Creating Connections Through Individualized Language Training

Sheraton Vistana Villages implemented a comprehensive language and cultural training program to combat high turnover rates, language and cultural barriers, and employee disengagement.

Hospitality is, by nature, an industry in which cultures collide. Great diversity can be seen among guests and staff alike. To an industry that is dedicated to quality customer service, the communication barriers that often come with a diverse staff can bring about some unique challenges—ones that often require individualized solutions.

Non- and limited-English speakers often are drawn to the hospitality industry due to the low educational barrier for employment in many entry-level jobs found in the field—12 percent of hospitality workers are foreign-born, according to the Pew analysis of the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2010-2013 American Community Survey. However, often the low growth opportunity and the inability to understand and communicate with their peers and superiors can lead these employees to feel disengaged and, ultimately, to leave.

Case Study: Sheraton Vistana Villages

One talent development leader in the industry, Ariadne Samaniego, Training manager for Sheraton Vistana Villages in Central Florida, saw similar problems in her own staff. As part of a larger talent development strategy, she sought solutions for the high turnover rates, language and cultural barriers, and employee disengagement that she saw within her industry. After careful consideration, she and her organization chose to pursue a comprehensive language and cultural training program as part of that strategy.

Where did they get the idea for a language training program? “Our sister property, Sheraton Vistana Resort,” Samaniego says. “Since their beginning, they have always had English classes set up for the associates.”

But it took a few years for Samaniego and her team to get the pilot program up and running at their resort. “We’d been talking about English classes for the last two or three years, but from a cost perspective, we haven’t really invested in it.”

Cost wasn’t the only consideration; she and her team wanted to be sure they took the time to find the right fit for their business, as well. This year, they decided to take the leap. “We were encouraged to at least try to do a pilot course and see how it would help our retention and loyalty within our team, because we had seen how it has helped at the sister resort.”

With the industry turnover rates clocking in at 72.1 percent in 2015, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it’s no wonder retention is at the forefront of the minds of talent management professionals in the industry. Samaniego was no exception. “We want to make sure we continue to help our staff to grow and develop so they don’t need to go anywhere else.”

It wasn’t all about retention, though. “We want to make sure we help [our employees] evolve their behaviors,” Samaniego explains. Her team saw the value in investing in their employees and developing their language skills as a way to drive both engagement and growth.

One thing was certain, however; they weren’t going to invest in just any language training program. The best fit for their needs was a program that focused on tailored, conversation-based, and industry-specific instruction. “The approach at the sister resort is more of an ‘I’m in school’ kind of program,” she says. “We wanted to find something that was more geared toward the business.”

A collaborative approach, tailored to the specific needs of both the students and the industry, was a high priority. She was able to find that in a partnership with LTC Language Solutions, a full-service language services agency headquartered in Indianapolis, IN, with offices in Orlando and Washington, D.C. The individualized service has been a key to their success. The staff at LTC got involved right away, even visiting staff meetings to learn the best possible approach for Sheraton Vistana Villages’ team. “I can look at their body language, how they pay attention, the words being used, and I can see whether it would be understood by a second language learner,” says Lauren Cameron, Language Training coordinator at LTC Language Solutions.

Most of all, though, Samaniego wanted to make sure the approach was effective. She wanted to make sure that not only were her employees learning relevant information, but they also were taught how to apply that knowledge to their daily responsibilities. To see the results, all she had to do was listen. “I see the associates practicing their English, even when they are interacting with me,” she says.

Beneficial Results

The trainings have transformed the lives of the employees in more ways than one. In their work lives, Samaniego has noticed a surge of confidence, even in staff members who had previously been reluctant to speak to customers and other staff members. She notes one employee’s eagerness to pursue the courses, seeing them as an opportunity for career growth: “She’s very happy to improve her English because she is aware that it’s what is really holding her back from growing within the company.”

Another team member hoped the growth he made during lessons would translate to other areas of his life. “His main worry was that he wanted to help his children with homework,” Samaniego explains. Happily, he is well on his way to meeting this goal. “Yesterday, he was telling me about how he was able to sit down with his daughter and go over her homework, and be able to understand it and help her with it!”

The key to any talent development strategy is to optimize engagement. When faced with a vast cultural or linguistic divide between employees and the company, engagement is an all-too-distant dream. Investing in employees in a meaningful way, one that not only enriches their lives but also provides them with the tools to be their best selves at work, is a win for everyone. Each success story demonstrates the personal and professional benefits of being culturally aware and linguistically capable—in our workplaces, and beyond.

Casey Buchanan is the Marketing coordinator at LTC Language Solutions, a full-service language and cultural provider that has been serving the needs of globalizing businesses since 1993. LTC offers customized solutions for language and cultural training, interpretation, translation and professional skills training for businesses of any size. For more information, visit