Building Cleveland's hotel industry for the RNC and beyond

The 2016 Republican National Convention requires approximately 16,000 hotel rooms to accommodate the estimated 50,000 visitors who will convene in Cleveland for a week next July. According to the convention host committee, Northeast Ohio will have 17,000 rooms available within a 45-minute drive of downtown and just under 5,000 rooms in the immediate downtown area by the mega-event's first day.

The under-construction Hilton Cleveland Downtown, a 32-story behemoth connected to the Cleveland Convention Center, is set to go online in June 2016, adding 600 rooms by itself. Hilton's launch highlights a base of downtown guest spaces that will total 4,893 by 2018. This figure equates to a 55 percent leap from Cleveland's 2013 supply of hotel rooms, according to Destination Cleveland.

While this growth is a noteworthy aspect of Cleveland's resurgence, the price of success comes with a set of challenges for an industry on the rise. Namely, how can the city's hotel scene capitalize on the Republicans' visit, and are there enough workers available locally to staff new positions once they become available?

Cuyahoga Community College posed these questions during an August 13 focus group attended by area hoteliers and nonprofit officials. The program, first in a planned series of meetings with the local hospitality industry, addressed the mounting need for qualified employees, from front-facing managers to back-of-the-house engineers and housekeepers.

Sustainability beyond the RNC means ensuring there's enough talent available to meet demand and vice versa, say Bill Reed, general manager of the Aloft Cleveland Downtown. The boutique hotel near the $275 million Flats East Bank mixed-use project is part of a neighborhood upswing that includes Punch Bowl Social, a 27,000-square-foot restaurant, bar and entertainment complex expected to hire 200 workers immediately upon opening.

"The challenge with growth is that it's made talent acquisition more competitive," says Reed. "There's even employee competition within our own property."

Recognizing the need for a workforce pipeline, Tri-C assembled the focus group to align its talent engagement and training efforts with that of area hotel general managers. In the school's vision, hotel officials would also share their best hiring practices with each other.

"The notion is you can't solve these issues singularly," says William Gary, executive vice president of Tri-C's Workforce and Economic Development Division (WEDD). "There's a willingness to come together for an industry that's going to keeping growing."

Searching for talent together

Tri-C invited representatives from the downtown Hilton, Aloft Cleveland, the Hyatt Regency Cleveland at The Arcade, the Renaissance Cleveland Hotel and the InterContinental Suites Hotel to take part in the focus group. They were joined by Destination Cleveland as well as The Literacy Cooperative, a Cleveland nonprofit.

The group discussed ways to modify Tri-C's existing hospitality management program curriculum to match in-house training new workers receive from hoteliers. Students within the school's lodging and tourism concentration learn management skills along with the softer social abilities needed to deal with the general public on a daily basis. Math and literacy skills are also tested as part of the curriculum.

The idea is to train new workers up to hotel standards, ostensibly accelerating the hiring process to get more talent into the pipeline, notes Gary of Tri-C. To that end, the school has offered to help skill up existing hotel workers to company specifications.

"It's better for everyone if we have training that's applicable to all hotels," says Gary.

Although participating hotels have yet to allow Tri-C to take over any teaching duties, they have agreed to share those practices with program officials. Downtown Hilton general manager Teri Agosta expects to hire 450 employees by April of next year, coaching them through two months of in-house training before the grand opening in June.

Bellmen, hostesses, sales managers, front desk workers, culinary talent and more will be added to the staff. Depending on the position, Hilton trains its employees on guest protocol, how to use its computer system, or how to clean a room to company standards.

In addition, any member of a busy, around-the-clock organization like a hotel must have an innate passion for serving guests, with the ability to make correct judgments when inevitable problems arise, says Agosta.

The hotel chain will mine for talent with those skills already in place through Tri-C's hospitality program, procuring additional culinary workers from Edwin's Leadership and Restaurant Institute, an upscale restaurant that trains and employs the formerly incarcerated.

Food and beverage are the most difficult positions to find, mostly due to competition from Cleveland's recent influx of restaurants, says Agosta. In general, Hilton will need to fill gaps in entry-level and mid-management positions.

The Tri-C-led enterprise is a solid beginning in getting this work accomplished, Agosta says. There is currently discussion about organizing a job fair for the 700 students involved with the school's hospitality programming. Focus group attendees may also share job candidates should there not be a fit for a particular position at their own facility.

Considering the upcoming RNC and overall Cleveland tourism figures the best they've been in five years, establishing an atmosphere of mutual trust is in the industry's best interest, says Agosta.

"We're better off together," she says. "Visitors should have an overall positive experience, so we all want to put our best foot forward."

Keeping it local

Like its neighbors, Aloft Cleveland will be at full capacity during the RNC. Operating with a staff of 54, the 150-room hotel generates an upwardly mobile work atmosphere meant to reduce turnover and keep service at its highest, says general manager Reed.

Reed knows an operations manager with Aloft who started off as a bellhop at a previous job. Nor is experience a necessity outside of a managerial or engineering position, he says. A would-be staffer's drive and a personable disposition can instead be molded by up to 20 hours of online training, along with more guidance in-house.

"Providing a safe, exciting learning environment is key to retaining an employee," says Reed.

Every member of Aloft's current staff has been procured locally. Being more accessible than a traditional university, Tri-C is where an even stronger training and workforce foundation can take root, Reed maintains. Area hotels combining their respective strengths with that of a partner community college is just the kind of grassroots talent curation Cleveland's hospitality business needs.

"I have a four-year degree, but most of what I learned was on site," says Reed. "You have to see the nitty gritty."

A sense of urgency surrounding the months leading up to the RNC, not to mention the years following the event, is a healthy approach in the quest to fill the talent gap, says Michael Burns, senior vice president of convention sales at Destination Cleveland.

"These new hotels are coming along and creating jobs," says Burns. "We want to help connect everybody during this effort."

Tri-C's Gary believes the city's burgeoning hotel industry can serve as an advisory board in the coming years, giving advice about what job opportunities to highlight at career fairs along with an understanding of how to expand and improve hospitality training.

Taking these steps can be a springboard catapulting Cleveland into the RNC and beyond, Gary says.

"Hospitality is growing in Cleveland, but if we don't come together, we won't be able to supply those services or present an image the city deserves," he says.

Read more articles by Douglas J. Guth.

Douglas J. Guth is a Cleveland Heights-based freelance writer and journalist. In addition to Fresh Water, his work has been published by Midwest Energy News, Kaleidoscope Magazine and Think, the alumni publication of Case Western Reserve University. A die-hard Cleveland sports fan, he also writes for the cynically named (yet humorously written) blog Cleveland Sports Torture.   
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