By Kite Pareti
The devastation Covid-19 wrought on Fiji’s tourism industry brought out the best in many of Fiji’s tourism workers and operators.
For Marriott Fiji’s Cluster Director of Human Resources, Farrah Shazleen and her team, it was a chance to lead a number of people-centred initiatives for Marriott staff and the community at large.
Shazleen oversees human resources functions at six properties: Sheraton Fiji Golf & Beach Resort, Sheraton Denarau Villas, Sheraton Resort & Spa, Tokoriki Island, Westin Denarau Resort and the Fiji Marriott Momi Bay Resort.
While those properties closed or operated at vastly reduced levels during the pandemic, initiatives such as Solia Lesu, which means ‘to give back’, came into play.
“Back in 2020, when Covid hit, everybody was on reduced pay and even some on leave without pay. At that point in time, we received a lot of comments from our staff that they didn’t have food to eat. They would come to work and get used to having meals at the staff cafeteria which would be the only food they would eat throughout the day,” she explained.
“So the executive leadership, including myself, thought we could start something very small, starting with food packs for our staff community areas. We put in money from our side and started cooking food at the hotel, packing that up and handing them out.
With sponsors onboard, Marriott Fiji was able to distribute over 5000 hot meal packs and more than 1000 ration packs of basic food items to staff communities, police officers, frontline healthcare workers and homeless people in Sigatoka, Nadi and Lautoka. Schools and hospitals were also assisted, she said.
“We took that opportunity to talk to our staff as well, because they were confused,” said Shazleen. “They didn’t know what was happening such as when the hotels would open, or when they would come back to work. So while giving the food packs away, we gave them comfort that as soon as business picks up, they will be coming back.”
Almost 1200 Marriot staff members were made redundant during the pandemic. But when it was clear borders would soon reopen, “We knew that we needed a lot of talent to re-open our properties,” Shazleen said.
To prepare, they launched the Fiji Marriott Training Academy. “We wanted to have an in-house training academy where we upskill our people. We went out to our (traditional) landowners as they would have a lot of unemployed youths, saying, ‘How about sending us applications? We are looking to put 40 people in the training room. We will train them in front office, housekeeping, food and beverage and kitchen operations.’”
She says over three months, more than 1000 staff were recruited and Marriott Fiji’s chain of hotels reopened last May.
“The reason why we have this Training Academy is we have a lot of people migrating overseas, and it’s a challenge to replace those roles because it takes three to four weeks to advertise the position, get somebody in and train them. So with the training academy, I’d have a batch of 20 people ready to take an F&B (food and beverage) position. I just pick somebody up from there and put them in the job which solves our talent acquisition challenges as well as talent retention,” she told Fiji Traveller.
Shazleen has since received well-deserved accolades for her strong leadership skills. She was the first in Fiji to be recognised as HR leader of the year at the Marriott International APEC Annual Awards in 2022. She is also the recipient of the ‘Spirit to serve our communities’ award, whilst her team was handed the Team Resilience award as part of the ‘Solia Lesu’ initiative.
Supporting the big Marriott team through Covid has “made me experience a very different side of humanity,” she said. “Although my staff would be on leave without pay or made redundant, they would welcome me with open arms into their homes and not hold a grudge against me. Just sitting and talking with them and being offered kava as a matter of respect, you feel part of everyone. By far, that has been my most memorable moment which I will cherish forever.
“What I’ve learned from working here is that if you have people around you, if you look after them, they are the ones who are going to be there for you in the time of need.
“Having that agility inside of you where you want to actually help people solve their problems is the best skill you can have if you want to work for the tourism industry. Our tourism industry flourishes because of our bula smile and our willingness to go that extra mile to help people,” she added.
This article first appeared in Fiji Traveller, January 2023.