Secrets of the Cycadettes: Cycas Hospitality

27 October 2018 by
Secrets of the Cycadettes: Cycas Hospitality

Any hospitality company that has a turnover of £36m, notches up 98% staff retention and can boast that 85% of staff surveyed would recommend it as a great place to work, more than deserves to take the top slot in The Caterer's 30 Best Places to Work in Hospitality. Cue hotel management company Cycas Hospitality, which scooped the Best Employer Catey earlier this year.

John Wagner
John Wagner

t in today's job market you don't achieve all this without a vision. The man behind the winning team at Cycas is co-founder John Wagner, who believes that business success and employee happiness are co-dependent. "Cycas's overarching goal is to become one of the best hospitality employers in the market, making its hotels the best places to work as well as stay," he says.

The company has gathered momentum since 2008, when Wagner and co-founder Eduard Elias introduced the branded extended-stay concept in the UK with the opening of Staybridge Suites Liverpool, combining the flexibility of home with hotel services. This year, Hyatt, IHG and Marriott brands joined the portfolio, which comprises 2,819 suites and rooms across 18 hotels, of which 13 are in London, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and Amsterdam, with recent signings in Paris and Rouen. By 2022, the company plans to triple its European portfolio to 10,000 rooms, including up to 4,000 rooms in Germany and 3,000 in France.

Cycas has 55 employees supporting 320 hotel staff - known as "Cycadettes", but this will grow. All have been recruited through audition days to ensure they have the right personality to create the 'home from home' feel associated with the extended-stay concept, rather than simply having a good CV. The audition day includes interactive team tests to identify candidates who build relationships with those around them easily.


Having recognised that employees with life experience and confidence are key assets for the business, Cycas campaigns to recruit mature workers and works with Prime Candidate, a social enterprise working to highlight the benefits of older workers.

Wagner, who began working in the sector nearly 40 years ago in North America with Residence Inn creator Jack DeBoer, explains: "Most hotel personnel have been trained to be courteous, efficient and to deal with guests quickly. However, Cycas wanted to find people who would be able to offer travellers a more personal experience; chatting with them at a guest social event, or sharing a joke and building genuine connections."

This is crucial for the business because travellers today place more value on having authentic experiences in the area they're visiting. "Having your own aparthotel suite gives you a chance to live like a local, and developing relationships with your hotel hosts can be critical to making this a success," says Wagner.

Having been recruited for their personality, he encourages employees to use it. "We aren't prescriptive, unlike other hotel groups. And this is one of the reasons our hotels have such high loyalty levels, with repeat guests and longer-staying visitors," says Wagner.

"By hiring people to be themselves and encouraging them to be creative with guest-focused activities, we see examples every week of how this translates into everyday hotel initiatives that delight our guests."

These range from themed social events, such as the annual 'pasta party' at Staybridge Suites Newcastle before the annual Great North Run, to witty signage and 4 July and World Book Day celebrations.


To avoid any miscommunication between head office and the customer-facing teams, Cycas managers are encouraged to base themselves at hotels and to interact with all departments. This strengthens relationships and promotes an open culture, whereby hotel employees at every level know the senior team and feel able to discuss ideas or simply share a joke. Employees also trust the decisions made by the senior team as they recognise that most have worked in hotels.

"One thing we've found is that not only is our casual and relaxed approach valued by guests, but it also resonates with our team. So, while our employees will still have a boss, the relationships tend to be less formal," says Wagner.

Be the brand

Orchestrating this is the company's HR team - known as the culture team. "The heart of Cycas's first-class guest experience is a dedicated culture team who ensure each property operates with Cycas's signature 'positively outrageous service' and the philosophy that 'our job is not over until we get a smile'," explains Wagner.

The company's portfolio represents eight hotel brands owned by three global hotel groups so brand training has to be balanced with role development. Given the ambitious expansion plans and the pressures on recruitment of Brexit, the culture team was restructured last November to create four in-house trainer positions to specialise in brand training, learning and development, systems training and engagement. The last of these ensures people are engaged before they start, with an induction process. External experts are used where necessary.

Janet Roberts
Janet Roberts

y report into Cycas's lead culture coach, Janet Roberts, who says: "By creating in-house culture coaches and train-the-trainer programmes, Cycas maximises learning opportunities across the company and goes beyond traditional hospitality training, introducing, for example, crisis simulation and general manager media coaching sessions."

The aim is to set recruits up for success. Take Chris Thomas, who joined in October 2014 as director of sales at Holiday Inn London Stratford. Recognising his talent for doing things differently, plus his five-year plan to move into operations, Cycas arranged for him to shadow senior members of the team and get involved in wider areas of the business, from F&B to accounts. As a result, when in August last year a general manager opportunity came up at Staybridge Suites Vauxhall, Cycas sent him on a training course and promoted him into the role.

To steer career progression, in 2016 the company replaced annual one-to-one appraisals with a three-monthly system. Managers' objectives are bonus-related and they are given an 80% say on what they want them to be. When polled earlier this year, 90% viewed this approach as motivating.

The company measures staff retention rates rather than labour turnover, and Roberts believes that at an enviable 98% it is higher than industry standards because of this culture of upskilling and promoting talent. For example, 90% of the original recruits who worked at Cycas's first property, Staybridge Suites Liverpool, remain within Cycas Hospitality, including all five of the property's general managers - Roberts being one of them.

"Being identified in April as one of the 30 Best Places to Work in Hospitality was a great honour, and we think the fact that 85% of respondents to the survey said they would recommend Cycas as a great place to work was an encouraging sign that our approach is appreciated by our staff," she says.


Appy employees

The company also understands the value of regular communication and recognition, so this summer it introduced an engagement app called Fourth that encourages feedback and acts as a one-stop shop for information, with details of new policies, training information and even job opportunities.

"Not only does this inspire two-way communication across the business, such as business updates and best practice sharing, but it ensures we're able to do regular surveys to get to the heart of the issues most important to our employees and get immediate feedback to help us shape our future activity," explains Roberts.

As with the rest of the industry, Wagner recognises that since the Brexit vote many EU workers are staying away or leaving the UK, adding to the challenge of hiring the right people. The restructuring of the in-house culture team was designed to help address this by engaging staff long before they start, building internal talent and upskilling hotel teams. Equally, the strategy of recruiting for life experience means it will continue to tap into mature workers.

But Wagner also puts great value on recognition: "We hope that industry accolades such as our Best Employer Catey will help us stand out even further among potential recruits as an employer who understands how to treat its staff to get the best out of them."


Employee perks

•Service recognition to reward loyalty after one, five, 10 and 15-plus years, plus an annual Celebrating Service week, with activities and rewards.
•Automatic access to the HSF health plan, with dental check-ups, optical care, physiotherapy, chiropody, home care assistance and home help for loved ones.
•24-hour access to a GP via a health information website, plus a 24/7 counselling service to support emotional wellbeing and a legal helpline.
•Free access to Perkbox with hundreds of discounts and online savings.
•Cycas Wellness Weeks every quarter to nurture wellbeing. Activities range from healthy eating, yoga, office chair massage, to smoothies, free gym memberships, mindfulness and even financial health.
•Wellbeing breaks, including holistic techniques such as yoga and mindfulness.
•Regional family fun days to recognise the support families give to Cycadettes.
•Achievements are recognised through a range of initiatives, from Superhero, long-service and 'Wow of the week' awards to Christmas gifts, birthday and team celebration days. Cycadettes are encouraged to show gratitude via praise boxes and 'thank you' boards.
•Employees are paid in line with market rates and the National Living Wage is paid to all employees, regardless of age, supplemented by pension, healthcare and holidays.

The Caterer‘s Best Places to Work in Hospitality

In partnership with Purple Cubed

If you'd like to measure your operation against the best in the business and gain valuable employee feedback in the process, now is the time to enter the Best Places to Work in Hospitality 2019.

Run in partnership with Purple Cubed and sponsored by Umbrella Training, the awards shine a spotlight on those who demonstrate exceptional skill at employee engagement and empower their employees to deliver business improvements.

Those entering not only benefit from all the insight from our unique employee survey, but will also feature in the Top 30 hospitality employers list, which sets a businesses apart as an employer of choice, and gain a free place at the HR Forum 2019. What's more, the six highest achievers will also be shortlisted for the Best Employer Catey.

Last year Cycas Hospitality went on to win the Best Employer Catey, while City District, Firmdale hotels and Red Carnation hotels were named among the nation's top employers. All the Top 30 employers demonstrated exceptional skill at employee engagement, promoting a happy, motivated - and in turn productive - workforce.

The Caterer deputy editor James Stagg says: "Our Best Places to Work in Hospitality awards highlight those businesses that really care about their staff, who in turn care of their guests. Those who enter and make the top 30 benefit from a crucial differentiator when it comes to recruitment.

"All entrants receive a clear, practical report on how business improvements can be made, while the top employers are offered a free place at our HR Forum and are championed as employers of choice."

If you want to be considered one of the Best Places to Work in Hospitality, enter today.

Six reasons to enter the Best Places to Work in Hospitality •Be recognised as a best place to work in hospitality
•Attract the best talent; engage and retain them
•Receive insight from an employee survey specifically created for hospitality
•Identify what's important to your people and understand what really matters to your teams
•Free HR Forum place
•Have the opportunity to be shortlisted for the 2018 Best Employer Catey

How it works

Visit the Best Places to Work in Hospitality website and complete your company details.

There is a payment of £250 per company, which covers the cost of the employee survey.

Once you have paid you will receive an email from Purple Cubed containing your unique employee survey link, which is completed anonymously. We will also send you an example email to send to your employees to encourage their participation.

You can now ask employees to complete the survey which should take about 10 minutes (it's anonymous and is treated in complete confidence).

The closing date for completed surveys is 15 February 2019.

Sponsored by Umbrella Training

Umbrella Training are passionate supporters of the hospitality industry. We are dedicated to promoting this diverse and glorious industry as a first-rate career option, and we are committed to providing the highest quality training and development to the industry's best organisations. Together, with those operators, we believe we can create a world-class workforce.

Our expert knowledge means we understand what a positive impact apprentices can make on hospitality businesses and, day in, day out, we see how exciting apprenticeship programmes are ensuring that employers get the return on investment they acutely need from such enterprises.

Using our broad wealth of industry experience, and through our involvement in the apprenticeship reforms, we are able to support employers through every stage of their apprenticeship journey to ensure they get results. Engagement is paramount to retention and we know that apprenticeships can really help the industry to improve both its retention figures and to overcome any skills shortages.

The Best Places to Work in Hospitality are coveted awards that give visionary and best practice employers who really invest in their workforce a chance to shine, and we are proud to support such a positive initiative.

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