In service industries like hospitality, “people” are always considered an important factor in service quality and contribute to the success of the brand. Therefore, “people” is always one of the focus areas of the world’s leading hotel brands. However, in the recent pandemic context, the hospitality industry has to face many difficulties in terms of human resources. In addition to operational issues such as staff cuts in the crisis, staff shortages when hotels welcome guests back, it is important to lead and help employees maintain their enthusiasm for work in the pandemic.

Destination Review had the opportunity to chat with Mr. Julian Wong, General Manager of Sheraton Saigon Hotel & Towers about human resource management and development at Sheraton, especially in the current context and vision for the recovery of hospitality in the future. Mr. Julian has spent 25 years working at Marriott International across four countries, at seven locations, with six Marriott brands. He has a passionate spirit in mentoring young generations in the hospitality industry and was a mentor for many of Marriott’s personnel training programs.

Actually, the first time I was posted to work in Vietnam was in 2001, when I was appointed to the position of Director of Sales & Marketing at Renaissance Riverside Hotel Saigon and worked in Ho Chi Minh City for about two years. I had a very good impression of Vietnam. What I saw at that time was a potential emerging hospitality industry. There were a lot of opportunities and a lot of young Vietnamese people who were full of energy, enthusiasm, and really eager to join the industry. Although the hospitality industry in Vietnam at that time was not mature, young people were willing to learn and develop.

The great experiences and impression of Vietnam 21 years ago made me want to return to this country again, therefore, I asked to be posted to Vietnam one more time. In 2018, I backed to Vietnam and worked at Sheraton Hanoi. Late last year, I moved to Ho Chi Minh city when I was appointed General Manager of Sheraton Saigon Hotel & Towers. The city has changed a lot and is much more modern. There are more big buildings and a lot of development is going on. However, what remains is the people, their energy and enthusiasm. The hotel industry in Vietnam has developed more, but what I like most is the friendliness and sincerity of the people, as well as their industriousness and willingness to learn. I feel it’s the right environment for me and that makes me very excited and happy to be back to work in Ho Chi Minh city.

Working with Vietnamese to me is an asset and I see a lot of potentials to go further. I had been working in China for almost 14 years. I witnessed the jump up of the Chinese hotel industry during that time. A lot of new hotels sprung up, and many people joined the industry. And now, I see the thing is happening in Vietnam and I am very confident in the bright future of the hotel industry.

I think the important thing is to have the education movement. I had visited universities and met students in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh city. There are many universities that incorporate with hotels and align their programs with hospitality strategy. That is the first step. The effectiveness will then depend on how the tie-up between the universities and the hotels. As a big company in the hotel industry, we have implemented many such partnerships.

I’m the champion for these such training collaborations for 10 Marriott hotels operating in Vietnam. I really invest in that because of my enthusiasm in the education side for young generations. In these programs, universities and hotels ensure that there are certain collaboration processes where students can get training and earn their first real experience in hotel operations. As a major hotel management company, we provide a ground for students to learn, develop, and get real-life experience in an international standard hotel. I think this is really critical because being equipped with good practical experience will encourage students to be more ready and confident before actually joining the industry.

The pandemic is a particular period that none of us have ever experienced. I’ve gone through many crises, but none as severe as this. What we did, and did well, in this situation was to ensure transparent communications with the entire team. We have organized many conversations in various forms such as town halls, manager meetings, or senior leaders meetings. We have gone through the entire thing, scratched to find out how to handle the situation. Although it is difficult, we build trust with people by communicating transparently about what we need to do, what we can do and what we couldn’t do. We spent time with the leadership team first, then cascaded down to managers level and eventually to the general population of the hotel, making sure everyone gets the same information and understands what we are overcoming together.

In addition, we do what is necessary to ensure a safe working environment for our employees, protect the jobs as much as we can, and ensure hygiene and clean protocols for our guests. In the difficult time, it can be seen as a small success that we have not lost many members of the core team. I personally also conduct some training programs to build up the team, keep them motivated and resilient to face challenges. Getting through the tough days together, our team also becomes stronger and more resilient.

Obviously, the pandemic has caused many changes and we must adapt to those changes. At Sheraton, we are committed to implementing strict protocols in terms of safety, hygiene, and disinfection for both guest rooms and public spaces, as the protocols are very important during this period.

In addition, in the next year, we will increase the use of technology, applying a contactless check-in process through the mobile key. We also have a guest experience platform to connect to them or if they have any requests. Using a personal device to check-in or request services is a more convenient and personalized experience for guests. We are looking at the final stages of the adoption of the process.

The business level of the hotel industry is not similar to pre-pandemic, so we are looking at how to drive more efficiency and productivity. The most important factor is still the people and the core team of the hotel. We will hire personnel if necessary to increase efficiency and productivity.

Most of the hotels in the industry today are lacking staff due to the pandemic has caused people to leave their jobs or the industry. Therefore, I discussed with the HR department and worked with universities to meet and talk with students in the industry to encourage and motivate them to participate in training programs at the Marriott. Since I came to Ho Chi Minh city, I have visited 4 universities. Next month, I will visit another and I am very excited. Recently, we have some good trainees who have finished their studies and officially worked at the hotel.

My vision is to be the best employer in the industry. To achieve the #1 position, I think the culture is very critical. A hotel with a strong culture that really cares for people, provides equal opportunities and fair treatment will have strong retention. It is also part of Marriott’s core values.

Besides, the learning and development side is also very important. If we do a good job of imparting knowledge to the next generation, it will create an inclusive healthy environment in which our associates can grow and thrive. We are in the process of ramping this up with our training programs.

A third aspect is the mentorship programs. I encourage managers in the hotel to do mentoring. I’ve done a lot of mentorship programs, whether official as a mentor for Marriott programs or unofficial for those who take me as a mentor model. I even feel very beneficial for me because I also learn from them.

In my lifetime, I have gone through some crises, and I found that after each of them, we will definitely be stronger. That’s a part of life. This pandemic as a crisis lasted for 2 years, but now the situation has improved a lot. Thanks to the health system, disease prevention, we all know what to do to handle this pandemic better. After all, we are eventually going to treat this particular pandemic as “endemic” and live with it. In the first year of the pandemic, people were fearful. But for now, we need to go on with our normal lives and do what we need to do. And as you can see, Ho Chi Minh City is an example of such striving.

My advice for the young generation is that crisis can happen. This may be not the last one. However, from what I’ve gone through, everything has a cycle and eventually, it will recover and move to a higher level.

As I mentioned at the beginning, the service industry, specifically the hotel industry, has a lot of potential for growth. We have 26 hotels in the pipeline and are about to open in Vietnam. Not only us but many other hotel companies are also expanding. It can be seen that the hotel industry in Vietnam has great potential. I’m very confident and optimistic about the future. I hope young people can feel the same. So, again, I want to remind young people to be resilient. We’ve been through a lot in the past two years and we’re still here, still healthy, and looking forward to a very bright future ahead. In addition, young people should also be a bit more patient, a bit more ambitious, set goals for themselves, and be willing to learn even in difficulties.

Thank you so much!

General Manager of Sheraton Saigon: “My vision is to be the best employer in the industry.”

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