By Eleanor Erickson
Culture Coach and Former General Manager, Hampton Inn by Hilton
Eleanor is a hospitality professional with over two decades of experience in hotel operations and development. She inspires hospitality professionals to lead their teams with more confidence, curiosity, and creativity.
Culture is like a compass. It shows the true north for your company.
Imagine you’re in the wilderness leading people to a destination. You have five groups that set out for the destination at the same time. If you have them get from point A to point B, you may have one group going straight, and another one that takes a very circuitous route to get there.
They may all get to the same place eventually, but they wouldn’t have the same experiences. Some will be struggling because they waste a lot of time. Some will be excited by the journey and others will be bored. But when you have a clearly defined culture you get to your destination with a group of people who all are excited and energized and empowered.
For me, this is what culture is. It’s about energy. It’s about getting people in sync with a vision of where you’re going and giving them the tools to get there.
When I came on board at Hampton Inn, they had just been acquired by Hilton, so we didn’t even have a Hilton sign up yet at our property. In the 10 years that followed, we built a very close relationship with our area directors and area managers.
The culture of Hampton flourished because there was a lot of face-to-face contact. If I needed help as a general manager, I could call someone who had spent time at my property. They knew me as a person. I wasn’t calling a random person on the helpline. People felt very accessible.
When the brand was working on innovation, I will get calls from them. They wanted to try things at my property. This developed a very strong culture.
“Hamptonality” became the word that we used to define our culture. It was the way we describe the feeling of being connected.
Early on, Hampton doubled down on getting all of their managers into strengths training and understanding what it took to be a really strong general manager. Strengths training showed that you could be a really strong general manager even though your traits were very different from other strong general managers.
Our core values were friendliness, authenticity, caring, and thoughtfulness. Those exist everywhere, but putting those into a framework and then investing in making them come alive for staff and guests was a game changer.
Scaling culture with “Hamptonality University”
In 2014, Gina Valenti had the idea of creating a pay-it-forward program for high-performing managers called Hamptonality University.
We went to our franchise owners and asked them to recommend managers for the program. We wanted to take these leaders and infuse them with leadership training and mentorship opportunities and bonding opportunities and experiences with each other and with the brand. We also wanted to train them to pay it forward with knowledge, energy, and culture back into the brand. By doing this, the culture of Hamptonality thrived as these empowered managers went back to the properties and shared it.
Over time, we designed one-on-one mentorship opportunities where hotel GMs would mentor three or four other GMs. We also use the Strengths Finder framework to identify what would make people thrive, and spent time helping our team show up in their stand-out roles. Helping them do more of what they love and less of what they loathed.
Finally, we were tasked with facilitating a workshop called the Hamptonality Experience. In each city, we would have each of our properties send people to participate. It wasn’t just managers. We had housekeepers and breakfast attendants and engineers take part as well. It was a big opportunity for us to bring Hamptonality alive in a face-to-face environment with team members at all levels of the company.
Once you experience this, you become an ambassador of the brand, and you remain an ambassador. People will come back to participate in the program every year, and every year the program would grow.
It was an incredible accelerant to our culture and made me believe if you have the passion and a blueprint for cultivating and scaling your culture you can do that, no matter how far away a hotel is from your corporate offices.
How you can start investing in culture
You don’t have to spend a dime to start investing in your culture.
You can walk around your property and probably find 100 things you could do to improve the experience for your team members. Things like cleaning your carpets or making sure there’s a well-stocked break room. Things like making sure your schedule time for yourself at the front desk as a manager so you are elbow-to-elbow with frontline associates.
There’s a feeling of heaviness now in our industry, and there are a lot of things you can do without spending a dime to lift that feeling.
One thing I’m finding works well with the hotels I am advising is convening gatherings where we just make the teams feel special. It may not be a huge party, but creating a space for a couple of hours where people can tell their stories, learn about each other, and share the funny and empowering things happening to them recently. This helps people feel seen and bonded together as a team.
When you do have money to invest in culture, this needs to be spent on leadership development. Not just your general manager, but the whole property leadership team: the executive housekeeper, chief engineer, sales and marketing person, and your food and beverage person.
We need to be spending dedicated one-on-one time coaching people. It doesn’t have to be very time-consuming. I found it effective to spend 30 minutes a week with these leaders building into them, giving undivided attention and coaching. the key is to show that we’re on this together and there are tools and resources that can help them get to the next level of success.
The final thing to do as a hotel owner, especially of a franchised brand, is to get involved with that brand. Pushing back when things don’t feel right. There is strength and power in 80% of hotels being franchised operations. Things move forward for the whole hotel industry when people push back on things that aren’t working or are not a good idea.
It’s time to focus on the feel-good stuff again
We need to stop thinking about hospitality from just the financial perspective if we’re going to succeed over the long term. When it comes to culture and people, we need to focus on the feel-good stuff again.
The feel-good stuff is going to bring the money. It always does.
Eleanor Erickson facilitates culture training and leadership development for hotel owners, brands, and management teams. Learn more here.