In the fluctuating landscape of the hospitality sector, change remains the sole constant. Seeking to gain insight into the industry’s current state and address its pressing issues, we turned to a seasoned expert with over two decades of experience and a profound understanding of various U.S. markets. Sebastian Ploss, currently serving as the General Manager of Sonesta Hotels in Philadelphia, emerged as a perfect source and partner. With Sonesta Hotels boasting a workforce of over 2,500 individuals nationwide, Ploss has invaluable insights into crucial challenges such as staff turnover, talent acquisition, company culture, employee burnout, and adapting to industry shifts. During our discussion, Ploss generously shared practical advice for individuals aspiring to pursue a career in the hospitality industry. Whether you’re contemplating a future in hotel management or seeking insights into the sector’s inner workings, this article serves as a guide, providing firsthand perspectives on the opportunities and challenges of this dynamic field.
Exclusive Insights on Hiring With Sebastian Ploss, General Manager At Sonesta Hotels
What qualities do you look for when hiring new employees?
Sebastian: “When hiring, I focus on attitude over specific technical skills. I look for people who bring the right attitude to the job, you know? While we can teach technical skills, we can’t teach qualities like willingness to serve and people skills. These attributes often come from one’s upbringing and background and are crucial in industries like ours.” It’s not about the specific systems someone has worked with; younger generations are typically adept at learning new technologies. What matters more to me is a candidate’s mindset and ability to connect with others. These qualities, honed over time and through diverse experiences, make a person successful in hospitality and leadership roles. Travel experience, exposure to different cultures, and the ability to adapt to various situations also contribute to someone’s suitability for a hospitality position. While my role may have shifted more toward human resources and sales, I still value the importance of understanding and managing people effectively. Leadership in our industry involves being attuned to individuals’ needs and knowing how to communicate with them accordingly.
What are your methods for attracting top talent in the competitive hospitality industry?
Sebastian: When it comes to attracting top talent in the hospitality industry, time is of the essence. Candidates don’t want a prolonged interview process. For front-of-the-house roles, I meet each candidate to assess their attitude and fit. With managerial positions, I invest more time but remain readily available for interviews. Once we decide to hire someone, I make sure we swiftly move on to HR procedures. In today’s competitive job market, we’re not just competing with other hotels; we are up against fast-food chains, delivery services, and others offering flexible work options. To counter this, we emphasize growth opportunities within our organization. During interviews, I outline potential career paths to showcase that we offer more than just a job; we offer a progressive career. This approach makes the offer more enticing. In the hospitality industry, success doesn’t necessarily hinge on degrees. Many successful individuals lack formal education but excel due to their service skills, attitude, and dedication. This aspect makes our field unique, offering a progressive career path without a college degree & student loans.
What are some of Sonesta’s programs for retaining top talent?
Sebastian: Retention is about offering a career, not just a job. Let me share an example. After finishing my degree in Germany, I got the chance to move to the US with the company I was working for. They sponsored my visa, which was fortunate. I had two options: an internship in housekeeping in Houston or working at the front desk in Minneapolis. In my early 20s, I was leaning toward Minneapolis because it seemed more glamorous. But the HR person advised me differently. She said, “You can check people in and out anywhere, but if you come to Houston, you’ll learn finance, payroll, and management skills, dealing with long-time room attendants, motivating them, and holding them accountable.” It was the best advice I ever got – to be open-minded and see the bigger picture. Later in my career, while I was in Orlando, the company asked me to return to Washington for a food and beverage role. Initially, I hesitated because I felt inexperienced. But the GM told me they needed someone with leadership skills to handle the people aspect. Despite being offered a GM position at a new hotel, I chose the food and beverage role because I knew it would benefit my long-term career. Looking back, it was the right decision. It’s crucial to pass on this advice to young people – to think about the bigger picture, not just short-term gains. It’s not always about money. Even though I could have made more as a GM, I prioritized learning and growth. Taking the back roads in your career, just like on a road trip, allows you to learn, see, and get exposed to different opportunities. That’s the advice I would give your audience – don’t just focus on the highway – explore the back roads for a richer experience.
Given the demanding nature of the hospitality industry, how does Sonesta recognize and address staff burnout?
Sebastian: Sonesta doesn’t have specific burnout programs, but we offer good health benefits and incentives. For example, team members can get reimbursed for gym memberships. However, it ultimately comes down to leaders looking after their team’s well-being. I’ve realized the importance of maintaining a healthy lifestyle over the years. I used to have unhealthy habits like smoking and excessive drinking, but I’ve since prioritized exercise as a way to decompress. I make it a point to engage in physical activity for two hours daily, whether it’s weightlifting or running. This helps me manage stress and maintain balance in my life. During interviews, I often ask candidates about their hobbies and relaxation methods because I believe it’s crucial for overall well-being. I’ve had conversations with team members about the dangers of unsustainable lifestyles and encouraged them to find healthy outlets for stress relief, whether it’s reading, painting, or listening to music. Fair scheduling is another important aspect. Overworking employees can lead to burnout and decreased productivity. We need to reach a balance between workload and time off to ensure our team members stay healthy and motivated. I advocate for giving employees two consecutive days off whenever possible and respecting their downtime by not contacting them unless it’s an emergency. It’s essential to recognize the limitations of technology and respect employees’ need for uninterrupted time away from work. “Addressing burnout requires a holistic approach that includes promoting healthy lifestyles, fair scheduling practices, and respecting employees’ time off. These measures improve employee well-being and contribute to a more productive and sustainable work environment.”
How do you approach building and maintaining a positive company culture among your staff?
Sebastian: Creating a strong company culture requires effort from everyone, especially senior leaders. I strongly believe in maintaining an open-door policy. Team members know they can come to my office with any concerns, and I’m always ready to listen and help if I can. Fairness is essential in our disciplinary processes. While we may need to address performance or attendance issues through a consistent disciplinary process, we must treat everyone equally. This fosters a clear understanding of our expectations and avoids toxic favoritism. Regardless of title, I believe in treating all employees with respect. Every role is important, and everyone deserves to be greeted, acknowledged and heard. This extends to our employee recognition efforts, like our Employee of the Month program, where we celebrate top performers. We also aim to give back to the community through charity events, like providing food for homeless shelters. These experiences benefit those in need and strengthen our company culture. Additionally, we organize fun events like our annual holiday party to foster bonds among team members. These initiatives contribute to a positive and inclusive work environment.
How do you ensure your staff is up-to-date with the latest industry practices and standards?
Sebastian: When it comes to staying informed, both industry news and global news matter. For frontline workers, we prioritize industry updates through monthly department meetings and daily morning briefings. These sessions cover relevant topics specific to their roles, ensuring they’re up-to-date and equipped to handle their tasks efficiently. For example, discussions might revolve around upcoming trends in food and beverage for bar staff or safety protocols and new tools for housekeeping. We also touch on broader economic trends to provide job security and transparency, ensuring they feel confident about their positions. On a more senior level, we discuss political and societal issues during our executive meetings. Living in a city like Philadelphia, where crime rates and other challenges are prevalent, it’s crucial to address how these factors might impact our clientele and employees. By staying informed about world events, we can anticipate potential changes and adapt our strategies accordingly, regardless of political affiliations. Ultimately, our goal is to keep everyone informed and secure in their roles while being proactive in addressing external factors that may affect our business.
What unique challenges and opportunities do you think the hotel industry currently faces?
Sebastian: After the pandemic, our main challenge is replacing the traditional business traveler. This group used to be a big part of our revenue, but their numbers have dropped. This affects hotels, restaurants, and bars since these travelers often dined out for business. Now, we’re relying more on leisure travelers who are more budget-conscious since they’re paying out of pocket. To adapt, we’re exploring new revenue streams like day-use rooms. These rooms used to have a stigma, but now they’re becoming popular for business meetings or just enjoying hotel amenities like the pool. We need to be open-minded and flexible in our approach to adjust to these changes successfully. It’s about finding creative solutions and being willing to adapt our operations to meet the needs of our guests.
Do you see any current trends emerging in the hiring segment?
Sebastian: In our industry, especially in the US, there’s a lot of demand for labor jobs like cleaning rooms or kitchen work. Many people take these jobs because they don’t have other options, given the lack of social safety nets here. It’s not about skills; it’s about being able to do the work. The challenge lies in the increasing labor costs due to factors like union fights and a tight job market. As costs rise, it becomes crucial for companies to decide whether they can keep up. Job seekers go where they can earn the most money, so we need to offer competitive wages to attract and retain staff. For positions like front office or food and beverage, where workers may see a career path, we need to promote the positive aspects of our industry. This includes benefits like travel discounts and flexible schedules. We should focus on the opportunities rather than the negatives. Many people, like my friend Philip and me, have built successful careers in hospitality by putting in the time and effort. It’s about seeing the long-term potential and being passionate about what you do, whether it’s in hospitality or any other industry.
Having glimpsed the realities of frontline hospitality, you’re better equipped to decide if this path aligns with your aspirations. Yet, if uncertainty still lingers, we’ve got your back. Explore one of the seven career assessment tools for further clarity. For those ready to pursue a hospitality career, consider joining Sebastian’s dynamic team at Sonesta Hotels or brush up on interview preparation tips. And there’s more: secure early access to our forthcoming job board, launching this September, by signing up today. Your journey in hospitality begins here.
About Sonesta Hotels: Sonesta Hotels is a renowned international hospitality brand committed to delivering unparalleled experiences across its expansive network of over 1,200 properties spread across eight countries and continuously expanding, boasting a diverse portfolio of 17 industry-leading brands.