Skift Take

A hotel is only as good as its frontline staff. Saira, a grassroots hospitality program, partners with opening hotels to teach locals the craft of hospitality. The result is real service, lower turnover, a link to the community, and sustainable economic development.

Even the most well-placed, meticulously designed hotel is only as good as its staff. And with the ravenous pace of investment and development in far-flung places around the globe, sometimes the demand outstrips the supply. A new brand of hospitality instruction is needed to help people learn and create a new career in service of helping people.

While some of the world’s hoteliers are educated at hospitality schools such as Lausanne and Cornell, there is also the need for a more grassroots, bottom-up approach to creating hospitality experts from scratch. This would be in service to students who may not have the means for a top-tier education, but have the core focus and initiative to be shaped into a star.

Enter Saira, a school founded by hospitality veteran Harsha Chanrai billing itself as “a non-profit enterprise disrupting the traditional hospitality routes to sourcing employees.” The program establishes pop-up programs to train local staff for properties set to open. It provides training, jobs, and some much-needed community diplomacy via a link between a property and its surrounding residents.

Chanrai worked in the hospitality industry around the world for 10 years with brands such as Six Senses. Following a master’s degree from Cornell Hospitality school, she saw an opportunity to meld the idea of service and hospitality with community and philanthropy. The idea came to life following a first-place win at Cornell’s business plan competition and quickly moved from idea to action with funding and institutional support.

The program aims to help cultivate what every new property is aiming for: service that feels local to its surroundings, and specific to a culture. A nuanced, sensitive approach that makes a guest feel welcomed and at home.

There’s also a practical business case to be made for the program. Turnover is one of the biggest challenges that modern hospitality brands face, with an estimated 70 percent turnover rate in 2017. Relocating trained staff costs money, and poaching creates a negative cycle of sorts, according to Saira, creating free agents with little or no brand loyalty. The theory is, investment in local staff, nurturing and making an employee feel like something from the ground up can engender loyalty and lower these rates.

The curriculum spans anywhere from six to 10 weeks, timed as close to the hotel opening or re-opening as possible. Students dedicate four hours a day to the program, about four to five days a week. They go through a crawl, walk, run approach: First, they learn the basics: an introduction to the world of hospitality. Then, they get immersed into the sponsoring hotel brand and their ethos and guest expectations. The next module focuses on urgency, attention to detail, initiative, and the so-called “hospitality gene of service.” In this phase, the chaos and long hours of opening a hotel are examined in detail, alongside techniques to manage the stress.

A Saira instructor teaches a hotel team in Mexico.

The next portion focuses on the harder parts: cultural and ethical dilemmas and the idea of emotional intelligence. Students are given a variety of scenarios, as well as deep immersion into the cultural differences they will encounter relative to how they live in their communities — which can diverge widely. The school also focuses on the “critical yet sometimes misunderstood difference between sympathy and empathy,” according to staff materials.

Communication is also a focus, both within the staff team and with the guests, including unspoken communication such as physical cues and body language. The final module covers on-site technical training on-site, with the various areas and departments of a hotel.

A recent pop-up formed the basis for many of the staff at Bunkhouse’s San Cristobal Hotel in Todos Santos, Mexico. According to Bunkhouse data provided by Saira to Skift, it “hired 25 local employees, native to the exact area and had experienced zero staff turnover to-date.”

The school also allowed for a more personal type of approach than some of the other hospitality available further away in Cabo San Lucas and students included everything from a former mechanic, now working as a houseman, former local entrepreneurs, a furniture maker and a former employee of the telecoms firm Tel Cel that wanted a change of pace and the new challenge.

The school also created a tangible link to the community and helped manage and mitigate opposition to development, some stemming from the local fishing community.

The relationship between students and the city played a role in soothing the friction. It is one thing for a hotel to have a loose link from the community, buying local coffee or putting up some local artwork. It is another to have a deep, enmeshed, and symbiotic relationship.

Now, the local fishermen’s catch is being served that day, even within the hour, to guests, and they still have their local spot on their beach next to the hotel to service their boats and drink a cold beer after a day’s work at sea. Plus, the guests like the proximity to where their food is coming from, as it shows the flip side and immediacy compared with some of the “gated community” approaches to hotels farther down in Cabo that sell themselves on isolation.

“Hiring local says to the community you’re a hotel that is not entering the neighborhood to purely take from their resources and make a profit as an outsider,” says Chanrai. “It tells the local community that you want to invest in them, and you see team members as elevating the neighborhood…”

Lorenzo Mietitore, GM of another new development in the area, the Costa Palmas Beach Club, that also partnered with Saira to train staff added, “I never thought we would have found so many resources within the community, they also gave clarity to the locals and cleared up any doubts towards the [Costa Palmas] development. It had a very high return on investment and something we would like to do again in the future.”

But can freshly minted students stand up to the difficulties of coddled and demanding guests? Can a short hospitality program really create a dynamic new generation of hoteliers?  Chanrai thinks so. But it is not without its challenges as hotels move from the “friends and family stay” of an opening into demanding hordes chasing the latest Conde Nast “Hotlist” hotels.

Part of the approach is the vetting of candidates, and finding coachable talent that has the necessary basic building blocks to learn. And the necessary empathy and communication skills.

“We’ve all experienced demanding guests, whether in hospitality or not,” Chanrai said. “What you need is what we call the hospitality gene, which can’t be taught. This gene is the desire to serve, to genuinely care about the guest experience and constantly think about how you can better their stay. If the student possesses that gene, which we identify through rigorous interviews, we can train them to be able to anticipate such guests and give them tools they can use to turnaround their experience.”

Due to its modular, customizable nature and grounding in world-class hospitality thinking, the program continues to grow in demand globally, pairing future developments with the able hands to steward a memorable guest experience and keep them coming back.

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Tags: hospitality, Saira

Photo credit: Saira's grassroots hospitality school worked with the Hotel San Cristobal in Mexico to build better relations with the local fishermen. Saira

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