A Q&A with I-Drive Area General Manager David Vallillo
David Vallillo is the Area General Manager for three properties on International Drive in Orlando. And while his main focus the brand integrity and guest experience at the Hampton Inn, Embassy Suites, and Homewood Suites under his direction, he is also a brand ambassador of sorts for the I-Drive / Orlando experience. We spoke with Vallillo about how staffing plays a part in not only improve hotel brand reputation, but in the larger market where he is located.
What Are The Unique Staffing Dynamics of the I-Drive / Orlando Market?
Like in many labor markets today, things are extremely tight here. But this market is unique because of the concentration of hotels and resorts. In the +3 mile strip of I-drive that that we serve, there are 45,000 hotel rooms, 360 restaurant and approximately 75,000 employees. Looking ahead there are billions of dollars in planned development over the next 3 to 4 years. In the mix, there is an estimated 2.5% unemployment rate. So the pool of qualified employees has gotten smaller while competition for that pool has increased. And, unlike other markets, the competition is mainly from other hotels and resorts very nearby. In the midst of these challenges, we have a duty to preserve and build on the Orlando experience for our guests. For many this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. For most, it’s at least a unique and valuable time with their family that they want to remember positively. They also want that experience to extend from their time at a theme park to their experience in a hotel. So while we have this challenge with employment, we also can’t let our quality and brand experience slip. That goes for our hotels, but I think it’s important for the whole area. We can always improve hotel brand reputation.
How does working with a staffing partner help meet the challenges you outlined?
Working with a staffing company has to be a partnership in understanding the challenge as well as the brand standards you’re trying to achieve. Some hotels misunderstand this relationship and think that working with a staffing company is about cost reduction. It’s really not the focus nor should it be. Finding qualified individuals to fill vital positions in your property as efficiently as possible should be the goals of working with a staffing company. Then you have a partner to tackle the tough challenge that we’re facing today.
What qualities do you look for to help meet those challenges?
Longevity is very important to me. Does this staffing company know the dynamics of the business over a long period of time? Are they going to be around to evolve with my property? Do I trust their business model? I think that a staffing company that has been in business for years and even decades can be trusted beyond just hiring people; you need a partner that can basically be a representative of your brand, extend your values, and locate individuals who can also reflect that brand. We work very closely with HSS in this regard and we trust in their ability to know in depth the needs of our properties and the qualities we’re looking for in staff.
How have you worked with HSS to not just find people but ensure that they are a fit for you properties?
2 ½ years ago we worked with HSS to institute an ambassador position. These individuals were dedicated to shadowing new employees for 3 weeks to teach the expectations of the position. This included not only the everyday processes but also small protocols like how you interact with guests. This process has been really successful for us because it sets up employees for success and helps us build on the great employee base we already have. It’s one example but an important one.
You’ve been in the business for over 30 years. How has guest expectations changed over that time?
People have always wanted and expect quality. Today they want to improve hotel brand reputation, which means quality plus difference. They want a consistent brand experience but also want to know “How is this Embassy Suites different?” That’s particularly true here in Orlando since people are coming here with heightened expectations of service and experience. Also the lines between a full-service property and a focus service property have blurred. You have more services at full-service properties and a more relaxed atmosphere at the focus-services properties. This is all positive, but it can cause some confusion on the part of the customer. We want to improve hotel brand reputation. What am I getting for my money? What should I expect? This is part of the reason why we focus on customer service and the quality of staff. If you exceed expectations when it comes to service, it tends to elevate everything else that you do.
What challenges do you see in working with a staffing partner?
I think a big concern that I have has to do with the number of staffing agencies that have started business recently. They’re driven by the market demand but don’t necessarily understand the needs of the hospitality industry. They also may not have the long term branding concerns that we have either, they may not care to improve hotel brand reputation. This can lead to cutting corners on things like background checks and employment eligibility. As an industry we need to guard against this trend. Working with a staffing company to cut corners is only going to drive down quality and that can impact guest experience. For I-Drive in Orlando, that’s a particular concern, but I think this holds true nationwide. As guests have other choices when it comes to where they stay, we need to offer a high quality brand experience and ensure that staff reflect that brand quality. That means working with a staffing company that is willing to be compliant with tax and labor laws, do background checks, and act in an ethical manner no matter the challenges in hiring. This is important to our properties but also to the entire industry.