Australian Venue Co. Addresses the Heart of Employee Retention
For the last year, Australian operators have been waging a war over talent. With national unemployment rates at their lowest in over 50 years, the battle for hiring and retaining restaurant staff remains the industry’s biggest challenge.
That leaves 122,000 open jobs competing restaurants must fight to fill. And in this market, leaders must get creative to hire and retain employees.
Despite ongoing labour challenges, one hospitality company has perfected its formula to grow its people force and keep them. Australian Venue Co. (AVC), one of the largest hospitality venues in the country saw a 30% growth in its employee base over the last year and an improvement in employee retention by about 15%. And they’ve managed to do it while operating 210+ unique venues that employ more than 8,000 people across Australia and New Zealand.
“Since the pandemic, we’ve had to double-down on our recruiting and retention strategy, putting added benefits and support in place to increase the reasons to want to work for us and stay,” said Rachel Checinski, Chief People Officer for Australian Venue Co.
AVC has built an outstanding culture and benefits program that has attracted staff from all over the world. But it takes more than a competitive compensation package to build great teams. AVC found that prioritizing open communication, commitment to diversity, recognition programs and well-defined values does more for restaurants’ bottom lines.
Read on to learn more about Rachel and AVC’s strategies for successful hiring and retention.
Open Communication & Transparency is Vital to Retention
Communication is crucial to the success of any business. It improves employee morale, boosts productivity and breeds trust. For AVC, open communication has become its winning advantage.
Invest in a Two-Way Dialogue
Open and honest communication is the thread that weaves throughout AVC’s culture. Regardless of one’s position in the company, each person has a voice and direct path to express their ideas, feedback and concerns.
“During the pandemic, we realized how vital communication was for our teams. It has since become the basis for building trust and making employees feel supported,” Rachel said. Since then, AVC has invested significant time and resources to give employees better access to an open dialogue.
Last year they rolled out Workplace by Meta, an employee engagement software. The platform connects everyone at AVC, making it easier to share updates, celebrate awards and recognize successes.
One of the most successful programs they’ve also implemented is “Ask HR,” a ticketing system that allows employees to submit inquiries that are tracked to completion. They also have an Employee Hub on their website where people can easily access “Ask HR.”
The system gets over 1,000 tickets a week for questions on everything from onboarding and payroll to issues with managers and mental health support.
“We try to respond to every employee within one business day, which makes them feel prioritised and supported. It also helps eliminate awkward conversations people might not feel comfortable having with their supervisor,” Rachel shared.
Focus on Building Community
Using Workplace by Meta, AVC also created channels employees can subscribe to based on their interests, location and job. These channels serve as micro-communities for employees to connect and engage in.
There are channels for regionalised teams and operational leaders to keep up with what’s happening within their communities and the company. Work-related and extracurricular channels are all fair game. For example, the “Pets of AVC” group gets lots of action (for obvious reasons). Employees can also ask the CEO questions directly via the “Ask Paul Anything” channel.
Rachel shared that their “Hot Jobs” group has been instrumental in creating upward mobility opportunities and promoting retention. “People can advertise or search for key positions that are open throughout the company. For example, if an employee is moving from Queensland to Melbourne, they can see open positions in those areas.”
AVC’s investment in creating an active dialogue through Workplace has paid off. Rachel says there are 7,000 employees currently activated on the platform, and over 4,000 people engage with it every week.
Be Willing to Ask and Learn
For AVC, feedback is key to keeping a pulse on employee satisfaction and uncovering areas of improvement. They survey everything from the onboarding process and culture to employment termination via exit surveys.
Rachel told us, “we send them out to everyone automatically upon termination. At the management level, we host exit interviews to really understand why someone wants to leave. Through these interviews, we’re getting really great data and, in some cases, have won the employee back simply by creating a space for them to be heard.”
Define Your Company Culture and Then Live and Breathe It
Culture can mean something different at every company, but at its core, culture is about establishing shared values, ethics and beliefs everyone in the company can get behind.
AVC’s mantra is to build a culture based on action, not just words. “We don’t sell culture with the surface-level promise of rainbows and unicorns,” said Rachel, “we live it. And what we offer people is real.”
For example, AVC has supported employees through illness and severe mental health issues, providing rehabilitation and full pay to help ease the burden. During COVID, they created a “Meals for Mates” program that opened kitchens in states with prolonged lockdowns. Through the program, they paid their staff to cook and deliver meals for employees, and for the more vulnerable staff, provided five free meals a week. In total, they served 12,000 meals.
They also launched a “Safety Served First Moment” program that focuses on having individual conversations with employees about their physical and psychological well-being at work. The program has significantly reduced the number of serious incidents at venues which they believe plays a crucial role in employee retention.
“We believe that a supportive, safe culture plays a big role in attracting and retaining quality talent. People know that they can come to us, and we will help them in any way we can,” said Rachel.
Establish Core Values
Core values are the guiding principles behind culture — they define what’s truly important to a company. At AVC, they operate based on six core values.
“These core values are echoed in everything we do, and they help set the stage for collaboration and innovation regardless of one’s position. As for how AVC’s values influence employee attitudes, Rachel explains, “employees are encouraged to share new ideas, and it makes them feel like they are part of something bigger.”
At AVC, everyone has a seat at the table. Diversity and inclusion are both celebrated and embedded into their culture. The AVC website has a dedicated Diversity Centre, which illustrates their commitment to creating a safe environment for employees, customers and the greater community.
“The hospitality industry, by nature, attracts diverse staff, and it’s our job to create an environment where people feel safe to be themselves. We support this by promoting a safe and inclusive workplace with ‘Safe Spaces’ underpinned by solid policies and a variety of programs,” said Rachel.
AVC is revamping its programs to increase support for and focus on:
Indigenous employees, a new initiative in its early stages but one they are excited to learn and develop.
Women via Her Hospo, workshops and events that empower women in hospitality to learn, grow and connect in a safe, open community.
LGBTQIA+, a pub in Brisbane called The Wickhamhosts a variety of activities and events for employees and the greater community.
Take Care of Your People
Paying employees fairly and correctly is a non-negotiable for AVC. In addition to competitive salaries, they offer staff a 20% discount on food and beverage across venues as well as a robust bonus and awards program.
Reward Employees for a Job Well Done
AVC’s bonus schemes reward employees and encourage them to progress into more senior roles. Bonuses at the management level are rewarded based on sales, EBITDA, training and customer review ratings. Chefs can earn up to $20,000 a year and venue managers up to $45,000.
They also recently introduced a discretionary spend line for venue managers. Depending upon venue size, venue managers can spend up to $50,000 per year to invest in their staff, which many have used to create their own awards and benefits program or take them out for team celebration days.
At the end of each year, AVC hosts an Annual Awards Night, called the “Avies”, where they celebrate teams and individuals who have exceeded goals or excelled in performance throughout the year. Some of these awards include Venue of the Year, Venue Manager of the Year, Chef of the Year, Best Marketed Venue, Safety Serve First Award and Dish of the Year.
They also have a Hall of Fame where employees can nominate individuals who best display the company’s core values.
“Our award programs create great opportunities for staff at all levels to be rewarded and recognized across the company. It also provokes a fun, healthy competition between venues,” said Rachel.
Invest in Ongoing Training
Ongoing training is a top priority for building a healthy and strong employee retention strategy. AVC’s training program is called “Advance”, and it’s all about promoting internal progression.
“We create most content in-house and use internal subject matter experts within each department along with employees and managers to help build out the content,” shared Rachel. “Getting our team involved helps them feel closer to the company.”
The lessons are short, sharp videos that employees can view on their cellphones and access them anytime, anywhere. The topics range from how to safely and properly cut protein to advancing one’s beer and wine knowledge.
Adopt a “Generative” Leadership Style
When it comes to running a business, there is the idea that ownership can either be extractive or generative. Extractive ownership focuses on the financial outcome. Generative ownership takes a more humanitarian approach, focusing on creating a living purpose.
At AVC, they’ve adopted a generative approach to leadership. In Rachel’s words, “generative leadership is all about leading with the heart to enrich the human experience. We put programs in place to support our team members to lead with these qualities, which helps fuel the success of our culture and retention.”
AVC’s Key Elements of Generative Leadership
Purpose driven: Share results openly and drive people to share in our vision.
Recognition: Offer meaningful rewards and benefits.
Care: Develop strong communication and support lines.
Coaching & Development: Invest in ongoing learning and development programs to help teams thrive.
Celebration: Celebrate and reward employees throughout the year and broadly share venue and individual success stories.
AVC’s commitment to the human experience is exemplified in every aspect of their employee engagement program. By investing in its people and culture, AVC has been able to thrive, despite challenging economic and labour shortage conditions.
Rachel got to the heart of the matter in her last words. “I think the most important thing operators can do is recognize the talent they have and wrap their arms around them. Ensure people feel valued. Your teams are your best asset for advocating for you and attracting new staff, too.”