Starwood: How we engage employees locally for global impact

Chuck Abbott / Starwood
In March, W Bali employees gathered together to participate in mangrove reforestation, planting over 500 plants.

In the wake of the 2004 tsunami that hit Malaysia, Anne Scott, hotel manager at the Andaman Resort, noticed one day that dead coral was scattered along the tide line. She organized a staff coral clean-up day to protect the living reef. Within hours, guests began asking if they could help. Since then, the program has expanded to include a coral reef nursery and transplanting program that almost 4,000 hotel guests have taken part in to date. Under the dedicated leadership of Darren Neilan, the resort’s manager of sustainability initiatives, supported by a local marine biologist, the Andaman also has engaged the local community in the regeneration of Langkawi Reef, bringing social benefits as well as new partnerships: a healthy reef provides sustainable fishing resources to the area’s fishermen and the project supports a new generation of Malaysian marine biologists who study the reef.

This is just one of many initiatives that have taught us some important and unexpected lessons at Starwood Hotels since we first launched our Global Citizenship strategy in 2009 to do good on our environmental and social commitments.

First, employee engagement has turned out to be central to our approach. With operations in nearly 100 countries at over 1,100 hotels, engaging all our employees equally is a challenge. They speak diverse languages, represent many cultural backgrounds and bring unique knowledge to their work. Because we have learned that Starwood staff on the front lines are best attuned to seeking out and building on opportunities to support their neighbors and enhance the local environment, we have created a framework that associates around the world can tailor to the operational realities at our individual properties. Empowered in this way, they have come up with creative and innovative Global Citizenship ideas and become true partners in our corporate efforts.

Second, we increasingly find that the success of our company is aligned with the success of the communities in which we operate. Put simply, our hotels are economic and social engines for their communities. Safe, thriving communities create new customers and prospective associates for us and become the places our guests want to visit. This reality reinforces both the business case for our Global Citizenship investments and our approach of making a global impact through local actions.

Local workforce training

We have seen innovative employee engagement blossom through the creation of local workforce training models. The Westin Playa Conchal in Costa Rica, for instance, is in an area where poverty rates are high, and finding local workers with the skills and experience to meet Starwood’s standards can be a challenge. Undaunted, the owner of the Westin Playa Conchal, with the assistance of hotel executives, saw an opportunity to develop a hospitality training program for local residents.

With support from Starwood, the hotel sent a team to visit several Starwood properties in Germany that implement a unique dual-education and workforce training program. This became the model for Playa Conchal. Partnering with the German Chamber of Commerce, a local technical institute and the Costa Rican government, the Westin Playa Conchal built a local hotel workforce training program that allows students to study and work at the same time for one year, alternating between the classroom and the hotel.

The program launched this year, with 40 local students enrolled. Trainees are paid salaries so they can support themselves while going to school and gaining tangible workforce skills. We are already seeing hotel staff loyalty increase as a result, and we expect retention to rise as we help more local employees study, live and work near their families.

In line with our approach of building on what works, the hotel is currently working with other Starwood properties and the Costa Rica government to expand the program to other cities.

Support in a crisis

Strong local relationships between employees and communities can be vital when unexpected events occur. When Hurricane Odile hit the Baja peninsula in September, our associates in Cabo San Lucas found themselves in the center of crisis response. While their homes were battered by high winds and heavy rainfall, the teams at the Westin Resort & Spa Los Cabos, Westin Los Cabos Ocean Villas and the Sheraton Hacienda del Mar Golf & Spa Resort focused on protecting and sheltering our guests. The team turned the ballroom into a comfortable shelter, complete with a kids corner, amenities, entertainment and medical supplies. When it was safe, the team helped all guests get evacuated. The hotel guests were so inspired by the way the staff treated them, they shared testimonials on YouTube to thank the hotel teams.

The hotels severely were damaged as a result of the storm. Our associate teams went right to work to help with cleanup and recovery efforts, all the while in good spirits and with positive attitudes. They organized the donation of supplies for associates to help them provide for their families as damages were assessed across the community. In addition, the Starwood Associate Relief Fund is processing over $500,000 in grants that will provide financial assistance to close to 300 employees recovering from damages to their personal property.

Our challenge is to continue to provide clear, overall Global Citizenship objectives, while empowering and supporting employees to run with their ideas for uniquely local citizenship opportunities. When we get this balance right, we engage employees more deeply in their work while adding value to our business by strengthening our connections in the communities where we operate.

After all, when our employees are engaged and our communities are vibrant, safe and thriving, our guests have memorable experiences. And that is truly good business.