Employee retention in tourism through sustainability

Better employee recruitment and retention in Austrian tourism through targeted employer branding and sustainability concepts. This is the concise hypothesis of my recently completed master thesis. It was confirmed in an online survey among hotel operators.

October 2020
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"Business Case Sustainability in Austrian Tourism using the Example of Employees – the Potential of Sustainable Hotel Concepts and Targeted Employer Branding for Employee Recruitment and Retention". This is the somewhat rather unwieldy title of my thesis for the graduation to the Master of Sustainablity & Responsible Management. One simply has to pack everything relevant into such a headline.

The reason for the choice of topic was, on the one hand, the continuing shortage of employees in gastronomy and tourism and, on the other hand, the counterexample of flourishing businesses with a constant number of employees. Namely the wonderful Hotel Stadthalle, with whose owner Michaela Reitterer I had an enlightening conversation, the magnificent Hotel Hochschober and the North German Hotelkette Upstalsboom. These three found their way into my work. I wanted to look behind the reasons and check whether it was the houses with sustainability concepts whose managers take better care of their people who are therefore more loyal.

To this purpose I conducted a structured online survey among Austrian hotel operators in September. During this time tourism was already massively affected by the covid-related collapse of international travel and the cancellation of all congresses. At the time of the survey, the predicted decline in Austria's cities was 70% for the current year and 40% for the country. It is estimated that tourism may never again follow on from 2019. This is the context in which this study took place.

Only shortly before that, a major survey on the topic of "Tourism and Sustainability" was conducted among German and Austrian tourism professionals by several institutes. Among the interviewees there was the opinion that sustainability would become more important in the future, but that they had other problems at the moment. This may explain the small response of 127 answers to the questionnaire, which was sent to 4,628 recipients, to 3,700 addressees by the Austrian Hotel Association ÖHV in a newsletter and to 3,000 by the Austrian Gastronomy and Hotel Newspaper ÖGZ also in a newsletter.

The questionnaire was divided into five sections:

  • 1. TYPE OF HOLDING. The vast majority is family-run, located in the countryside, employs between 10 and 100 people and has 21 to 100 guest rooms. The focus of most businesses is on holidays & sports and wellness. It is assumed that it was mainly farm owners with a preference for sustainability who answered the survey. This could also explain the answer to the question about a company's mission statement, according to which 54 (68.35%) companies defined one. This figure seems to be quite high. The same applies to the question of whether corporate values were formulated. A little more than half of the participants 48 (59.3%) said yes, almost all of them communicate their values intensively internally (97%) and do so primarily in the employee interviews.
    The most frequently mentioned values are:
    Regionality (30 x), Appreciation (23 x), Nature (22 x), Sustainability (19 x), Recreation and Family-friendly (16 x each)
    Of 105 participants, 24 (22.9%) stated that they were certified with a national or international seal. 13 of them with the Austrian Ecolabel, 5 with the European Ecolabel, 3 with the Blue Swallow, the rest were distributed among various.
    The majority of the companies 81 (77.1%) do not have certification, but many of them are making efforts to improve in many areas (energy, water, waste, mobility, food) or have high standards in some cases even without certification. However, certification always creates trust and comparability – and of course means more effort, audits and licence fees.It is assumed that in view of the likely increase in demand from travellers, more companies will seek certification in the future. And it is really recommendable!
    Corporate sustainability is based on the three pillars of ecology, economy and society. Companies must therefore make a contribution to social development. This includes a good working and development environment for employees.The fact that employees are a valuable part of the company is probably appreciated by the majority of those surveyed. Participation in the creation of duty rosters and self-organisation of teams are the most frequently mentioned criteria, with 58 (67.4%) of those surveyed involving employees in operational decisions, and almost as many offering further training opportunities for all employees. 34 (39.5%) also provide coaching when problems arise. Only 53 (61.6%) single rooms with bathrooms are available and only 55 (64%) state that they cook staff meals to nutritional standards. There is room for improvement here!
    The arithmetic median of the question about the importance of sustainability measures for employees was 86 answers with 46.40, relatively in the mid-point on a scale from 0 to 100. For houses with a sustainability seal it was 60.50, for houses without a seal 42.39. Here it can be seen very clearly that sustainability is a concern for employees and can be a decisive factor in their choice of employer.
    A scale of 1 to 5 (best value) was used to indicate whether the hoteliers could estimate the extent to which areas had changed for the better through their employee programmes. The values achieved (max. 3.10 for "we" feeling) all show a tendency towards improvement, but in the group with sustainability certification this tendency is more pronounced again
    The arithmetic median of the question of whether it is possible to estimate the extent to which sustainability measures are important for guests is 55.81, which is roughly in the middle of a scale from 1 to 100. 7 of the establishments gave the highest score of 100, 10 establishments still gave 85. In this respect, this is probably very important for some guests and is generally a sales argument. In the group of hoteliers with a seal, the value of 69.74 is even higher. In this respect, sustainability contributes to the economic success of a business thanks to better capacity utilisation.
    When asked to what extent the hoteliers can estimate whether guest behaviour has changed in the last three years as a result of increased sustainability measures and a target audience with a greater affinity for sustainability, there is also medium approval. On a scale of 1 to 5, the values range between 2.80 and 2.58 for these criteria: Domestic guests remain loyal to the house, guests come back, guests become regular guests, foreign guests remain loyal despite Corona, better contact between owners/management and guests. Similar scores (2.80 to 2.55) are obtained by asking whether employee loyalty programmes have a positive effect on guest behaviour. 

Summary and outlook
It can be said that positive trends can be seen in all areas through sustainability measures. Be it in employee recruitment or retention or in guest behaviour. The business case of sustainability is obvious, the future of Austrian tourism in sustainability. This trend is reinforced by the effects of the current pandemic and the resulting longing of people for easy travel and unspoilt nature. It is also reinforced by the coming generations, who bring with them a different understanding of values. And finally, by the economic benefits that can be measured in figures, which are achieved through sustainability in tourism: Energy savings, reduced recruitment costs and better guest loyalty through clear positioning.

In this respect, my work can also be seen as an appeal to Austrian hotel operators to discover and use their business case for sustainability. It would be desirable to conduct a more detailed representative study of the trends presented in the thesis in order to discuss these results on a broad level with Austrian tourism professionals, the media, representatives of the profession and politicians. Tourism in transition towards more sustainability secures the survival of the industry and can reposition Austria with its unspoilt nature and the "opportunity to take a healthy breath" worldwide as a high-quality tourist destination.