Four Seasons When Training Doesn't Translate

March 1, 1997
It's November 1992, the hottest, most humid time of the year in Bali, Indonesia. And the Four Seasons Resort Bali is about to open for business. The incomparable island beauty serves as stark contrast to the hotel's makeshift training center—an old, dreary elementary school building with bare, low-wattage light bulbs hanging from the ceiling. Mediocre ventilation has made the room hot and still. The Peace Corps-like setting seems a world away from what will soon be one of the globe's top-rated resorts.

When Michael Burchett, general manager for the hotel's opening, and the other Four Seasons hotel managers embarked on creating this first-class resort at Jambaran Bay, Bali, they hardly suspected what awaited them. The area's luxurious white-sand beaches and lush tropical rain forests couldn't hide the challenges they'd soon encounter. They knew that creating paradise wouldn't be easy, but they didn't know just how daunting it would be. It took all of their HR know-how, cultural skill and interpersonal sensitivity to make it work—first at the Bali Resort, then a few years later at The Regent Jakarta hotel on the island of Java. Indeed, they did make it work—and on a world-class level.

Meeting high service expectations. When opening a hotel that's known worldwide for having the highest quality of customer service, there's no room for error. Hotel staff must be outstanding and respond correctly every time. Clerks at the front desk must coordinate rooms to exact customer specifications; staff who deliver room service must not only cook excellent food to order, but also must deliver it quickly and present it superbly; concierge, bell-station attendants, waiters, fitness center and pool attendants must respond to a wide range of customer requests—and everyone must be friendly and engaging. And to top it off, they must achieve these standards in an environment that may be as strange to the employees as a Jakartan pushcart is to a traveling American.

The HR issues encountered in creating this atmosphere were numerous. To begin with, the hotel (both then and now) has two types of staff—expatriates and local hires. That in itself created its own obstacles. In addition, there were myriad challenges of bringing local hires' skills up to world-class level. From recruiting to training, from recognition to performance appraisals, Burchett and his HR staff had to operate in a workplace in which the view of the situation was often as obstructed as the view of the ocean through giant vines and elephant-ear plants. They couldn't take for granted that what had worked in Chicago or Sydney would work in Indonesia; they had to discern the distinctness in this environment—the individual and cultural issues—to determine how they'd construct and implement HR policies and how they'd treat people so they'd feel motivated and feel like they were dealt with fairly.

Four Seasons Resort Bali: Transforming a remote island village into a Garden of Eden. The Four Seasons' staff hadn't expected to start from scratch. They anticipated being able to import standard HR training procedures-practices that had always worked so well elsewhere. Not so, here. "Training here was different from anywhere else," says Royal L. Rowe, executive assistant manager. "It was fraught with opportunities to excel."

Although there were more than 10,000 applicants eager to fill the 580 jobs, virtually none were able to speak English, and many didn't have any concept about world cuisine and western customs. In fact, many of the Balinese applicants had never even left their island, meaning training had to begin at a more basic level than usual.

Traditional corporate training methods were fairly useless in educating the indigenous population to Four Seasons' standards, says Rowe, because most of the training was geared to young Americans with some college education. More than their education, eager, young Americans also have an idea about the Four Seasons' corporate philosophy. In fact, the only thing the Four Seasons training staff could count on from the beginning with the Indonesian employees, and the Balinesian people especially, was their cultural predisposition to be gracious and hospitable. In other words, the concept of service didn't have to be taught —just refined.

It was the specifics of western culture, however, that the native workers needed to learn: cereal is a breakfast food, hamburgers are what guests eat for lunch; milk goes with cereal, butter goes on toast, ketchup goes with fries. Then, there are the finer points of serving Westerners: the fork goes on the left, never reach across one person to serve another. In fact, Rowe recalls one trainee who had never seen a hamburger or fries before. That was January of 1993.

From book learning to communication. As problematic as cultural-based differences might have seemed, fully 90 percent of the HR staff's training difficulties revolved around communication. Because the official language of the hotel chain is English, there's an English-speaking policy-all employees must demonstrate a minimum level of proficiency. "It didn't take us long to figure out that language was going to be the real problem here," says Rowe. "It was the key to success, because if you couldn't communicate, you could drill people all day long that hamburgers get ketchup, but if they couldn't understand that the guests were saying, 'Ketchup, please,' you just couldn't make it."

So, developing communication skills began at the hiring phase. All 10,000 applicants were given a simple English test with 10 questions-true and false. (One question, for example was 'I am a fire truck. True or false.') Says Rowe, "We had all these great ideas. We were going to have minimum standards for speaking English. But that got pitched five days into the mass hiring because we wouldn't have had any employees."

Instead of trying to hire local people with English skills and knowledge of western idioms, the HR staff had to go a different route with heavy, intensive English training from the beginning. That's when Burchett, Rowe, and the rest of the personnel staff started the Self Access Learning Centres. The idea was to create a learning center that would allow the employees to teach themselves an unfamiliar language.

The idea was to create a learning center that would allow the employees to teach themselves an unfamiliar language.

At the outset, everyone reported for training on November 8, 1992, to learn enough English so they could staff for the hotel's opening on December 12. Training took nine hours a day, including classroom and practical training time. The company hired a training firm specializing in the hospitality industry that did intensive work in teaching restaurant- and hotel-related words, such as salt and pepper, and bath towels.

"We knew we were setting a whole new standard," says Rowe. "But we didn't know how difficult it was going to be." Although the training center started out as crude and makeshift, it has now developed into a library-like study center, located adjacent to the HR offices, that features computers, tapes, VCRs, training modules, books and magazines. Today, potential employees are given a test prior to hiring to gauge their English skill level. Once hired and trained, they begin the course, which takes them from the first to the fifth level. When employees move to each new level, they receive a certificate and monetary incentive.

The Self Access Learning Centre has grown considerably. Now, along with English for the Balinesians, foreign managers at the resort develop their Bahasa Indonesia (the native language of Indonesia) skills. And, Japanese language classes are also taught because Japanese visitors comprise approximately 20 percent of the hotel's visitors.

Three years later, the Balinesian staff is dedicated not only to serving its patrons, but also to being capable of speaking and communicating to meet just about any traveler's needs. Moreover, as the hotel industry in Asia continues to expand, these trained and talented individuals have skills that are needed throughout the region. Although this concept may not seem surprising to many global HR professionals, the idea of moving to Jakarta or to Singapore or to the United States and working there is an almost unbelievable concept to some of the Balinese who've never flown or even traveled around their own country.

While Rowe didn't know how difficult it would be to get the staff trained and operating at top efficiency, he says he also didn't know how successful the hotel's opening would turn out. To illustrate its success, Condé Nast Traveler magazine's annual Readers' Choice Gold List poll (January 1996 and 1997) scored the Four Seasons Resort Bali as one of the highest-rated hotels in the world. Clearly, by even the most objective standards, the hotel management has achieved its objectives—and more. Business to the hotel has increased steadily since the hotel opened. Guests from all over the world are taking advantage of the manmade paradise, particularly visitors from North America, Europe, Asia, Australia and South America. Other Polynesians even are feasting on the hotel's opulent surroundings and service.

HR moves on to Jakarta to open another hotel. Burchett traveled to The Regent Jakarta hotel in early 1995. Having had such success in Bali, he brought along the idea of the Self Access Learning Centre. Successful as that aspect of training was, Jakarta, which is on the island of Java in Indonesia, challenged Burchett and his HR staff with different problems. "I've opened four hotels," says Burchett (who is Australian), "and they don't get any more challenging than this."

Just like in Bali, thousands of applicants lined up for jobs at The Regent Jakarta—22,000 for 650 positions. Jakarta is a city of 10 million, with access to McDonald's burgers and Citibank ATMs. Many citizens know English and have traveled extensively. However, the most critical issues impacting the hotel's success in this location have been vast cultural differences revolving around the expatriate and the Indonesian staff. As of mid-1996, there was a staff of 809 which included 57 managers and 18 expatriates—making up 48 percent of the total payroll.

More than dollars, though, there have been misunderstandings between middle management and expatriate staff about compensation and allowances packages, and generally how employees perceive the organization's treatment of them overall. Jealousy has been a frequent byproduct. Reny Ratman, director of HR who's Indonesian but comes from a diplomatic family, is highly regarded because of her ability to span both cultures. Ratman and her eight-person HR staff have had to call upon their diplomatic skills often. They're responsible for resolving many of the misunderstandings around quality issues and have had to help ease the pressure the senior staff exerted on the local national staff.

Says Burchett, who's now the general manager of The Regent Jakarta: "Our standards are so high, it puts a lot of pressure on people." For example, if a chair isn't straight or there's a smudge on something, the managers will point that out. Indonesians read that as criticism. Not that it's meant to be negative, but Indonesian culture tends to avoid criticism and conflict. Direct—even blunt—Australians (or Americans, Swiss or whoever) trying to manage and empower indirect, subtle, exceptionally polite Indonesians, has created obvious challenges from the beginning. The middle management staff has been the area in which most misunderstandings started. For instance, the expatriate managers said they were frustrated because they didn't feel the managers were managing. At the same time, the managers were frustrated with senior management because they said they wouldn't let them manage. In turn, the expatriates said that to help the managers manage, they believed they'd have to instruct them in detail. On the other hand, the managers believed they were being coddled—talked down to.

"So, in trying to knock down barriers (by explaining thoroughly), we were actually building barriers," he says. Frustrations continued to build because Indonesians avoided conflict. Burchett believes that he, and a few other senior managers, are still having to change their focus and proceed slowly so there's time to learn and to overcome differences.

Yet, Javan attention to detail and affinity for service has made the hotel a traveler's nirvana. For example, April Kayadu who works in the hotel's concierge department was praised for one particular act of "going beyond the call of duty" service. She went out of her way (while off duty) to help a guest resolve an airline ticket problem. Lesson for the hotel management: World-class service can come from anywhere. Just like the hotel's landscaping (for which the hotel received top honors by the Jakartan government), quality service must be cultivated and nurtured.

Lessons learned. If he had it to do over again, Burchett would do some things differently. "I'd educate all of our expatriates before they arrived and ensure that all of them speak the language fluently. Speaking the language not only assists you with communications, but it also gains you a certain respect and understanding from the staff, and people in general."

He remembers when the Regent opened in Sydney in 1982, the general manager created Australian cultural classes so that the Swiss, French and German staff knew how to deal with Australians. "Here the cultural issues are different, but we should have done the same thing. We're not producing a product. It's all interaction," Burchett says.

However, he believes that having the language center is a big advantage, and would do that the same. The $120,000 (U.S. dollars) center emphasizes communication, not simply learning to speak English. Its purpose is to improve confidence and create an atmosphere in which employees develop and can move throughout the region and globe from one Four Seasons hotel to another.

Whether it's culture or language, training is critical across cultures. The tropical lure of Bali, the exotic enticement of Jakarta are but portions of the experience. In any business, it's the people who propel it; in the hospitality industry, it's people who are key. Cultural and language issues can separate or unify people, but they're as much a part of global business as compensation and benefits. Beyond the obvious differences in culture, it's HR's job to resist the temptation to model training based on past experience. Instead, HR must learn to combine the training needs of the local culture with the high standards of the company's corporate culture—and do that in the best way for the employees. The result can be exactly what these two hotels have achieved: a paradise for world travelers and a case study in global staffing and training.

Workforce, March 1997, vol. 76, No. 3, pp. 40-44.