How Wyndham’s People-First Approach Prepared It for Digital Transformation

Illustration of a woman with a suitcase about to visit a hotel

By Lisa Checchio, Michele Allen

Digital transformation is complex. In this six-part series, we’ll explore six core areas of digital transformation and hear from executives at leading brands about how they are approaching this challenge. Here, Wyndham Hotels & Resorts CMO Lisa Checchio, along with Wyndham Hotels & Resorts CFO Michele Allen, discuss talent, teams, and culture.

The hospitality industry is people-first by nature. As the largest hotel franchise company in the world with approximately 9,000 hotels in 95 countries, Wyndham Hotels & Resorts has made this principle its North Star, guiding our entire leadership team.

Our people-first mindset helped us pivot under pressure and remain steadfast during a time of uncertainty.
Our “customers” are twofold: We serve guests from all walks of life, with 22 brands spanning economy to luxury. Equally important is our relationship with our franchisees, and our inclusive and team-oriented mindset extends to them — whether they’re single-unit operators just starting out or experienced hotel owners with extensive portfolios.

While we’ve always understood that prioritizing talent, teams, and culture is critical to our success, we never knew just how well that dedication would serve us until the COVID-19 pandemic upended our industry.

On March 13, 2020, we closed our corporate offices. Like many others, we naively believed we would all be back in two weeks. Instead, as the lockdowns dragged on, we underwent a profound digital transformation and found ourselves navigating a sea of continuous change.

What didn’t change was our people-first mindset, which helped us pivot under pressure and remain steadfast during a time of uncertainty.

Here are three ways that our core focus on teams and culture has prepared us for any further changes ahead.

A heart with a check mark; an up-and-down-pointing arrow, and a light bulb hovering over an array of geometric shapes. 1. Future-proof through trust. 2. Resilience through alignment. 3. Innovation through diversity.

1. Future-proof through trust

Long before COVID-19, we had built a bank of trust with key stakeholders by living our core values of integrity, accountability, inclusivity, caring, and fun. Nurturing talent, both at the corporate and franchise levels, instilled confidence in our team members that we cared about their success. At a time when so much was uncertain, an act as simple as sending out gift baskets let our people know that we appreciated their efforts. The strength of our relationships allowed us to draw on this trust bank in the pandemic’s early days when no one could make heads or tails of what was happening.

Amazingly, going digital has allowed us to replenish that trust bank as we learned to communicate in new ways. The digital environment has given us a more holistic picture of our team members, beyond just who they are at work, which has further humanized us all. We inevitably saw where and how our team members lived, what pets they had, who their children and spouses were, and so on. Rather than discourage these moments, and the blurring of lines between work and home, we embraced them. This, in turn, reinforced our culture and made our team members feel connected. Our people and their work both thrived as a result.

We “meet” for drinks on videoconference occasionally on Friday nights to maintain that social connection, and we’re able to socialize as if we’re around the water cooler, bringing the core value of fun into the digital arena.

2. Resilience through alignment

Forty-four percent of senior marketers say that the role of the board of directors is to support organizations as a digital transformation leader, and marketers play a crucial role in representing the needs of customers in the boardroom.1 At Wyndham, that means breaking down silos to focus the entire leadership team on the needs of our customers, including our franchisees. Digital readiness may be built with strategy, structure, and skills, but it must be grounded in people to have any hope of enduring.

With the understanding that our business model rests on the shoulders of our franchisees, we, along with our CEO Geoff Ballotti, spent the early days of the pandemic on the phone with our owners to understand their needs. We knew they would need some financial relief as travel slowed, but, as time passed, the conversations shifted from “What do you need to survive?” to “What do you need to thrive?” These conversations have helped us update our road map and accelerate initiatives, such as our new mobile app and new touchless payment solutions for corporate customers.

Throughout the pandemic, the only travel we had done was to visit and interact with our franchisees, and that speaks volumes about our alignment on key priorities.

Diversity and inclusiveness may sound like buzzwords, but they have very real benefits to our culture and our business.

None of this is to say that we are always in agreement. To ensure alignment, we have honest and robust, yet respectful, conversations when there’s a lack of consensus. Sometimes it requires a one-on-one phone call to share divergent reasoning; at other times, we bring together teams with different points of view to collaborate and get everyone on the same page. We each bring our own passions to the table, but we’re all working toward a common goal. Aligned leadership makes for a business model that’s resilient when the market is volatile and one that is best prepared to identify and act on opportunities.

Quick adoption of new technology has helped our teams achieve this alignment. The ability to drop in and talk to someone face to face, to share and edit documents in real time with multiple teams, to sidebar with a colleague during a meeting without disrupting the larger conversation — these things all occur with little thought in an office environment. By adopting new collaboration tools in the early days of the pandemic, Wyndham ensured that all of those things could still happen with the same speed and ease that they had before.

3. Innovation through diversity

Inclusivity is one of Wyndham’s core values. It’s about being deliberate and asking ourselves, “Who are we looking for? Do they bring diversity to our team, not just in gender or race but also in experience?”

But while an inclusive hiring policy is a good and necessary first step, workplace culture dictates whether talent stays with you and thrives.

Diversity and inclusiveness may sound like buzzwords, but they have very real benefits to our culture and our business. For one, franchisees want to do business with people at the corporate level to whom they can relate, and consumers want to do business with socially responsible companies. Ultimately, diversity of experience leads to greater innovation and allows companies to achieve digital readiness.

But while an inclusive hiring policy is a good and necessary first step, workplace culture dictates whether talent stays with you and thrives. Even with diversity, people who don’t feel valued or engaged can’t do their best work.

One way we’ve advocated for diversity and inclusivity is through our Affinity Business Groups (ABGs), networks that support underrepresented groups. Not only do ABGs allow associates to support each other, but they increase visibility for each group’s needs. Establishing programs for mentoring, pay equity, and inclusivity training help to build an environment where employees can do their best work.

Traversing digital transformation together

With so much of the travel industry struggling, the pandemic could have been disastrous for us. Instead, we rallied around our core values to rise above. We started with real, in-person conversations with our team, rather than having people at the top design and implement technology solutions and mandate their use throughout the company. By focusing first on the needs of franchisees and, by extension, the needs of our customers, we were able to design and deliver digital solutions that keep Wyndham moving forward.

In the pandemic and post-pandemic era, successful businesses focus the efforts of diverse teams on the needs of their customers to travel the digital transformation road together. Wyndham’s long-standing focus on our talent, our teams, and our corporate culture has allowed us to do just that.

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