Choice Hotels has made a concerted effort the past few years to offer benefits its employees value. The company offers all of the core benefits that every employee expects, including medical and dental insurance, a retirement plan and vacation time, but it has also devised a menu of voluntary options that focus on physical wellness, mental and emotional wellness and financial wellness.
Choice Hotels is a professional services firm that caters to hotels. Its brands include Comfort Inn, Comfort Suites, Clarion and Econolodge, among others. The company is 100% franchised, meaning it licenses its brand name to people who want to start a hotel, giving them all of the support they need to be successful. It also developed a proprietary hotel reservation and property management system that franchisees benefit from.
The company’s total rewards program is the umbrella program for its additional employee benefits. Instead of determining what the market or other organizations are doing in this area, the company tries to really understand “our own employee population – what is unique about them and what they value,” says Louise Slark, vice president, total rewards, at Choice Hotels in Rockville, Md.
Choice Hotels has a multigenerational workforce, and even within those generations there are people who value different things, she says.
“It’s about creating a structure that meets the needs of what our internal employee population values and what meets the need of individual employee wants and needs,” Slark says.
The goal of the total rewards program is to create an environment where employees thrive.
For the last several years, Choice Hotels has focused on the physical wellness segment of its benefits program.
“We’re doing really well in that regard. Our medical claims trend is down and our per-employee-per-month cost is down by over 11%,” Slark says. “Some of that is we increased our workforce and while claims have gone up 0.9%, we are spreading that increase in claims over a larger population, so our per-month rate goes down.”
Now the company is targeting financial wellness and mental and emotional wellness.
Quote“There’s a lot of worrying in that [millennial] group.”
Millennials are more stressed than any other generation, she says. Many graduated from school in 2008 when markets crashed. There were few jobs and many of them have $100,000 or more in debt from school and bills.
“There’s a lot of worrying in that group,” she says. That’s why the company has started doing what it calls “pulse” surveys, asking employees what keeps them up at night. One of the biggest is finances.
Because of that Choice Hotels signed on with T. Rowe Price, which offers Ramsey Solutions' SmartDollar program, at the end of last year.
Ramsey Solutions' SmartDollar program is an online toolset that goes beyond financial calculators and financial education.
“It is an engaging program meant to coach individuals on everything from debt management to wealth management,” says Diana Awed, vice president and head of retirement product and marketing for T. Rowe Price Retirement Plan Services. “It offers a lot of engaging videos that really get to the emotional side of finances to move people past their fear into paying off debt and saving for retirement and other things they really want to save for.”
The online aspect works well for many employees who may be embarrassed to talk about personal financial pieces like debt management in a room full of fellow employees, she says. “So the online tool allows a much higher level of usage. Once a plan sponsor signs up for it to make it available to employees, it is available to their entire family,” Awed says.
It includes budgeting worksheets that take employees and their families through a step-by-step process.
“Sixty-four percent of Americans can’t even cover a $1,000 emergency without borrowing money,” she says. That stress “really does place a burden on their productivity. Seven out of 10 human resource professionals say those problems impact employee performance. We see a large number of plan sponsors looking for new ways to engage employees to move them past that stress.”
Financial wellness is also important from a talent retention perspective, Awed says. At a recent client advisory board meeting, a large client with more than 15,000 employees told a story about how they would have great talent leave for 30 cents more an hour.
“If you could get that employee to a more comfortable place with a bit of a nest egg, that would help them from a talent retention standpoint,” Awed says. “Our goal is to get people saving confidently for retirement.”
That means getting people to set money aside for emergencies so they don’t always have to run to their retirement savings account for help when they get into a bind.
T. Rowe Price chose to offer SmartDollar to its clients because of the coaching aspect of it.
“Finances are emotional to people. It is not always a rational choice people make with their money, particularly if they can’t pay for the hospital bill when their son breaks his arm,” says Awed.
Once people realize where their money is going, they make different choices.
“We are trying to create a toolbox of things that are not going to appeal to everybody but we will have enough things that something will appeal to everybody,” Slark says.
The company offers lunch-and-learn days, where experts come in and discuss topics that provide insights and education around various corporate wellness goals. It has started doing more around retirement and financial concepts. The company just signed on with T. Rowe Price as its retirement plan provider in November 2015 and as part of that relationship, representatives of T. Rowe Price set up 30-minute one-on-one meetings with Choice Hotels employees twice a year.
Quote“We are trying to create a toolbox of things that [may not] appeal to everybody but we will have enough things that something will appeal to everybody.”
Because of its large millennial population, Choice Hotels has switched its educational initiatives from retirement savings to saving for the future.
SmartDollar is simple to use, Slark says. Associates go online and enter pertinent information about themselves and do an initial financial assessment. The program walks them through seven steps to financial wellness: Setting up an emergency fund of $1,000; paying down all debt; increasing emergency savings to three to six months’ worth of current expenses; investing 15% of gross pay into retirement; saving for college; paying off your mortgage; and charitable giving.
“Each one of those steps takes you through the process and gives you education around it,” she says. Each section has video clips and homework an employee must follow to take them to the next level. The system also checks back in with employees to see if they are still moving forward with their goals.
“They can measure engagement around it and see how people are progressing through the modules,” says Slark.
The SmartDollar program has only been out for a little over a year and it achieved 15% to 18% participation rates right out of the gate. A year later, it is seeing a 25% participation rate.
The program is equally attractive to all age groups, according to T. Rowe Price’s data.
“It’s very interactive and, I think, engaging,” Slark says. “I think it is a pretty good program. I’m pretty excited about being able to launch it and add it to our program.”
Choice Hotels employs more than 1,800 workers, 1,500 of those full-time. All employees who work a minimum of 30 hours a week are eligible for benefits.
It has a very high participation rate in its retirement plan, about 80%, says Slark. The company matches 100% on the first 3% employees put into their retirement accounts and 50% on the next 2% after that. After 90 days of service, anyone is eligible to participate in the plan and the company match is immediately vested.
Choice Hotels had been with the same retirement plan provider for 17 years. It was “fine,” says Slark, but the company decided it was time to shop around and see what else was out there. They really liked T. Rowe Price because of its website presence, the support and education it provides.
The company also offers a health savings account, which it has done a lot of education around.
“We’re always looking for ways to save for retirement through tax-qualified opportunities,” Slark says.
There is a Roth option in the company’s 401(k) plan as well, although it has a fairly low participation rate.
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