Giving your staff leave to work at the Beijing Olympics could be a case of short-term pain for long-term gain. Piers Ford explains why
HR directors in the hospitality sector shouldn't be surprised if they soon start to see an increase in numbers of requests for extended leave next August, when the Beijing Olympics get under way. Apart from its status as the world's foremost sporting event, the Olympics are the focus of a vast volunteer operation that extends well beyond the games themselves, and many of the agencies involved in associated projects are particularly keen to find volunteers with hospitality expertise.
A 500,000-strong international army of willing helpers is being recruited by the Beijing Organising Committee for the games of the XXIX Olympiad to support the service infrastructure for the huge numbers of athletes and spectators who will descend on Beijing for the Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Some - about 100,000 - will be deployed in every conceivable area of the games, helping with administration, corralling participants and officials, and assisting with everything from first-aid and travel arrangements to press accreditation. Thousands of others will be set to work in the city, liaising with the public at scenic spots, hotels, cultural centres and transport hubs, as well as assisting with events in the weeks and months leading up to the games.
So how should HR managers respond if one or more key members of staff want to take August off and head for China?
Industry experts say that they should be as accommodating as possible, because there could be significant benefits on three levels:
• For the volunteer in terms of personal development.
• For the organisation, which will have access to any new managerial skills and insights into the international hospitality industry the volunteers will bring back from their experience.
• And for any business that's likely to be in the front line of hospitality service delivery for the London Olympics in 2012, any staff involvement in Beijing constitutes an invaluable opportunity to get a first-hand view of the way such a huge event affects the hotel and catering infrastructure of the host country.
Peter McGunnigle, principal lecturer in hospitality and tourism management at Oxford Brookes University Business School, says: "The chance to travel to a very different country for an event such as the Olympics gives people a tremendous platform, especially if they're in supervisory roles, to understand how it feels to manage teams of international staff who might not share their own culture - and that alone is a transferable skill that can add value to their employer's business when they return."
McGunnigle was recently asked by M - the marketing and events company contracted to manage the passage of the Olympic flame through 100 cities in the 100 days before the opening ceremony - to help recruit volunteers for the project. Several Oxford Brookes alumni are being assessed ahead of the project.
"They specifically wanted people with hospitality expertise who could manage local teams and assist in getting people to the right place at the right time, shepherding staff and making sure the project runs smoothly," says McGunnigle.
"As an industry, we're often seen as being short-sighted in terms of skills development. We're good at recognising things that give a direct payback, such as professional courses, but not so good at realising the transferable and cross-cultural skills that can emerge from an experience such as the Olympics, but are more difficult to measure. We shouldn't just be looking at job-specific skills: it's about broadening the mind and stretching the soft skills of our staff as well."
Nicola Riley, director of human resources at the Renaissance Chancery Court hotel in London, says the timing of the Beijing Olympics could potentially have been a problem when her events director, Dan Humby (see panel), announced that he wanted to volunteer. But the business will always do its best to accommodate initiatives that allow staff to explore this kind of opportunity.
"This is the first time I've come across the Olympics in this context," she explains, "but we've helped staff take part in other things like fundraising treks. The challenge is trying to fit the opportunity for individual development around the needs of the business, and ensuring that the service to our guests remains the same, and being fair and consistent in the way we treat everyone."
Riley says the soft benefits - staff who feel more engaged and better valued, and experiences that are fed back into the company in a generic way - are important. Whatever insights and observations Humby comes back with, other employees will be interested to hear about his experiences.
"It's a win-win situation for us," says Riley, "and there will certainly be some things that we'll be able to take on board. And it's positive for Dan because he has long-term career ambitions in the events field, and this is a chance for him to be part of one of the most amazing events there is."
As it happens, August is usually quiet on the events front at the hotel, and Riley has taken the opportunity to temporarily promote another member of the team while Humby is away - a piece of succession planning that wins McGunnigle's heartfelt approval.
"Enabling someone to step into the breach is good for them both," he says. "It shows that the business values the member of staff enough that they're prepared to make exceptional cover arrangements."
McGunnigle says that just by being in Beijing and talking to other restaurateurs and hoteliers, volunteers from the hospitality sector will be able to see at first hand what the key issues are for the hotel business in coping with the demands of an event on the scale of the Olympics.
"It isn't just the international chains," he says. "Of course, losing a person for four weeks has an impact for a small business. But if you want to retain people, allowing them to go sends a great psychological message and you'll benefit from them being rejuvenated and refreshed by their experiences.
"I'm optimistic. I think organisations in the hospitality sector will look favourably on staff who find volunteer options at the Olympics. And looking forward to 2012, it will be a spur for hoteliers and restaurateurs to focus on the benefits, particularly if their business is likely to be affected by the London games."
Quest for an Olympian fix
Dan Humby is determined to be in the hospitality front line when the Olympics come to London in 2012, so the chance to head to Beijing as a volunteer for next year's games and snatch a first-hand view of the operational scope of the event was too compelling to miss.
Humby is director of events at the Renaissance Chancery Court hotel, London. He's been with the company for six years and has never hidden his ambition to become involved in events on a grander scale.
"My employers have been very supportive," he says. "I've always been clear that this is what I want to move towards. Being part of the hotel's planning and operation teams has given me good experience of managing events at a high-profile venue. Of course, it's a big leap from here to an 80,000-seat arena, but my aim is to be part of the Olympics in 2012 and help make it one of the most memorable games."
Humby will spend the whole of August in Beijing, although he doesn't yet know what his volunteer duties will be.
"I want to see what makes the wow factor," he says. "But it isn't just about my self-development. Of course, I'll be bringing new knowledge back to the hotel - insights into the standards and levels of service we'll be expected to deliver in London come 2012."
For more information, check out the Beijing Organising Committee for the Games of the XXIX Olympiad by logging on to http://en.beijing2008.cn/volunteers/