By Emily Meidenbauer
The hospitality industry has been of the traditional pillars of the economy in Guam. It was decimated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The number of tourists – particularly from key markets such as Japan, Korea and Taiwan have dropped drastically, and with it, hotel occupancy.
Due to the pandemic and single-digit occupancy levels, many Guam hotels have been operating with minimal employees, who were also were laid off or furloughed during the height of the pandemic. But as the island lifts restrictions, changes quarantine protocols and recovers from the effects of COVID-19, hotels are beginning to bring back staff and hire new employees, a process which necessitates training and education.
The tourism and hospitality department at Guam Community College prepares students to enter the workforce through three programs. The department offers international hotel management and tourism and travel management as associate programs, and hospital and tourism management as a high school program that runs in six different public schools in Guam.
Eric Ji, chairman of the Tourism & Hospitality Department at GCC says the international hotel management program offers a variety of courses directly related to specific hotel departments including front office, housekeeping and sales and marketing.
“Once a student completes a course in the international hotel management program, then he/she has a full understanding of the specific department,” Ji says.
The high-school based hospitality and tourism management program is designed to help students gain interest in the industry. While completing the program, they can earn GCC college credit and complete their associate degree faster.
GCC also offers apprenticeship programs for those interested in the hospitality industry. Ji says that GCC works with various hotels to provide on-the-job training. The program also includes the practicum course in a student’s last semester. The student will get to experience different areas of the industry to help them gain knowledge of hotel operations and decide what careers they want to pursue after graduation.
“This is the only tourism/hospitality program on Guam in higher education,” says Ji. “So we understand that we have a lot of responsibilities to grow our future leaders of the industry and the workforce. That’s the unique part of it. Our goal is to fully prep our students before they get into the industry. That’s why our industry partners are very satisfied with our students, because they don’t need much training once they have a job.”
Ji says that, aside from a diploma, the most important thing that students gain through the program is confidence.
“They have confidence that they understand the industry and they can do whatever,” Ji says. “They can be located in any hospitality-related jobs and they can fully function.”
However, Ji estimates that about 80% of entry-level hotel workers are not currently working.
“Many hotels are still operating with management and directors,” he said. “They’re doing what the staff members used to do, and they’re everywhere. Now they’re doing housekeeping, security, and other areas.”
Though the industry was hit hard by the pandemic, Ji views it as an opportunity for Guam’s tourism and hospitality industry make improvements.
“I want to change the question to, ‘How can we make it even better than pre-pandemic?’ This is a great opportunity for us,” he says. “Many people only look at the downside of the pandemic, but this is way for us to prep things that we didn’t have a chance to do before. It was a great opportunity for the industry to brainstorm what we can do better and what we can offer to make our tourists happy. We need something new – something different – something better than pre-pandemic in order for us to keep this peak season for the next 10 to 20 years.”
Higher education may not be an option for all, but some hotels also offer in-house training and have no requirements or prerequisites for entry-level employees. This includes the Hyatt Regency Guam.
“Anyone that’s willing to learn or is interested in the industry – we’re happy to train them and teach them what service is about,” says Claire Garcia, director of human resources. “A lot of our entry-level [employees], we source them from internship programs at the local high schools and GCC. We work closely with them.”
But that experience or education in the industry isn’t necessarily required for employment at the Hyatt. Garcia says there are benefits in working for a global company.
“We’re fortunate that we have resources from global Hyatt Corp.” she says.“They provide us all the training resources.”
When employees are hired at the Hyatt they attend a full-day orientation program that covers general hotel information. After that, new hires are released to their departments, where they train for 30 to 90 days, depending on experience and education. This includes evacuation training, skills training and other areas. Due to the pandemic, many training sessions utilize a hybrid format.
“A portion of it you will do online, and a portion of it is going to be on-the-job, in which you partner up with more senior staff,” Garcia says “It usually takes 30 to 90 days. It depends on the experience of the person. But for those that don’t have experience, we’re okay with that as well. We’re happy to take up to 90 days, but I don’t usually see anyone that extends that far.”
Hyatt employees have opportunities for promotions, and transfer opportunities to other Hyatt locations.
“We pride ourselves on that,” she says. “A good percentage of our management team has risen up from the ranks.”
Garcia says that currently, the Hyatt has had mostly local business from community members coming for staycations. Weekends and holidays are the busiest time for the hotel and its restaurants, several of which are almost fully booked on a regular basis.
“With the end of the school year, there’s a lot of graduations,” she says. “They’re wanting to celebrate, there’s reasons to celebrate, and with the restrictions slowly being lifted, they’re wanting to get out of their homes.”
During the height of the pandemic the hotel operated with a skeleton crew. There have since been more employees brought back, but Hyatt’s full workforce is still not back at work, despite the recent uptick in business.
“There’s still less people,” Garcia says. “Right now, maybe two thirds of our workforce is working.”
The Guam Hotel & Restaurant Association is actively trying to get employees back to work, despite the challenges.
“A lot of businesses have limited hiring until they’re able to increase their revenues,” says Mary P. Rhodes, president of GHRA. “And so, we’re hoping that with the reopening of tourism, businesses will start gearing up to hire more people.”
Many workers have been receiving pandemic unemployment assistance, and are not rushing to get back to work. However, the unemployment assistance ends in September, and Rhodes anticipates an upcoming increase in tourism and people actively seeking jobs.
“We’re hoping the reopening of tourism will time well with having to go back to work and businesses needing to hire more people,” says Rhodes. “So, I’m actually meeting with the Guam Department of Labor to go over these work strategies to get people back to work and start really targeting people who have been on pandemic unemployment assistance so we can start letting them know that these jobs are available.”
While Guam DOL is introducing a requirement for PUA applicants to show they have been seeking jobs, Rhodes recommends that those receiving pandemic unemployment assistance start looking for jobs as soon as possible, rather than waiting until September.
“I think that they really need to get ahead of it and start looking for employment prior to the end of the unemployment assistance,” she says. “Even if it’s on a part-time basis. You don’t want to wait along with the 30,000 other people looking for employment.”
For the industry to return to normal, Rhodes says that Guam needs to get to a point where quarantine protocols are no longer necessary, market Guam as a safe destination and continue marketing for the vaccine tourism program, as well as continuing to partner with the Department of Labor to promote to those who need jobs.
“I know a lot of establishments are getting local business and business from the military, but there’s a very big difference between a local population of 170,000 versus 1.5 million tourists,” she says. “Until we can get our tourism numbers back up, those kinds of revenue streams for hospitality will be limited until we can get tourism going.”
The Guam Visitors Bureau is hoping to jumpstart tourism with its “Air V&V” program. The program encourages American expatriates and non-U.S. citizens to visit Guam for “vaccination and vacation,” in which participants can enjoy concierge medical service from the comfort of a participating hotel room.
“This is just the beginning of the revival of Guam’s number one industry,” says Carl T.C. Gutierrez, president and CEO of GVB.
Air V&V has already started to see some traction. In the month of July, EVA Air is operating five charters to Guam, operating on the Taipei-Guam route. Flights will be arriving on July 6, July 10, July 14, July 18, and July 22. The July 6 flight carried 153 passengers to participate in the Air V&V program. More than 2,000 visitors in total are expected in July and August, GVB said.
The charters also mark the return of EVA Air, which previously ceased twice-weekly flights between Taiwan and Guam in June 2017.
Travel to Guam may also be made easier due to the latest Department of Public Health and Social Services guidance, effective July 4. The new guidelines state that those who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and able to provide proof of vaccination may be exempt from quarantine, as well as those who are able to provide a valid, negative PCR test result collected within 72 hours prior to arrival on Guam. Those who are not vaccinated but provide a negative non-PCR test result collected within 72 hours prior to arrival on Guam, as well as valid photo ID, may be eligible to quarantine at home or a rental of their choosing.
At the Guam Economic Forum, held on June 24 at the Hyatt Regency Guam, Gov. Lourdes A. Leon Guerrero recapped her plan for “Operation Liberate Guam,” in her opening remarks.
“While we begin to safely welcome visitors to our island, we continue our aggressive effort towards Operation Liberate Guam – our initiative to vaccinate 80% of our adult population by Guam’s Liberation Day on July 21,” she said. As of July 7, 91,426 or 76.16% of adults have received both doses in the two-dose series or the single dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Once the goal is met, Guerrero hopes to lift additional travel and other restrictions.
“My vision for Guam – after July 21 – is to get back to normal as [far as] possible,” Guerrero said. “While I will still encourage residents to wear their face masks, especially in crowds, I intend to restore occupancy limits to 100 percent and lift the cap on social gatherings,” she said.