HOTELS interview: Wequassett Resort director talks staff training, service advancements

CAPE COD, MASSACHUSETTS At Wequassett Resort & Golf Club on Cape Cod, Managing Partner Mark Novota has taken employee training to a different level. He founded The Wequassett Academy to give his employees wisdom, passion and the technical knowledge to provide world-class service. The employees all go through training at the beginning of each season to refresh their skills. The academy comprises four schools focusing on customer intimacy, technical training, management and information and technology, with class options like “Wine Knowledge,” “Heroic Acts,” “Running Effective Meetings” and “Dress for Success.”

HOTELS caught up with Novota for an introductory course in the academy and his take on training.


HOTELS: What is the most important thing that distinguishes well-trained hospitality staff?

NOVOTA: There’s a lot of intangibles—or, as I call them, passion skills—that need to be taught along with technical skills. The right balance, I think, is something well-trained employees generally have. Employees are routinely undertrained, in my mind, and the employer doesn’t realize how often they’re out of their comfort zone, or how often they cross over into other disciplines. So you have to prepare your employees for that, and that has to be part of training programs. It’s important to teach them to go beyond their basic abilities. When they can’t meet a request, it’s refreshing for a consumer to see a proper transition for a productive solution.

You create a sense of self-awareness of the staff member, a confidence when a member knows exactly what his or her role is. It takes away any of those very typical circumstances where they’re just a little bit nervous or a little scared. It helps their roles expand significantly, and it’s again highly beneficial in terms of the overall experience.


HOTELS: You mentioned passion skills. Could you give a few examples of what those might be?

NOVOTA: Passion skills are a way to connect emotionally with the consumer. A technical skill might be making sure that the service is appropriate, say, in the dining room, but passion is how to strike up a conversation. Passion is how to know whether they want more of you or less of you. Some consumers may want an unobtrusive experience, and others may want to say, “Hey, we’re on vacation, we want to share our story. Don’t you want to meet our children? Don’t you want to know who we are?” Passion skills are critical to differentiate a kind of blasé experience to one that has from memories that have begun to become part of the experience.

In fact, the way that we have organized our training here at this particular resort, literally, is where passion meets proficiency. That’s what the Wequassett Academy is. We’ve split our training among technical as well as abstract training, and it really serves you well, and the employee well, in preparing for any number of customer needs.


HOTELS: Have you noticed any trends in terms of what kind of staff are seeking out additional training?

NOVOTA: I think the heart of the house, as we call it—some know it as the back of the house—has become more integral. Take, for example, an engineering department within a hotel. They’re thought of from a technical standpoint and they may be skilled from an engineering standpoint, but we put them through vigorous training on the hospitality side of things as well.

A key reason for the development of our academy, quite frankly, was that service-based departments were generally offered better training, while departments less equipped—say, engineering—simply didn’t get the same emphasis. The academy brought what we call a universal theme and made our training a single culture. I realized early on that we just had to pull training as a singular way of believing and thinking as an organization.

Another very important element is third-party sites, which have done a wonderful thing for training. What I mean by that, of course, is TripAdvisor or Travelocity. Now all of a sudden, because of the technology and the way it is, people are out there saying, “Here’s what my stay was at the resort or at your business.” And all of a sudden, businesses are having to wake up and say, “Jesus, how do we combat that?” Well, you can combat it as some businesses, in my mind unsuccessfully, do: They argue with the commentary. You learn from it constructively, and realize that, wow, there’s some training needs. I see that as a big trend.

In fact, we plan not only to learn from these sites but to fully embrace them as a way to better communicate with our customers. We’re in the process of a new website, and we have a dedicated section that will be specific to the third-party sites, along with ways that we feel are going to be creative to allow the consumer, through complete transparency, to communicate what’s good and what’s challenging at our particular entity.

I think years ago it was more internal. We were our own experts, if you will. Now it’s not hard to find out what people think about you. It’s quite easy, for better or for worse.


HOTELS: You have a class on “Heroic Acts” at the academy. What do you mean by that, in terms of hospitality, and why is it important?

NOVOTA: For us, a heroic act is defined as something that awes and dazzles, or surprises and delights, a guest. It is unique to our customer-intimate operating philosophy and a significant part of our service culture. It’s what I like to describe as the third generation of customer service. The first generation I define as service that was technically proficient—unobtrusive, skill-driven service. Then consumers got a little bored and we had the second generation, when anticipation of a guest’s need became a revolution. It’s something that’s simplistic now, but then it was exciting. In-room coffee. Morning newspapers.

Now I think we’ve arrived at what I would say is a third generation, which is geared at the unexpected. Guests no longer are content, in my mind, with basic service, even at high delivery levels. I think that for us, when I think of what a heroic act means, it really means that we’re personalizing our service; we’re customizing something that only that particular individual is going to have as a memory for them. It’s going to be a big part of what their experience is and ideally create advocacy on behalf of the resort. They’re going to say, “Wow! You wouldn’t believe what happened to me while I was at Wequassett. I forgot my gym shoes and they bought me not only gym shoes—they bought me a whole workout outfit and said, ‘Don’t worry about it.’” So we place tremendous emphasis on heroic acts because, again, we feel it rounds out service in a way that is truly, first and foremost, desired at a high level of luxury, but also is special, is superior.

On the subject of training as a whole, what I would place the most emphasis on is understanding that it’s about the connection with the consumer above all else. All your training should be geared at the consumer, not from the business perspective but from the guest perspective. That may mean it’s a highly complex series of choices. So customization is where it’s at, from my perspective.

You have to get people to believe in training… I feel that our team really, truly believes in the academy and they believe in the tools that we’re giving them, and so therefore you’re going to get the most out of your employee base. If you’re in a situation where you’re trying to force information or tell them what they need to do versus what they want to do, you’re going to be less effective. It’s creating a culture within the culture, and our culture of training is significant and really has a major place at the table within our organization.


HOTELS: Do you have a sense of ROI for the programs at the academy?

NOVOTA: It is difficult to specifically determine a true ROI. First of all, some of the return is the reduction of turnover. The academy has significantly reduced our turnover, bringing stability, bringing a portable learning opportunity for our employee base that just loves it. It makes them want to stay and ensures that we don’t have this kind of fragmentation that a lot of resorts and hotels have by not training their employees well. So obviously there’s some benefit there.

It also helps to grow our average daily rate by virtue of increasing the quality of our guest experience, which allows us to offer more value with improving price points.

One hundred percent of our academy was also developed internally, which in turn has kept our costs under control. In fact, they have stayed well within what I would say is a reasonable training budget. If I was to answer this question knowing I went to a consultant to develop the academy, it would be a longer ROI. And we also have plans to roll out the academy, potentially allowing us to reduce our costs further through new revenue generation that will ultimately be considered as a profit center. And because our academy has been so successful in the results, we have had a significant number of companies approach us already, asking if we would have their team in as part of the academy training. I see this as a real positive return on investment.

Lastly, we’d like to add another property or two in the next three to five years, which would be ideal to help defray costs among them, and that is part of our master plan here.

I’m very pleased with the ways that I’ve been able internally to measure the returns, and very committed to keeping it as one of our top priorities, even with a challenging economy.


HOTELS: You mentioned that you’d like to roll out the academy with other companies. Do you have a timeline on that?

NOVOTA: We’ve already done some of the work. We have not gone out and marketed it, but we’ve got a lot of word of mouth going already, so I think we have some real good starting points. Within two years, and probably one and a half years, would be a good timeline.


HOTELS: What do you see on the horizon in terms of customer service and hospitality—perhaps the fourth generation?

NOVOTA: One of the new positions that we’ve added this year is a position called the memory-maker. Their sole job, their sole responsibility, is to create memories for our guests. Because of the technological advantages we now have, whether it’s guest history or even simple Google searches, you can collect tremendous data about the consumer, as well as ask them. You can really truly begin to customize service in ways that’s never been done before. So we’re very excited about things like the memory-maker.

I also see more online training, in terms of looking at trends. Particularly when you have an academy like ours, with 70-plus courses, it would be lovely to have some more online technology at our fingertips. I also see applications will be key, whether it’s iPad or mobile application training. And that’s not only the training but also supportive training; if somebody goes through a course, wouldn’t it be nice to have an app that is a summary course, so that employees can refer to that.

We also have begun training our employees to understand guest emotions, and to gear service and priorities based on that. This is something new. We’re starting to train people how to read those signs and signals. So I think that you’re going to see more emotional emphasis.

Many of the classes will place emphasis on a new technological way to accommodate the customer. For example, let’s take customers that prefer door-to-door rooming. They don’t want to come through the front office anymore. With these changing trends, we need to train employees to handle various options and to do them all well, understanding that just because you don’t encounter the guest in the same manner. We had a singular training concept for how you check a guest in. Now it may be from the airport, or you may never see that guest. There’s a trend that’s coming of multiple variations of things, and not singular.

We must move faster, with guests expecting instantaneous results from us. We had a guest the other day come and have a wedding site inspection. They asked for a quote within half an hour. And we said, “Wow, planning a wedding in… sure, we can get it to you.” But that’s kind of a new way of thinking. I think the trend is to teach that and to make people understand that this is a new world. We don’t have the luxury of letting processes take longer.

Customization of services means infinite choices, and we need to provide employees with an expanded base of knowledge to accommodate this. It’s harder and more complex. It’s also being aided by better technology and better opportunities to help teach.

Wequassett Resort & Golf Club on Cape Cod
Wequassett Resort & Golf Club on Cape Cod