To guests, frontline staff are the face of the resort. Senior management is responsible for leading and directing efforts to enhance the guest experience and build loyalty, but it is the frontline staff that directly impacts the guest experience. The more engaged employees are, the better the experience they create for guests, and the greater the increases in guest loyalty and revenues.
Actively disengaged employees, on the other hand, hurt the experience of both guests and their fellow workers, and severely tarnish the brand. The potential for damage is huge: a Gallup poll in 2017 found that only 33 percent of U.S. employees are engaged in their work.
To make matters worse, studies have shown that employees serving in guest-facing positions are among the least engaged.
So: what is employee engagement, and why is it so important to the ski industry? Employee engagement is “the extent to which employees feel passionate about their jobs, are committed to the organization, and put discretionary effort into their work,” says HR research company Custom Insight. Triple Peaks, the operator of Okemo, Crested Butte, and Mt. Sunapee, defines it as “the willingness to give extra effort to ensure the company succeeds.”
Employee engagement requires an emotional commitment to the organization, its purpose and its goals. It drives a willingness to go the extra mile in support of the organization. And, ultimately, engaged employees will boost your Net Promoter Scores (NPS)—the index that measures a customer’s willingness to recommend your resort to others, and helps gauge their overall satisfaction and level of brand loyalty. Keep in mind, while engaged employees are satisfied with their employment, not all satisfied employees are engaged.
How can you foster an engaged frontline workforce that enhances the guest experience? Here are some practices used by our research partners and others:
1. HIRE FOR ATTITUDE
Most of our partners hire for attitude and personality traits—rather than experience and skills—for their key guest-facing positions. These traits include being positive, enthusiastic, optimistic, conscientious, caring, team-oriented, and solution-oriented. Southwest Airlines summarizes this in its motto, which says simply, “Hire for attitude, train for skill.”
2. ONBOARD SUCCESSFULLY
Orientation training is particularly important for seasonal frontline staff. In this training, it’s important to cover the resort’s mission or purpose and explain the employees' role in contributing to that mission—including enhancing the guest experience. Some resorts use a short video in orientation training for this purpose. Employees must understand that their role is to help create more guests who love the resort and are loyal to it (“promoters”), and decrease the number who are ambivalent or dislike your resort (“detractors”). In doing so, frontline employees play a significant role in boosting loyalty and NPS.
3. TRAIN IN BASIC HOSPITALITY
Resorts typically provide frontline employees with the technical training needed to complete their duties efficiently and safely. Not all supplement this with hospitality training, though. Even employees with the proper attitude and personality traits to succeed will benefit from training in basic hospitality skills. Whether done by an internal or a third-party trainer, this training can help employees deliver great experiences. It also demonstrates the resort’s commitment to career development.
Once the initial training is complete, managers and supervisors must reinforce these skills throughout the season. Otherwise, the benefits of the training will begin to dissipate within just a few weeks.
4. TRAIN YOUR MANAGERS, TOO
Those who manage frontline staff are also critical to employee engagement. Many studies have confirmed a high correlation between employees’ relationship with their managers and employee engagement with and loyalty to the resort. One such study concluded: “...if employees’ relationship with their managers is fractured, then no amount of perks will persuade the employees to perform at top levels. Employee engagement is a direct reflection of how employees feel about their relationship with the boss.” (Source: Self-determination Theory and Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development and Well-being, American Psychologist Association
Training strengthens managers’ effectiveness, which in turn increases their job satisfaction and demonstrates the resort’s commitment to their personal growth.
5. EMPOWER FRONTLINE STAFF
Solid, thorough training gives managers the confidence to empower frontline staff to make decisions that affect a guest’s experience in a way that is in the best interests of the resort. This empowerment helps employees feel valued by the resort for their role in the guest experience. It also encourages them to take ownership of a guest’s problem, even if that means taking the guest to another staff member to solve the issue.
To make both managers and employees comfortable with empowerment, develop plans for common issues and problems, and then train employees on what to do when things do go wrong. Practice these plans on a regular basis.
This can lead to significant results. JetBlue, which continually ranks #1 in J.D. Power and Associates North America Airline Satisfaction Study for the low-cost carrier category, achieves its high levels of customer satisfaction and advocacy because employees treat “customers’ problems as their own.”
6. ARM YOUR STAFF WITH ANSWERS
Guests expect your frontline staff to be able to answer their questions; failure to do so will only add to their frustrations. This problem most impacts first-time visitors and “never-evers” and can adversely affect their conversion to core skiers and riders.
To address this problem, have your frontline teams identify the most frequently asked questions and discuss how to best answer them. The more questions they can answer, the more comfortable they will be serving your guests.
7. ENCOURAGE CROSS-DEPARTMENT COLLABORATION
Guests expect a seamless experience when they visit your resort. However, departmental silos often frustrate this expectation. Close collaboration between the various touch points that comprise the overall guest experience is critical, since a poor experience in one area can affect the entire visit. Collaboration and consistency can convert many passive supporters to promoters.
8. LEAD BY EXAMPLE
During peak demand times, supervisors, managers and senior management should jump in and work alongside their frontline staff. This reduces stress and promotes teamwork, and is great for morale. It is also important to model the behaviors you want in your staff every day, every minute. Staff will follow the examples set. So, demonstrate collaboration across all levels of the company to help foster engagement.
9. RECOGNIZE EXTRA EFFORT
Encourage outstanding guest service all season long by celebrating successes and recognizing those employees and teams who go the extra mile in serving their guests. Identify these moments by “catching staff doing things right” and from staff mentions in your guest surveys.
10. BRAINSTORM SERVICE ENHANCEMENTS
Frontline staff are well qualified to provide feedback about the guest experience. Many resorts use team huddles for this (and a variety of other purposes). Ask staff to identify recurring guest issues and brainstorm solutions. This both furthers the sense of engagement and enhances the guest experience.
11. MEASURE AND PROMOTE EMPLOYEE FRIENDLINESS
Survey guests regarding “staff friendliness” or “staff friendliness/helpfulness” throughout the resort. This attribute is a key driver or determinant of overall satisfaction and likelihood to recommend the resort. A best practice is to run weekly contests, recognizing and rewarding those areas that achieve the highest year-over-year improvement in staff friendliness.
12. ENCOURAGE FUN
Frontline employees want to have fun in their jobs, and guests want to see employees having fun. Fun is a proven driver of guest engagement, satisfaction, and loyalty, and likely the same for employees. Frontline employees who have fun tend to be more engaged, are more motivated to serve both guests and their fellow employees, and are more productive and effective overall.
13. PROVIDE FEEDBACK
Feedback can be shared in team huddles, one-on-ones, posted back-of-the-house based on survey data, etc. Sharing resort-wide data increases employees’ connection with the entire operation.
14. SURVEY YOUR STAFF ON SATISFACTION, ENGAGEMENT AND LOYALTY
Solicit feedback regarding how well you are engaging your frontline staff; this helps reveal how effective your efforts are. Measure engagement, loyalty, and advocacy in each operational area, as well as the resort overall, in an employee NPS (eNPS) survey. Other metrics might include turnover rates, the amount of sick time taken, and the staff’s willingness to make incremental effort to enhance the guest experience.
The more you can do to engage your frontline employees, the greater their job satisfaction, loyalty, retention, and advocacy. This, in turn, will enhance the guest experience and help generate higher resort revenues through increased repeat and referral business, the two primary sources of ski resort visits.
Increasing employee engagement, however, requires effort. You are likely using at least some of the practices outlined here already. See which practices you can add to your system this season, and then measure the engagement of your staff in an eNPS survey late in the season. Consider other changes—such as hiring for attitude and personality traits, and onboarding—that you can address this spring or next fall.
And continue to measure your eNPS. Increases in eNPS will drive higher guest NPS, and with that, greater revenues.
SAMMY Guest Editor Says...
At our Triple Peaks resorts, we are constantly striving to nail everything Scott lists here. It got me thinking about a piece of advice one of my mentors gave me years ago. To sum it up, he said: “Our jobs are easy, Ethan. We don’t build rocket ships. The hard part is the people. How you get your staff to understand what you want them to do, how you want them to do it, and ultimately getting them to do it, is the real challenge.” His advice has resonated more and more as I’ve progressed in my career—and as a parent, for that matter.
Our industry relies on seasonal employees who come from all walks of life. Some just want to ski/ride/party (and get a free pass), others want to advance to a full-time year-round position. Yet the goal, as Scott states, is to basically get them all to do the same thing—provide great service and great experiences for our guests.
Part of the company culture at our resorts is that no one person is more important than anyone else. If everyone does their best, we all succeed. It’s unrealistic to think that all staff believe this upfront, but we try to live by this principle. To put it into perspective, we often tell the story about the janitor at NASA who, when asked what his job is, replied, “I am putting a man on the moon.”
We’re not putting a man on the moon, but we are providing experiences for our guests beyond just skiing and riding. It is the responsibility of resort leadership to make sure all levels of staff understand why their jobs are so important, and that they’re not just bumping chairs, serving chili, selling tickets, etc. Their efforts are vital to the overall guest experience.
As my mentor conveyed, getting staff to buy into this sure as hell ain’t easy, but I believe it’s something we all need to consider doing as leaders. — Ethan Mueller