top of page
  • Writer's picturesarahhabsburg

How to Motivate Your Hotel Staff

People are central to hospitality, and while AI technology can streamline hotel operations, it cannot replace the genuine human interactions that define the customer experience. Both academic literature and real-world experiences affirm that people are the "most strategically significant resource of the firm." ¹

A Gallup survey of 6000 U.S. customers of six leading familiar brands showed near “unanimity” regarding the main reason to return: “not the taste of the food, but the quality of the interactions with the people who take and serve their orders.” ²

In addition, a survey of the US restaurant chain Bennigan’s to ascertain why customers stopped frequenting, 15% stated product dissatisfaction and 67% quoted indifference shown by employees. ² 

As early as the 1920’s Mary Parker Follett was encouraging staff leaders to employ a pull rather than a push strategy. In 1931 Elton Mayo was advising managers to pay attention to the emotional needs of their employees. Today newer publications such as Senge’s The Fifth Discipline, attempt to offer real time solutions to the issues of staff management within an organisation.

Excellence in service quality does not come about by chance. There is again plenty of evidence in academic journals and in real life case studies that management must actively make it possible for their staff to associate themselves willingly with their values and vision. But what does this mean in practice?


It does not mean asking your staff to learn your full mission statement off by heart. It refers to dedicating strategic effort to building an organisational structure for your business, no matter how small. Even for SMEs, your choice of leadership style, the type of communication channels you use, your tone of voice when speaking to staff, the meetings you organise and for what reason, the benefits and perks you offer, this all matters.


These decisions are the building blocks of excellence in customer service which can only be achieved when staff feel motivated to do their jobs well because they feel seen, and they understand why you take the decisions you take.


Staff members react positively to knowing where the company is heading and, perhaps more importantly, how they fit into the bigger organisational picture.


During my years running my own backpackers’ hostel I led with proximity. I was able to oversee and support my staff in person every day. After moving on to manage a much larger lodge with up to 45 staff members in the high season, daily personal contact was not possible, meaning that departmental autonomy and task delegation were required. The size of your business matters when it comes to choosing how to best support and motivate staff.


This was in Chile, and my obsession with excellence in customer service was further fuelled by the experience of living near the Argentine-Chilean border. To the east of the Andes, hospitality jobs are for life, well thought of, and encouraged, perhaps originating from the cultural connections with Italy. To the west, service culture in the tourism context is a much newer concept, and, for many, its performance is experienced through the lens of an authoritarian past. Of course, this is now changing, thanks to the many forward-focused professionals I had the pleasure of working with during my years in Chile.


This experience directly contributed to my choice of thesis topic for my MSc in Responsible Tourism Management. It was called about how to achieve excellence in service quality through staff motivation and efficient leadership. The topic led me down many unexpected rabbit holes as I explored the effect of culture, business size, staff maturity, emerging customer trends, and many other variables, on the resulting success of the organisation as a whole. I called it The Quest for Excellence.


It was intended to support accommodation providers in their task of succeeding in recruiting, preparing, motivating and training their frontline staff to exceed customer expectations.

Fast-forward 12 years, and as my career has developed, I find myself spending more and more time talking about how to achieve that holy grail of “staff buy-in” in order to support owners and managers of SMEs in building more sustainable business through responsible decision-making.


My studies have never been more relevant post-Covid as the industry continues to face labour shortages and increased stakeholder scrutiny.


Conclusions drawn from both my thesis interviews, and the many hours I currently spend coaching hotel owners and managers, indicate that there is no start and finish to the achievement of efficiency of an organisation. It changes over time, reacts to errors, improves constantly and learns from experience. Just like sustainability (which many of you know I spend a lot of time talking about), the road to organisational efficiency is not paved overnight and then ticked off the to-do list as “completed”.


Leaders I coach feel encouraged knowing they don't need all the answers and strategies right away. They appreciate that there are steps and a structure to follow, which will evolve over time. Understanding that there's always room for improvement helps them overcome the fear of getting started.



Defining Customer Service Excellence

With so many elements at play, it can be hard to lose sight of the intended outcome of motivating staff. Ultimately, we all want our customers to like, return and recommend our business. It really is as simple as that – we seek to achieve outstanding customer service. It is well-known that even the greatest businesses have been brought to their knees by just one slating review.


The most “tangible” definition of customer service found during my thesis research was: “Whenever a customer interacts with a hotel by phone, email or in person, a service encounter occurs. The customer receives a snapshot of the organization’s quality, and each encounter contributes to the customer’s overall satisfaction and willingness to do business with the firm in the future.” ³



Leadership Styles

One of the most crucial decisions is choosing a leadership style that aligns with your personality, experience, and commitment. It's challenging to become something you're not, so it's essential to select a style that feels natural to you.


My research taught me that improving current leadership style is more productive than trying to teach a new, specific style or suggesting someone should change. I know, I hear the sigh of relief every time I say that! This is not about changing who you are as a leader, it is about learning how to communicate what you need from your staff, in the right way, and in the context of what makes sense for your business.


Below is a list curated from the well-known LEAD Assessment. We can use this tool to understand how we normally interact with our staff. Some situations will require a mixture of all, but most day-to-day interactions mean you will gravitate to just one. I also lean on an insightful personality test that helps define your main strengths. It unlocks the secrets of why we are triggered by certain situations and helps to gain insights into how to make better leadership choices. If you are interested to know more about this strengths test, drop me an email here.



You define the tasks for your staff and supervise them closely. Decisions are made by you and are communicated from you to staff.



You define tasks for your staff and seek ideas and suggestions from staff members. There is two-way communication between you and your staff.



You pass day-to-day decisions to staff members. You participate in decision making but leave control of decisions in the hands of staff members.



You delegate decisions and problem solving to staff members. You remain involved in the process, but staff members are responsible for controlling them. Staff members come to you when they want you to be involved.



The Role of Culture

Your leadership style also needs to take into account where you are located in the world, as well as where your staff members are from. Culture plays a major role in defining the most effective motivational tactics.


Hofstede defines culture as “the sense of the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one category of people from another”, ⁴, with Pizam et al agreeing that national cultures can have a dramatic effect on the behaviour of employees. ⁵ It is unwise to ignore the role that national culture plays on influencing staff behaviour.


A valuable tool I use to understand how culture shapes expectations is The Culture Group’s Country Comparison Tool, based on Hofstede’s 6 Dimensions. These dimensions illustrate the impact of a society's culture on its members' values and behaviors, helping to identify the most effective motivational strategies.


If you are interested in knowing more about how to apply the data derived from this comparison tool to the nuances of your hospitality business, book a free 30-minute call here.


The Challenges of Staff Training

I am currently overseeing sustainability training programs at two different properties. One property is experiencing significant behavioral changes and improvements in resource use data following the completion of the 3 to 4-hour training program. In contrast, the other property is struggling to gain momentum and achieve similar results.

Despite using the same training material, operating in the same industry, being located in similar geographical areas, and having similar property types, there is a notable disparity in uptake and results. Why am I registering such a difference?  


The answer is simple: leadership commitment to the desired outcome. It is not leadership style, nor is it lack of time or budget. It is merely lack of sturdiness. A decision is made to train staff, a training provider is chosen and the staff are informed. It cannot stop there. Staff will not run with this alone, without receiving support and acknowledgement for their efforts. That is a real shame, because it has been proven that “knowledge has emerged as the most strategically-significant resource of the firm and the ability [of a firm] to learn faster than its competitors as the only sustainable form of competitive advantage”. ¹ 


It is also significant to hospitality that the learning style of staff members must be taken into consideration. Academic research by Lashley discovered that the vast majority of students who were recruited to a particular hospitality management programme in the UK displayed learning styles which indicated that they enjoy practical activity but were less comfortable with theorising and reflection. They are “activist” learners who thrive on the challenges associated with new experiences and were described as tending to “act first and consider the consequences later”. ⁶ This too can influence how you present your chosen training solution to your staff.  



Financial Vs Non-Financial Motivational Strategies

Motivational strategies can be used as a management tool aiding the process of “buy-in” to organisational culture: “[Motivation] is the ultimate form of control and consent [as well as] the ultimate form of coercion” ⁷


While coercion might seem strong in the context of staff motivation, it relates to an invisible duty of care. Most hotel staff value “being treated fairly” above all, whether it’s a half day off after overtime or recognition for a job well done. If these fair treatments are not timely, financial rewards quickly become substitutes. I believe relying more on financial motivators and less on non-financial ones impedes the growth of a healthy organisational culture, making staff feel like mere cogs rather than integral parts of the business.


Financial motivators are easier to define, for example, tips, bonuses, commissions and fair salaries; whereas non-financial motivators are less tangible and can range from the security of a full-time contract to flexible working conditions and experiential development opportunities.


Your intended outcome for motivating staff helps determine the most effective methods. Sometimes, simple checklists and measures suffice, while other goals may require specific KPIs. With the right checks, measures, KPIs, and performance management in place, innovative thinking and independent action can be invaluable to a hotel manager.


Empowerment – A Blessing or a Curse?


Empowerment is a highly sought-after motivational strategy. It is an intriguing concept, especially in the context of business size. It can be a double-edged sword, as some cultures prefer clear directives while others expect to be consulted and to give input freely. Research states that “learning is strongly related to empowerment, and most of the best performers [in their study] encourage employees to make their own decisions regarding their work.” ⁸


A gardener knows the grass needs cutting. In some countries, they may feel empowered by being told how often to cut it each month. In other countries, a gardener may feel disempowered if not asked for their input on the best approach.


At its best empowerment can enhance flexibility and promptness in solving customer problems by pushing decision making down to the service level, whereas other research indicates that “the approach of empowerment might not be right for every organisation and empowered employees do not necessarily use that power effectively”. ⁹ One reason for this could be that “a well-designed set of procedures properly implemented can facilitate the delivery of service, but knowing when to deviate from the procedure may be as important as knowing how to perform [it]” ¹⁰


What is clear is that the effectiveness of empowerment may be limited if the factors required to cultivate and nurture it do not exist. Ultimately, empowerment helps build leadership trustworthiness, which forms an essential element of feeling seen and heard and treated fairly.



What To Do Next?


The more shared knowledge a team has, the better their teamwork potential. This can include business values and vision, or specific goals like improving customer ratings by a certain percentage over a defined period.


Achieving shared knowledge and staff buy-in depends on various factors, including culture, psychology, and location.


To start, decide on the following:


  • Your leadership style

  • The best communication channels for your business type and size

  • The outputs you need to measure to ensure staff performance


Developing effective motivational strategies is challenging on its own, as they are integral to shaping your entire organisational culture. My clients, SME hospitality business owners, aim to enhance efficiency through responsible decision-making. Unlike larger competitors who receive manuals and structured guidance from head offices, smaller businesses often navigate this process independently.


If you are ready to discuss your needs, whether it's understanding your unique leadership style or tailoring effective staff motivation strategies, book a free 30-minute call here to get started.


Your solution should be just that, YOUR solution. You cannot build this from a textbook. It should be as unique as your business is and will guarantee more streamlined operations and improved customer satisfaction, as well as all those other positive bonuses like reduced staff turnover and higher profit margins 😊 


Your solution is waiting for you.

¹ Jashapara, A.,2003. Cognition, culture and competition: an empirical test of the learning organization. The Learning Organization 10 (1), 31-50.

² Pizam, A., 2011. The return of the fifth marketing mix P. International Journal of Hospitality Management 30 (4), 763-764.

³ Bitner, M. J., Booms, B. H., Mohr, L.A.,1994. Critical service encounters: The employee’s viewpoint. Journal of Marketing 58 (4), 95-106.

⁴ Hofstede, G.,1994. The Business of International Business is Culture. International Business Review 3 (1), 1-14.

⁵ Pizam, A., Pine, R., Mok, C., Young Shin, J.,1997. Nationality vs. industry cultures: which has a greater effect on management behaviour?. International Journal of Hospitality Management 16 (2), 127-145.

⁶ Lashley, C.,1999. On making silk purses: developing reflective practitioners in hospitality management education. Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management 11 (4), 180-185.

⁷ Baldacchino, G., 1995. Total Quality Management in a Luxury Hotel: A Critique of Practice. International Journal of Hospitality Management 14 (1), 67-78.

⁸ Kyriakidou O., Gore J., 2005. Learning by Example: Benchmarking organizational culture in hospitality, tourism and leisure SMEs.  An International Journal 12 (3), 192-206.

⁹ Bowen, D.E., Lawler, E.E.,1992. The empowerment of service workers: What, why, how and when? Sloan Management Review 31.

¹⁰ King, C., Garey, J.,1997. Relational quality in service encounters. International Journal of Hospitality Management 16 (1), 39-63. 



bottom of page