The attraction and retention of talent in the Sri Lankan hospitality industry
Dr Christina Kelly is a Lecturer in Behavioural Science and Business Management at the University of Plymouth Business School.  She is also Co-Director of the University of Plymouth Hotel School. Dr Kelly teaches and leads modules in behavioural science, strategy, management and research methods.  Her fields of research interest are behaviour and management with a focus on expectations, standards, choice, human resources management and organisational behaviour. She is currently working towards an MBA. 
Before entering academia Dr Kelly worked for Nestlé UK and Associated British Foods.
To find out more about the Dr Kelly’s research on talent management, please contact her via email.

A global challenge

The attraction, selection and retention of top talent is currently a major challenge faced by employers within the global hospitality industry. Factors such as digitalization, changing customer expectations, population demographics and the recent coronavirus pandemic have influenced the dynamics of the employment market leaving employers in this sector grappling with the challenges of a significant labour shortage. 
The industry’s reputation as an employer is mixed. Hospitality is in many ways a people industry; the work is labour intensive; most roles involve team work and extensive interaction with customers.  Typically, jobs are perceived as offering many opportunities for human interaction and mobility but, conversely, jobs with a good work-life balance, high earning potential over the length of a career and a pleasant working environment are seen to be harder to come by.  Whilst some employers demonstrate excellent management practices and offer their employees attractive reward packages and career opportunities, the sector is still coloured by perceptions of poor pay, challenging working conditions, and limited opportunities for growth and development. 
The pandemic has impacted the global hospitality industry quite significantly, changing people’s existing perceptions and expectations. With hospitality businesses having to shut down during various lockdowns, employees across the globe lost their jobs, some for good. The industry’s vulnerability to global crises and black swan events, and the threats these pose to job security, has been put in stark relief. With Covid now here to stay, some still consider the threat to be continually present. 

Tourism and hospitality in Sri Lanka

More than 700 years ago, Marco Polo described Sri Lanka as being “for its size, better circumstanced than any island in the world”. With spectacular scenery, a tropical climate, friendly people, and a rich cultural offering, Sri Lanka is an appealing tourist destination.  Between 2014 and 2019 tourism remained the country’s third largest source of foreign currency earnings and contributed about 14 per cent of total foreign currency earnings during this period. Pre-pandemic, Sri Lanka’s tourist industry was growing at a respectable rate from around half a million tourists visiting the country in 2008 to 2.5 million visiting a decade later. The industry seemed resilient, even in the face of terrorism, experiencing a temporary blip after the 2019 Easter bombings, but bouncing back within months. 
The challenges facing the Sri Lankan hospitality industry today are particularly acute. Severely impacted by the global pandemic, the industry’s growth has stalled as a result of the country’s current economic crisis. Pictures of Sri Lankans rioting during the crisis are being beamed across the world. With some foreign governments advising against all but essential travel to the island, the numbers of tourists travelling there has plummeted. With fuel, food and everyday staples becoming scarce, and many people suffering, the country and society seem unstable. 
For would-be travellers, holidaying in Sri Lanka now looks more risky. Any tenacious western tourists determined to visit will find obtaining travel insurance more problematic. Despite this, efforts are being made to promote Sri Lanka as a destination and Sri Lankans are attempting to shield tourists from the worst excesses of the economic crisis. Food is more readily available for visitors. There is also anecdotal evidence emerging that any tourists currently in Sri Lanka are being given preferential treatment: skipping queues and having first dibs on crucial commodities such as fuel. 

A brighter future?

The hospitality industry needs to dig deep and draw on some of the resilience it demonstrated before. Tourism is one of the main sectors that can help the country out of its economic woes. To become an attractive travel destination again, the economic crisis needs to be brought under control. The government and sector need to shore up the country’s image, replacing footage of unrest and queues with narratives highlighting the island’s exotic beauty. The first tourists who do return can help these efforts gain momentum by creating content and sharing it via social media and recounting their (hopefully) positive experiences to friends and family upon their return home.  
The Government and hospitality sector need to work together to entice people back to visit the country. Tourism must become a strategic priority again. Ensuring that the people working in the industry have the right skills, attitude and approach will be key now and in the future. They will need to understand their role in ensuring tourists’ experiences are positive and memorable. Without the right calibre of talented and trained staff, the kind of unforgettable experiences people have recounted after visits in previous years will become less frequent.
As in other countries, the industry in Sri Lanka is also struggling to recruit people. Businesses are acutely aware of staff shortages. Employers face a double whammy: they need to replace the employees who lost their jobs during the pandemic and, in the medium term, recruit more staff to fill the jobs that will fuel the sector’s growth in the years to come. 
A huge number of talented and experienced people left the sector during the pandemic. Many will not return. Tourism and hospitality are no longer seen as the reliable employer they once appeared to be. With the industry’s vulnerability to world events laid bare, other industries are seen as more attractive. In uncertain times, people crave stability in their lives and careers as they map out their future.

Talent management 

One way the industry can tackle this labour shortage is by investing in talent management. A more strategic and thoughtful approach is required now to ensure talented, qualified people enter the industry. Resorts, travel agencies, hotels and restaurants need to be staffed with hardworking, competent and experienced people. To attract this talent, the industry will have to work on its image to be seen as an attractive place to work and develop a career. People should be paid good wages, training should be on offer and a career path delineated. Working conditions should be improved. This is not a quick fix but appropriate investment over the coming years will ensure a steady supply of talent to support the sector’s growth. 
The industry in Sri Lanka has not invested sufficiently in talent management to date. There are some pockets of good practice but not enough. Talent management needs to be adopted and more widely embedded by all large and medium-sized employers. For smaller organisations it will be more challenging but they too need to consider their future talent pipeline. Now, businesses need to communicate what makes them attractive places to work and build careers. The market for talented, multilingual, hardworking people is competitive and the industry needs to respond to the changed employment dynamics.
Talent management that is well conceived and delivered involves strategic planning and resource management. The employer brand will also become more important. Employers should be looking to make investment hires. The industry will not grow if would-be employees do not engage with the sector as a potential employer and also if, once hired, they do not stay. With the traditional model of employees spending their careers working in one sector, or even with one employer, being replaced by “patchwork” career structures, it has now become normalised for employees to change employers and move between sectors. If the sector gets the value proposition right, hospitality should be able to recruit talent from other sectors. 

Enriching the experience

Getting the right people is crucial to achieving a quality customer experience. Temporary and part-time employees, as well as shift workers, are common in hotels. This, as well as high staff turnover, affects service quality. Happy employees work with a sense of loyalty and pride. They understand what good service is and work hard to deliver it. This reinforces the brand, positively impacting the customer experience. Employees need to be well looked after; generational differences mean that work life balance becomes increasingly important to people with caring responsibilities and employers will need to offer more flexible packages. Working with tourists can be demanding; working conditions, training and progression need to be improved to entice people into the industry.  
Running a hotel requires a workforce with a diverse set of skills. Training people to the right level takes time; getting employees up to speed can impact productivity in the short term. If talent management approaches were rolled out to all positions, not just the senior ones, this could positively impact business effectiveness. It is important to make investment hires and to retain them. Instead of losing people, employers should explore opportunities for redeployment or ways in which skills and experience can be utilised differently. 
The hospitality industry in Sri Lanka faces a lot of structural issues; some will take years to overcome but the sector can start to make improvements now. The crisis offers the industry a time to regroup. The industry is resilient; it was not impacted long term by the Easter bombings and evidence suggests tourists will go back in their droves. The industry will continue to grow and develop, forming a pillar of the island’s economy over the next decade. Focussing on this and the industry’s potential now will ensure the best people are recruited to help achieve that growth.