Mandy Farmer, CEO, Accent Inns on How to Create a Caring Workplace Culture
For those that don’t know the “pint-sized British Columbia hotel chain with a big personality,” Accent Inns encompasses eight hotels and the Roar seafood restaurant in Canada. CEO Mandy Farmer took over the business in 2008 from her father. Besides dreaming up the Hotel Zed and making the company more profitable under her leadership, Mandy has created a positive work culture grounded in “core values” that has made Accent Inns one of the most admired and desired employers in Canada.
In 2022, Accent Inns employee survey had a 91% participation rate and 94% of their employees reported being happy to work there! With those kinds of numbers, it comes as no surprise Accent Inns has won a host (intentional double entendre) of awards for being the BEST place to work in Canada, and most recently Mandy Farmer has been given the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce’s 2023 Award of Distinction for her contributions to the community. We chat with Mandy to get herstory and find out how to create a caring corporate culture that makes people love their jobs.
Hi Mandy, thanks for taking the time to chat with hertelier about creating a corporate culture that brings people to you, versus having to seek people out. Very important with today’s tight labor market. Before we get to that, tell us a bit about your journey. You’re a third-generation family business owner? What was your family’s first business and what prepared you to go into the hotel business?
Totally! My grandfather started a construction business that my dad and his partners eventually took over. Out of that business, my dad built and opened our first hotel in the 80s, and, even as a kid, I can remember noticing how much happier my dad was when he started working on the hotel. He loved the hotel business. That hotel grew into five and was eventually rebranded to Accent Inns.
However, I never thought I would work for my dad! I went to Montreal and got a degree in psychology. But I always spent my summers working at different hotels (never ours!) and definitely got bit by the hospitality bug. When I graduated, I began working for the family business as a salesperson and learned as much as I possibly could. That was 25 years ago! When I took over for my dad, I created our other hotel brand: Hotel Zed, by combining all of the learnings from our family business with my desire to always rebel against the ordinary and make something new.
After taking over the business in 2008, was there a “light bulb” moment that made you realize that focusing on the company culture was the key to success?
Not one moment, but a mindset. I don’t take being an employer lightly—I think it’s a major responsibility because you have a lot of impact on a person’s life when they work for you. This role gives me a huge opportunity to enrich our employees’ lives, and it is only logical to me that having happy, healthy team members is going to be good for your business in terms of retention and productivity.
It's also a recipe for a more vibrant life: I want my team to end their workday energized and inspired. When you’re not constantly battling burnout, you have time to pursue activities and passions that enrich your life. I love hearing about my team going on bucket-list travel destinations, learning an instrument, or taking tap dance lessons!
The impact of happy employees goes way beyond the bottom line. If we love our people and treat them like gold, they’ll take that love with them into their world.
The impact of happy employees goes way beyond the bottom line. If we love our people and treat them like gold, they’ll take that love with them into their world. They’ll spread that love to their family, their neighbors, their barista…hey, even the person in front of them in line at the coffee shop! The ripple effect of this love can impact and enrich entire communities. And that’s what I want to see!
Tell us about the company culture at Accent Inns, how did you develop it and what are the pillars?
We knew that we had an awesome company culture…that’s something that started with my dad. Our work wasn’t to develop the values but shine a big, bright light on them by articulating what we already live by and making that a focus of our operations. That’s unique from other organizations that set their purpose and values as something to aspire to.
Our core values are: Have Fun, Be Real, Make Everything Better, and Have Each Other’s Backs. The Care Bear team (that’s what we call our executive leadership) workshopped these values with our teams and the reactions were hilarious. They were like “Yeah. Of course. That’s what we’ve always done. What’s the big deal?” They’d always been there and we’ve always lived by these values—the only difference is that now we’ve written them down.
How are you able to call your executives the "Care Bear" team without it seeming trite?
We get away with talking about our Fam-Jam and loving a job that loves you back because it’s authentic; it’s not buzzy marketing lingo. We really love our people, and we truly live by our values. And we prove it to them every single day. We offer scholarships for our team and for their families because we learned that it was more important to our team that we helped with their kids’ education than their own. We also offer a “Live Your Best Life” bursary where we help pay for employees to explore an outside-of-work interest like yoga, voice lessons, or art classes.
When you hit a “workaversary” milestone with us, you don’t get a mass-produced watch or a lame certificate. Your boss has a budget to buy you a personal gift that’s perfect for you—we’ve bought tattoos, plane tickets, whiskey…even a puppy for our team members.
What does having each other's back mean to you? Any examples of how your employees care for each other?
My dream is for our hotels and restaurants to be little communities. Little families where people take care of each other and where they feel like they are well taken care of.
I want to see that realness. A place where people can let their guard down, bring their true selves to work, and be unique and individual. Having each other’s backs is a huge part of this. It can be big or little.
We even have a “Got Your Back Fund” so that our organization can help employees when they hit unexpected, emergency financial hardship. A really special part of this fund is that the recipient often doesn’t apply for it – often folks who need help don’t or won’t raise their hands. So, we ask our Fam-Jam to keep the eyes, ears, and hearts open for opportunities to help.
One example of a “Got Your Back Fund” is that we had an employee whose parent was visiting family overseas and got into an accident. They needed urgent eye surgery or else they may lose vision forever. Of course, since they were abroad, this surgery was all out of pocket. This employee didn’t tell us all of the details—they just asked if they could get an advance for their paycheck. When we dug deeper and learned the whole story, our President called the hospital directly and paid for the procedure, no questions asked. This wasn’t a loan. We didn’t deduct it from future pay. We took care of it. That employee had been with us for less than three months—they hadn’t even passed probation. But they were part of our Fam-Jam and we take care of them. That’s just what we do.
What does it mean to “lead with love”? What does that really mean in practice?
When I talk about leading with love, I literally mean love. I love my employees. And I make business decisions rooted in that love. It doesn’t mean that we don’t work hard or make tough choices, but it means that it all comes from the heart. To me, it means that our purpose is our north star, and our purpose is to radically enrich lives. It means prioritizing our people before anything else. It means we’re constantly asking our teams and our communities “How can we help?”
I think leading with love is absolutely connected to servant leadership. We follow a lot of the practices that make up servant leadership––we’re fueled by empathy, constant feedback, and collaboration around here.
If we love our employees, treat them fairly, take care of them and their health and their family, then we are enriching their lives and making them happier. They will take this love and spread it into the world, creating a beautiful ripple effect.
DEI is a buzzword at the moment, but your company culture almost seems to do this effortlessly. How?
To be clear: it’s not effortless! It’s really hard! And I think it should be. That’s kind of the point, right? DEI is a major focus for us, and we’re always open to having uncomfortable conversations, trying (and failing) so that we can keep learning and evolving and being super conscious and outspoken about privilege.
We sponsor WORTH (Women of Recreation, Tourism & Hospitality) as sponsors for the Empower Her events across BC. We’re also proud members of their Leadership Circle. It’s so crucial, especially in our industry, that we have important discussions that impact women, queer and non-binary folks such as the gender pay gap, work/life balance imbalances, and sexual discrimination. WORTH has so many resources and events that help us educate and build community around these issues.
It's important to our organization that we celebrate all of our employees and their gender expression, gender identity, and sexual orientation. We’re members of Pride at Work and we were the first hotel chain to have every single location Rainbow Registered! That work is ongoing and organic, and our commitment to the LGBTQ+ community runs deep. We’re constantly upgrading our training and onboarding programs to create a more inclusive environment and more informed leadership. Every one of our properties has a Pride Progress flag, and gender-neutral public washrooms, and our marketing campaigns ensure every guest and employee feels comfortable expressing their true selves here.
There’s lots of room to grow, which is why I don’t want to imply that we’re totally “nailing” DEI. We’re working on ways to increase diversity in our leadership teams, with a focus on accessibility and lifting up BIPOC leaders.
For other hoteliers looking to be more inclusive, and bring some fun and love to their workplaces, what would be your top three tips for doing this?
Find a way to do it that’s authentic to you and your company. Words like “fun” and “love” are so subjective. They mean something different to everyone and there’s no one-size-fits-all.
Figure out your “why.” Things will come a lot easier if you and your team truly understand the mission.
Don’t be scared of failure! Sometimes you’ll try things and they won’t work! That’s cool. Just keep experimenting!
Shifting gears a bit, you also put fun into your promotions and branding, your Shaggin’ Wagon for Hotel Zed has garnered 111 press mentions and literally put the hotel on the map. Explain the thinking behind your branding across Accent Inns various brands.
OMG! The Shaggin’ Wagon! So, every Valentine’s Day since we launched Hotel Zed, we’ve run a Nooner campaign. It’s exactly what it sounds like: On February 14, we rent our rooms for 3-hour mid-day…sex dates. This year, we added our Shaggin’ Wagon to the mix. We put a gorgeous, vintage Chevy van in the woods at Hotel Zed Tofino, had it styled with cozy, retro-chic interior design and games…. and gave our Nooner guests exclusive access to it. It’s literally a Shaggin’ Wagon! We also had mini Shaggin’ Wagon photo ops in our lobbies with materials around consent from our partner Good Night Out, an amazing organization that educates on sexual violence prevention in the hospitality industry. I am so proud of how sex-positive this campaign is, but there are some responsibilities we have when we start conversations like that, and Good Night Out providing materials and conversations around consent helped us be responsible with our messaging.
We want our brands, and everything we do, to reflect our values, our culture, and our brand promise. For Hotel Zed, that means we want to rebel against the ordinary in everything we do. So when other hotels are creating romance packages with rose petals, we’re giving couples a fun, affordable opportunity to have lunch break sex.
Accent Inns is all about a hotel with heart that’s different…in a good way. And that’s why we focus a lot of our promotion around “Shameless Do Gooding” like throwing a Puppy Playdate for the BC Humane Society when they were in desperate need of foster families, or surprising frontline workers like bus drivers, across BC with gifts and appreciation in the heart of the pandemic when transit workers were being abused and harassed. What other hotel would do that?! We call ourselves Shameless Do-Gooders because we don’t hesitate to spread the love…and sometimes we can be pretty noisy about it!
You have been recognized over the years with many awards for your visionary leadership. I love that most recently the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce gave you the “2023 Award of Distinction”, crediting your passion for your employees, creating an inclusive workplace, and being “just a super-nice, down-to-earth person.” How do you infuse your genuine personality in all that you do and lead with authenticity?
I couldn’t do any of it without the leadership team we have in place. My secret weapon is surrounding myself with experts. We also hold each other accountable. That’s part of having each other’s backs. If we feel like we’re going in a direction that doesn’t align with our values and our purpose, we call it out. They call me out…or call me in. It’s so easy to get distracted, but if you work with folks that you love and trust, you have that accountability to stay authentic.
Final question, look into your crystal ball...what is next for equality in the workplace?
I’m so excited that 50% of our executive team (AKA Care Bears) 83% of our directors and 64% of our general managers identify as female. That being said, it’s less about the stats and the ratios and more about creating room at the table for awesome leaders of all gender expressions and gender identities. And closing the pay gap and removing other barriers so that everyone wants to be at that table!
Emulating leaders from previous generations is not serving me or my people. For me, I’m a better leader when I’m wearing my comfy, vintage cords, and my hair in a ponytail because I cycled to work and I’m able to be fully, truly myself.
It’s so lame that we think all leaders need to look or act or behave in certain ways to be taken seriously. When I first took over as CEO, I thought I needed to behave a certain way. I thought I needed to wear suits and start acting more seriously. But I soon realized that emulating leaders from previous generations is not serving me or my people. For me, I’m a better leader when I’m wearing my comfy, vintage cords, and my hair in a ponytail because I cycled to work and I’m able to be fully, truly myself. Let’s open the door for more authentic leadership that embraces individualism and diversity!
Quickfire with Mandy Farmer!
What time do you wake up?
What is your morning routine?
A quick cup of tea, bowl of cheerios, and then I meet my Zwift friends from around the world online for a sweaty heart pumping laughter-filled indoor cycling trainer session.
What do you do for self-care?
I love to put my earbuds in, go for a walk, find a beautiful vista, and DANCE MY HEART OUT.
What does it mean to be an Honourable Captain of the Navy?
I'm now retired from this voluntary position, but while in it, I was the bridge between the business community and our large naval base here in Victoria, CFB Esquimalt. It was such a pleasure and honor to be able to thank the amazing work our sailors do for our country.
What is your top travel hack?
Don't make plans, just be spontaneous and ask locals what to do and where to go next.
When you stay at other hotels, what is the first thing you check out?
I LOVE this question!!! I look for any interesting amenities... do they have a yo-yo or water pitcher or beautifully designed furniture? What is the feel of the room? What is unordinary and interesting?
What books, TV/movies, and podcasts are you into right now?
I'm so into stand-up comedy right now. Laughter is FUN!