How this HR’s Rising Star and ‘numbers person’ innovates in hard-hit hospitality

While all industries have felt the effects of the pandemic, one of the sectors most impacted by the global health crisis was hospitality—as business and personal travel along with in-person dining and socializing largely vanished overnight.

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As hospitality companies worked to right-side their finances in the ensuing years, one of the most visible effects was on staffing. Take Aimbridge Hospitality: Before COVID, the 20-year-old hotel-management company with 1,500 properties globally employed about 65,000 people; at the peak of the pandemic, headcount stood at 28,000, and the company has been slowly rebuilding since, now standing at 55,000.

That has created a cascade of HR transformations—along with opportunities—many of which are being helmed by Conrad Riddle, vice president of HR shared services. Riddle is one of Human Resource Executive‘s five HR’s Rising Stars for 2023.

Riddle got his start in hospitality in 2013 when he joined Evolution Hospitality as a corporate manager of HR, with a focus on compensation and benefits. When Evolution was acquired by Aimbridge in 2017, he took on a series of benefits leadership positions, including director of benefits, director of total rewards and vice president of total rewards—before making a lateral move to his newly created, current position in May 2020. In this role, he oversees the HR technology and operations needs of the 1,100 U.S. properties in the Aimbridge portfolio, which includes brands like Marriott, Hilton, Hyatt and Holiday Inn.

Running the numbers, serving the people

HR's Rising Star Conrad Riddle of Aimbridge Hospitality
HR’s Rising Star Conrad Riddle of Aimbridge Hospitality

It’s a role that his career path naturally led him to, Riddle says.

A self-described “numbers and analytics person,” Riddle got to use those skills during a crash course on retirement plan management in a college internship at a Washington, D.C., nonprofit.

“I felt like I was adding value, and I found this niche inside HR where you need to be analytical—you need to be able to run the numbers—but you can also be serving the people mission of the organization at the same time,” he says.

Riddle also participated in the first class of the Disney College internship program at the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, Calif. Though not HR-specific, after the program ended, he got a taste of recruiting as a campus representative.

“That was my first exposure to recruitment and I [saw] there’s this whole world here and I said, ‘I think I can apply that number sense, that analytical sense that I’m interested in, over here to the HR world,” he recalls.

And today, he’s doing just that as Aimbridge leans on data-driven innovation to create its post-pandemic workforce.

‘Gigifying’ the workforce

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In strategizing for staffing back up in the last few years, Riddle says, Aimbridge leadership had to wrestle with a question many other employers today are also considering: “How do we gigify our workforce?”

While the organization won’t ever fully pivot from a full-time staffing model, the realities of the pandemic meant it simply didn’t need as much full-time help as the hospitality industry slowly restarted. Employee expectations had also changed; flexibility was the name of the game.

“It’s kind of the Uber model that a lot of retailers and service-style employers are trying to come to terms with,” Riddle says about Aimbridge’s staffing transformation. “How do we meet the employee where they’re at? Rather than the classic model of saying, ‘You need to have a set availability and show up at X time and work on our terms.’ We’re turning those tables around.”

To grow and accommodate a larger contingent workforce at Aimbridge—and reduce the burden on managers—Riddle and his team tapped workforce management solution UKG Dimensions to enhance scheduling and forecasting capabilities. In particular, they leveraged the platform to create a “Shift Marketplace,” allowing workers to pick up shifts both when and where it’s convenient for them, including at other Aimbridge properties—reducing the company’s reliance on third-party labor and cutting overtime expenses.

“This ensures that Aimbridge is using its labor pool more effectively,” Aimbridge CHRO Ann Christenson wrote in Riddle’s nomination. “Prior to this project, each hotel operated in a silo, scheduling their own employees and rarely sharing between properties. This new platform puts employees in the driver’s seat.”

The move to create an internal contingent workforce is allowing Aimbridge to hang onto talent longer: Often, when employees leave, it’s for a life change: They’re moving across the country, returning to school, taking care of a sick family member.

“They can’t commit to that 40-hour-a-week schedule anymore,” Riddle says. “So, rather than having them quit, why not convert them into this contingent labor employee? And say, ‘You have to pick up a certain number of shifts a quarter to stay on the rolls but, if you do, you just have to open your app, see the shifts available in your area and then do the job you’re already trained to do.’ ”

Meeting the demands of a changed workforce

With a more liquid workforce model came a demand for equally flexible benefits.

Riddle spearheaded the introduction of several new benefits to both attract and retain Aimbridge’s modern workforce, including the implementation of PayActiv, which allows employees to tap into a portion of their earned wages before payday.

Riddle led the vendor search and opted for PayActiv because—unlike some other tools operating more in the realm of payday loans—this solution would help Aimbridge work toward its goal of supporting employee financial health: Accessing wages doesn’t affect employees’ credit scores, and they can also get connected to financial literacy resources.

The benefit can help keep employees out of the “debt spiral,” he says. It also adds stability to the employee base, many of whom would be significantly sidelined in the event, for instance, of a tire blowout.

“Instead of creating all of that disruption for us and for them, we can offer them this benefit where they can access a few hundred to get their transportation reestablished,” he says. “They don’t have to wait for payday or get a loan or put it on a credit card that’s going to carry interest. They can just borrow against the wages they’ve already earned and just haven’t been paid for yet.”

So far, Aimbridge employees have made more than 320,000 PayActiv transactions, totaling $27 million in earned wages.

Christenson calls the introduction of PayActiv a “revolutionary benefit” that is helping solidify Aimbridge as a leading employer in the hospitality industry.

To that end, another perk Riddle helped get off the ground is Aimbridge Passport, a discount travel program for employees. While the company previously offer discounted rooms for employee travel, the process involved manual booking; now, there is a dedicated site—which receives more than 800 unique visitors a day—through which employees can more seamlessly search and book open rooms at Aimbridge-managed properties.

HR led the “people” aspects of the program—the policies around utilization and employee identification, for instance—but the project was a real demonstration of the power of cross-functional collaboration, Riddle says.

An HR future built on data and learning

HR’s Rising Stars judge Gregory Hessel, senior client partner and managing director, client development, for Korn Ferry, says he was impressed by the work Riddle led to help Aimbridge meet the “historic” impact of the pandemic on the hospitality industry.

“Aimbridge is well-known for their ability to assess and hire operationally oriented HR leaders,” Hessel says. “Conrad’s focus over the last three years has been on key employee engagement and retention, in a highly volatile market, and managing cost, efficiency and quality with his HR Shared Service responsibilities.”

Looking ahead, the collaboration that fueled Aimbridge Passport and other recent HR projects will be increasingly important in coming years, Riddle predicts, particularly as organizations like his look to leverage HR data more strategically.

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For instance, while hospitality companies may have previously examined HR metrics like turnover, retention and time to fill, he hopes to lead Aimbridge to effectively correlate those to other business metrics.

“So, what does time-to-fill do to the revenue of a hotel if we have an open general manager position for longer than normal?” he posits. “We’re working right now to be able to tell better stories [with data] to the business and to our hotel owners.”

The power of a ‘learning mindset’

Sharing data sets from among the vast Aimbridge portfolio, Riddle adds, will be key to this effort. So, too, will be his commitment to continuous learning.

“Aimbridge is large enough that, even just inside this HR team, there are so many things to be working on that it’s felt like I’ve had many, many different jobs. That comes back to continuing to keep that learning mindset,” he says.

That willingness came in handy when Aimbridge acquired Evolution—and Riddle pursued the creation of his new position.

“We merged with our next-largest competitor and I was the VP of total rewards, and there was another VP of total rewards on the other side of the merger. Without anyone saying as much, I was like, ‘Uh oh, I’m in a bake-off; there’s not going to be two VPs of total rewards at the end of this,’ ” Riddle recalls. Rather than participating in the “bake-off,” Riddle approached leadership, raised the issue that the company didn’t have an HR operations or shared services group at the time—and made a case for how his skill set and experiences could align to fill that gap.

“I said, ‘I know this job doesn’t exist, but what do you think about making it a job and considering me for it?’ ” he asked. “And to [the CHRO’s] credit, she went along with it. And I’m all the happier for it.”

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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected].