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How sincere is your smile? Stakes are high in the never-ending quest for seasonal tourism workers

coverIt happens like clockwork every year. As the calendar creeps toward May, the roads get crowded, lines at the grocery store get longer, and the wait for a table on Friday night mounts. Right on cue, tourist season arrives, seemingly overnight.

• Hospitality help is hard to find
• Tourism’s future in the hands of frontline workers
• BRNHA tackles the $50,000 question of hospitality training
• Casino strategizes to keep good hires on board

The phenomenon often catches locals off guard.

But those in the tourism industry have been running at full tilt for weeks to prepare for the influx. Their chief task: hiring and training hundreds of frontline workers to staff front desks, clean rooms, wash dishes, cart golf clubs, carry suitcases, answer phones and wait tables.

The last-minute scramble to fill seasonal jobs is something of an annual tradition at the High Hampton Inn & Country Club in Cashiers. The resort closes down completely each November — only the managers remain on board during winter months — and reopens come April.

That means hiring about 150 employees from scratch.

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“We are essentially opening a new resort every year,” said Brian Humphreys, the food and beverage manager at High Hampton. “And it is not like a Savannah or a Charlotte where you can put a ‘help wanted’ sign up and have a line of people out the door that same day.”

Humphreys looks high and low for help. He tours jobs fairs across the Southeast. He recruits international students, particularly from Asia. 

He also bills High Hampton as a destination job — a cool place to work on par with national parks, dude ranches or ski resort.

Luckily, college kids from nearby Western Carolina University make great fodder. That’s how Humphreys got his own start — as a bellhop after his freshman year.

But High Hampton isn’t just looking for warm bodies. They are looking for the right warm bodies.

“Enthusiasm and ‘want-to’ is our biggest thing,” Humphreys said. “We can teach you how to set up an event room or carry in suitcases or make a bed. But you cannot train people to like people. And we are in the people business.”

Ramping up for the season is a lot easier than it used to be thanks to technology. No one from out of the area gets hired without doing an interview over Skype first. 

“I’ll sometimes ask them just a crazy question, like ‘Say you are building a house, who is more important to you? The architect or builder? And why.’ There is no right or wrong answer. It is to see how they respond on the fly,” Humphreys said. “Because that’s going to happen to you with guests.”

It never ceases to amaze Humphreys when someone shows up for a job interview at a high-end resort in flip-flops and torn jeans.

“You have to think ‘Is this the front of the company I want my guests to see?’” Humphreys said.

High Hampton gets a huge number of repeat guests, with an 87 percent return ratio.

“Our longest running guest has been coming 79 years,” Humphreys said.

Providing the consistent service that repeat guests expect is difficult when so much of the workforce turns over each year. That’s why Humphreys looks for that intangible quality in his hires: someone who will simply care.

Humphreys often thinks back to an exchange he had with another bellhop during his early years at High Hampton. 

“I was trying to explain to one of the international kids the meaning of the phrase ‘You can take your horse to water, but you can’t make him drink,’” Humphreys said. “He responded ‘Yes Brian, but you have to know whether your horse is thirsty or not.’”


Even the line trimmer

The tourism hiring blitz playing out in the mountains can be competitive. Everyone is on the same quest for friendly, outgoing, motivated staff willing to work a low-wage seasonal job.

“As the economy has gotten a bit stronger, that means that the better employees we may have been able to attract at relatively low pay are able to get other jobs. So the pool has gotten thinner,” said Jack Ewing, the director of Lake Junaluska Conference & Retreat Center.

Yet the rank-and-file employees are the single most important ingredient for success.

“Guests might remember the quality of the food or how comfortable the bed was they slept in. But the thing the people remember the most is how they were treated and how they felt when staff talked to them,” Ewing said.

When Ewing came on board in 2011, the conference center was losing money every year. He knew it would take every employee — all 250 of them — to turn things around. 

“Hospitality, as we define it, is provided by everybody at Lake Junaluska. It doesn’t matter whether you are a front desk clerk or a line trimmer,” Ewing said. “If you happen to be cutting grass in close proximity to where somebody is walking, you don’t just stop — you make eye contact with that person and, ideally, you would greet them.”

So Ewing passed out index-size cards to every employee to carry in their pockets with five tenants of hospitality, a cheat sheet of sorts that helped employees visualize what it means to be “a place of Christian hospitality,” as Lake Junaluska’s mission statement claims.

“Hospitality behavior comes naturally for some, and some require some encouragement,” Ewing said. “I was trying to cull it down to where they could remember these things and utilize them.”

Most of the tips seem obvious once you hear them — like “Greet guests with your eyes and your smile before your words,”  or “Communicate how pleased you are to have our guests here, do it often, and invite them back.”

The trick, however, is to get employees to own it and make it part of the company culture.

Sincerity is also key, Ewing said.

Ewing gave two renditions of the line “thanks for coming and we hope you come back.” One sounded as obligatory as a thank-you card to Aunt Thelma for the wool sweater. The other was so genuine you wanted to book your return trip on the spot.

Role playing scenarios are a highlight of Lake Junaluska’s staff orientation at the start of the tourist season. In the vein of a Saturday Night Live skit, managers act out various hospitality atrocities — like a gum-smacking hotel desk clerk talking on her cell phone while ignoring a guest desperate to check in.

“We make them pretty outrageous, and our staff really enjoys that part of training,” said Ewing, who’s been known to make a cameo appearance in the skits.

At Lake Junaluska, the hospitality culture is reinforced with a monetary incentive. When his pocket cards with hospitality tips first made their debut, employees caught practicing them were rewarded with $25. The bonus check came with a note that said “Thank you for helping us live more fully into our mission statement.”

But Ewing ultimately wanted every employee to be rewarded, so he promised them a share of the profits if they ended the year in the black.

For three straight years now, profit sharing checks have been passed out — the amount is the same for everyone no matter their salary — totaling $350,000 since 2013.

“They view themselves as the owners of the organization because they are the ones who benefit when the organization makes a profit,” Ewing said.

Despite success, hospitality training is an unending undertaking.

“Particularly because we have a lot of turnover among the lower-paid staff, we will never stop trying to motivate, inspire and educate people about what our expectations are for hospitality,” Ewing said.


Double-edged sword

For Kivanc Senocak, the manager of the small Four Seasons Inn in Maggie Valley, the return of the tourist season plays out much differently. With just 20 rooms, Senocak doesn’t have the luxury of hiring help.

He and his wife, Jenna, live upstairs from the motel office and run the property with the help of a single housekeeper and one front desk clerk to relieve them during evening hours. 

But he shares many of the same challenges as the High Hamptons and Lake Junaluskas of the world: upholding a reputation among guests. 

Senocak has been here only two years — short enough that he can still see the area like an outsider might and yet free from the old-timers’ view that things here are the way they are because they’ve have always been that way.

“They are poorly managed, housekeeping doesn’t function very well, they are closed in winter — we are not realizing what we are missing,” Senocak said. 

In just one year, he and his wife increased the gross revenue for the hotel from around $200,000 a year to $350,000. Like so many mom-and-pop hotels in Maggie Valley, Four Seasons had relied solely on repeat customers and walk-in guests.

“Four Seasons wasn’t on Trip Advisor. It wasn’t on Expedia. It had no existence on the internet,” Senocak said.

But simply flipping on the vacancy sign and waiting for people to drive past wasn’t enough anymore. Even tourists who show up in town without reservations still do sleuthing online before committing.

“They sit in the parking lot for half an hour and read the reviews on Trip Advisor and then they walk in. That is the ‘walk-in’ this century,” Senocak said.

When Senocak and his wife, Jenna, moved to Maggie Valley two years ago, it was a major transition to say the least — he went from a D.C. high-rise architect to the front desk of a roadside budget motel. 

But he had big-city burnout and wanted a chance to enjoy life more. They saw hospitality as their calling.

Senocak has realized the industry can be unforgiving, and despite the huge boost an online presence has given the inn, it can be a double-edged sword.

The slightest transgression can land a business in hot water with a snarky online review — whether someone’s in-room dorm fridge isn’t cold enough or a waitress sighs when asked to repeat salad dressing choices for the sixth time.

But everyone’s human, Senocak said. Sometimes, he’s just having a bad day, and he simply doesn’t have the wherewithal to please a high-maintenance traveler upset over the bedspread in their $54 room.

“I say ‘Oh boy, here comes a bad review,’” Senocak said.

Sometimes, Senocak escapes for an hour and drives up to the Blue Ridge Parkway to simply sit at an overlook, which never fails to lift his spirits and help him face the never-ending, all-consuming demands of running a small motel.

“As soon as you sit down to dinner, the phone rings, someone’s toilet is clogged up, someone can’t get their TV to work,” Senocak said.

Senocak is currently reaching out to other small, independent motels in Maggie Valley to think bigger.

“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” he said, quoting Aristotle. “It is a big issue for Haywood County. I am trying to show the other mom-and-pop hotels, they can do this. If they don’t change, things will change away from them, and they will be left behind.”

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