Top-ranked small company: The Guild Hotel with its raises, catered lunches, Starbucks gift cards

Whether it’s a birthday, a business anniversary, or a special occasion like Customer Service Week, The Guild Hotel in downtown San Diego doesn’t miss an opportunity to honor its employees with lunches, gift cards, a whimsical game, or a good old toy—crying about a job well done.

At just two years old, this 162-room boutique hotel on Broadway is unique in itself, occupying a nearly century-old building belonging to the Marine Corps YMCA that once welcomed millions of service men and women who pass through the city.

The past first and a half years have been a very difficult time for the hospitality industry, which in the early months of the pandemic has seen a downturn in business. While leisure travel has rebounded dramatically since then, hotels – including The Guild – are now struggling to hire enough workers to hire the right staff for their labour-intensive operations.

However, where the union at one point had fewer than a dozen employees at the height of the pandemic, it has now rebuild its staff to 60 and continues to fill job vacancies. Not only is he offering signature bonuses to hard-to-fill jobs like housekeepers and chefs, General Manager Unal Kucuk said, but he has also raised his rates for both existing employees and new ones.

Tip workers earn $16 an hour, Kucuk said, which is $2 more than the current minimum wage, although state and local minimum wages will jump to $15 an hour starting Jan. And it’s $22,” Kucuk said. The hotel also offers a health and benefits package that includes coverage for medical, dental, and vision care, and workers are eligible to participate in a 401(k) retirement plan that includes a company match.

While pay and benefits are important, the union seeks to go further by regularly promoting a collegiate atmosphere in myriad ways, says Connor Hay, the hotel’s director of people and culture.

“We love to celebrate our team members,” he said. “When someone has a ‘work reserve,’ everyone gets a notification, which lists who is being celebrated, and because we have a smaller team, it encourages organic celebrations at the property, like taking them to lunch, and announcing a happy birthday. We’ll also save A Starbucks gift card because everyone loves coffee in the hospitality industry.”

It’s this kind of company culture that most likely landed the union this year’s Union-Tribune Place of Work Award for Small Business.

“If you are looking for the fundamental reason for this (recognition), it is beyond monetary values,” Kucuk said. “It starts with a culture that we have decided to create, from recruitment to qualification. During the pandemic, what has kept us going is finding a purpose and working towards that purpose.”

Workers’ feedback, collected in a survey by the Energage for the Top Workplaces Initiative, indicates that the hotel’s focus on its employees is paying off.

“Love what I do and being in a position where they feel they value all of their workers and work hard to keep their guests and employees happy is what I look for in a company and The Guild goes above and beyond that, all managers and staff help us feel equal,” one individual wrote.

Another said, “I feel like I literally belong to the guild family. There is real care and kindness among everyone here. We come together when times are at their most difficult and that makes me feel that everyone will be (ready) to support each other whenever the need arises without hesitation.”

Hay has launched a number of initiatives the hotel has launched over the past several months to express his gratitude to the staff. between them:

  • During Customer Service Appreciation Week several weeks ago, The Guild served brunch every day of the week, tailored to suit the diverse culinary tastes of the staff, from Greek and Chinese to Italian.
  • For Housekeeping Appreciation Week in September, lunch was also served every day, but as a bonus, there was a bingo game that included a grand prize for the winner – 16 hours of vacation time credited to the employee’s paid time off (PTO) bank. Everyone else, including those who didn’t attend the game, earned an extra four hours of PTO.
  • As a reward for hard work in May when employees were smaller than they are now, Hay turned to gift cards again. “The hotel actually killed him in May. We were younger then, maybe 40, and I went out and bought $100 gift cards for everyone — from Target, Ralphs, Amazon, and had my general manager write a little note on a union-branded card,” Hay said. “I asked people to come meet me in the boardroom, they showed up, we had snacks and drinks and I’ll give them the card in person and thank them for all your hard work.”
  • However, there is another initiative, starting soon, which is what Hay calls the “shouting card” that will give employees a chance to tag other workers they think deserve special recognition. These two cards will then be used to select an employee from the quarter and one for the full year, Hay said. He said that there will be a shield in honor of the workers as well as some kind of financial reward.

Hay said it makes perfect sense to promote fun and camaraderie in the workplace given the long hours employees spend away from home.

“Why don’t you do that?” He said. “We are all at work longer than we don’t live, and it is important to make sure you are having fun with your team members. We are very focused on respecting each other and trying to celebrate as much as possible.”

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