With nearly 10,000 corporate employees and many more franchise employees, the 11-person training department at LaQuinta Hotels has its work cut out for it. That's especially true when you consider the direction of the training philosophy: While many companies are expanding their use of technology as far as possible, LaQuinta is going in the opposite direction— and the numbers show it's the right one.
Those 11 people provide call center, reservations, and franchise opening training, retraining, and education for new and transitioning managers and owners. Since the training is available for franchise-owned hotels, as well as those owned by corporate, that means they're responsible for the learning of employees at more than 600 hotels nationwide. Collectively, those courses are known as LaQuinta University (LQU).
In 2008, the company plans to focus on its on-property employees, such as the housekeepers, maintenance employees, and front-desk employees who have the most contact with customers and the most impact on whether they return. Before, the majority of this learning was online, and it was task- or system-based, such as for check-in, reservations, and other front-desk functions.
But Christina Cernuch says her department discovered something interesting last year. She and her people went into the field to do more in-person, instructor-led training at the hotels, and they saw an immediate improvement in guest satisfaction scores and guests' intent-to-return scores. "Those scores increased considerably, so we're going to spend more time delivering training in person, and we're going to concentrate on performance gaps instead of trying to start over and go from stem to stern," says Cernuch, vice president of training and operations for LaQuinta.
One example of the training programs they'll be using is a "knowledge map." This map is a game-like learning event, similar to Monopoly, that guides employees through front-desk operations and helps them learn how to deliver the best service. "It's not traditional training, with an instructor up front telling them what to do," says Cernuch. "It's a facilitator with a few people, and it's more conversational, where they're going through scenario cards and asking 'How do you know whether someone's delivering the best service in this scenario?'"
This knowledge map training has been the most successful class ever for LaQuinta, Cernuch says. Because the small groups are facilitated rather than instructed, participants end up teaching each other, which makes sense because front-desk employees know the inner workings of the front desk better than any trainer will.
But that doesn't mean LaQuinta has abandoned technology altogether. For example, for housekeeping and maintenance employees, the company uses a DVD-sort of training approach. Those employees are given a small, portable DVD player when it's time for them to learn the tasks they do the most. "We create DVDs that walk them through the whole cleaning cycle," says Cernuch. "They take the player into the bathroom, and they play the DVD and watch the process of cleaning the bathroom. Then they clean the bathroom, and the next part is making the bed. It's simple, it goes at whatever pace they need, and we provide it in English or Spanish."
New managers attend an 18-day onboarding program, in which they spend time with a manager at a neighboring hotel and learn all about the vagaries of being a manager at a LaQuinta hotel. After that program, called INItiation, those neophytes head to the corporate location for a four-day training event that reinforces what they learned on the job and also lets them meet—and network—with the executives who will make a difference in their careers.
One of the programs that helps all the different populations work together better is called I Spy. Yes, it's like that game where people say, "I Spy," but it's based on a photograph of a hotel room. Like the participants in the knowledge map exercise, it brings together employees from different levels—maintenance workers, front-desk employees, and housekeepers—and allows them to work together on theoretical problems that help them to handle real problems later on.
Starting with that photograph, those employees are asked to determine which small detail might lead to a big problem later on. For example, the TV remote requires batteries. Have those batteries been checked to make sure they're live? If not, the next guest in that room might have a remote with dead batteries, and have to wait for new ones. "It goes back to basics and simplification," says Cernuch. "Much of what goes wrong for a guest has to do with communication between departments, and putting them all in a room together helps them understand each other's processes."
Like all training directors, Cernuch wishes she and her department could do more to make LaQuinta a more educated organization. For example, LaQuinta University courses are available to all corporate employees, but they're only available on a CD to franchise employees. Cernuch would love to make LQU available to franchise employees more readily. "Right now, we can't track what they're doing or get completion percentages," says Cernuch.
She would like to have more trainers for each pod of call center employees, as well. Currently, four trainers serve six pods of employees, but she'd like to have one each, so each pod has at least two weeks of training available every month. "That would put training across the company on a level playing field," Cernuch says.
Finally, in a budget-free environment, Cernuch would meet with her instructors more often. Currently, she only meets with those instructors annually, but that's not enough for knowledge capture or performance tweaking in her book. "I'd love to meet with them semi-annually or more," she says.
Cernuch may be in the ideal position to argue the case of training and its value to the company; her bosses are the executive vice president of HR and the chief operations officer. Because both believe in her and her training team, they haven't opposed her when she's sponsored a gamble such as the knowledge map initiative. "They're confident that if we say we can achieve something, we'll do it both on time and under budget," she says. "I've never gone to them and not gotten support for something we've felt strongly about."