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"Showing vulnerability has led to trust and unity."

In the latest UC Voices, Alys catches up with globe trotter Federica Rabiolo, Senior Manager Internal & Digital Communications, EMEA, at Hilton. Hospitably has arguably been one of the hardest hit industries during the COVID-19 pandemic. They discuss the impossible task of engaging people through disruption and the importance of reassuring and refocusing people on the future.

Federica Rabiolo

Let’s dive in by talking about what led you to internal communications.

I started my career at eBay working in its corporate and public affairs department in Washington DC. I had to explain our public policy positions to the small businesses who used our marketplace, prompting them to speak to their elected officials about these policy issues. I loved working with the small business community, so moved into a comms role that was focused on telling their stories to trade media, investors and across social and digital media.  

I made the move to London about three years ago to lead the corporate social responsibility comms strategy for EMEA before I was drawn in by the travel industry - it was such a huge passion of mine. Hilton was my first internal communications role, but I’m two years in and am loving it and I have definitely noticed the lines between internal and external continuing to blur more and more.

I joined on Hilton’s 100th birthday in 2019 and had a year full of celebration. Then, the pandemic hit and suddenly my job was to communicate really difficult things. But I also got to share the amazing things that our hotels did throughout the most impossible year. It's been an interesting journey so far!

The last 18-months have obviously been a huge roller coaster for most businesses, but particularly for those working within the hospitality industry. How have you helped your people navigate the crisis?

The first thing we did was to increase communications and the visibility of our leaders. We were incredibly transparent about what was happening and how it was affecting the business and tried to be really honest very early on that we were in unchartered territory.

The second thing we focused on doing was showing the inventiveness and the amazing efforts of our hotels. They pivoted so incredibly, many of them hosted healthcare workers while others worked with local governments to offer quarantine facilities to nationals returning home. We worked really hard to showcase the amazing things our hotels were doing and how they were continuing to spread Conrad Hilton’s proverbial ‘light and warmth of hospitality’ in order to give hope and inspire Team Members all over the world.

We continually shared the positive and heart-warming ways our hotels were supporting their local communities. Here in the UK for example we partnered with Open Kitchens ,and the Hilton London Metropole prepared well over 40,000 meals for people in need. Our people put their skills to use to benefit each other and their local communities too. They did whatever they could to lift spirits. This was pre-vaccine, a time of huge uncertainty and well before we knew what was going to happen – we just wanted to give people hope and show them how resilient we are as an organisation.

You mentioned that your leaders were very visible throughout the pandemic. Do you think your people have more trust in them now?

We’re lucky in that in most of our recent Team Member pulse surveys, people have always said that they have really high trust in leadership, but there was a really special trust in our executive committee and our senior leaders to navigate us through the challenge of the pandemic.

There have been some inevitable organisational changes as a direct result of COVID-19, and I know that those decisions were not made lightly. We always ensured that those decisions were communicated in a transparent way and that Team Members were treated with dignity and respect. Now our leaders have turned their focus to our recovery and our future. While they’re realistic about some of the hurdles and challenges we still face, they’re also encouraging us to keep our eyes on the great things to come – and on getting ready to capture all that pent-up travel demand that’s already being unleashed.

Do you think the team feel more connected to each other and to the company after the experience that you've been through?

I think going through any sort of traumatic experience as a team creates a bond and I certainly feel that we’re closer – both in my immediate team and as an organisation. Having been through a shared experience like this, we are all more empathetic about what others have been through and are going through on a daily basis. People have also been more open and willing to show vulnerability in a professional setting, and that’s created more trust and unity.

How did you reassure people about the future when so much was unknown?

In the beginning it was really hard. But I think we showed ourTeam Members that we are nimble, innovative and gritty which reassured them. We leaned into our founding principles. Hilton has a more than 100-year-old history of perseverance and getting through historically difficult times. A lot of our leadership team had been through recent past crises like the dot.com boom, 9/11 and the 2008 banking crisis, so Team Members were reassured that they had been through big crises before, and had the experience, skill and knowledge to successfully navigate the business through difficult situations.  

Our hotels, and especially our General Managers, also really stepped up to help each other and shared the ways they were attracting business and generating revenue in unlikely ways, which I think others found inspiring. They were so inventive! When travel was at a virtual standstill and many of our hotels were closed, they really dialled up their creativity to attract locals with things like afternoon tea delivery, DIY meal kits and more.

What are you most proud of about your response to the last year?  

I was just so struck by the way our teams have given back. Honestly,I don't think there was a single hotel in our portfolio that didn't roll up their sleeves and do something for their local community, whether it was feeding those in need, sewing masks, helping healthcare professionals or surprising people with small gestures. You name it, they did it - and they went above and beyond at a time when they were incredibly stressed and often dealing with challenging personal circumstances. It wasn’t something we instructed them to do, hospitality and giving back are just in Hilton’s DNA and it was the first way they sprang into action.

As a hospitality company, you've always had a hugely disparate audience that you have to engage and communicate with. What advice would you give to someone dealing with as similarly dispersed audience at the moment?

There are two things.

One, find the right messenger. It doesn’t always have to be the usual suspects; it really depends on the message we’re trying to deliver and who we’re trying to reach.

The other is to put yourself in their shoes first. And the way you do that is by continually listening and connecting with them. You’ve got to understand what's is happening on the ground, especially in the situation we are currently in, where recovery is looking different all over the world. You have to understand the mood for the audience more than ever or you risk sounding tone deaf.

What’s your biggest learning from the last year?

Balancing the need for communication with saying too much and overwhelming people. You’re trying to keep everyone updated and ensure that they action what you need them to, and that’s hard when people are worried and anxious and just trying to get through the day. When you’re in crisis mode, you’ve got that execution mindset and you’re in full throttle – you don’t always have time to analyse everything, but looking back, perhaps we could have taken a more scaled back approach at times.

What’s your focus at the moment?

Making sure that team members feel heard and connected to our purpose. Travellers’ expectations will have changed, and team members will be under tremendous pressure to deliver. So, we want to make sure they all feel supported and can connect with each other and the business through the right channels and tools and critically, have what they need to get the job done and good feedback mechanisms.

Let’s talk about that future now – what are you most excited about?

I’m just excited to see the return of international travel. I get a smile on my face when I see how happy our hotels are to be welcoming guests once again.

One last question. You said travel was your passion, but what do you love most about what you do?

That's a great question. I think it has to be bringing our culture to life through real life stories. I love discovering and telling the incredible stories that exemplify our culture, which exist in truly every corner of our organisation. For many organisations, culture and values are words on a page but that’s not the case here and there’s nothing like seeing a hotel or team member bringing them to life in a completely genuine and authentic way. That makes my job easier, because there is never a shortage of great stories to tell!