Keeping people happy: Accent Inns CEO Mandy Farmer shares her insights and leadership ideas

Mandy Farmer’s mantra? Have fun and keep employees and everyone else content. It’s how the hotelier has managed to retain staff in challenging times.

Seriously happy - Douglas Oct/Nov 2022
It took some persuading, but Accent Inns’ CEO Mandy Farmer proved that a kooky, colourful concept like Hotel Zed could be a winner. She brings the same optimistic sense of fun to keeping her employees happy, too. Photo by: Jeffrey Bosdet.

Mandy Farmer has her eye on a historic Victoria hotel that she’d love to buy and convert into what would be the fourth Hotel Zed. “It’s been one of those properties I’ve been going to for years,” says Farmer. “I probably started going there as a teenager. It’s such a cool property. I’ve totally daydreamed about it being a Hotel Zed.”

Would there be a psychic’s den and mini disco as in Tofino? Or free roller skates and a Ping-Pong lounge like Kelowna? What about a typewriter station or comic books, like at the Victoria Zed?

A 2020 winner of an RBC’s Canadian Women Entrepreneur Award, Farmer spent almost a decade convincing Accent Inns’ board that a Hotel Zed would be a success. She gets an “A” for her instincts and persistence.

But for Farmer, it’s fun that frames her focus.

Since May 1998, she has been CEO and president of Accent Inns, where her playful vision has given birth to hotel experiences that are definitely anything but cookie cutter.

Getting her start at the front desk of the Empress Hotel in 1992, followed by work as a night auditor at the Delta Hotels Ocean Pointe Resort, Farmer went on to earn a psychology degree at McGill University and an MBA in executive management from Royal Roads University. Her thesis explored retro-themed hotels.

But she’s not a nose-in-the-book kind of boss. If the Oak Bay High grad isn’t mountain biking on Whistler’s backcountry trails or switching hotels every night in a distant city, the married mother of two teenagers is managing properties and people in Victoria, Vancouver, Kelowna, Kamloops and Tofino. Part of that is imaginary camping trips.

And for her, there’s only one way she measures success.

“It’s the happiness of our employees, 100 per cent. We have one statistic that determines our success, and it is the happiness of our team.”

What is employee happiness and how do you define that?

This is something that we measure. We do surveys, twice a year, asking how happy people are working at Accent.

Our goal is to reach 100 per cent. We’re currently at 97 per cent, and we’ve maintained that for a couple of years. I will never stop looking at that metric. It’s so important to me. When they’re 85 and someone asks, “Where’s the best place you’ve ever worked?” we want them to say Accent — even if they were just with us for a year.

How do you make your employees happy?

It starts at day one. At our orientation program, the first thing you get is a card that is signed by every single member of the team, in their handwriting, welcoming you. Then you get a Box of Awesome.

In it, there are four gifts and each of the gifts correlate to our values. Some of the gifts are socks, with either ducks that represent Accent or VW buses for Zed. This represents the value of “Got your back (and your feet).” Another gift is a first aid kit to represent the value of “Make everything better.” Our values are lived and breathed every single moment. 

What are Accent’s workplace values?

One of our values is fun, and we make sure we train on this because fun is going to be different for you, and it’s going to be different for me. We also want you to bring in your authentic self to work. So another one of our values is being real.

It’s so important because so often in our society we put on these masks. “Where did you go to school?” or, “I have to dress a certain way.” So we’re asking people to take off their mask, bring their authentic self to work and be real. It translates into “We’re an awesome workplace and awesome for our customers.” If you walk onto our properties and you feel it, it feels good.

How do happy and authentic employees make your business successful?

I look at hotels as a bit of a commodity. They’re very similar. So if you stay at a Marriott or a Delta, you’re not going to see a lot of difference. You will expect certain things like cleanliness, a good bed, a nice shower. You’re going to get that in almost every hotel experience.

So what is really, truly going to set your stay apart is the team. If the team is just vibing at an amazing level, where they’re loving their job, the customer is really going to feel it, and they’re going to want to keep coming back to that.

So, where do wages fit in?

Wages are definitely important. We want to make sure that our team is paid well, paid fairly, so we are constantly looking at what other hotels are paying, and that we’re paying a very fair wage. I’d say we look at that every six weeks to two months. Then we make adjustments based on that.

Do you have difficulty finding good employees?

Right now, we are very lucky in that we have got such an amazing team. We’re in a very good place. We have found, because of COVID, just wanting to make sure that people have access to sick time, we are overstaffing at the moment.

When you hear that a ferry sailing has been cancelled because they don’t have enough staff, we’re making sure that we are overstaffed so that we can maintain our levels of service. We usually have a job posting out there, but, honestly, it’s probably just to make sure we’re over-covering.

What are the qualities of a great employee?

I probably would answer that very differently than someone else. Someone who is truly authentic and kind and caring. Another one of our values is having each other’s back and having a sense of fun. Those are the people I want to be around.

Can you sense those qualities when hiring?

Yeah, I can. It’s a real gut feeling, which is so surprising. I used to take along interview questions. I don’t do that anymore. I really honestly ask myself, “Do I want to go camping with them for a few days?” Not that I’m going to, but do you want to be around this person when you might be dirty, you might be wet, you might be slightly hungover? Are they someone that I gravitate to? That’s usually how I hire.

Do you know what kind of customers you attract?

We attract people who are young at heart. I think at first, everyone thought Hotel Zed was going to attract a younger demographic, but it’s not. It’s for people who don’t want the typical, rigid hotel stay. They want to be surprised and delighted.

So, what do you do for fun?

Right now, what I’m doing is so much fun. I’m hanging vintage photos, artwork that I’ve sourced from thrift shops around Canada. I’ve got a whole bunch of knick-knacks that I’ve put together in a rec room in Tofino. So, that is one of the most fun things I do. Other than that, I’m a huge mountain biker, and I love being in the forest.

Seriously happy - Douglas Oct/Nov 2022
Photo by: Jeffrey Bosdet.

When you travel, where do you stay, and do you size up the competition?

I have been known to move my family to a different hotel every night so we can see what they’re like. We always have to find the most unique accommodation. So, if we’re in New York or Austin, Texas, we will change hotels every single day just so I can experience them. My poor family. I love independent hotels. 

What’s on the horizon for Accent Inns?

We really feel like we’ve been put here to radically enrich people’s lives via their work. How do you do that? I see it, working from my business, whereby we’re super successful in this time when people are scrambling to find staff and we’re fully staffed.

I’d love to share our approach. We’ve got some workshops, where we’re trying to get other businesses to lead with love. So, rather than looking at opening more hotels — which I’m sure I will still do — my desire, more, is to really show other entrepreneurs and managers that there really is a way to bring love into the workplace, and it can actually increase your bottom line.

Did you learn any lessons from the pandemic?

Lead with love. It was so transformative for us, in a positive way. We constantly are asking, “How can we help? Who needs help right now?” Whether that’s someone on our team, in our community, anything. Even though we’re a hotel company, we truly feel we are put here to radically enrich people’s lives. 

So, what is the staff turnover?

You know, I don’t know the statistics. I do know that the majority of our team has been with us for almost five years.

Do you think you’re a great boss?

I think that one of the best things I’ve ever done is surround myself with the most amazing people, and I just get out of their way. So, I look at them and think, “Tell me what to do.” I let them tell me what to do, and it’s a really fun way to be, especially when you’re the owner of the company. It creates a kind of egalitarian company where we’re all doing really cool stuff.