ICology: Internal communications in the hospitality industry

Ep #13, Natalie White with Hampton by Hilton

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Natalie White is the Senior Manager of Brand & Integration for Hampton at Hilton Worldwide. Natalie spoke at the 2015 IABC World Conference and shared great examples of communication challenges AND solutions they face at Hampton by Hilton. These are challenges that are invisible to customers but ultimately impact the customer experience.

In this episode, you'll hear Natalie share stories about how they are using branding to drive the employee experience and external social media to connect employees all over the world.  

Episode Transcript

Chuck: Welcome to ICology, the podcast dedicated to interesting people doing interesting things in the world of internal communications. In this edition, you'll hear thoughts on the role of internal communication in the hospitality world from Natalie White, the Hampton by Hilton. If internal comms is your passion, then this is your podcast. Listen in. So cool music stuff here. 

At the 2015 IABC world conference I heard Natalie White and her colleague Carl speak about the role of internal comms at Hampton by Hilton. One of the reasons that this interested me is because, well, I'd be very transparent here, I'm a proud Hilton Hhonors member. But the other is that the role of internal comms in unique markets is very, very fascinating to me. Because I travel a lot, I get to experience a lot of different hotels, and different environments, and then have different experiences.

And one of these is at a Hampton in downtown Columbus. There's a gentleman named Clifford, who I've written about in the past. I believe his title is something like Director of First Impressions. But if anybody that stayed there knows, his experience goes way beyond the job title, where he really helped to define what that guest experience is. From my standpoint that's driven by the employee experience and the communication that Hilton and the communicators there give them, because I don't think a lot of customers realize that this role of internal comms plays in keeping communication across hotel properties. It gets somewhat hidden, because if you stay at a Hampton, let's say, in New York City or Indianapolis or Lincoln, Nebraska, the experience is largely the same.

But this isn't happening without strong, strong effort from the team of corporate communicators. Then their presentation at the world conference, Natalie and Carl shared the challenges and opportunities they have to connect with team members and to drive the Hampton experience. So today on ICology I have Natalie to share her story. Natalie White is the senior manager of brand culture and integration at Hampton by Hilton. Natalie, welcome to ICology.

Natalie: Thank you for having me. I'm very excited to be here and to be on the 13th episode, no less.

Chuck: Lucky number 13, that's correct.

Natalie: Lucky 13, yes.

Chuck: Well, it's great because I am fortunate in that I get to go to a lot of events that a lot of communicators don't get to go to. There's so many great stories and lessons learned shared at those. But I want ICology to be, sort of, a further extension of that. The stories you guys shared in San Francisco last year were just wonderful. So I'm happy to have you on the show. Now you've been a part of Hilton for a long time. I don't mean that to age you, I mean to congratulate you. But I think what makes your story interesting is that you're not a communicator by trade. I mean, we're all communicators in every profession, but not by trade. But for our listeners, why don't you give them some of your background with the company.

Natalie: Sure, happy to. You're correct. I didn't study internal communications formally. I am a hospitality girl at heart. I majored in hospitality at the University of Houston at the Conrad Hilton College of Hotel of Hotel Restaurant Management and really enjoyed full service hotel. Did that for several years until, as I lovingly say, I saw the light and was attracted to Hampton, really, really enjoyed working at Hampton.

It's so much smaller. The teams are more intimate. It's much easier to take care directly of guests and to connect with guests, which I really enjoyed. So I was in the field with Hampton for several years, ran my own property in Alabama. Then I came to the corporate office about eight years ago. Really, it started through, in the corporate environment, as supporting hotel, before realizing how the amazing power of communications and how, I always say, as my goal, is to to make the lives of our team members and leaders easier when they're in the field running hotels. That's an easy bridge to cross to communication side of things.

Chuck: Well, definitely. So why don't you give us some perspective on the size of the Hampton brand, where it plays in the Hilton family but also a little bit about your team, because you guys have gone through an internal name change of sorts. Then a little bit about the goals of your department. I think what's great, too, is you guys have given yourself some fun titles to spice things up a bit.

Natalie: Yes, Hilton Worldwide is a very large global organization that has now 13 brands. I have to correct myself because we launched a new brand last week through by Hilton. But Hilton Worldwide has over 4,600 hotels in a hundred countries with over 300,000 team members. Hampton is the largest of those 13 brands with 2,000 hotels. It's a little bit, actually, almost 2,100 hotels now in 20 countries with about 60,000 team members. We are considered upper mid-scale because we're not a full service hotel because we don't have room service and a restaurant and things like that, but that's more about Hilton Worldwide in Hampton. 

Then our department had been known or titled Culture Department. That briefly changed to Brand Hospitality team. So I'm part of the Hampton hospitality team. You mentioned the fun titles. We do like to infuse as much Hamptonality wherever possible and our titles are no exception. My, kind of, Hamptonality [inaudible 00:06:32] title is the Contessa of Collaboration. 

We have other people...there's a gentleman named Jason on our team who's our tech genius, so he's our Titan of Technology. There's a lady by the name of Tori who organizes all of our newsletters and communications. She's our First Lady of Language. My boss Carl is the Head Honcho of Hamptonality. We do have a lot of fun with our titles and we encourage our hotels to do the same. The Director of First Impressions, Clifford, is the perfect example of that.

Chuck: That's good. As I mentioned, you guys have this challenge, I want to say, because I think it's unique in your world of communicating internal news to employees who aren't employees of the Hilton Corporation. They don't get paychecks from Hilton and you guys call them team members. I think a lot of customers, if they're traveling different hotels, they see then they stay at a certain brand, I think they probably make some assumptions that employees are employed by that brand when I fact that's not the case. You guys have this challenge of delivering internal news to people that aren't really part of your company. So why don't explain that a little bit.

Natalie: Sure. Of our 2,100 properties, Hilton only owns one of those. So everything else is owned by separate entities, whether they'd be large ownership groups, maybe single unit owners and operators. It could be perceived as a huge challenge because, again, they don't get their paychecks from us. But we see that as an opportunity to kind of debunk it, and not assume anything. So we treat them like they're our team members even though they are not.

We get, kind of, a beauty of some of the things that I know what other organizations have to worry about, things like getting people signed up for benefits and all that kind of stuff. We don't have to worry about that because they're not our team members. So we're truly sharing information about the brand, giving them updates, then like to say that our job in our department is to inspire personalities to shine. That's what we do. Although technically they're not our team members, we treat them like they are.

Chuck: That's a great lesson for anybody that has even...you're dealing with contract workers, or temporary workers who have taken that same mantra I think is really helpful. Another challenge a lot of communicators have is being on a global scale. Hampton is a global brand. What are some things that you guys are doing to address some of those global challenges?

Natalie: It's fascinating to me because I've been with Hampton for so long. I think I started with the brand when there were about 500-ish properties. I couldn't even imagine to think that we would have hotels in Poland or in Amsterdam. It's really exciting what has transpired in the recent years with the global expansion. The thing that we were nervous about was will it get what Hamptonality is in Berlin? Well, guess what? They have it in Spades. Our YouTube channel shows they'll send YouTube videos of what Hamptonality means to them. It's wild. Like, production value is huge. They do really great things in that space. But we have learned recently there are challenges when it comes to language especially, as you keep growing countries, and growing languages, and the time and expense involved in translation.

So we are really...our biggest conscious effort is to do as much language list communications as possible. Using visuals and easy to understand aids are what we really strive to do. When we need to translate, we do. We will leverage agencies. But really, truly, the field is who knows it the best. So we'll reach out to the leaders in those markets as needed, too.

Chuck: Well, as I mentioned, too, and I told the story about Clifford, the customer experience is super important in the hospitality world. I mean, that's where the revenue is made. But your team understands that the employee experience is vital to driving that customer experience. You've used the word a few times, is this what Hamptonality is?

Natalie: Yeah, I mean, Hamptonality is really allowing our team members to play their strengths in taking care of guest experiences. So it's going to look different everywhere, because everyone has different strengths in different ways that they share their Hamptonality. But it's really just empowering that team member to take care of guests. One of the things we found out, back in 2004 Hampton was very cutting-edge and redid a lot with our product. I think there were about 102 product changes made with the brand in a very short period of time, things like the curved shower rod, and our bedding, we revamped our breakfast, just to name a couple.

When we did that, well, it was very successful and well received, our competitors copied us pretty quickly after that. One big take away from that is our staff, not our stuff. That's where Hamptonality comes from. We've always had those amazingly great team members. It's just putting that front and center along with our product.

Chuck: I absolutely love that saying, "It's our staff, not our stuff." That's such a simple way with one little vowel in there that changes it all. That's wonderful because, again, that's relevant to so many companies out there. They focus on the employee. It carries on through that product delivered. In seeing some of the materials, when I saw your presentation, for those that are familiar with the Hampton sign, it's a hexagon shape. That's the Hampton hexagon, I've learned, but that's carried throughout your communication. Part of this is this chain of influence which I think is a really cool model that other companies could follow. So why don't you discuss this chain of influence and how it impacts communication?

Natalie: Yeah, happy to. The chain of influence is actually a great filter for us. We were revamping some of our training program, which took a while actually. But one of the lenses in thinking about how we were going to deliver, and what type of deliverable we would use for that, and so forth was where the chain of influence came from. If you picture links in a chain, the order is important as is each stakeholder group. So it starts with the brand team, so those of us at the corporate office. They connect most directly with our owners and our management company representatives. That's a very important stakeholder group that influences then the property level leadership, the general managers and hotel managers. That group influences team members, and the team members are having the most direct connection with guests. If you try to circumnavigate pieces of that chain, probably not going to work very well. So if we wanted to, in our team, to deliver something directly to maintenance guys, if we don't have that buy-in along that chain ,and we try to go directly to Mike, the maintenance guy, probably not going to be successful because his leader's not going to know anything about it. The leader can't support it and so on and so forth.

It's a really good filtering lens for us to think through. When we're launching new things that we eventually want to get to team members, we always thought and ask ourselves how we're going to leverage that chain and communicate through and along that chain of influence.

Chuck: Well, that's great because so often I think communicators think that they want to, not go around other leaders to deliver message straight to employees, you have provided a great example of why you need to keep those leaders involved so that employees know that they're doing the right things and that they do feel empowered. There's something else you guys have going on which is this great acronym called FACT. I remember this in your presentation. So explain what this and what role it plays in your comm strategy, along with how you made it stick there in Hampton.

Natalie: FACT are the Hampton values. FACT is an acronym that stands for friendly, authentic, caring and thoughtful, which are really easy to remember and to say that our values are FACT. That's a FACT. That kind of stuff helps reinforce things. That helps makes it sticky, what we like to say sticky. When we had our conference, it's interesting, because we've had these values for a long time and just never...they sat on a shelf figuratively.

We never bubbled them up publicly. We used different language, which can be tricky as well because you can end up with way too much language which you have to reel in and reign in, and sometimes retire, and so forth. FACT has been really, really successful for us. In 2014, again, we've had these values for a long time, but in 2014 is when we really put them more front and center. It was amazing, and which such a short period of time people can recite our values so quickly.

One of the things we did that I think helped was we had our GM event that year. We had mascots. So there's nothing more adorable...we have for friendly...we have this big smiley face. It's actually a win and a smile. So picture is smiley face winking at you. That's our friendly mascot. Authentic, We call it our green man. So Authentic is green and he's a little action figure kind of guy. Caring is a heart and Thoughtful is a thought bubble. So we had these mascots at our GM event. People wanted their pictures taken with them and all that kind of stuff. They've been very in demand ever since.

That was one other way to help make it stick. We've also leveraged the iconography and the artwork around the FACT mascots, and FACT. We send items to the hotels to use and leverage back of house, which I think has helped keep it front and center for team members as well.

Chuck: Well, I think you bring up a good point. So often, companies that have brand values, employees might be living them but it may be it's not most important that they'd be able to recite them. But I think it is important for employees to remember what those values are when they have interactions, either with customers or fellow coworkers, to make sure that they're living those values. The other I think that's really great that Hampton has done, you and your team, is that you've embraced external social media to connect with internal team members. More and more companies are starting to do that. You see, there are some brands out there that are using Twitter to engage with internal audience.

But it's really a few and far between. So talk about some of these external channels that you and your team are using to connect with these internal team members.

Natalie: One of the things, it's funny. Our team is kind of known for stepping the boundaries of things and doing first and asking for forgiveness later. This is another example of that. A couple of years ago we launched a corporate responsibility program. The name of that for us is Hands-on Hamptonality. We don't have a cause, so to speak, that Hampton rallies around. We encourage hotels to decide for themselves what they want to get involved in, whether it's taking care of animals, or working at soup kitchens or hospitals, whatever their passion point is for that group.

October is when we dedicate time, and really marketing those community efforts. To help bolster the engagement with that program, we decided to do a social media contest. We were starting from zero. We really did not know what we were doing which is kind of a good thing because it was a small audience at that time. I learned something new every day about the world of social media. It's been a really, really fun space to explore.

I mentioned the chain of influence earlier, and so many of our team members never touch the communications that we send them because they don't work in a computer. So our housekeeping department, which is a large amount of our staff, don't ever see our weekly newsletter because it's sent via email. They don't have company email since they 're in our guest rooms. So social media is the place and an outlet for us to connect with them, which has been so much fun. We're on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. It's just great.

We leverage wonderful content, the pictures that they share with us and the stories we capture from that space. It's been really well-received and a great venue for us to reinforce and capture stuff.

Chuck: Yeah, and I think it's an area that you guys are jumping ahead, which you guys talked about some of the other things from the hospitality road. You've always jumped ahead and then competitors have tried to catch up. I think the same thing is going to happen with internal comms and external social media. The companies get on there now and started using it to communicate to employees, whether remote or corporate. It's a natural channel for that. So I think you and your team should be applauded for taking that, with some might be perceived a risk or a gamble, but I perceive it as taking advantage of the opportunity that's there to develop a deeper connection with those brand advocates that are out serving your customers. 

Part of this, too, is this specific hash tag that you and your team have asked employees and those in the field to use which is #HamptonFact. So talk about some of the stories and some of the things that have happened as a result of that.

Natalie: Absolutely. #HamptonFact, we leveraged when we did our first contest in 2014 just so we could see what people were doing because we proposed a 31-day contest. We asked them every day in the month of October to do something in their community or to give back and share that picture, leveraging that hash tag. Again, it was a very small audience, our first year. But we were still excited with the results we had in such a short time, because we literally launched it, I think, September 29th before October 1st that first year. But the past year, we just exceeded by leaps and bounds what we did the prior year.

So last year we sent all of our hotel tie-dye kits, and challenged them to make dresses out of pillow cases. So all of our hotels have pillow cases. Some of them probably have pillowcases that are stained that they're going to donate or get rid of. Through this tie dye kit, it's a very easy process to convert that pillow case into a dress. We gave them a return shipping label to send those back to us. We collected them all to be sent to Africa.

Again, you never know when you put these ideas together anyone's going to do anything. But we fortunately received over 8,100 dresses from our hotels. It was so exciting to watch them come in. I'm based in Memphis, and they kept coming to our fulfillment center in Ohio. I said, "Send me pictures. I want to see pictures and all these boxes showing up."

It's just these piles and piles of amazing...and the creativity that our hotels had with the tie dye was awesome. Some people used puff paint. Some people made purses to go with the dresses or hair bows. It was just really, really cool to see people rally around that common cause. One of the things I liked the most about it was it truly was a worldwide event. I was so giddy to see that our Warsaw, Poland property sent dresses, and the UK, and Canada, and Latin America.

It truly was a global participation event as well, because you don't know sometimes if that's going to happen or not. So the challenge is, of course, how do we have to one up that? Sharing the story, the dresses, although we did this back in October, it's literally a slow boat. They won't receive the dresses until March and so we're going to have a film crew there to capture the dresses being received. We'll have that full circle moment. But #HamptonFact and hamptonfact.com is where you can go to see all those hash tags being downloaded on that site, truly impressive.

Chuck: Well, it's so important to let employees play because obviously that's part of the empowerment. Let them showcase their individual creativity, which in a normal day-to-day job for them may not let them. If you're a maintenance worker, if you're an electrician, you may not want that person being that creative in their world. But this sort of let's them, there's something else you guys have done, too, which allows employees to not just be creative, but share their creativity, and have that be celebrated with the chalkboards. Why don't you share this story of empowerment with the listeners.

Natalie: Yes, it's kind of my secret obsession. It's not so secret because everyone knows I'm obsessed with our chalkboard. But at the end of 2014 we redid our signage in the breakfast area, and let hotels have more creativity as far as the way they display their breakfast. They used to have to put things in a very specific order. We lightened that up a little bit and redid some things there.

We gave them chalkboards, just a blank slate, literally, and asked them to designate the type of food that was on that area by their sign. There was a couple people that went nuts and were very excited with it. I think that started the ball rolling with people realizing that we weren't going to scold them for having fun and being silly and engaging with their guests on these chalkboard signs. The artistic ability some of our team members have is amazing. It doesn't have to be done just because it's in the breakfast area. It doesn't mean that the breakfast person is the one that has to do it.

You tap into the strengths of the team member. It might be your night auditor, It might be one of your housekeeping supervisors that has got that gift. Some of the sayings are so clever, things like "waffles are pancakes with abs."

Chuck: That's my favorite. I love it.

Natalie: T-Rex with the dinosaur, the dinosaur T-Rex, English muffin, like an English looking muffin. One of my favorites, there's so many of them, but one of my favorites is a chalk outline of the [inaudible 00:27:55], the beer guy, and then [inaudible 00:27:58], "I don't always eat breakfast but when I do, I have just eggies." To see them continue to evolve, I mean, over the holidays, the Christmastime, there were so many Elf versions of the basic food groups, of syrup and sugar and candy and all that other stuff. It's really fun to see, because they're only limited by their own creativity.

When we let them use colored chalk instead of just regular chalk, it was like we gave them the best bonus ever. It's a simple thing.

Chuck: Well, it's so great to let these employees express themselves. I think you even mentioned to me previously, that these get shared so somebody maybe doesn't feel the pressure, they can sort of mimic or copy what another property did. Then that probably gets their creative juices flowing. So I think that letting those employees have some fun and play at work in a very safe and responsible way, it would be interesting to see how that creativity spreads beyond the chalkboards, beyond the tie dye dresses, like you said, I'm curious to see what happens next.

But when it comes to the communication, how do you define success? How does a Hampton measure? I'm sure there's certain KPIs that are important to a hotel. Is IC tied to those, or are they related, or are they kept separate more broadly?

Natalie: They are tied together. It's interesting. I did a research project last year, because I'm a bit of a data dork. It goes back to my old hotel days when I would look at P&Ls;. There's so much more data now than there was even two and three years ago. So you could, kind of, get paralyzed by all of that. But there are a couple of things that we really look at, probably more often than not.

Our hotel's scorecard is a guest survey, which we call SALT, which stands for satisfaction and loyalty tracker. There's actually a culture-related question in that feedback that we ask guests for. That's one way which we keep on our radar and see how we're measuring that way. The other is our weekly newsletter. It's called Hampton Now. It's interesting, we haven't had that platform, I think, maybe two years now.

But prior to that, we had no metrics. We have no way to know what readership was of our communications, which is crazy. We're a little late to the game on that. But the stats we get around Hampton Now is really wonderful. So we certainly tie those to quite a few things.

Chuck: You mentioned Hampton Now is of your channels. We talked about some of the other social channels that you guys use. What are some of the nonsocial channels? Because I know a lot of our listeners, some of them tend to be very tactical based, and they like tools to see what other people are using. So in addition to the Hampton Now and social, what are the other channels you guys have to communicate to team members ?

Natalie: The Lobby which Hilton Worldwide's name for our intranet site, which is a SharePoint product, we actually launched that a year ago. So again, a little late technology-wise to that game.

Chuck: But a good name. I like the name a lot.

Natalie: Yeah, and, again, Hampton made the first on everything. Hampton was the first of all of our hotel brands to be on that space, because we had done a huge content migration project the year prior, because I knew that we were getting the new technology, and the last thing I wanted to worry about was content migration in one space and then learning a new IT product in another. That's a ton to take on all at one time. So I wanted to break it up. So we did content that one year and we did the IT portion the second year, which made it really seamless. It actually was the foundation for all of the other brands to follow.

Not just brands, all of our other department, so whether it's our global sales team, or revenue management, or architecture and construction, they pretty much all followed what we did, which is pretty cool. So The Lobby, we do...Share Cast is our internal best practice sharing site. Its tagline that we like to say is, "for the people, by the people." It's a place where, if you're in the field, and you're having problems getting stains off you're your tubs, you either look for the answer there, or if you can't find the answer to your question you post the question, and then your peers will share their answers back to you. That's another really great tool.

We will look at that site, we're kind of lurkers, and hopefully in a non-creepy way. But if there are a lot of questions around similar themes, then we know it's an opportunity for us to re-message or re-educate about.

Chuck: That's great because it gets to be the knowledge sharing, and they start to see tips and tricks that make their life easier and hopefully that make the customer experience better. That's wonderful. It doesn't seem like there's too many, either. So it seems like it's very easy place for employees to be able to focus on where they know to get communication and where they can rely on getting it. Just to sum it up quickly now, I mean, obviously you've shared a lot of great information here. But I think the one takeaway that's going to stick in my head forever is "it's about our staff, not our stuff."

Natalie: Absolutely.

Chuck: That means so much to what my experience has been at Hampton, when I've stayed there compared to other non-Hampton hotels that I've stayed at. So that is getting through, and that is what makes the difference beyond the clever chalkboard signs, which of course, I always do appreciate. What's a final piece of parting advice that you want to share with listeners when it comes to communication?

Natalie: I think, you mentioned a little bit earlier, I think to remind people that it's about the staff, not the stuff. That's a really great lens. Certainly, there is stuff. I mean, Hampton obviously has stuff, but really making sure that we're taking care and thinking of our team members first.

Chuck: That's great. Finally, before we go, if somebody wanted to get in touch with you, what's the best way for them to find you and reach out to you? What's your preferred method of communication?

Natalie: Sure, I'm on LinkedIn, so feel free to reach out to me there, or you can send me an email. It's natalie.white@hilton.com.

Chuck: Fantastic. Well, Natalie, I want to thank you again for being a guest on ICology and sharing your story. My goal with this is for it to be a listening post for communicators, a place for them to hear stories from professionals like you, who can inspire them to be better communicators, because I think we can all be better communicators. Please follow ICology on Twitter @LearnICology. We're 13 episodes like we shared. Well, 13 episodes and 13 brands of Hilton, so that was a complete coincidence.