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Accent Inns & Hotel Zed: Lead with love

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Mandy Farmer, President and CEO of Accent Inns and Hotel Zed, shared her experience leading her team through the many challenges of the pandemic, lessons learned over two tough years, and how to lead a team with love.

In Conversation With… Mandy Farmer, President and CEO, Accent Inns & Hotel Zed

We’ve now officially passed the two-year mark of the COVID-19 pandemic. For many business owners the extended pandemic has been a test in patience, resilience and leadership. So what can leaders do to take some good out of this unplanned event and apply it to their operations and approaches moving forward?

We recently re-visited with Mandy Farmer, President and CEO of Accent Inns and Hotel Zed, a family-owned hotel chain in British Columbia. Mandy shared her experience leading her team through the many challenges of the pandemic, lessons learned over two tough years, and how to lead a team with love.

You lead a company in one of the industries hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. What has the experience been like for Accent Inns?

The pandemic certainly hasn’t been easy for anyone in our industry, but our team has been resilient in the face of countless challenges. I’m so proud of how quickly we adapted to the ever-changing “normal” and made sure we did everything we could to keep our guests, our team and our communities cared for and safe.

How did you engage your employees and help them keep their spirits up through that challenging first wave of the pandemic?

As a company, one of our core values is to “be real.” When the pandemic first hit and things started to shut down, I knew my role was to create a safe space for my team to share their fears, challenges, and feelings. I did this by demonstrating vulnerability. I was completely transparent with my executive team and my leaders, and I was honoured when I got that honesty back. As leaders, we started connecting regularly, which was much more efficient when we were trying to change so quickly how our properties operated.

We’d never done all-leaders video calls before, and seeing our team continue to connect emotionally and support each other during that first wave was special. I even started weekly emails to all staff to let them know what was going on, how we were feeling, shared coping strategies and celebrated wins.

We made sure every single employee knew how to access their benefits and receive mental health support for themselves and their families. We provided our team with grocery gift cards—one for their family and one to give away to someone who could use it.

In the earliest days of the pandemic, how did you as the company’s leader tackle the challenges your business was facing?

We collaborated constantly. Our team was so awesome at leaning on each other’s strengths across properties to make effective changes quickly. My job was to support, remove obstacles, but mostly get out of their way. I’d already done the hard part before the pandemic: I’d hired people I trusted completely to make the right choices and get us through the whiplash of new rules and regulations.

Every single department and location got creative and leapt into action when things started changing. In fact, our Operations team was so efficient at pulling together COVID-safe policies for our property that we were able to share them with the Canadian Hotel Association to use as best practices.

Now two years later, how has your business changed?

Once we caught our breath, we were able to look around and ask, “how can we help?” We’ve been able to collaborate with the United Way of Greater Victoria to create two unique charitable funds based on community need: The Hotels for Frontline Workers during the first wave of the pandemic, and recently the Hotels for Families in Need Fund to help local families in need of housing.

We’ve also empowered our own teams to go out into the community and share our love. We’ve been able to send our hotel staff into their communities to surprise frontline workers like bus drivers, teachers and grocery store workers with gifts and free stays.

How have you approached keeping employee morale high during the past year, through numerous waves and starts-and-stops?

Our staff are our number one priority. My goal is to be a great employer first, and a great hotelier second. That mindset—and being very clear about it to our team—has helped build our culture.

Our leadership team worked so hard and fast to ensure we maintained a safe work environment in the pandemic’s early days, and we were constantly adapting to new science and information. When I stopped to breathe, I noticed how much magic had happened because we took care of our people and they felt loved during such a scary time.

Without many rooms to clean, a housekeeping team trained themselves to do landscaping; front desk staff helped our sales team fill hotels with essential workers needing accommodation; staff having to stay home received gift baskets from coworkers; and employees were hosting outdoor workout classes. Even our external efforts—like going out into the real world to surprise other frontline workers with gifts and free stays—helped boost moral. It’s so energizing.

Are there any big lessons you’ve learned about leading a business (or being a leader yourself) throughout the pandemic?

These last two years, with all their ups and downs, helped us distill our purpose as an organization and helped me clarify my role as a leader.

I am here to lead with love. When I do, the love multiplies. I used to think you couldn’t use the word “love” in business—it’s not in the textbooks! But I was so wrong. We’ve always led with love here. That started when my dad founded this company. The pandemic has given me a chance to articulate this value and give permission to all our leaders to truly love their team.

And it really does trickle down to every corner of our business. We’ve had a lot of families staying in our hotel during the pandemic for medical appointments or treatments—high-risk folks who have had to travel when it’s scary to leave one’s home.

But our team greets them with love. They care for them like they would have their own family, and they’re making a scary time a little bit safer for them. Love radiates from within the organization. That’s why our team is so happy to work here and why we’re winning awards for our corporate culture.

How did your relationship with HSBC Bank Canada help your business during the pandemic?

HSBC has been such a strong partner for us, before and during the pandemic. Having access to their secure website, HSBCnet, meant our team could easily transition to working from home because we knew we could still securely process payments and manage our financials.

Our team works so closely with our HSBC Relationship Manager, who’s helped us find solutions to situations made more complicated by the pandemic and remote work. I don’t know what we would have done without such a responsive and supportive team behind us!

What business advice do you have for other business leaders that have endured two challenging years?

Everything has changed, and as we come out of the worst of the pandemic, we are now in an interesting spot. We get to decide what parts of the past two years we’re going to keep. For our head office team, remote work is just going to be part of the deal moving forward, and they’ve settled into mixing work-from-home with ways to connect in person. Set your intentions clearly and make sure you have people around you that will hold you accountable to your goals and your vision. There is no such thing to cookie cutter entrepreneurship. Create your own rules—it’s way more fun!

Plan to take your business to the next level in the next phase of the economy? Contact HSBC Bank Canada to discuss strategies and services that could help.

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