By Brent Blake, President, Acendas Travel
I can rattle off a lengthy list of ways in which the Covid-19 pandemic affected our business and industry; and changed how we go about our work today and in the future.
I am sure you can, too.
There were few industries stressed to the extent we in travel were. Many of the impacts on us as a business were happening right before our eyes, so while the solution may not have always been simple, we were not necessarily dealing with the unknown. But that was not the case across the board.
Stress on Our Culture
The most unexpected and profound outcome was the pressure our company culture faced from the pandemic. To be clear, we have wonderful associates, and to their credit and because of them we have had a solid company culture for many years. We spend considerable time and resources building our culture based on the principles of Jim Collins’ book Good to Great.
With the onset of the pandemic, that foundation began to get chipped away because of furloughs, retirements, the implementation of a remote work structure and the unknown. Yes, we had those happening right before our eyes, but we did not see the damage that was occurring until it impacted operations and associates.
For background, pre-pandemic Acendas Travel office locations with additional staff located throughout the nation. We had approximately 70 percent of our staff regularly in an office setting. Today, we are just shy of a handful from being exclusively virtual.
The furloughs and retirements were difficult because it meant not only our friends – but significant institutional knowledge – went walking out the door. I contend that it is because of that culture we were able to survive and function as well as we did. As we began to recover and build the business back up, we brought some of our staff back and hired new associates. Those new teammates came from all over the nation.
For those who remember the TV sitcom “The Brady Bunch” it was bit like that. We were merging existing staff (those who knew the culture) and the new family members (those who had no idea of our culture). The challenge would not have been as great had there only been a few fresh faces, but today we stand at 40 percent of our team coming aboard after March 2020.
So, as we sought to rebuild our business, we also sought to rebuild our culture. Our actions included:
- Teaching the principles of Good to Great to new employees.
- Periodically bringing together various work groups to headquarters.
- Conducting an annual employee event (reception, dinner, awards)
- Hosting virtual networking events and games.
- Producing fun and lively video interviews with associates.
While these activities were well received and positive, there was still a feeling of being disconnected – completely understandable given people were not together in the physical sense.
Hitting the Road
So, we decided that early in 2023 we were going to take the show on the road. We targeted six metropolitan areas where staff would meet. The objectives were simple: 1.) create interaction of staff in a comfortable, non-work environment; and 2.) review the principles of Good to Great and how we are executing as a company.
Thus far we have met in Chicago, Minneapolis, St. Louis, Houston and Kansas City. The feedback from attendees in each location was outstanding in that it was frank, honest, significant, and lacked what I call a “whine” factor. It was not the proverbial complaint session. It was clear that our associates missed the interaction and collaboration that being in the same physical location affords.
Building a culture is not a project where you check off items and you are done with it. It is an ongoing process where you invest resources to ensure it is so strong that it provides tangible results. For example, our new hires are often impressed by the culture they perceive through our social media, online resources, and the interview process.
None of this implies that Acendas Travel has all the answers. Some of what we do is by trial and error. Not everything has been a home run as we have struck out a few times. But what we have been reminded of through this activity is the importance of a strong culture and being diligent in maintaining it as an asset for us.
It is amazing how fast things change. Three years ago, I never would have thought staff would come to me with a feeling of isolation or disconnect. To have that happen was a red alert for me and signaled it was time to act to right the ship.