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Mixing Up Its Game Wynn Resorts' Winning Hiring Strategy

August 31, 2006
Related Topics: Candidate Sourcing, Workforce Planning, Featured Article, HR & Business Administration
Arte Nathan works in Las Vegas, but he doesn’t like to gamble—at least not when it comes to recruiting employees. Yet, Nathan’s latest mission required the steely nerves of a poker ace along with some old-fashioned luck. He is helping his boss, Las Vegas hotel-casino magnate Steve Wynn, break new ground in the Asian gambling mecca of Macau, a former Portuguese colony some 40 miles southwest of Hong Kong.

    Nathan’s responsibility: hire 5,000 employees in a small coastal region with a workforce of just 260,000 people and prepare them for the early-September opening of Wynn Macau, a $1.1 billion luxury resort-casino. Normally, Nathan would be unfazed by such an assignment. After all, he has helped Wynn—the mastermind behind high-profile Las Vegas properties like the Mirage and Bellagio hotels—open six casinos. Nathan also designed the recruiting strategies for the hiring of 35,000 employees.

    But this isn’t just any workforce project. This is Wynn Resorts’ initial foray into Ma­cau, and time is of the essence. Like Hong Kong, Macau is considered a special administrative region of China in a one-country/two-eco­nomies system. His competitors are flooding Ma­cau’s 10 square miles. The area’s century-old gaming industry is witnessing a dramatic rebirth since Macau was opened to foreign interests in 2001, ending local casino tycoon Stanley Ho’s 40-year monopoly of Macau’s gambling halls. Analysts also assert that opening a casino in Macau is a way for Wynn to cross-promote his domestic properties, which historically have lured Asia’s high rollers to Las Vegas.

    The stakes indeed are high. Macau’s gaming revenues totaled $5.97 billion in 2005, according to Alberto Expedito Marcal, director of the World Trade Center Macau, and there are stratospheric predictions for its future. Analysts believe Macau’s annual casino revenues are quickly closing in on those of Las Vegas, which along the Strip tallied $6 billion last year, while its metro area totaled $9.7 billion.

    Predictably, Macau’s burgeoning wealth has drawn Wynn’s old Las Vegas rivals. U.S. casino giant Las Vegas Sands Corp., which operates the Venetian hotel on the Las Vegas Strip, opened the $260 million Sands Macau in 2004. Next year, Sands Corp. plans to open the Venetian Macau, a $2 billion all-suites hotel, casino and convention complex. Additionally, MGM Mirage’s $1.06 billion MGM Grand Macau is under construction and due to open late next year, while Harrah’s Entertainment Inc. recently opened talks to buy a stake in Macau casino operator Galaxy Entertainment.

    With so much on the line, Nathan wants nothing to get lost in translation. "I know that a one-size-fits-all approach would flop," says Nathan, Wynn Resorts’ senior vice president and chief of human resources. Nathan, who joined Wynn in 1983, recognized early on that wooing workers in Asia would be different from how it works in Las Vegas, home to fast-paced hiring practices.

    "We laugh about it, but Americans are hard-charging and direct. We may not be as sensitive to the niceties of relationship building as they are in other parts of the world," he says.

    Given Macau’s dynamics, Nathan was hard-pressed to craft recruiting strategies that not only captured the imagination of the local workforce, but also won their trust. Mass-hiring techniques that are effective in Las Vegas were tweaked to focus more on bonding with potential employees. Every aspect of the hiring campaign was adapted to the local language, culture and business environment.

Establishing a bond
    Getting Wynn Macau up and running is as much about forming relationships as it is about the bricks and mortar that went into its construction, according to Nathan. Before formal recruiting began, the company toiled for two years to develop a personal foundation in Macau.

    "You can’t just jump into discussing job opportunities like you would in the U.S.," Nathan says. "In Macau, you first have to develop a relationship with somebody and hope that you will gain their trust so that they may consider employment with you."

    In fact, establishing trust is fundamental to any aspect of workforce management in the Chinese market, says Alia Santini, global human resource specialist at AXA Rosenberg, an international management investment firm with four offices in Asia. "Failing to build a team community or rushing to get ahead quickly is counter-cultural," Santini says. "It’s a sure way to get people to close up."

    Nathan has been navigating the tricky path to hiring a workforce with the help of Wendy Yu, who in June 2003 joined Wynn Macau as HR executive director. Yu has 16 years of HR experience in Macau. Just as important, she was raised there. Besides Yu, much of the senior management team is made up of locals. The move not only gave Wynn access to individuals with valuable insight into the local market, but also helped to underscore its commitment to developing the workers in the community. "It spoke volumes about the company’s local intentions," Yu says.

    The Macau team has a lot of local control, Nathan explains. "I can tell them, ‘Here is what we did in the past and here is why we did it,’ but they interpret it to their environment," Nathan says. "Some things work the same, others differently."

    Creating a bond with Macau’s residents entailed not only reaching out to government and business leaders, but also publicizing Wynn’s brand. Ensuring a high-profile name for itself was important for the company, since status and reputation carry a lot of weight in the market.

    "Having a strong employer brand is critical in China," says Peter Zhang of Mercer Human Resource Consulting in Shanghai. It is not uncommon for companies that lack name recognition to compensate by offering premium salaries, he explains.

    When construction began for Wynn Macau in June 2004, it was widely covered by the Asian and gaming media, and awareness of the company quickly grew. It was at that point the company moved ahead with staffing plans. Making a good first impression would be critical to Wynn Resorts’ success.

Personal touch
    Nathan understood that reaching out to employees in Macau would require a different approach—one that fits the framework of the culture.

    "Everything was tailored to the local audience," Nathan says. Every form of communication, ranging from the Web site to the application process, is offered in both English and Cantonese, the predominant regional language. Unlike standard hiring practices in Las Vegas, there were no job fairs or mass employment calls in Macau, only intimate gatherings.

    It might seem like a tall order, considering that some 8,000 workers must be hired—5,000 to open the casino and an additional 3,000 during the second wave of staffing several months down the road. But, as Nathan explains, Macau is a small community where running into an acquaintance is common. Since inquiring about a new job could be a sign of disrespect to a current employer, candidates place a premium on discretion. And in a culture where relationships are highly valued, job fairs could be considered too impersonal.

    Not surprisingly, many companies in Asia tend to steer away from career fairs, according to Marcal from the World Trade Center Macau. Almost 40 percent of respondents in a Mercer survey on attraction and retention strategies in China said they do not use fairs as a recruitment tool.

    There were special considerations when newspaper ads were placed. The company could not apply the same promotional strategy as in the U.S., where full-page ads in Las Vegas papers signed by Wynn read, "It is time that we meet again." Such ads work in Las Vegas, where Wynn is a household name and local talent is familiar with his properties, but not overseas. The communications campaign had to be more functional.

    Management took out a two-page advertisement showing a stage and a rising curtain. The ad listed the types of jobs that would be available and encouraged readers to log on to the company’s recruitment Web site to send résumés electronically. Many of the Web site’s images are of Asian people working as a team, driving home the point that this is a company where locals are valued and camaraderie is widespread.

    To Nathan’s surprise, thousands of candidates had access to the Internet, enabling them to apply online. The company received almost 70,000 applications, representing about 25 percent of Macau’s workforce. "We were ecstatic," Nathan remembers. "It is our biggest success story to date."

    To handle the influx of résumés, the company partnered with talent management software provider Vurv Technology, which also participated in staffing efforts for the $2.7 billion Wynn Las Vegas hotel and casino that opened in April 2005. Vurv’s system collates information and scores applicants based on their professional experience. Those who rank highest are considered more carefully for interviews. Hiring managers are kept up to date on the status of every applicant.

    Vurv’s technology did more than just make recruiting faster and more efficient; it also trimmed the need for HR staff by about 55 percent in Macau, where there were 60 hiring managers. Wynn Las Vegas, by comparison, needed 135 hiring managers. Nathan said there were many similarities in the two recruitment systems, but Vurv’s ability to customize its software allowed the Macau hiring managers to adapt the service for text messaging. Multi-language capabilities also came in handy.

    Some 90 percent of the résumés came from the online recruitment site. In Macau, however, e-mail accounts were not the primary channel for keeping in touch with candidates. Instead, the company relied on text messaging, which is nearly ubiquitous in Asia.

Going the extra mile
    Tailoring recruitment to the local market raised a host of implications for the staffing process. For one, the size of a text-message screen meant less information could be conveyed to the candidates. Instructions about meeting times or addresses didn’t fit, for instance. Consequently, much of the text messaging was used to prompt candidates to contact the call center or to go online for more information.

    Wynn Macau began accepting applications in November 2005, but the job offers were not actually extended until April. The company spent a lot of time hosting small gatherings and informational sessions, a strategy that served to forge stronger bonds with the applicants. In fact, the topic of employment did not even come up in the initial meetings because the primary goal was to put candidates at ease and answer questions about the company.

    "Every time we put our face in the public, we did it in such a way that people felt good about the way we treated them," Nathan says. "It was a matter of respect and understanding for the candidates and for their culture."

    What took Wynn five months to accomplish in Las Vegas will take about 11 months in Asia.

    "In the U.S., the process is much faster: ‘Here is the application, then we’ll give you a 30-minute interview and possibly make you a job offer. You give a two-week notice and then you come to work for us,’ " he says. "That’s not the case in Macau."

    Nathan is seeing the benefits of his recruitment strategy. After conducting 16,000 appointment-only interviews, the company selected its team and is nearly done with its three-month workforce training process. Here, too, Nathan made special considerations for the local market.

    He built in a longer training period, effectively doubling that of U.S. properties. "If training on a particular task takes three weeks in Las Vegas, it will take six weeks in Macau," Nathan says. That’s to cover the fact that the local market is unfamiliar with the unique services offered at a mega-property like Wynn Macau.

    As the September 5 opening nears, Nathan reflects on the challenges that lie ahead. Declaring victory at this stage would breed a false sense of security, leaving the company exposed to rivals also making a play for Macau’s gaming-market workforce.

    The influx of so many gaming operations means that vying for qualified talent in Macau will become more intense in the future. The pressure is already mounting. Unlike Las Vegas, the talent pool in Macau is relatively small, which means that Wynn Macau had to look overseas for talent.

    Given the shortage of workers, there were far more visas for hourly and staff-level positions in Macau than is typical in Las Vegas. The company had to work closely with labor agents to identify the staff, prepare their visas and move them to Macau. In several cases, dormitory-like facilities were built to accommodate transplants from China and the Pacific Rim.

    Workforce growth is not keeping pace with Macau’s economic boom, according to Jonathan Galaviz, partner at Globalysis, a boutique consultancy that covers Asia’s gaming industry. "The ability to have access to qualified talent is going to be one of the top challenges for employers looking to expand in Macau for the medium to long term," Galaviz says. Based on the number of mega-properties in the pipeline, there could be a demand for as many as 100,000 new employees in Macau in the next five years.

    That demand extends beyond the gaming industry and into other pockets of the economy, like construction. The Chinese government will most likely have to re-examine its stiff immigration policies, Galaviz says.

    Liberalizing the flow of labor, however, could be a painful process. Social tensions have increased between Macau natives and immigrant workers competing for jobs. In May, locals rioted, contending that outsiders were taking jobs away from the Macanese. The protests have subsided, at least temporarily, but immigration rules in Macau continue to be tough, and change could come slowly.

    Wynn Macau managed to hire some 750 overseas employees, most of whom hold positions in maintenance and housekeeping, according to Yu. "We are fine for now," Yu says. "But competition will get stiffer."

Workforce Management, August 28, 2006, p. 1, 20-25 -- Subscribe Now!

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