By Kaitlin Dunn, Writer, Hospitality Sales & Marketing Association International (HSMAI)
Theresa Paolo, CTA, knows the importance of being flexible and open-minded when it comes to the hospitality industry. For nearly a year during the height of the pandemic, Paolo was not only handling her primary responsibilities as a sales account manager at the Cincinnati Marriott at RiverCenter but also managing the front desk — having volunteered to do so. She recently spoke with HSMAI about her experience throughout the pandemic, including how she has kept herself motivated.
What’s your experience been like throughout the pandemic?
When it became apparent at the beginning of the pandemic that layoffs were going to hit the hotel, I volunteered for a new role. I had started my career in front office operations and after nearly 10 years in the hospitality business, I knew I could manage doing both roles while our business levels slowed down. The switch allowed me to utilize my expertise in both the front office and sales while maintaining full-time employment.
It was difficult in the beginning as so many members of our team were laid off. For nearly a year, I worked in both roles, full-time. Obviously, no one plans for a pandemic, but I realized that my skillset brought an added value to the hotel. I know our ownership was appreciative of my flexibility.
Is business anywhere close to pre-pandemic levels yet?
Not yet, but it is definitely starting to pick back up. We are running around 30- to 60-percent occupancy during the week and more on the weekends. It has been mostly leisure travel over the weekends, with quite a few of our guests coming to us for sporting events, visiting family, or doing staycations. We also are close to the airport. We have been successful partnering with airlines and their crews, which helped us throughout the pandemic.
How much of your staff have been brought back on?
We like to describe our sales team as small but mighty. Pre-COVID, our team consisted of nine staff members as well as our DOS. Right now, we are a team of four — our DOS, me, another sales manager, and our convention services manager.
What has been your biggest challenge in the past year?
The biggest challenge has been watching our team try to deliver the same level of service with fewer resources and staff. Over the past six months, it has been difficult for every department in the hotel to keep up with the business levels and guests’ expectations. We are finding that as more people are starting to travel again, they have even higher service expectations while not realizing the struggles that many organizations in our industry are facing.
It has been difficult to find staff members willing to join our workforce. Staffing numbers are still well behind pre-COVID levels. As a team, we have invested countless hours brainstorming for ideas on how to attract employees.
Do you have any advice for someone who is trying to find a job?
For anyone trying to find a job right now, I would suggest being open-minded about taking on responsibilities that they may not have been open to in the past. Employers are going to want to see that you can be flexible and offer support wherever it is needed.
What do you see as the biggest challenge for the rest of the year? What are you excited for?
I think it is going to be a challenge hiring and increasing staffing levels. I keep hearing from individuals in the industry that it is hard to find people who truly want to come back to work. Many people are submitting applications but then show little interest in the hiring or application process. Meanwhile, guest expectations are at an all-time high. Every department in the hotel is working hard to keep up. It is going to take some creative use of our resources and staff to keep providing the highest level of service.
One thing I am excited for is the feeling that things are getting back to normal. Mornings especially are always exciting for me when I see the hustle and bustle of the lobby. We really haven’t seen that in over a year. It is nice to see that our guests are choosing to stay with us again.
How did you get into the hospitality industry?
I started in college at Ohio University. (Go, Bobcats!) When I entered school, I was undecided about my major. I started on a business track, then decided to go into hospitality management. Out of college, I started working at a Marriott property and fell in love with the level of service that Marriott provided. I have been fortunate to work with, and for, some very inspiring leaders and managers, men and women who have recognized my passion for the industry and have offered me guidance throughout my career.
What has kept you motivated through the tough times?
I have remained thankful that I have been able to keep working, even when things had gotten tough in the hospitality industry. When I am struggling trying to balance the responsibilities of my job, I remind myself that I am lucky to have been able to remain employed full-time when so many other have not.
I have also been trying to remind myself that every day is a new day. When I leave my office for the night, I try to leave my workday behind me. I have the luxury of knowing that the work will still be there in the morning. It is important to make sure you take time for yourself and to try and maintain a good work-life balance. Unfortunately, it can be way too easy to keep working and then run yourself down. Mental health has been a challenge for me this past year. I now make it a point to remember that I can only do so much. I am a better asset to the hotel and my team when I come to the office refreshed. My positive mindset has gotten me this far, I think I will stick with it.