Sean Wheeler: How to create a successful employer brand

Creating an employer brand from a blank canvas is a wonderful yet relatively seamless opportunity. Though if you’re already working with an established employer brand image; how do you use this to your advantage? We asked  Sean Wheeler, People Development Director of hotel brand, Principal (formerly Project 1898),  for his advice…

Sean, while Principal is a new hotel brand, the properties which lie beneath come from five very established hotel brands – can you explain how this came about?

Starwood Capital, our owners, have bought a number of hotel companies over the last three years which include Principle Hayley Hotels, De Vere Venues, Four Pillars, The Townhouse
Collection and the Roxborough. For them, the plan is to have 50 hotels across the UK which are split between two new, iconic British brands. One focusing on city properties and the other on the country.

Principal centres on the city division, though it is in fact a working title while we decide upon the new
consumer brand which we will launch later this year. However, we knew we needed to create a story, interest and excitement about the hotel development and repositioning in order to attract the right sort of people to us which would help us grow throughout our new journey. So we created Project 1898 (now Principal) to help us design the right culture before we went public with all that we have done and are doing with the £200m investment in the city division.

It’s unusual to focus on an employer brand before the consumer brand. Why was this decision taken?

Whilst the brand is still under development, and different refurbishments projects are happening all the time, we knew we had to create a buzz around what the future looks like, both for external candidates and also for the great team we already have in place. So we felt it was right to work on the employer brand first.

First we wanted to be absolutely sure we respected the past. All of the brands
we merged were individually very successful. So it wasn’t about a blank canvas and ignoring the heritage. It was about bringing together all that was great about the hotels and how we would use that on our new journey. It gave us the opportunity to say ‘we’re moving to a lifestyle brand, so what skills and behaviours do we need in future years?’

Therefore, through Principal, we were able to create energy around the investment and what that meant to the people who were in place. They are so incredibly proud of their hotels, we needed to show them that we were there to take the properties to the next level – as well as them individually.

Externally, we wanted a brand that would demonstrate the journey  we are on and what type of  business we are becoming so that we are able to attract the skills and personalities which will really help us to achieve our corporate mission.

As you’ve mentioned, each  hotel is established. As such you’re bringing together distinctive cultures under one umbrella. How have you managed to do this through your employer brand?

Very early on, the management team set out what we want to be known for, what we stand for and what’s our DNA. Because while we had great, successful brands already, we needed to create something new which would challenge the hotel marketplace. From this we came up with a mission, vision and values which we felt would bring together the successes of our current hotels and their brands, however would also ensure we were fully aligned for the future.

To underpin all of this we made our employer brand focus on being ‘local at heart’. We knew we didn’t want a cookie cutter approach as we recognise that each hotel has its own personality based on the region it’s in, the iconic setting of the hotel, but most importantly local greats who work within it and deliver the memorable experiences each and every day.

So we celebrate that through great local produce, local people and local community; making sure our employer brand showcases these stories. This has been very important for bringing the old and new together, as one.

Were there any unexpected challenges as a result of creating the employer brand?

There was lots of debate about the word British because we were conscious that we didn’t want it to become very English and twee. Which is why local at heart is vital; it allows us to recognise the three countries which unite Great Britain and be respective  of local heritage and values at the  same time.

The other big discussion was around the values. They needed to be memorable and real – words that people would genuinely use about us when they went home. And so we really looked at what our guests and colleagues would say about us and then drilled down until we achieve just individual words – warm, distinctive, intuitive, generous and local.

And when you looked to roll out these values, did you find that they were already being lived and breathed subconsciously in the hotels?

When we looked to implement our values, I was very clear that we should have people already in the organisation who had credibility and were respected, to help us drive this and ingrain it throughout the business. So we actively cherry picked our ‘change gurus’; people who were already living and breathing the values without realising it.

Taking this approach has had some tremendous results because people are connecting with the gurus on a far deeper level than if it had been corporate office rolling out the values. They can really resonate with the teams, making it far more real and can see it in practice. We haven’t provided a guide to get them there. Instead we brought them all together at Edinburgh Zoo for a two-day event set in the middle of the monkey den. The theme was evolution and I thought if they don’t remember the topic they’ll at least remember being on a workshop in the  monkey enclosure!

Through this we made it really clear that we’re not a cookie cutter brand and we didn’t want them creating that sort of approach to rolling out values. So we can give them the tools and framework; but then they created the how, using their own stories to make sure the values were really understood and lived in their own hotels.

Going forward, what will the role of the gurus be?

A change guru is for life not just for Christmas! They’ve built such a credibility within their hotels that they are now a massive ally to us as we continue on our journey. So now their role, alongside their day-to-day job, is helping keep the brand promises and values alive. Their involvement will be instrumental as we continue to review our colleague and guest journeys; helping us weave our values and culture through every single touchpoint. We want to achieve  total integration so that the values become the DNA – the gurus are the key to this.

It’s great that you’ve done all this work on establishing your brand as a great employer. But surely the real challenge comes in September when everything changes again and the consumer brand launches?

Yes of course, though we have  planned for this and believe it will be a seamless transition. Principal has got more legs than we originally anticipated. It’s created a lot of excitement and we’ve done a lot of great work in the media and online to drive interest. So the plan is to keep it as our employer brand. Now it’s about working with our Brand Director, Simon Willis, to understand how we can link the two so that there are no confusing messages.

The Principal certainly creates a buzz as it’s full of mystery, though it doesn’t immediately spring out as a hotel brand. How has this impacted upon attraction and recruitment?

We’re doing a lot of recruitment at the moment and it’s been really interesting. When we first went to market we had no online presence at all so we were using Principal but not really linking to the hotels. This worked to an extent but didn’t generate as much interest as we hoped.

Now we’re working really heavily  on the social media and PR side; driving stories about the people and products through these channels to show that we’re doing things differently. We want to attract the passive candidate as much as the active and it’s working very successfully and people are starting to talk about us. We’ve certainly noticed an improvement in speculative cv’s  and an increase in applications to available roles.

Social recruitment seems to be the way to go, with many brands trying their hand at it. Why do you think this is?

It’s because it’s an easy way to sell the story to a much wider group of people, far quicker than you would normally be able to do. People want to be connected or linked to a brand where they have shared beliefs or values. So one message, if it’s the  right message, can capture a lot of people in mere moments. Social recruitment, from a cost perspective, is far more effective too. That’s why we’re not blatantly pushing our available roles through advertising because we feel we can demonstrate what it’s like to work for us and create a strong brand affiliation through the stories we can share across the various social platforms.

So this begs question, what’s the role of the recruitment agent in this?

I believe that social recruitment and agencies must work hand in hand. The trouble with reaching passive candidates through social is you must wait for them to decide they would like a new opportunity. So agencies help connect you to the active candidates easier, particularly for senior or hard to fill roles where we don’t have the time do all of the searching.

However, the ideal is to reach a position where you don’t need to rely on agencies. In past hotels, we have created such a buzz about an environment that while we advertised on our own websites, we didn’t use agencies or adverts elsewhere. We were able to build our own talent pipeline to call on when needed.

Is that the people mission then Sean?

Well I actually set myself an incredibly high goal when I started because I wanted to show everyone, and recommit, that we want to place people at the heart of our business. So I set the goal of being the best place to work in hospitality in 2018 and I believe that’s achievable.

It’s always been a simple formula  for me: Happy team = happy  guests = happy owners. So if we  can get the team really engaged, excited and motivated then it will rub off and pay dividends along the chain. We’re really focused on achieving this and yes there is a lot to do. However having a really clear focus, and having worked in best employers before,  I know what it takes to achieve  and we will.

And finally, what advice would you offer to someone looking to create a strong employer brand?

You need to start with your goal –  be really really clear on this. So what do you want to be known for, and what does that look like from a guest and colleague perspective? Then you need absolute agreement from your colleagues because HR can’t deliver this in isolation. It has to come from the top. The senior management team must buy into it or it won’t happen.

The next thing is agreeing the foundations – mission, vision and values – and then work really hard to weave that through the business. Both externally and internally. Decisions must be made based on the values, new strategies must take the values into consideration, even the uniforms should express the values. Only by living and breathing it every day will you ensure your employer brand is strong and delivers all of those fantastic intangible benefits.

2017-03-17T10:38:55+00:00 March 17th, 2017|