Is tourism sector missing the HR mark?

Some popular benefits may not be attracting desired workers: Report
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 12/02/2013

Perks and benefits offered by employers in the tourism sector may not always align with what workers actually want — which means employers could be wasting scarce resources and missing out on opportunities, according to a report.

The most common benefit offered by employers is training. It’s on the menu for 92 per cent of employers in the tourism sector, according to Using Benefits to Attract Workers: The Value Proposition of Non-Wage Benefits.

But that doesn’t align with the number one benefit most valued by employees in the general population, which is health and dental.

"While the percentage of tourism sector employers providing some level of benefit is high, not all benefits are created equal," found the report by the Canadian Tourism Human Resource Council (CTHRC), based on a survey of 1,668 tourism organizations and a separate Conference Board of Canada survey of 1,000 people.

"Some benefits cost more and employees do not value all benefits equally… benefits that do not meet the strategic objectives of retaining and recruiting staff is not only inefficient, it can be costly for an organization."

Whistler Blackcomb generous with benefits

Employees at the Whistler Blackcomb resort in British Columbia enjoy a wide range of benefits that go far beyond its breathtaking locale. Along with a flexible health plan, there are free season passes, a matching retirement savings plan (RSP), meal plans, health club passes, short- and long-term disability, equipment discounts, staff housing and carpooling.

"It’s quite an expensive benefits package but it’s quite a robust one," said Joel Chevalier, director of employee experience at the ski resort, which has 3,500 employees in its peak season and 1,300 in the off season.

"The diversity and demographics of our employee base is quite large… so we really tried to build a wide spread of options," he said.

"Not everybody will use all of them, and some will think they’re just the most ridiculous benefits and perks ever. But then there’s a whole other part of the workforce that thinks it’s incredible."

With employee engagement levels around 81 per cent, Whistler Blackcomb seems to be taking the right approach. But many employers in the tourism sector might not be offering the right mix of non-wage benefits — especially when there could be chronic labour shortages in the future, according to the CTHRC report.

If employers are offering a fairly expensive benefit that isn’t all that attractive to employees, then maybe they’re better off getting rid of it or putting that money into wages or another benefit that’s more likely to appeal to people, said Calum MacDonald, product innovation manager at the CTHRC in Ottawa.

"This (report) gives the employer at least a starting point to start thinking about maybe it’s not as important to be offering a communications device, for example, if it’s not something that is going to attract or retain employees."

Disconnects

After training, the most common perks offered by tourism employers are employee discounts or free services (73 per cent), followed by communications technology (55 per cent), health and dental plans (51 per cent), a company car/mileage allowance (50 per cent) and flex time or flexible hours (48 per cent).

But from the employees’ viewpoint, items on the wishlist start with health and dental, followed by short-term disability, long-term disability, life insurance, a registered pension plan and flex time or flex hours, according to the Conference Board survey.

"Workers rank flex time/flexible hours and training significantly higher than employee discounts/free services, communications technology and tickets to events," said the report.

"Employers are likely to be more successful in retaining and recruiting staff by shifting resources away from the latter three items towards the former two."

Shifting resources

While training makes sense when it comes to getting employees up to speed on a job, an emphasis on employee discounts could be missing the mark as they’re not top-of-mind for many people. However, tourism employers may assume employees expect this kind of perk, said MacDonald.

"For our sector, that’s probably a fairly easy perk to offer and the cost of offering it is fairly low… even though it’s not necessarily the highest ranked perk for employees, it might be something that’s still worth offering just because of that ease."

At Whistler Blackcomb, free ski passes for employees and their families can add up to substantial savings.

"That’s $6,000 or $7,000 and our employees recognize that and appreciate it, and it really does translate into engagement for us," said Chevalier.

Employee discounts are also more popular with younger workers, as are perks such as transit passes, according to Gregory Hermus, associate director at the Conference Board of Canada.

"You have to weigh how much extra does it cost to provide that benefit versus what could that do in terms of reducing the turnover. For some of these (employers), it’s a constant recruitment process."

However, life insurance can be more of a challenge based on demographics, he said.

"One of the potential underutilized populations is the older workers, and we’ve heard more from the employers’ perspective that employee life insurance is quite expensive," he said.

"So they would like to hire maybe more older workers but the cost of getting the insurance, after 65, in particular, really is pretty dramatic."

While it might not be surprising that older workers appreciate pension plans among their benefits, the same is also true for younger workers. This benefit ranked fifth overall but came in 16th among tourism employers, found the CTHRC report.

However, these plans are costly for the tourism industry, said MacDonald.

"We tend to have fairly high turnover, a fairly young workforce, a lot of seasonality. So because of that, employers may think less about offering it," he said. "Employers need to make decisions based on their business, but (these benefits are) still highly valued so it might be worth offering it… They may be missing out a little bit on how much young workers still value those kind of common benefits."

Older and younger workers are also in tune when it comes to prioritizing benefits such as flex time, found the report. That’s probably a bonus for the tourism sector because it’s already set up to offer that perk to attract younger generations, he said.

"If that’s something that appeals to that group, workers who are 55 and older, as opposed to the 9-to-5 job, we’re well-positioned to take advantage of that."

Unemployed jobseekers looking to get ahead

The CTHRC report also examined what unemployed people were looking for in the realm of non-wage benefits, and while health and dental were tops, "opportunity for advancement" was also popular.

But this area is a challenge for the tourism sector, said MacDonald.

"It’s not as problematic for the accommodation industry… for the travel services industry, but for the businesses that do have the seasonal work, it is a little bit harder for them to position themselves as a business that can maybe offer advancement within the business itself," he said.

"It may be better for them to try to position themselves as somehow helping or offering an opportunity to advance within your career but not necessarily at that specific business."

Whistler Blackcomb has struggled with the issue of career progression, not because it doesn’t have clear, delineated career paths for people but because turnover is low at the management level, according to MacDonald, adding just four of the resort’s 80 managers have been hired from the outside.

"I do hear it from my staff, ‘You guys don’t have good career progression so how am I going to grow?’ when the reality is we do have a good career progression, it’s just people don’t want to leave. It’s a bit of the devil that you know or the devil that you don’t."

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