Interview - Barbara Arensmeyer
Dated: 12-01-2017

“With fluctuating peak times with regard to occupancy rates, and the ever increasing cost of manpower, outsourcing staff is a natural step for the hospitality industry.”- Barbara Arensmeyer

She has 40 years of experience in the hospitality industry under her belt and has worked in several capacities in housekeeping and hospitality across the world. It is no doubt then, that Al Habtoor City has left all the housekeeping related responsibilities for its three luxury hospitality properties – The St. Regis Dubai, W Dubai – Al Habtoor City and The Westin Dubai, Al Habtoor City – in her capable hands. Over a cup of coffee at the luxurious setting that is The St. Regis Dubai, Barbara Arensmeyer, Director of Housekeeping – Complex, talks to Shanti Petiwala about her three pet projects and her experience during their pre- and post-opening phases.

Three luxurious properties at Al Habtoor City have opened within a few months of each other – how has the experience been?

The experience has been great. We just had our grand opening party for all three hotels last week. Of course, with a task of this stature, the challenges are plenty, too. Currently, W Dubai – Al Habtoor City and The Westin Dubai, Al Habtoor City, are still waiting to be 100% complete – some of the back-of-house areas and a few rooms are remaining. It also took us a while – almost a year – to get The St. Regis Dubai completely ready.

It must have been challenging too. What kind of challenges did you face, and how were they overcome?

Definitely! One of the biggest challenges was in the construction and finishing of the hotel. It did not meet our expectations. However, as the housekeeping staff, it is our job to ensure that our specialized cleaning processes and practices make up for the small defects that only the trained eye can see. 

Apart from this, most of the mid-management requires continuous training. Hotels of this kind and capacity need free-thinking, independent housekeeping managers, who are committed to the brand and their job. There is only so much that I can do as a Director. I find that the younger generation today wants fast track development. They look for quick money, quick promotions and are not as focused on building their career. But, they need to be mature and experienced enough to get promoted with strong people and social skills. Having said that, I am proud to say that we have some shining stars in our staff; after considerable training, they are committed to working in sync to ensure that the housekeeping works like clockwork.

Most hotels today outsource some – if not all – of their manpower. What is your take on this?

Outsourcing manpower makes complete business sense for the hospitality industry. With peak times fluctuating nowadays with regard to occupancy rates, and the ever increasing cost of manpower – it is a natural step for our industry. But, the Middle East is yet to reach the standards in Europe – where outsourcing has been a practice since the last 30-odd years.

Firstly, we have so many options to choose from in terms of cleaning service providers, that finding the right one makes it more difficult. Secondly, their training standards – for housekeeping in particular – are not up to the mark. We find ourselves retraining already trained manpower to suit our standards. Our industry needs specialized companies for housekeeping services because working on rooms is personalized and special. The profile of such personnel is also different. We do have outsourced personnel at our properties – they work in front-of-house, some back-of-house areas, and stewarding. We don’t have too many people working on rooms, but I see the trend changing.

However, I think with time all this will change – we will have more companies training their staff specifically in housekeeping, with more specialized and standardized services in place.Outsourcing manpower makes complete business sense for the hospitality industry. With peak times fluctuating nowadays with regard to occupancy rates, and the ever increasing cost of manpower – it is a natural step for our industry. But, the Middle East is yet to reach the standards in Europe – where outsourcing has been a practice since the last 30-odd years.

Firstly, we have so many options to choose from in terms of cleaning service providers, that finding the right one makes it more difficult. Secondly, their training standards – for housekeeping in particular – are not up to the mark. We find ourselves retraining already trained manpower to suit our standards. Our industry needs specialized companies for housekeeping services because working on rooms is personalized and special. The profile of such personnel is also different. We do have outsourced personnel at our properties – they work in front-of-house, some back-of-house areas, and stewarding. We don’t have too many people working on rooms, but I see the trend changing.

However, I think with time all this will change – we will have more companies training their staff specifically in housekeeping, with more specialized and standardized services in place.

When you select an outsourcing company what are the parameters?

We have hired cleaning service providers for our outsourced cleaning. The parameters we look at include the background of the company, reputation and capacity. We find out where they recruit staff from and how. The staff must understand and speak basic English and have a strong personality, well-groomed and presentable to interact with customers. We have also moved on to hiring FM companies that can offer us a wider folio of services including landscaping and security apart from cleaning.

What is a day in your life like?

The day starts with attending morning briefings. I follow up with my staff to see what work needs to be completed. Then, I visit all the three hotels for an alignment briefing and check on certain facilities. In the middle, I deal with procurement issues, budgeting, and meeting with suppliers and vendors. I also conduct spot checks on certain areas and do a weekly walk through across the facilities. As a housekeeper, we also have to follow up and be in touch with the contractors and engineers and have regular meetings with the management team.

What kind of role does a housekeeper at your position have during pre-opening?

We are not involved in a project more than 6-8 months prior to its opening. By then most of the interiors are done and finishing work starts. We have a handover from the construction company and what is not up to the mark is redone by them. Our job at this point is to set up SOPs, recruit staff under us, deal with operating supplies, uniforms, meet contractors for cleaning tools and chemicals, set up paper work etc.

What is the biggest challenge in setting up hotels of such a stature in this region?

The biggest challenge is probably in having all the stakeholders of the property on the same page. This eases execution and operation and eventually the success of the property. Apart from that it is the attitude of all the housekeeping staff involved. With several challenges to overcome in such projects, every individual must have the drive to ensure it is a success. We must be flexible, and open to last minute changes. Decision-making, proactiveness and productivity are also important.