Family Values: Creating a culture that connects

With unemployment at a record low and younger generations entering the workforce with new expectations, it’s crucial now, more than ever, that the hospitality industry works to not only acquire employees but retain them.

The stigma surrounding younger workers may be that they don’t even want to work, but the industry is discovering that’s not the case; they just have a different way of working. To meet these changing needs and attract prospective employees to hospitality, industry leaders are relying on something that’s been here all along: company culture.

“We have this notion, a vision, a purpose, that the reason we exist is to spread the light and warmth of hospitality… No one talks that way anymore,” said Matt Schuyler, chief human resources officer, Hilton. “That’s really straight out of Conrad Hilton’s vernacular from when he founded the company.”

Hilton is a company that is no stranger to healthy company culture—it was President/CEO Chris Nassetta’s top priority when he took the helm of the hotel company—as the organization recognizes that creating a strong workplace culture ultimately breeds happy employees and guest loyalty.

“We want you to bring your whole self to work every day,’” Schuyler said. “We want you to feel comfortable with who you are because when you’re yourself, when you feel comfortable and when you feel like you have the security of an employer that knows you well enough to have a customized career opportunity for you, you’re going to be at your best. When you’re at your best, you provide the best service to our guests.”

David Kong, president/CEO, Best Western Hotels & Resorts, shares a similar sentiment about his company’s beginnings. “If you want to look at our culture, you have to go back to our roots,” he said.

Best Western, which started as a referral network 74 years ago, has a founding value of members helping members—hotels would refer business to other hotels down the road.

“We’ve always wanted to be able to count on one another, so over time, that evolved into a sense of family. If you attend our meetings, it’s very much like a big family reunion,” Kong added.

For Kong, employers have to fulfill the basics for employees—pay scale and benefits—but also make sure employees remain aspirational, giving them career opportunities and proper training to fully realize those aspirations.

“The culture is vitally important because people don’t live to work, they work to live,” Kong said. “You have to answer the question of ‘why’ they would want to work at a place when there are so many options for them. The hotel industry, historically, hasn’t been known as an attractive place like Google or Facebook or similar companies.”

Kong explained that the hotel industry has a bad reputation of low pay, long hours and not many career opportunities, but that hotel leaders can work to reverse this notion.

“We all have to change that through our culture. The culture is really just values and beliefs—that’s what culture means. You can’t fake it,” Kong added.

Kong himself is a product of opportunity in hospitality, having worked as a dishwasher in the 1970s and, of course, climbing the corporate ladder like many of his peers.

“My story isn’t unique; a lot of the CEOs worked their way up the ladder that way. Chris Nassetta was a maintenance man; Geoff Ballotti [president/CEO of Wyndham Hotels & Resorts] was a dishwasher/busboy like me. But regrettably, that doesn’t get broadcasted outside of our industry. People in the industry know there’s a future and career opportunities, but people outside don’t realize that,” Kong explained.

Brad Rahinsky, president/CEO of Hotel Equities, got his start in a similar place, as a bellman taking guests’ bags up to their rooms some 30 years ago.

“I’m the poster child for what hard work and commitment can do for someone in the hospitality industry,” Rahinsky said. “The hospitality industry is uniquely positioned to attract and retain talent by creating an aspirational road map for associates that gives them the directions for taking what in other industries may be a J-O-B and turning it into a fulfilling, rewarding career.”

According to AAHOA Chairwoman Jagruti Panwala, “Employers should ask themselves, ‘Does my company offer jobs or do we offer careers?’ The answer can be quite telling. As an employer, creating a workplace culture that makes team members feel appreciated and part of something bigger than themselves is vital to attracting and retaining employees. People need to feel respected. They need to feel a sense of camaraderie.”

She added that workers, especially younger people entering the workforce, need to feel that the work they do matters, that it has an impact. “As employers, we can show them the value of their work by forging a culture built around teamwork, goals, accountability and respect,” Panwala said. “We also need to demonstrate that the values we espouse are more than just words. Don’t just tell employees that you value hard work, show them how much you appreciate it. Ensure that those who go above and beyond what is expected are rewarded.” Panwala believes that this industry is one with abundant opportunities for advancement, and that promoting from within reinforces the idea that one’s company can offer employees careers, not simply a job. “When an employee or prospective employee sees that employees are valued and understands the career opportunities that may be ahead of them in your company, they are more likely to remain a team member or become your latest hire,” she said.

The hospitality industry has always been an industry of opportunity, an industry that, although it may be deemed slow at times, has evolved.

“Culture is not a pamphlet that is given out, it’s a living thing. I think that some companies just say, ‘Here is our culture,’ then that’s it… That won’t work,” said Justin Jabara, president, Meyer Jabara Hotels.

Meyer Jabara’s culture story is one of both evolution and opportunity, starting with Bill Meyer and Richard Jabara in 1977. At the time, Jabara said, the style of management was much different than what the industry sees today.

“When MJ was started, Bill and Richard felt that this top-down style of management did not make for an environment of success, so they started laying the foundation of our culture,” Jabara said.

Jabara prides the company’s culture on its commitment to transparency and inclusion.

“Richard gave the example from when he was the F&B director at a large, full-service hotel; at the end of the month he would not receive a full P&L,” Jabara said. “Information is power but without information, how do you make sound decisions?”

Now, GMs review P&Ls and forecasts at daily meetings. “Some might think that’s odd, but a line cook needs to know if food cost is high, a laundry attendant with laundry expense, a front desk agent needs to understand business levels as that will change their hours. Another example of transparency is the vital zone scorecard of each hotel that is shared company-wide. If one GM is having exceptional success or scores in a category, then he or she can be a resource to others,” he added.

Much like this, PM Hotel Group has launched programs to increase employee engagement and, ultimately, employee retention.

“In an industry that has traditionally been slow to evolve and embrace change, our willingness to embrace entrepreneurial spirit is probably most surprising [to the industry],” said Joseph Bojanowski, president of PM Hotel Group. “For us, innovation and disruption aren’t just buzzwords. We know that the workforce is evolving.”

Last year, PM launched PMTV, an internal streaming news network that ties innovation and technology together, allowing the company to communicate and share information in real time with its workforce across the country, Bojanowski said.

PM has also launched The Edge by PM Hotel Group technology suite, helping to optimize revenue, leverage business intelligence and streamline operations.

“We are driving the bottom line for our existing hotel owners and attracting new ones,” Bojanowski said. “Being open to disruption and willing to reimagine how we do business has been better for our people and our owners. By embracing change, we are strategically expanding the portfolio and delivering success for our owners, guests and associates.”

Technology is just one component of culture evolution; an evolution of employer mindset is another.

“Associates demand so much more today than in the past, and they should,” said Chris Green, president/CEO, Chesapeake Hospitality. “The relationship between employer and employee must be different now. We need to engage and enroll our associates in a higher goal so they can feel connected to the organization. The fight for talent is an all-out war right now and, ultimately, there is only so much wage pressure businesses can stand. If you only see your associates as numbers and a means to an end, you’ve already lost.”

This fight for talent is a hurdle the industry will face for years to come, but leaders are optimistic that evolution will accelerate.

Best Western, for example, has created a Future Leaders group at the hotel level to give employees exposure to operations, including back-of-house tours, a leadership development program for its internal group where employees can work with senior leaders, and a strength finder program, allowing employees to learn to work with different personalities, strengths and weaknesses.

“[When I was a dishwasher] I worked 6.5 days and was supposed to get one day off. The industry has evolved for the better, but are we competitive with a lot of these high-tech companies that are driving expectations?” Kong asked. “They [younger workers]are hungry, aggressive, very excited about the task at hand and move with a sense of purpose and urgency. I love this new generation. I think they’re going to be shining stars for us.”

For the past decade, Hilton has completed an annual Global Team Member Survey that allows the company to gather hundreds of thousands of data points, including insight from the five generations currently in the workplace. The findings revealed that goals, desires and requirements of work are very similar; what’s different between the generations is the level of patience they have to achieve them.

Schuyler said that the newer generations in the workplace are less patient; they want career advancement in a shorter time period, and this is amplified in the digital age with instant information.

“We’ve created this environment where our team members can thrive and they’re feeling good about it,” Schuyler said. “We’re beating the tech companies who are giving out free M&M’s and avocado toast.”

John Rubino, COO, managed division, GF Hotels & Resorts, recognizes that creating such an environment for employees transcends hospitality and extends beyond a mission statement.

He noted that written policies are effective in setting performance and procedural expectations, but culture is created and maintained by actions—making employees feel connected to their coworkers and valued in their positions.

“For some, work is not just a paycheck; people look for other fulfilling aspects about where they work,” Rubino said. “Most associates spend more time at work or with their work family than they do in their own homes or with the loved ones with whom they share a place of residence. The eight-plus hours they spend at your hotel or corporate office could be the best eight hours of their day.”

Employee retention is vital not only in creating a productive workplace but because labor is more expensive than ever for hotels, incentivizing them to reduce turnover as much as possible.

“Turnover is not only costly due to the recruitment process, the time needed to onboard a new associate, or overtime to backfill a position until a new team member is identified,” Rubino said. “The real loss is the missed connections that occur when regular guests experience the loss of a familiar face to assist them or anticipate the known needs of a repeat customer.”

Coupled with low unemployment rates, other leaders recognize the importance of retaining talent, especially as younger workers have more options than ever.

“While hourly wages have increased, in many cases, gross wages haven’t. Entry-level positions are harder to fill as the hotel industry is competing with employers outside of our industry who can offer higher wages, creative benefits and more regular schedules,” Bojanowski said.

But, Bojanowski remains hopeful. “The good news, however, is that while money matters, it’s not the only thing that matters—especially for millennials,” he said. “Feeling valued, included, recognized and rewarded are increasingly mentioned. Bosses who value and mentor them and opportunity for career growth are important.”

Bojanowski recommended that leaders keep an open mind by rethinking schedules and shifts, allowing for more work/life balance. “Thoughtful corporate social responsibility programs and willingness to respond to feedback from the field are all areas where leaders can make impactful changes that value the team and benefit the business,” he added.

Rahinsky agreed and said fair pay, a safe work environment, decent hours and employee recognition are key to employee retention.

“If you’re not listening to your people, understanding that they want to fulfill a purpose and helping to create that road map, you’re not even in the game,” Rahinsky said. “You’ll spend more of your time as a staffing agency (transactional) when you should be setting strategy and vision with your team (relational).”

It’s one thing to talk about company culture, to acknowledge its importance and to spread it company-wide, but quite another to enforce it, as Rubino detailed, especially beyond the confines of the industry.

“We want the newer generations entering the workplace to not think of this as a gig—don’t think of it as just a job that you’ll pass through, think of it as a career opportunity,” Schuyler said.

Hilton communicates this through storytelling, Schuyler said, sharing success stories with potential hires—ones of getting past entry-level jobs and rising to the managerial ranks.

“That’s where it really catches fire, when it becomes energized because you see the enthusiasm, you feel the culture manifested through our team members,” Schuyler said.

Other leaders see their company culture brought to life through the actions of employees during times of tragedy and being reminded of what matters most.

“Some years ago, we had someone who worked here whose son had seizure problems and the doctor needed to remove part of his brain,” Kong said. “Obviously, that was traumatic and a huge financial burden on the family. We got together and raised almost $20,000 from people chipping in money to help. That’s just one great story that I share that demonstrates the sense of family that we have, especially in times of need.”

Chesapeake underwent a similar situation when a GM’s mother was suddenly put into hospice care. The company directed the GM to leave his post immediately and tend to his family’s needs.

“While this may seem normal, the rest of the story is not,” Green said. “After departing and traveling to be with his family, this manager would text or call his hotel as any good GM would to see how things were and what was needed. The answer was always the same: ‘Everything is great, smooth sailing.’”

When the GM returned to his post, he learned that things hadn’t been “smooth sailing,” and several issues had arisen that needed senior attention.

“Unbeknownst to the GM, the president of the organization had called his team the day he left to be with his family and forbid anyone on his team from contacting or otherwise burdening him while he was away,” Green said. “All needs were to be directed to the president himself for as long as needed. Needless to say, this was the ultimate statement of focusing on what matters most. We focus on that at Chesapeake and it matters. That GM is still with our company today—more than 13 years later—and is more attached to our culture than ever.” HB