Checking into a wholesome culture

Vital Stats: Andreas Sungaimin has been working in HR for nearly two decades. He was recently appointed as Pan Pacific Hotels Group’s senior vice-president for human capital and development. He now oversees the group’s employee engagement and service excellence standards across the group’s 38 hotels, resorts and serviced suites in Asia, Oceania and North America.

You’ve been in hospitality for nearly 20 years. How has the training landscape changed over time?

In this part of the world, a lot of the training used to be for customer service. It’s more refi ned now in terms of there being a better understanding of what truly differentiates us, and that is that moment of interaction between our associates and guests. For us it is about creating a memorable experience.

That interaction is what will get our guests to come back, and it’s critical for us. You can teach them the basics, but the selection of talent becomes important. The associate we attract needs to want to meet those expectations and be passionate about it. To do that, it’s important for us to create an environment where our staff feel that warmth themselves.

Do you create that environment at Pan Pacific?

Many of our associates, while they may work in a hotel, don’t live the way our guests do. Our associates mostly take public transport to work and as soon as they check in for work, they get a clean uniform, take a nice shower and have a good meal… that 20 minutes or half an hour will transform their mindset and help them be able to serve our guests better. That shift in mindset helps get our associates to emotionally connect to the hotel and to the guests.

Training the hard skills is the easy part, but it’s the soft skills which people struggle with.

You can’t just train soft skills – you have to create that environment. When associates “check in” for work – just as a guest would check in at the hotel – they need to put on a very different mindset. If they carry along whatever problems they may have outside work, guests will be able to tell.

We want to provide an environment of understated elegance and luxury so associates need to be very observant. Training is just one part of it, selecting the right associates who fi t that culture is the diffi cult part.

Are you personally involved in the recruitment process?

We are currently enhancing our recruitment process. Moving forward, we expect every candidate, even at the lowest level, to meet with the general managers before the offer is made. Even if it’s for five minutes, the general manager will see them.

How does that help?

It’s important for the general managers to get a feel of the associates, but it’s also important for the candidate to feel valuable because the general manager has taken time to see them. That’s where they can start to build that emotional connection and bond, and there are no two ways about it.

It’s evident the group places a lot of emphasis on culture.

Culture is absolutely critical. The competition for talent is stiff, especially in Singapore because of the foreign labour quotas. It’s difficult to retain talent, but if they are emotionally connected or feel like they are being cared for and respected, and if they enjoy their work, they will stay and grow with us. That is the culture we want to build.

Are we there yet? No, it’s a long process, and it’s important we select the best leaders who understand the culture we want to create.

What are the training programmes you provide for associates?

For us, we have different levels of training. If you are a new employee, the on-boarding and orientation is compulsory. It’s a two or three-day orientation where they get to know the company, the property and their job. After that, we make sure everyone understands the service component, and after about 90 days, we bring these associates back for a refresher course. Those two parts of training are compulsory for both rank and file associates as well as the management team.

Is there any specific training for management staff?

For the management team, after 30 days, they need to complete what we call a fundamental leadership programme. It goes over how to supervise people, communicate and encourage team work. The next level of training is more for those in management and leadership roles. Those are the high-performing individuals with potential who we want to grow.

Andreas Sungaimin, senior vice president, human capital and development, Pan Pacific Hotels Group


How is this programme structured?

After we identify them, they go through a structured development programme over 12 to 18 months. If you are currently the front office manager, but want to one day be the general manager, what path do you have to take and which programmes will you have to attend? You know front office, but you will need exposure to sales, you will need exposure to management, exposure to budgeting. We have to prepare them for the next stage of their career. That is part of our talent development programme.

We’ve spoken a bit about training for client-facing associates. What about those working in corporate roles within the company?

They are most welcomed to join all our training programmes. We have e-learning courses they can pick up on their own time. If they want to go for seminars or conferences, all they need to do is fi ll in a form where they will explain how the event will help them in their job, and the company will sponsor it.

The hospitality and services industry is notorious for high turnover. How does your team manage that?

We analyse our turnover on a monthly, quarterly and annual basis for all associates. We track this very carefully, and we conduct compulsory exit interviews at all levels. We also track both voluntary and involuntary turnover. For voluntary turnover, we track what the reasons are behind associates leaving us. I was just looking at the numbers for Singapore for the whole of last year.

Pay and benefits was not in the top three reasons, but career development was. The other two reasons are family related and the associates’ direct supervisors. This is why culture is very important.

You can create whatever culture you want – at the end of the day, it’s the manager who really sees that through.

How do you manage the managers so they are able to provide that working environment for associates?

Selection is important. We build culture in as part of their performance review. Associates can also call us directly if there is an issue. For example, if there is an issue in a particular department and it is related to the manager, the general manager will step in.

Annually, we also track social engagement. It’s anonymous and done by a third party vendor. If you’re a manager and have five or more people reporting to you, you will get a scorecard.

How does the scorecard system work?

We stack the scorecard by hotel, and within the same hotel, we stack it by departments so you can see it ranked from highest to lowest. It’s very simple: If you look at the top percentile, you’ll see what they’ve done right, and if you look at the bottom three, you will find the three most critical issues.

What follows the data collection stage?

We have focus groups to find out what is going on and come up with an action plan. That scorecard is part of the managers’ performance review, and the overall company also makes up one of my own scorecards. We don’t only look at the bottom three but also the top three, and what we can learn from them. If we have high engagement, that will have an impact on guest satisfaction as well.

The training itself is not a standalone – it has to have an impact on improving guest satisfaction and their career development. That part of it is critical for us. We don’t look at just one thing, we look at everything.

Where are the talent opportunities when it comes to this industry?

We are growing. Our aim is to turn this Singapore-grown brand internationally and to double our size. We currently have about 30 properties, and we’re hoping to grow to 60 in three to five years. Simple math will tell you we’ll need 30 general managers for the new properties, assuming our current ones stay. The executive is usually made up of about eight people, so we’ll need 240 people. It’s aggressive, but realistic.

There will be a lot of opportunities for our associates to grow with us, given that person is regionally or internationally mobile. If you want to look at Singapore, that is one thing I would encourage – make sure associates are prepared to spend a number of years overseas before coming back.

How does the group plan on developing local talent for its properties?

Once you leave Singapore, it gives you a completely different exposure, in terms of people you deal with and manage and that is something I really encourage. Young Singaporeans who want a career in hospitality should work outside for three to five years. It’s rewarding, it’s challenging, and you get to see the world when you’re still young.

It not only helps them gain experience, but you begin to understand cultural nuances, which is very difficult to learn unless you’ve lived and worked somewhere else.