Case Study: Sonesta’s AGM Apprentice Program Upskills a Talented, Certified Staff
Kate Stiteler, CHT
Corporate Director of Training, Sonesta Hotels
Throughout the pandemic, Sonesta Hotels (like many other companies) lost a lot of employees, and they took their institutional knowledge with them. Prior to that, the company had relied heavily on home-grown talent for succession planning. As this pool dried up, getting creative with training was mission-critical.
Here’s how Sonesta inspired skill building at the individual level by offering opportunities for professional development and internal advancement.
In less than two years, Sonesta has added more than 7,000 new employees: a growth of more than 350%. We had to upskill people quickly and get agile and creative with our approach to learning and development.
As a small training department, we recognized our crucial role in training these new folks, but also recognized that we could not do it all ourselves. Rather than create a program from scratch, we decided to leverage external partnerships, and looked to nationally recognized resources.
Our training team happened to be on a call with the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA) Career Development Committee when their online certification program came up. We learned that they have a partnership with and funds from the Department of Labor, and we applied to get those funds. We used those funds to “purchase” the online American Hotel & Lodging Education Institute (AHLEI) materials and put our team members through it in a newly branded apprenticeship program called Elevate.
Before we delved into the skill development part of the program, we first wanted to remind our employees of the “Why.” We wanted to build awareness and understanding about why this industry is so fantastic.
The Amazons, Ubers, and Lyfts of the world (where people jumped to during the pandemic) are not providing the development and professional opportunities anywhere near that of the hospitality industry. We, on the other hand, are going to help them grow and provide a rewarding career path.
“Retention, retention, retention. So far, we have a 91% retention rate of the program’s graduates!”
A Blended Approach
Pairing experienced mentors with apprentice learners is the crux of the Elevate program. Assistant General Manager (AGM) Apprentices are identified, nominated, and asked to apply. They are selected based on the following performance, commitment, and attitude criteria:
To kick off the program, we hold an information session with the program administrator, mentor, and apprentice. We review program details, roles, resources, and expectations.
We utilize a “Leadership Speaker Series” of calls that give apprentices direct access to executive leadership. Commitment has come from the top, and we made sure to have some C-suite mentors in addition to Regional Directors and General Managers. For employees to get this kind of exposure and direct access to leadership is a very motivating factor.
Apprentices receive training from their experienced Sonesta mentor. They go through 137 skills that are signed off on throughout the program. These are skills that are very practical and can be implemented immediately.
Apprentices participate in related educational lessons through 16 AHLEI online courses. This is a competency-based certificate program with six areas of study: Leadership, Finance, Sales and Marketing, Rooms, Human Resources, and Food and Beverage.
This allows for self-pacing based on skill level. If an apprentice is flying through the program, great. If they have competing priorities or lower skill level and need to slow down, that’s fine too.
Don’t underestimate the power of certificates, pins, badges, and branded giveaways! (And having a Learning Management System to track and monitor progress!)
When there is recognition, people feel invested in. We made sure to celebrate milestones, have fun, and create buzz around the program. We held a graduation at our corporate headquarters with branded gifts and an exciting ceremony that was very meaningful to our participants.
It’s important that the recognition items are tied to competencies and skills; that there is rigor in the program. We know industry brainpower went into developing the program, so we capitalize on that strength.
Through the Elevate program, our apprentices gain higher level skills and industry certification opportunities:
- Sonesta’s AHLA Elevate certificates
- Predictive Index – We are currently working on internal certification
- Designated Trainer – We are currently working on internal certification
- AHLAF – After competing the program, apprentices can apply to take any certification that AHLA offers. In addition, both mentors and apprentices can get scholarships through the AHLA Foundation.
We didn’t have enough people, we didn’t have enough time, but the training still needed to happen. Here are some of the challenges we had to overcome and learn from:
- On the first round of the program, we paired mentors with apprentices who were outside of their region and brand. This caused challenges because different brands have different ways of doing things. For our second class we are going to pair people within their regions and brands.
- There also wasn’t a lot of structure on our end, and the program was very self-guided. We learned from that, and are going to add more structure into the second round of the program, such as regular check-in calls and regular reporting on checklist progress to mentors.
- We also had difficulty with apprentices and mentors carving out the training time due to staffing. We need to make sure we have enough committed trainers on board.
Return on Investment
Retention, retention, retention. So far, we have a 91% retention rate of the program’s graduates!
Our first “class” focused on a diverse group of AGMs who are now more committed to us and the industry. Already, eight Elevate participants were promoted from AGM to GM. We basically trained these people for “free,” and replaced a role that can cost tens of thousands of dollars due to turnover.
In addition, all of the graduates from round one now want to be mentors! This has established a self-perpetuating program where people learn, grow, and stay with us.
While we want employees to be loyal to Sonesta, and with a program like this, we hope that they are now more loyal to the industry as a whole as a career of choice. Training and career pathing allows them to stay with us for a year or a career. This is a retention win for us all!