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Sun 22 Jul 2007 05:44 PM

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A clean sweep

This month, Hotelier Middle East talks to the region's executive housekeepers about the never-ending task of making sure their hotels stay spick and span and ready to welcome guests.

This month, Hotelier Middle East talks to the region's executive housekeepers about the never-ending task of making sure their hotels stay spick and span and ready to welcome guests.

Did you always want to become an executive housekeeper?

Jeanette Clift:At the young age of 21, I started my career in the hospitality industry, working in the rooms division. I began in front office and later moved into housekeeping because I found it to be challenging, detail-orientated and creative.

We have had the normal items go missing from rooms — everything from folders and anti-theft hangers to wall-mounted hairdryers and duvets.

Negla Toprak:During my training in the housekeeping department, I worked with a very professional and experienced housekeeper and I wanted to be like her.

KP Chandran:I got to where I am today by working my way up through the ranks which is, I believe, absolutely vital. I started my hotel career in 1982 as a room attendant and steadily progressed to linen room attendant, floor supervisor, assistant housekeeper and then made it to the level of executive housekeeper in 2003. With such a large team, and so many diverse roles, you need to have real first-hand knowledge of each position to effectively run any housekeeping department.

Dan Henderson:After completing my hospitality degree in Switzerland, I joined the Hyatt in Dallas, Texas, as a room's management trainee. I then chose to focus on housekeeping and towards the end of my training I was promoted to assistant housekeeping manager. I moved on to Hyatt Regency Dubai and was then given the opportunity to be part of the pre-opening team for Grand Hyatt Dubai. Two years later, I had the chance to do another pre-opening, this time with the Park Hyatt Dubai, as housekeeping manager.

Renjith Chandran:I started my career in the hotel industry six years ago, after studying for a diploma in hotel management, specializing in housekeeping. My first position was with the One & Only Royal Mirage, Dubai as a floor supervisor in housekeeping, a role I held for three years before going back to India to participate in the pre-opening of the Taj Indi One Hotel, the first budget business hotel in India, which is now known as Ginger Hotels. On returning to the UAE, I joined the pre-opening team of Emirates Palace Hotel, Abu Dhabi as senior supervisor, and I worked there for one year. Then I joined Radisson SAS Hotel, Dubai Media City as assistant executive housekeeping manager and this year I was promoted to executive housekeeper.

Naima Ibtihaj:Housekeeping is something you either like or you don't. It is not for everyone. When I graduated from Ecole Hoteliere, I always said I would never do housekeeping, but after my first placement in the housekeeping department, I didn't want to do anything else. I just love it. I feel that there is camaraderie in housekeeping that you don't get in other departments. It's so rewarding at the end of the day when you see beautiful, clean rooms and a beautiful, clean hotel. I'm very lucky in my role of executive housekeeper as it allows for great diversity - it's not just cleaning rooms.

What are the main challenges faced in your department?

Clift:Ensuring rooms are available to guests upon check in, and delivering supplies on time are always challenges. And as with all the other areas of the hotel, retaining experienced and qualified staff continues to be difficult.

Toprak:The most challenging thing for us is the fact that a lot of the time we are dependent on suppliers and third parties to get things done. If they let you down then problems occur.

KP Chandran:With the increase in room inventory due to the recent opening of our furnished apartments - The Residence - we have had to adapt to a much busier and larger operation in both housekeeping and laundry. We have taken on 30 new team members in the last six months. Training them while running a full house in both the hotel and residence has been a real test.

Henderson:One of the main challenges is hiring the right people for the right job. It used to be that people perceived housekeeping as only a cleaning service. We definitely have come a long way from that, and the challenge now is that we have to guide and encourage the staff to take personal care of our guests. For some, this comes naturally, depending on their culture or background. Others require more encouragement.

Chandran:Keeping the staff motivated during demanding situations.

Ibtihaj:I see two main challenges. The first is finding the right employees because housekeeping in hospitality is not for everybody. It is important to recognize talent and then retain this talent and keep employees motivated. The second thing is to anticipate the guests' perspectives - guests are now more knowledgeable, with very high expectations and this keeps us on our toes. We've got to get it right the first time.

Which areas of the hotel are the most demanding to clean?

Clift:All areas of the hotel require special attention, but landscaped areas can be quite a challenge to maintain.

KP Chandran:All areas of the hotel operation have their own unique requirements and demands but effectively running the linen room operation always gives a few headaches. The hotel is looking to change the style of uniform in all of our F&B service sections at the moment, and laundering, storing and controlling more than 1800 uniform items always keeps my linen room team on their toes.

Housekeeping is something you either like or you don’t. It is not for everyone.

Henderson:There is no particular area that is more demanding than the next. You need to be on top of every single area. In general, it's all about planning and having things organized. Having a great team of staff who take care of every single aspect of their job definitely helps.

Ibtihaj:The cleanliness of the guest rooms is the most demanding part of housekeeping. Careful planning of arrivals and departures ensures that guests get to their rooms promptly. As first impressions are so critical, if the guest is made to wait for their room and, once they check in, if everything is not perfect in the room, then this can lead to a catalogue of on-going complaints.

How do you manage to keep your hotel clean without disturbing guests?

Clift:We schedule jobs to be done during low occupancy periods.

Toprak:Based on the work to be done each day, we distribute the load across each shift - morning, afternoon and night shift. It is also important that we try to disturb the guests as little as possible in the lobby areas.

KP Chandran:The heavy-duty deep cleaning of our public areas and restaurants takes place in the wee small hours of the night, when all our customers are sound asleep. For guest room cleaning, our team is trained to always respect DND [do not disturb] cards, and to keep unnecessary chatter or equipment noise to a minimum.

Henderson:The main cleaning of the hotel in the public areas and restaurants is done at night so it does not affect any guests. The regular housekeeping services take place in a morning and an afternoon shift. Staff familiarizes themselves with their guests, most of whom are repeat visitors, so they know the preferred cleaning times, or when the guests normally leave the room. By the third visit, staff who had cleaned the room will already know the guest's profile and preferences.

Ibtihaj:Professional planning, good organization and the best training are the key elements necessary to ensure that guests are not disturbed when we are maintaining the cleanliness of the hotel. Engaging with guests while carrying out housekeeping duties is the best way to ensure guest satisfaction, as not only does that distract them from any disturbance but it also allows us to find out guests' needs and expectations.

What are the biggest cleaning jobs and how do you manage them?

Clift:Building and window cleaning are huge tasks, so we manage this with quarterly schedules.

Toprak:Renovations while the hotel is in operation are very challenging. These periods have to be managed through very good planning.

KP Chandran:We have several periodic cleaning jobs that can be a bit of a logistical challenge - the crystal chandeliers in the ballroom for example - but as this is a twice-yearly task, we have it down to a pretty smooth routine by now. More difficult jobs are when we have unexpected group departures and need a large number of rooms cleaned and returned in a very short space of time. This is especially challenging when it happens in the evening or at night when we have reduced the number of staff on duty. This is when our "Yes I Can" teamwork really kicks in, with off duty staff coming back to the hotel to help out on many occasions.

Henderson:Park Hyatt has white exterior walls and 64 blue domes. These are very hard to gain access to, and cleaning them requires properly trained staff that abseil with a pressure washer. We schedule the building wash three times a year, and it takes one month to complete.

Ibtihaj:Dealing with heavy-duty equipment to maintain the marble floors in the hotel is one of our biggest jobs, as well as cleaning different types of carpet and cleaning the numerous glass windows from the outside.

Have you had any unusual experiences when cleaning rooms, or do you have any horror stories about particularly messy guests?

Clift:We've had guests that cook in their rooms and some that bring pets into the hotel.

Toprak:There are many stories related to guests and staff. We once had a new staff member who was working in the room service department that took off his shoes outside the guest room door before taking an order in to the room. It was tradition in his country, and a sign of respect. The guest smiled and told us about it later.

KP Chandran:In the world of housekeeping, I don't think anything can be classed as "unusual" any more! We have had the normal items go missing from rooms - everything from folders and anti-theft hangers to wall-mounted hairdryers and duvets. And we've had guests who are a little "worse for wear" wandering around corridors in various states of attire. Several very difficult situations have arisen in my 25 years at this hotel, however, when, tragically, a guest has passed away while staying with us or - even more distressing - in a couple of instances a guest has taken their own life. This affects the whole team emotionally but we still need to move on and keep working as usual.

The heavy-duty deep cleaning of our public areas and restaurants takes place in the wee small hours of the night, when all our customers are sound asleep.

Henderson:We have not had any horror stories or anything unusual, honestly! If a guest requests something, we make sure the guest gets it, no matter how big or small that request may be. The first time, the request may seem unusual, but afterwards, it becomes normal for us.

Chandran:Not with Radisson, but while I was working at the One & Only Royal Mirage, and at Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi, I did hear - although I did not experience for myself - stories of ghost sightings in the corridors at night. Some of the team members were hesitant to work in certain areas alone at night because of these horror stories.

Ibtihaj:You would be surprised at the number of times rooms are booked and paid for but are never used, so a housekeeper enters to clean a room and it is in pristine condition, even though a guest has checked-in. Then of course, there is the opposite, when a guest checks out and the room looks like it has been turned upside down and inside out. That can take hours to clean.

What do you think could be improved in your department to help things run more smoothly?

Clift:Specialised, trained contractors would make our job easier, as would having more qualified cleaning consultants.

Toprak:Fixed check-in and check-out times for all guests would make our work easier.

KP Chandran:With such a busy and complex operation as ours, communication with front desk is the key. Better updating of the system of departure and arrival times would definitely help us with organising and scheduling the team.

Henderson:On the whole, we have a very successful operation. Our staff work with passion and dedication, but we consistently seek ways to improve ourselves and our operation.

Ibtihaj:The right training is vital to ensure that all housekeeping employees can perform to the very best of their ability. It is also important to have the right leaders in place to motivate and reward the staff to encourage dedication and loyalty.

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