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TD Magazine

Hard-Hit Hospitality Industry Doubles Down on People

Thursday, June 15, 2023

The BEST Awards recognize organizations that demonstrate enterprise-wide success as a result of employee talent development. The winners use learning as a strategic business tool to get results. View the entire list of 2023 BEST Award winners.

A people-first mindset results in improved employee engagement, retention, and longevity.


During the past three years, businesses have had to deal with a pandemic, labor shortages, and other issues that upended their businesses; the hospitality and entertainment industries were no exception. A distinguishing trait for these BEST Award winners is their commitment to their staff's well-being, growth, and development. The companies ensure the talent strategy aligns with the overall enterprise objectives.

Panda Restaurant Group's mission statement is "to be recognized as a world leader in people development." A family-owned and family-inspired restaurant company with 53,000 associates and more than 2,500 outlets, the organization has created a purpose-driven culture that supports a core talent strategy of finding, energizing, and elevating talent throughout the company.

There is a commitment to competency-based models that inform performance management and create clear promotion criteria and accountability. The learning management system houses competency-based resources that are user-friendly and accessible.

Weathering the storm

In 2022, at the direction of Cofounder and Co-CEO Peggy Cherng, University of Panda launched a whole-person approach to recruiting, retention, learning, benefits, and giving. Whole-person learning offers Panda associates world-class education resources for developing and caring for their minds, bodies, hearts, and souls.

The objective of this highly personal level of care was to improve retention. The restaurant industry average turnover rate is an astounding 144 percent. With the implementation of the whole-person approach, Panda saw a significant improvement in association retention, with hourly turnover at 85 percent (down from 101.5 percent the year before).

Choice Hotels International, a global franchisor with more than 13,000 franchisees and several thousand corporate associates, weathered the storms and ensured their primary stakeholders' longevity by relying on a suite of industry-best educational L&D tools. Choice created tailored materials relevant to internal associates, external franchisees, and their on-property teams, providing them with tools for continuous learning, feedback, and development.

The TD team continuously finds new ways to meet learner and business needs, including an action learning approach, APEX, that leverages both franchisee expertise to solve pressing and complex business challenges as well as the comprehensive resources of their Student Work Experience program that addresses hotel labor challenges.

The TD function delivered those tools, created around business needs, in a variety of short-form ways that met the diverse backgrounds and knowledge base of each learner. The strategy was critical at the height of the pandemic, as some people worked from their offices, others on-site at hotels, and others from their homes. To ensure the materials stayed relevant, the TD team constantly refined and enhanced its offerings based on key lessons learned and feedback from stakeholders.

Another key pandemic-related opportunity arose for Choice: to help underrepresented communities, including women, Black and Hispanic individuals, and other minorities, become franchise owners by removing many of the barriers they have historically faced. While the company's Emerging Markets team has made that a priority for 20 years, in 2022 it launched HERtels, a more robust effort to attract women owners. The grassroots effort focuses on learning, networking, and mentoring and is already yielding substantial results, including an 18 percent increase in women franchisees.


Strengthening employee ties

"Only people make people happy." That is the driving sentiment behind the people-first culture at Wynn Macau Limited. The luxury resort, located on the tiny island of Macau off the coast of Mainland China, has had to get creative during the past three years as multiple external factors have negatively affected gaming—the island's primary source of gross domestic product. A focus on diversifying the business and strengthening the talent pipeline has kept the organization competitive.

Wynn Macau Limited views culture as a strategic enabler. Case in point: To combat the stress of the pandemic that wreaked havoc on employee well-being, the talent team strengthened its existing Gratitude and Appreciation program. The focus on the benefits of showing gratitude shifted mindsets and boosted emotional intelligence. Another component of engagement was using the company's Culture Story Program to showcase the "above and beyond" care that employees were giving to guests, other team members, and the company itself. An emphasis on acts of kindness despite daunting challenges helped lift morale and employees' sense of belonging.

A remarkable act of commitment to team members was the organization's decision to continue paying a large group of staff who were not allowed to re-enter Macau due to pandemic restrictions. When employees were finally able to return to work, the TD team created a program to welcome them back and reorient them to the workplace as well as new protocols and operating procedures.

Layered on top of those efforts, Wynn Macau Limited also rolled out an 18-month management development program in cooperation with the University of Macau. At a time when competitors lost talent at staggering rates, the organization realized a 96 percent retention rate among its high-potential employees enrolled in the prestigious program. The recruiting savings from the initiative are estimated at nearly $1.5 million.

"We continued to focus on the development of our people. This not only strengthens our business, but also raises the bar for the hospitality industry through industry-leading initiatives that enable our local, talented employees to develop and refine their skills, and to nurture those who will take on leadership roles within our business," states Frederic Luvisutto, chief operating officer and executive director of Wynn Macau Limited. "These steps and initiatives will ensure that we build the next generation of industry leaders who will play a key role in the future development of the wider region."

About the Author

Kristen Fyfe-Mills is the director of employee development and engagement at Farmer Focus, an innovative organization with the fastest-growing poultry brand in the US. In her role, she supports nearly 900 team members, from front-line hourly associates to the executive team. Before joining Farmer Focus, Kristen served in many roles at the Association for Talent Development, culminating in her position as director of marketing and strategic communications.

Kristen holds two master’s degrees, one in pastoral and spiritual care from Marymount University and the other in journalism from Northwestern University. She serves on the advisory board for Shenandoah University’s Transformative Leadership program. She is the mom of two exceptional humans, and she and her husband Doug live in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.

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