“My purpose is did I bless others, did I help others?” she said. “Am I helping you be the best person you can be? As a manager, I can’t fix you, but I can help you be a better you.”
Putting her purpose into action, she created the City Partner Pathways in 2015 in a partnership with the D.C. Department of Employment Services to teach professional skills to opportunity youth and returned citizens.
The physical skills of the job are easy to teach; “I can teach anyone to be a housekeeper,” she said.
The essential skills the program teaches are social, especially empathy, she said. She and her team of associates and managers at the Hyatt Place take program members by the hand to coach them. Associates learn how to resolve conflicts without resorting to anger, while also learning financial literacy—how to handle pay changes and taxes, and how to prioritize spending.
Smith said she tries to impart through the program that this is not just a job, but a career.
“What you put into it is what you are going to get out of it. We are thinking of where their opportunities of improvement are,” she said.
In the four years since the program was initiated, 45 people have taken part, and 37 of them became full-time employees.
Smith learned in December that her employer, Interstate Hotels & Resorts, nominated her for the American Hotel & Lodging Association’s “Paving the Way Award” for her job training program. The next month, at the Americas Lodging Investment Summit, Smith won the award.
What Smith has been doing is the type of thing Interstate is looking to celebrate.
Two years ago, Mike Deitemeyer assumed the role of president and CEO at Interstate after leaving Omni Hotels & Resorts, and since then, the company has undergone a cultural shift that is focused on helping employees better connect with each other and the executive team.
Introducing the change
Speaking with Hotel News Now during a recent visit to Interstate’s headquarters, Deitemeyer said he came to the company with a mission to bring back some passion, some energy and “a clear articulation of who we are and why we exist and why that’s important.”
He said he realized the first step was reaching out to the 35,000 employees at the company’s hotels around the world, “to start with interacting with them as much as we could,” which was not an easy task.
Deitemeyer and his team went on a road show, visiting 75 hotels over a series of months to talk to hourly employees. They held cocktail receptions to have longer, more in-depth conversations with managers, to reconnect with them and show them how important they are to the company’s success.
At the property level, the visits by executives had a large effect on the associates, Smith said.
“If you want to charge employees up for why they work for a company, let them see the executives,” she said. “Let them see them being noticed. Let (the executives) come to a hotel and shake someone’s hand. Let them see the property and the pride the team has, the things that make us special. That was huge.”
Other moves were less popular. One change involved eliminating summer hours at the corporate headquarters to better support hotel-level employees.
“We have all these employees, associates in the field around, in multiple countries that we’re supposed to be supporting and our business there is open 24/7,” Deitemeyer said. “So that was one of the changes that wasn’t as popular, but I gathered a team together and talked about why we exist. It’s to help our associates in the field. Our goal is to make their jobs easier. So we did things that I think improve the level of support to the people that were making us successful throughout the field.”
Chief Human Resources Officer Carrie David joined Interstate in February 2018 and found Deitemeyer’s passion contagious. As she was considering the job opportunity, he was talking with her about transformation. The company had succeeded in its management capabilities, but weakened in its people programs, she said.
“What was striking to me was Mike was evangelizing it,” she said. “He said, ‘We win through our people. People are our secret sauce.’”
The company decided to invest in career development to make sure it was building strength in the next level of leaders, in addition to its pipeline, David said.
“That’s why we talk so much about the building and the changed culture,” she said. “We believe this building is overhead, and we work for people in the field. We have to get more efficient and agile to be our best selves in terms of who we are using in the field.”
Ultimately, executives decided to distill their approach and beliefs on employee development into a set of written core values, which are:
- “Do the right thing;”
- “Think we, not me;”
- “Be your best self;” and
- “Think like a guest, act like an owner.”
Now the focus is on articulating why Interstate cares, which requires getting everyone to speak the same language, Deitemeyer said. That means crafting the story and making sure that every memo that comes out reinforces the mission and values, he said.
“When that happens, when you move an organization that way, then people start telling you, ‘Hey Mike, we can do this as well to bring value to our owners,’ or ‘Hey, Mike, we can do this to be best in class in extended-stay hotels,’ and, you know, to me that’s the vision of what we’re doing,” he said.
To help make that happen, the company needed to make another change. It moved its headquarters from Ballston to Crystal City in Arlington, Virginia, to create a new environment that allowed for better collaboration.
New culture, new HQ
Interstate’s prior home looked more like a law firm than a hotel company’s corporate headquarters, Erica Hageman, EVP and general counsel, said. It wasn’t conducive to the way the company wanted to do business. The space had three separate floors and lots of offices with closed doors, she said.
“We were very deliberate when we moved into this space with the kind of culture we wanted to create,” she said. “When Carrie (David) and I came into this space, we were helping develop it, and thought about Mike’s vision for the company. A lot of change management comes with that.”
The new headquarters has 30 offices instead of 65. That alone helped change the way everyone works, she said. This meant clustering together departments, such as legal and development, that at first glance might not appear to be closely connected.
“I watch it, the communication going back and forth, we’re getting things solved quickly,” she said. “In the past, it would take a couple of days. You send an email and wait for a response. It’s been a great catalyst to break down some of the silos we thought existed in prior versions of Interstate.”
It didn’t happen overnight, but the speed in which these changes moved through the corporate office has been remarkable, she said.
Prior to the conscious cultural shift, there were barriers to collaboration, said Jordan Gray, corporate HR business partner. To overcome those, the company focused on helping employees to build organic relationships with each other and to approach their responsibilities in the most efficient and effective ways, she said.
The perception within the new headquarters is that while the office is still a place of work, it’s also a place of community and relationships, she said. That helps foster the core values they live by.
To help create that atmosphere, the company introduced new elements within the headquarters, she said. The office holds a regular tabletop shuffle board tournament, had a miniature golf competition and offers afternoon refreshments. The space is mostly open with some conference rooms for meetings and quiet areas.
“We want to make this an organic environment where people feel welcomed, like a hotel would,” she said. “They assumed their roles instantly and feel a sense of community and family.”
Preparing new leaders
In developing a new generation of leaders, Interstate has put added focus on making sure women and minority employees are given opportunities to grow in their careers, which is something that sometimes lacks across the hotel industry, David said.
General manager, vice president and other positions up the chain are mostly male-dominated, and sometimes more than just mentorship is needed to help women move into leadership positions, she said.
David said she has been advocating for a concept known as sponsorship. Women often find it difficult to be their own best advocate, so sponsors (men and women within the organization) help to ensure they are considered for different projects or positions.
“Being mindful of who our (employees with high leadership potential) are and making sure that we’re being mindful, whether it’s a true sponsorship or whether it’s just, ‘Hey, we need diversity of thought on these efforts,’ that’s what we would do when we’re building out teams,” she said.
This approach applies to minority employees as well, David said.
Some of this is simple exposure, such as introducing up-and-coming leaders to senior leadership or having them give presentations, Hageman said.
“The more we can allow our up-and-coming leaders to have those types of opportunities and exposure, the better we all will be for it,” she said.
When working with recruiters, Interstate tries to make sure they understand diversity is important to the company, Hageman said. As a result, the recruiters are being mindful about the candidate resumes they send over.
“You have to be somewhat deliberate about that,” she said.
Focus on employees
Culture changes also had to occur at the property level, Gray said. The company shifted many of its business models to better serve its hotels and employees in the field, which included creating an operational resources department to oversee career development, training and recruiting, she said.
Gray said some associates across the hotel industry feel a disconnect between the field and corporate offices. Engaging through conference calls, webinars and visits encourages cross collaboration between corporate and associates, she said.
In terms of talent acquisition, the corporate culture has shifted from merely looking to fill a job to creating a career for employees, she said.
Employees get excited to hear the company’s leaders are interested in their futures, she said.
“We want to make sure we know what their long-term goals are,” she said. “Sometimes that shifts after they’ve been in a role. We want to find touchpoints to engage with our associates right when they walk in the door, three months out, six months out, 10 years out. We want to make sure we’re on track and know what their impression is and what we can do to serve them and get them to where they want to be so they can achieve their goals.”
The company’s leaders want to make sure employees are connected to what motivates them, which isn’t always compensation, benefits or the role itself, she said.
To be best in class, a management company needs to support all parts of its hotels in different ways, said Elie Khoury, EVP of operations resources.
His department covers F&B, rooms, engineering, brand assurances, customer service, training, transitions and openings of hotels, and more. To function properly, these departments need support from the corporate office, he said.
“Our purpose is to provide quality training and support for every one of those disciplines,” he said.
The operations resources department looks at performance to identify which hotels need assistance and what the specific problems are. For example, one property had food costs that were creeping up, so corporate looked over the menu and identified a number of items that were popular but were also costly for the hotel.
“If they are sold in heavier quantity with a higher cost, you have to adjust production by adjusting the pricing or the way we’re preparing it,” he said. “You lower the cost or increase the pricing. We call it menu engineering. You have to have a low-cost, high-volume item to supplement the high cost of low-moving items.”
Interstate has also started providing employee safety devices to its hotels, in keeping the safety of its associates first and foremost, Khoury said. The company began moving in this direction in 2018 when it instructed its hotels to budget for these alarms and started rolling out the devices in March of this year.
The program started with room attendants, but that expanded to night auditors and the front office team, he said. Anyone who wants access to a safety device will have it, and they have all received training on how to use the devices and how to respond when one is activated.
Interstate requires that every one of its hotels in the U.S. has these devices, Khoury said. As new properties come under the company’s management, they will have the same requirements. The company’s international properties are in the next phase of the program.
“We’re passionate about employee safety and security,” he said. “We want to provide any tools and all tools to them to make them feel this is the best place to work for.”
Editor’s note: Interstate Hotels & Resorts paid for meals, flights and accommodations at The Graham Washington D.C. Georgetown, Tapestry Collection by Hilton, to allow for a series of interviews at the company’s headquarters. Complete editorial control was at the discretion of the Hotel News Now editorial team; Interstate had no influence on the coverage provided.