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Using Storytelling to Engage a Diverse Workforce at Kempinski Hotels

How Kempinski Hotels established its corporate culture and got employees of differing skill and literacy levels engaged in it

Mia Norcaro, VP Corporate Communications at Kempinski Hotels, explains how storytelling helped the hotel group define and instill its core values to reflect its brand and desire for innovation and engagement

Imagine the challenge we faced at Kempinski Hotels in 2008; we needed to find a way to foster our group’s core values in an environment marked by rapid growth – our portfolio of hotels under management was set to more than double by 2015, taking the number of employees from 7,500 to a projected 37,500 in just seven years. In addition to this, we needed to encourage innovation to ensure the brand could maintain and increase its competitive edge in the luxury hospitality industry.

The majority of our staff haven’t benefited from further education, so any approach would need to be simple and compelling. Above all, the company boasts a fine heritage (Kempinski can trace its origins to 1897) and we didn’t want to lose the ‘soul’ of the organization as it grew.

We knew we needed an approach that would gain broad support throughout the group, and we also wanted it to be as unique as Kempinski. We needed to get senior management to understand that corporate culture wasn’t just learning some words by heart, but that it means something much deeper and would need commitment to promote exemplary behavior.

A project team led by Corporate Communications was set up and included the heads of Kempinski’s People Management teams. Corporate Communications led the project from the start, and I took on the leadership of the implementation in 2009.

Our department, part of a larger Corporate Affairs & Strategic Planning department, was seen as having a broad skill set – in particular the project management skills needed to lead the team in convincing senior management groupwide to implement the planned corporate culture management program.

Making the Business Case to the Board

This last task was especially crucial – top management (the Management Board and Regional Presidents) had to commit their time and assign company resources to this program if we were to be successful with senior management on a groupwide basis. They had to understand the link between delivering a consistent brand promise and guest experience, and actively managing our corporate culture.

We were able to demonstrate in business terms that when employee engagement is higher than 60 percent, total shareholder return can almost double, and conversely that if engagement drops below 25 percent, total shareholder return can be negatively impacted [Ann MacDiarmid. Encouraging employee engagement. CMA Management; June/July 2004].

We then demonstrated that, compared with a global average of 21 percent engaged employees, Kempinski already had 29 percent engagement – and explained that this could be increased by promoting common values. They agreed that we needed to engage and inspire staff to identify with the company culture and make each of them a true brand ambassador who would pass on our corporate culture to new employees, while also remaining loyal to the Kempinski brand.

We convinced the Management Board and Regional Presidents that the working environment and experience our employees had at Kempinski were not only unique but a vital component in delivering solid operational performance in our hotels – and driving business results.

Academic associations

From 2008 to 2010 Kempinski was supported by the University of St. Gallen’s Institute for Media and Communications Management (HSG MCM). Professor Miriam Meckel and her team provided access to research that helped the team substantiate the business case.

Together, we then designed research specifically for this project, conducting 180 interviews with staff at all levels and geographical areas of the group, before defining the five core values of the group.

Our aim was to avoid a focus group or marketing style approach where the brand promise might inform the culture, and instead to draw from the existing heritage in luxury hospitality to inform the brand promise and guest experience (concurrent global projects).

Our values were defined by listening to our staff, who told us in their own words what it was like to work at Kempinski: being people oriented, being straightforward, encouraging entrepreneurial performance amongst staff, having the freedom to create traditions and being passionate about European luxury.

These five core values had never been explicitly formulated before, and the definition of our values was core to Kempinski’s corporate culture management program, dubbed “DNA”.

Designing a complete program

With the values identified, in 2009 the project team, once more supported by HSG MCM, discussed what challenges could be expected during implementation, the organizational style of learning and what approach would be most successful.

We agreed that classroom-style learning of rules and regulations simply would not be appropriate if we were to achieve deep personal understanding and inspire staff to live these values at work.

It was clear that we would need to communicate and engage in dialogue with staff at every level of the group, and that senior management would need to be seen as leading this process. This was a participative approach which matches the group’s preferred leadership style: an understanding of personal relevance, discussion and the chance to contribute to the outcome are key to achieving buy-in.

Kempinski has a strong network of in-house trainers who would be the best suited to support and prepare senior managers, and we nominated a network of Regional and Hotel DNA Champions who would be responsible for the program implementation in their regions and hotels.

At the same time, we faced a particular challenge due to the nature of the hospitality business. As the majority of staff for a hotel are employed locally and there are many areas of the hotel where staff do not need a high level of education, we faced varying levels of education and literacy within individual hotels.

Add to this the challenge of being active in 28 countries with as many languages needed for local implementation, and it became clear we required a tool that would transcend cultural and language differences as well as illiteracy.

We initially considered a theatre concept, where staff serving guests in front-of-house (the areas of a hotel which the public might see) could be imagined as playing a role “on stage”, and where staff ensuring the operations back-of-house could be imagined as being “behind-the-scenes”.

However, we discarded this idea as the whole point of our DNA program was for staff to be able behave naturally according to our values, rather than play a defined part.

The storytelling approach was agreed on as the most appropriate: all cultures in the world have some form of storytelling tradition.

As hoteliers, a lot of information is shared informally through stories – told to guests to entertain them, or to staff to share experience and knowledge. So storytelling would also come very naturally to staff throughout Kempinski. And importantly, with all the time we’d spent interviewing employees and management, we also already had access to real-life stories to give this approach a kick-start.

We selected five stories that each illustrated one or more of these values. Each story was emotionally powerful with plenty of elements to make them “sticky”, and we rendered the stories anonymous by changing the names and locations as far as possible.

I created a storybook, dubbed myStorybook, which explained the core values and behaviors, and then told the stories through the written word, artwork or photography – with plenty of blank pages for staff to share their own story. Artwork and colors were associated with each value, so that all collateral could have a consistent visual language – important again in helping illiterate staff identify values or stories.


In 2010, the core project team, supported by a network of regional and local training managers, began the process of cascading communication through the organization – with managers personally leading their teams each step of the way.

The team provided the tools to support managers: scripted presentations, session plans, Q&As, games, activities, as well as collateral such as posters, executive summaries, brochures and the storybook. Managers were also supported by their regional or local training managers.

We began with a two-day DNA session with Kempinski’s Management Board and three Regional Presidents, to define how the values would be implemented – which behaviors would be sought out and encouraged, with higher expectations of managers, who should lead by example.

We achieved their buy-in through intensive discussions about what Kempinski meant by each value, and aimed to create such a large list of behaviors for each value that these could not possibly be learned by rote.

Our aim throughout was to create a corporate culture, which would empower staff to know instinctively what would be an appropriate way at Kempinski to solve a challenge, work with colleagues or serve our guests – not to limit them with strict rules.

We also told the stories related to each value, and encouraged the Board and Presidents to share their own stories – which were later integrated into documentation and online blogs.

Afterwards, they led very visibly by example, taking their senior management teams and General Managers of hotels in their regions through the same process. Each senior manager and General Manager led their own teams in turn and so on, until every single member of staff had completed their own session and made a personal commitment by the end of 2011.

Engaging storytelling and encouraging staff members to talk about their personal experience of Kempinski, as well as touching on how their behavior is guided by Kempinski’s core values, proved very successful and was seen as enjoyable and meaningful.

Before, during and after the DNA sessions, we promoted the program through all available channels, including internal blogs, e-newsletters, brochures, executive summaries, posters and the storybook. Complete resources were also made available in a heavily promoted dedicated workspace on our online collaboration platform.

Printed collateral was provided as open electronic documents so that each hotel could adapt and translate, and print on simple A4 colour printers in-house.

Within the online workspace, we created a storytelling mini-site, called “myStory”, to collect and recognize new stories. The most exemplary or compelling stories shared during the storytelling activity in each session could be written up by the hotel’s Training or PR Manager, and shared online – with some then used in further poster campaigns, e-newsletters and the staff magazine – for colleagues worldwide to be inspired by.

Reality check

Now that 100 percent of staff have participated in DNA sessions during 2011, we have begun to measure the impact and success of the program.

The implementation was not without its challenges. While most managers and staff instinctively agreed with and accepted the values, not everyone could agree on some important points of behavior.

Also, by clearly articulating our values for the first time, we started to understand why some employees were a mismatch for the company – managers were subsequently prepared to handle potentially difficult discussions with these employees, using mediation skills and a full briefing.

We run an annual Employee Satisfaction Survey, administered in 20 languages and open to all staff (computer stations are typically set up in ballrooms or meeting rooms for the duration of the survey).

The 2011 survey was conducted in September (when roll-out hadn’t yet been completed); amongst other questions [see the graph, right], we asked respondents whether they believed in Kempinski’s core values – 93 percent responded yes.

In the 2010 survey, we’d asked respondents how many core values they knew – only 29 percent of them answered correctly, compared to 63 percent in 2011.

As we also hoped to increase staff loyalty and retention, a measure of engagement, we were pleased to see this grow from 29 percent in 2008 to 34 percent in 2011.

The myStory space is among the most visited areas online and we’ve collected nearly 300 stories [see the screenshot, below].

This is very positive in an industry where most staff don’t have time to regularly access a computer. Anecdotal evidence from sessions shows that staff often believe some or all of the original stories are about their hotel, which exhibits their pride, and belief in and ownership of these stories.

Storytelling has now become part of daily hotel life, and through the sessions, a variety of new traditions have been created in our group, some in just one hotel, others in many hotels.

One in particular that has grown in the Middle East and Africa region is inspired by the Hakawati (Hakawati means “a teller of tales” in Arabic).

While we were focused on encouraging value-based behavior throughout, the process highlighted several new areas to work on.

Leadership and communication skills for managers are now gone into greater depth during executive training.

We have a catalogue of recruitment questions (including behavioral, attitudinal and situational questions) designed to see whether a potential employee could match our culture – we hope to see an improvement in retention levels of employees recruited post-2011 and reduced time to effectiveness.

Managers’ evaluations now include how well they lead by example and encourage value-based behaviors among their team, and critically, are a percentage of senior managers’ bonuses.

Last, but certainly not least, we have nearly completed the definition of the Employee Experience in our group, focused on essential touchpoints where the corporate culture must be credible. This was a very large sub-project the team added to the scope of the project – and we hope to roll this out in 2012.

When I look back at the road we’ve traveled, I’m amazed to see how much we’ve accomplished with a relatively small budget but using a powerful storytelling approach to propagate our core values. The project has certainly grown in scope and while there are things I wish that we’d known and been able to prepare for, such as enabling leaders with the right skills, our approach has remained pragmatic, hands-on and positive.

As part of my role, I spend time with senior managers when they first arrive at the company and often ask for their initial impressions of Kempinski (before mentioning our values) and am reassured that we haven’t lost our soul – they always remark on how friendly, welcoming and practical everyone is. Some have even already heard of our values and can tell me their own stories.


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