, then assistant executive housekeeper, senior supervisors, then supervisors, then rank and file staff including room attendants, housemen, public area cleaners and linen/uniform attendants.

GSA: What is the official role of an executive housekeeper?

LL:Officially they are in charge of the cleanliness and upkeep of the guest rooms, public areas, linen, uniforms and laundry operations in a hotel. They may be responsible for up to 150 staff and a budget in the millions.

Unofficially the executive housekeeper is the mum of her brood, able to pull miracles from thin air and someone who deals with all the guts with no glory.

Often a woman (however this is changing), she may be the only woman on the executive team. Her closest allies are the front office manager who begs for ready rooms and the engineer who she needs to get those leaking toilets and malfunctioning air conditioners working.

GSA: How has the job changed in the last decade?

LL:The main area of responsibility used to be the quality control of cleanliness, checking the work of the room attendants and disciplining the housekeeping team.

Today there is ever increasing competition between hotels and resorts for customers’ business and loyalty, and hotels are expected to deliver value for money, comfort, cleanliness and technology to their guests. So there is a huge financial pressure on executive housekeepers, as the expectations from the hotel owners for a return on their investment is very important. The owners are looking at constantly reducing margins for errors and mistakes as well as making more money. Executive housekeepers are constantly looking for new ways to run their departments more economically and efficiently. Keeping costs down while delivering consistently high standards is the main goal. So as global labour costs rise, there is an ever decreasing staff to guest ratio, even in five star luxury properties.

GSA: Does it follow that the more luxurious the hotel the harder the job, for example through the necessity of high-tech facilities.

LL:The introduction of new technology and amenities has changed the role of housekeeping staff. This new technology includes various internet cables, broadband, fax machines, in-room computers, CD and video players, multi-function remote controls, electronic controls for everything from window blinds to different lighting settings, multi-function telephones and security systems. The staff is expected to be able to handle and advise the guest on these, so this knowledge needs to be built into the training and refreshed regularly as technology changes. Depending on the educational background of the staff, this can be a challenge.

There are also computer interfaced maintenance programmes for guest rooms: for example defects and faults are reported and traced through the computer system; computer and telephone interfaces are used for making ready rooms and tracking room status and the charging and tracking of in room minibars; computers are used for the preparation and generation of month end reports required by head offices for statistic purposes.

Aside from technology, hotel rooms have changed dramatically in design over the last decade. There is now more of a favouring towards ‘comfortable homely’ look rather than the previous efficient and commercial look: heavy new beds with timber bed bases, labour intensive bedding (various sheets and duvets, oversized duvet-covers rather than plain sheets, pillow menus), the introduction of new surface materials such as limestone, timber and other natural stone surfaces which are often hard to clean and maintain.

GSA: Apart from these aspects, are there any other particular indicators to show which new directions the job will be going in the future?

LL:All the staff needs to take more and more ownership as staffing levels become increasingly streamlined. The whole housekeeping team needs to be more trained and properly empowered to answer questions satisfactorily and resolve customer’s inquiries. As labour costs grow, the role of supervisor is being called in to question as more staff is empowered and room attendants become ‘self checkers’. There is definitely more emphasis being placed on finance and the management of staff.

GSA: You mention that often the workforce is culturally diverse and combines skilled, unskilled, full and part time and outsourced labour. What is the reason for this discrepancy between staff members?

LL:It is hard to attract professional, experienced and educated, well presented people to the housekeeping profession and it is getting harder and harder hence the arrival of agencies to provide staff. Few new recruits coming into hospitality are interested in pursuing housekeeping as a career. A lot of the existing executive housekeepers were promoted by default; it is usually not a planned career path.

The morale of staff can be affected if they have a low esteem of their work and their own value to the organisation. This is one of the most important things, to make the housekeeping team proud of what they contribute and the relevance of their contribution to the hotel as a whole.

On their side hotels have to be flexible about working hours and working times to attract more people. It is a very physically demanding job and can be monotonous. Therefore newly arrived immigrants who may not have strong language skills are often employed in this role.

GSA: Does this also have anything to do with the starting wage being relatively low?

LL:Partly yes, but generally the social low esteem of ‘cleaning’ is the main reason – and the physicality of the job.

GSA: What about the payment level of executive and management in the housekeeping department? Why are they generally paid less than their counterparts in other hospitality roles?

LL:Partly because it is in many countries still a typical female role, and women are still paid less then the predominantly male positions, and partly because some managers still perceive it as care-taker role only and are under the illusion that all it requires is a rooms division manager to resolve any short comings. The rooms division manager often comes up through front office and has little or no experience in housekeeping, however the executive housekeeper reports to this person.

GSA: It sounds like whichever department the rooms division manager comes from, the executive housekeeper is stuck in a difficult situation.

LL:It can be tough and sometimes lonely with a boss who has come up through F&B, accounting or sales and marketing and has no idea what’s involved – after all it’s ‘only cleaning’. But this is punctuated by joyous moments of pride, like a brilliant guest comment on a housekeeping member of staff or when she does better than budget and coped with 100% occupancy over five days with no guest complaints and a smooth operation.

GSA: Was it the thought of moments like this that got you into the job in the first place?

LL:When I graduated from Ecole Hoteliere Lausanne, I always said I would never do housekeeping. However when I was 22 years old and working in the front office at the Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong, an assistant manager encouraged me to try a stint in housekeeping. Eight months later I was asked to open the Mandarin Oriental Macau as executive housekeeper. I have been in housekeeping ever since and have developed a great passion for it over the years.

GSA: You became an executive housekeeper at the age of 23 – wasn’t this an extraordinarily young age to step into this role?

LL:The grand opening of the 438-room five star Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Macau was a huge challenge. I had never been an executive housekeeper before. I suddenly found myself interviewing and putting into place a team of over 70 staff including the laundry. I was responsible for assisting with the purchasing of everything for the department including linen, guest supplies and equipment, and had to set up all the training for the staff. At that time we recruited staff from factories and the local hotel school as there were few five star hotels in operation. The whole management team was under 25 and had tremendous energy and commitment and despite predications we couldn’t do it, the hotel opened with great fanfare and few problems. This was a very steep learning curve but has stood me in good stead till this day.

My advice to others promoted so quickly is to surround yourself with good team leaders and never be afraid or too proud to ask for help. People love to help!

GSA: When did you start targeting housekeeping in your consultancy and training courses?

LL:I first started the business in 1999, when I realized that there was an increasing need for assistance within housekeeping. The days of the expatriate housekeeper were gone and a lot of local housekeepers were put into positions with little training and back up. When I first began, I focused on hotel openings, working in China, the Bahamas and Italy. Once Ariane Lellmann joined the team, more emphasis was placed on short consultancy assignments to assist existing housekeeping operations and the new ‘External Development Programme for Executive Housekeepers’ a four-day course targeting housekeeping managers and their assistants was developed and delivered.

GSA: Was there a specific ‘wake-up call’ that alerted you to the fact that this was a necessary addition to the hospitality training world?

LL:We both came from Asia to Australia and recognized a huge need for training as most executive housekeepers had come up through the ranks and never had any proper training, mentoring or formal education in the skill set required for their role.

GSA: A major aspect of your courses deals with improving staff performance. How do you go about this when you are dealing with such a diverse cross section of society?

LL:We believe the best way in improving staff performance is through a systematic and practical training system using a dedicated trainer and clear quality control checklists. We also focus on applied motivational tools and communication sensitive to cultural diversity.

GSA: And how do you tackle the cost control system?

LL :In brief: we de-mystify finance and make it simple and clear. We explain the uniform system of accounts for hotels and specifically the relevance to the housekeeping department, then we show various practical tools to control costs in various areas such as guest supplies, cleaning supplies, linen laundry, labour and how this translates to the departmental bottom line. We give handy tips and tricks of the trade. We also focus on highlighting the need to see the big picture on how things like average room rate can affect the rooms division profit and loss.

GSA: How exactly does a smoothly running operation increase efficiency of the hotel as a whole?

LL:Rooms operations are for many guests still the key experience of a good hotel, as restaurants and other facilities such as room service, the bar, spa and health club are optional extras and may or may not be used.

The guestroom experience is essential, especially the cleanliness of the room. Careful planning of arrivals and departures ensures that guests get to their rooms promptly. As first impressions are so critical, if the guest is made to wait for their room and, once they check in, if everything is not perfect in the room, then this can lead to a catalogue of on-going complaints. Once unhappy the guest will start to look for the next thing to go wrong.

The liaison between housekeeping and front office is absolutely critical to the smooth running operation of the hotel. Generally, departmental profit for rooms stands between 70 – 80%, so the margins for profit are considerable and a well-managed department contributes considerably to the bottom line.

GSA:How important is training in your opinion?

LL:The right training is important however more importantly it is all about the right attitude and having the right personal attributes to be successful.

GSA: What traits of yours have helped you most in your housekeeping career?

LL:I have always been very honest and straightforward – I say things how they are, (sometimes this can be a negative as well!). I believe it is important to allow people to run their own show and give them guidance when they ask for it. Recognising who is going to be a good team leader is very useful. Treating staff fairly and with respect is hugely important. I am hardworking and very persistent; initially I was impatient however this has changed as I have grown more experienced. I discovered getting angry and cross was not the smart way to get things done.

GSA: What would you say are the desired characteristics and qualities of a housekeeper?

LL:The best executive housekeeper is all of the following: people oriented, patient and persistent, has a good sense of humour, has a very sharp eye for detail, is well organized, is a good communicator and is financially trained.

A typical Executive Housekeepers day:

  • 7.00am Arrive at work and deal with 4 sickies and 50 rooms uncovered.
  • 9.00am Operations meeting, review of daily arrivals and VIPs with all hotel operational departmental heads
  • 9.30am Meeting with housekeeping team leaders and plan for the day
  • 10.00am Interview a new room attendant candidate
  • 10.30am Meeting with engineer and project team on 12th Floor renovation
  • 11.00am Quick walk through the floors and inspect a couple of rooms
  • 11.30am Meeting with chemical supplier and review the latest cost per occupied room and new cleaning chemicals and equipment products available
  • 12.00pm Quick stop off at the engineers office to follow up on outstanding maintenance issues
  • 12.30pm Lunch in the staff canteen, on the run, interrupted by page from front office, 5 guests have been waiting for over 1 hour for rush rooms
  • 12.45pm Quickly up to the floors to check the room status and back to the office to co-ordinate the return of rooms to front office
  • 1.30pm Rooms division meeting with front office and security
  • 2.30pm Review linen stocktake figures, why have we lost 150 bath towels this month? Is it miscounted or have we had a lot of guest thefts? Prepare next years linen budget – review with linen room staff
  • 3.30pm Meeting with room attendants to discuss ongoing issues and challenges
  • 4.00pm Review of new uniforms for banqueting with the supplier and uniform room staff
  • 4.30pm Meeting with linen hire supplier on quality issues and towel losses
  • 5.00pm Catch up on 45 emails in the inbox and 5 telephone messages
  • 6.00pm Prepare for tomorrow, check the staffing with the occupancy, will there be any uncovered rooms? Check the late shift is OK and remind them of VIPs in house
  • 6.30pm Final walk through all areas before heading home to cook dinner for hubby and the kids, the other house to keep!

Top tips

Personal tips

  • Be honest and true to people and you will always engender a sense of loyalty, regardless of language barriers.
  • Listen to your staff carefully and watch their body language.
  • Surround yourself with good troops and colleagues, share and give them praise when it is due, be generous.
  • Be sensitive to different cultures and religions; try to learn a little about them and what is important to them. Try and learn a few words of their language to converse and to show you are interested.

Professional tips

  • Get smart financially, ask questions when you are not sure or don’t know.
  • Find a mentor and network continuously. Stay in touch with previous colleagues and take time to occasionally socialize with your key team members.
  • Look at the big picture and be a good team player.
  • Have a career plan and continue to self improve and develop yourself at every opportunity.
  • Don’t burn your bridges, the hospitality world is small and you are sure to meet the same people later in your career.