Award-winner Village Hotels: Leadership that leads to employee engagement

Village Hotels image resized

Village Hotels was the big winner in the Make A Difference Awards public vote for making the most difference to employee mental health and wellbeing over the past year, in the category for companies with more than 500 staff.

The hotel group caught the attention of the judges for being a standout entry and an example of a brand that – by putting employee wellbeing at the heart of its strategy – has managed to thrive in a sector typically beleaguered by all the obstacles thrown in its way over recent years.

Hospitality; a beleaguered sector

From Brexit to a global pandemic to a cost of living crisis, most hospitality companies have struggled in particular with staff attraction and retention, yet Village has seen an uplift of 12% in its employee engagement, to an impressive 86% overall engagement. 

This also impacted a 36% uplift in retention figures and significant impact on tcustomer satisfaction metrics. All this confirms what we already know: engaged employees deliver better guest experience and the likelihood to return, which in turn improves brand reputation.

A very clear way it has put employee wellbeing at the heart of its strategy is structurally. In October 2021, the organisation promoted Lindsay Southward to the newly created role of Group Director of Operations and People. Before this, she had been Group Director of People & Brand Development, and prior to this Group People & Development Director at the Malmaison & Hotel Du Vin group. 

Merging ‘Operations’ and ‘People’ Functions

The intention of bringing the operations and people functions together was to send a very clear message out to the business, both the board and the employees especially, of how integral people are to the success of the entire business. 

Sarah Flynn, HR projects manager, Village Hotels, explains: 

“We can do these great things in the People function, but unless these issues are actively talked about as part of the executive board discussions, then it’s not going to shape how we make our decisions and drive a people culture.” 

This savvy move has effectively changed the way the business operates, acting as a catalyst for cultural change. By placing a natural emphasis on people, the belief has been that improved guest experiences & profits will flow from this. “Which is what has happened,” confirms Flynn. 

Elevating people-concerns to board level

It naturally elevates the status of employee related concerns at the board, too, because Southward is not only asked about the results at monthly board meetings, but also the guests & people and the key initiatives that are driving our results.

“It’s made a huge impact,” says Flynn. “The board is always saying to Lindsay ‘tell me about the people’ and ‘how engaged are they? What are you working on?’. 

The other factor that’s been game-changing is the trust and empowerment instilled in Southward from the Executive Team and their support and belief in the strategy.

Strong leadership needed for shift in culture

“They have supported her & our team in going out there and delivering a great range of people and development projects that work. And she’s delivered. I think unless you have someone with Lindsay’s approach, it would be hard to make such a shift in cultural change.” 

Join our growing network of employers
Receive Make A Difference News straight to your inbox

Building confidence in the people function in this way takes time, and commitment.  Southward’s natural inclination to listen to and source opinions from all stakeholders has also contributed significantly. As well as a head for numbers, and a focus on the results, along with keeping the business and employees protected, she’s known for taking the time to chat to people in the business, and encouraging employees to have a voice.

A natural, and open leadership style 

“As a leader  she gives you opportunities to deliver these great initiatives and is there to support ,” says Flynn. “Her leadership style is natural and open and encourages people to be themselves at work, something she really embodies herself. That builds a lot of trust with employees.” 

If Flynn had to pinpoint anything in particular that had led to the 86% staff engagement stat, she would cite the focus on employee benefits. Village was facing the same challenges as other hospitality brands when it came to staff namely that Brexit & COVID had left a huge gap in terms of market and that the cost of living crisis meant prospective employees were focused on pay above all else. 

“We’d get people looking to leave the Industry for an extra £2 more an hour’,” says Flynn. “So we knew we needed to prioritise our employer brand. We started by reinvigorating  our employee benefits and making sure that there was a clear cost benefit associated with them, and then articulating this well.” 

Employees want more from benefits now

For instance, Village pushed the fact that it offers an overall package which ultimately saves employees money, such as a free gym membership which boosts their wellbeing and is worth £1500 a year. 

Indeed, benefits related to wellbeing and mental health have been a primary focus post pandemic because the organisation recognises that “people want more now and our focus and priorities around mental health needs to be continually developed”, says Flynn. “We’re listening to what people are saying and we’re developing our package around that. We can sell the benefits of what a great career it is and we can show them that we care about them.” 

Emphasis on community

Another focus which has proved fruitful is the emphasis on community. The most common feedback from employee engagement surveys is that people feel like they are part of a family and feel welcome in the business, which starts from the moment the indepth onboarding process begins. 

“People spend a lot of time at work. Especially in hospitality,” says Flynn. “So we want it to feel like a community, where you have friends and fun. And we really focus on that first 90 days to do that.”

“The biggest thing I’ve learnt in my job, facing everything from Covid-19 to Brexit, is that there are still great employees out there with a real passion for the Industry. And, if we invest in our people, then hospitality still has the kudos it always did and we achieve more.” 

Village Hotels at a glance: how it got to 86% staff engagement 

‘Be my guest’: when a new employee joins, they are given vouchers for coffee, lunch, dinner and a free overnight stay at their hotel, so they can experience their employer from the customer’s point of view. This applies to all employees, whether they’re working part time in a junior role, or full time in a senior role.

New policy around reward and recognition including an ‘incentive toolkit’: This is when employees are rewarded for going the extra mile and getting great guest feedback. A points system leads to rewards, which have included electric scooters and experiences such as skydives. 

Rising Stars programme: this used to be the General Manager Development Programme but has been opened up to all employees who want to grow and develop. This year, for example, 67 employees are participating in three different programmes. Includes an introduction to wellbeing which encourages individuals to learn about themselves and also how they can influence others. 

My Village Rewards: the company reinvigorated this employee benefit platform, ensuring it was user friendly and engaging, increasing its active use by 50% over 6 months post launch. This was achieved by adding additional benefits including a Free Flu Jab, Holiday Purchase Scheme, Mental Health & Financial wellbeing policies and enhanced family friendly benefits. Other benefits include high street discounts, employee assistance programmes and your birthday off work. 

Guest Obsession: Village’s take on celebrity service where employees are empowered to look for those extra touches  to make guests’ stays even more memorable. 

Village Green: all about community and with the recent launch of its Sustainability Stars, supports its overall CSG strategy.

‘Village is People’: a number of initiatives aimed at recognising and rewarding teams including VIP of the month and BIG People Days to drive the energy and engagement with our teams.

Wellbeing Strategy: a host of wellbeing support, benefits and information and the recent addition of 40 trained Mental Health First Aiders in the business.

This Award category was highly contested, with PoundLand and Independent Assessment Services following a very close 2nd and 3rd

You might also like:



Sign up to receive Make A Difference's fortnightly round up of features, news, reports, case studies, practical tools and more for employers who want to make a difference to work culture, mental health and wellbeing.