See Yourself in the Customer Experience

with Erica Cary, Vice President of Product and Services at Hilton

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Erica Cary

Episode 4

“If I can see myself in a Hilton ad, it feels personalized. If it includes people of different colors, ages and genders, I’m creating a more inclusive experience.”

Erica Cary is Vice President of Product and Services at Hilton.  She has more than 18 years of experience in technology, client relationship management, and business development.  At Hilton, she’s responsible for creating digital experiences for both employees and guests.  In this episode, she talks about creating a relevant experience for a diverse workforce, making inclusive ads, and personalizing the experience by providing choice.

“We had to manage expectations when we made a change to the technology. People are going to kick and scream for at least a good 90 days. But then it usually calms down and people accept the change and they move on. And then if you still have some fussing after that, there’s probably an enhancement that needs to be made to the technology itself or the process of how it’s rolled out. It’s not actually the platform that’s causing the angst.”

Listen in to hear

  • Consolidate platforms to minimize digital clutter. 
  • Drive mobile-first technology to team members.
  • Streamline and automate employee operations as much as possible. 

“Hospitality is about being of service. I believe that Hilton receives all the accolades and recognition because first and foremost, we are providing our team members a great digital employee experience. I’m a true believer that a happy employee surely equals a happy guest.”


Erica Cary

Erica Cary

Vice President of Product and Services at Hilton

Erica Cary has spent the past 18 years in roles centered on technology, strategic planning, product and portfolio management, business development, and client relationship management. In her current role at Hilton, she creates exceptional digital experiences for employees and guests alike. Erica considers herself the conduit between business, technology, and process, utilizing technical fluency, social and digital engagement, data and analytics, and business acumen to drive organizational change and enhance business value.

Episode Transcript

Narr:  If you can’t picture yourself doing something, chances are, you won’t.  For instance, if you’re looking for a new job and can’t see yourself working in a hotel, you probably won’t apply to Hilton.  But if you saw people who looked like you swinging open the door of a Hilton hotel, maybe you’d think differently.  Erica Cary knows that representation matters.  At work, and on vacation.  That’s why she strives to create an inclusive environment for everyone at Hilton hotels.  One of the main ways she does this is through digital initiatives for both her team and her guests.

Erica:  If you’re showing an ad, it has Hilton in it and we’re going through different scenarios of like how people can dream about spending their time at one of our properties or on vacation. If I can’t see myself in that dreaming experience, it does not feel personalized. But if Hilton, as a company takes the time and the effort to really create inclusive dreamy episodes, that includes different people of different colors, different ages, different genders, that I’m inherently creating this more personalized experience in an inclusive manner.

Narr:  Maybe you’ve never thought about representation being important in the employee experience.  That’s why we’re bringing in Erica, whose job as Vice President of Product and Services is to create that inclusive experience for the 140,000 employees at Hilton. Today she’s talking with us about why it’s important to see yourself in the customer experience.  Let’s get into it.  Welcome to Cruising Altitude.

Welcome to Cruising Altitude, a podcast about employee experience lessons from leaders at companies with over 30k employees. A lot like reaching Cruising Altitude at 30k feet, things look a little different when you’re managing 30,000 people. On this podcast, we bring you insights from the leaders who inhabit that rarefied air. Today’s episode features an interview with Erica Cary.

Erica:  I would say my primary responsibilities include connecting people, transforming technology and elevating team member experiences. The digital HR team here is committed to transforming the team member experience through services, innovation, and solutions.

Narr:  So let’s get to know more about the makeup of Hilton’s team in our first segment, the Flight Plan.

I think The most simplified breakdown is probably the distinction between the desk and the desk-less team members working in our corporate offices and hotel properties. We have other attributes, including like region, brand, owned and managed versus franchise team members. But it really gets down to who is in front of a desk and who is desk-less.

Narr:  But whether they’re a desk worker or desk-less, Erica says she tries to create a universal experience for all employees.

Erica:  At Hilton we really tried to make that interaction or how we treat our owned and managed versus our franchise team members very slight and indifferent. We treat all of our team members as equal, reputable representations of working bodies within our properties and our corporate offices and functions. Legally though, we are committed to having some distinctions just because of who they’re actually employed by. But as far as creating culture, driving initiatives, having great engagement and creating a meaningful employee experience, whether you’re owned and managed or franchised, you are a part of team Hilton.

Narr:  But there is a difference when it comes to the implementation of technology and software.

Erica:  It makes a distinction when we want to fund it for the masses or fund it for the smaller distinct group. If you think about our team member population and in its entirety, it can be all 400,000 team members, you take in consideration our owned and managed estate, that is significantly lower than that number. And so when you think about providing technology, especially licensing, software licensing for all team members, that can get pretty expensive. And so there are some distinctions where we have considered just solutions for our owned and managed estate. And then there are solutions that are provided for our franchised estate. One thing that we do provide for all of our team members is learning and development. So whether you’re not a managed team member or a franchise team member. You have access to all of our learning and development resources.

Narr:  Of course, with that big of a workforce, there are always obstacles to creating that exceptional employee experience for everyone.

Erica:  The one thing that I see that is always challenging, whether I’m in hospitality, retail, technology is just creating this personalized and hyper-relevant experience for an extremely diverse workforce. There’s no one-size-all solution, which leads to very innovative and adaptive solutions.

Narr:  So Erica has come up with an elegant way to disseminate information across her diversified teams. .

Erica:  For us and especially for our team member related technology and solutions, and even when we think about our guest facing solutions, it’s really about offering up choices. So how do you want to see the information? And it’s not so much really creating that personalized experience for you, it’s for you to opt in to that personalized experience. And so if we offer a menu, you can a la cart kind of pick the things that are important and relevant to you. There are some things that we’re going to push to everyone, but other things are optional. And up for choice.

Narr:  Hilton also has its own platforms for company-wide news.

Erica:  On our team member engagement platforms, we have all types of news and information that we can provide. We really want team members to be plugged in and informed and engaged. So we pushed down our company needs to everyone, regardless of where you’re at in the organization, but there are some channels where we provide information around travel, hospitality, other things happening in, within the organization, different brand related materials that you can opt into and choose what you want to be informed or know about.

Narr:  But Erica says there’s no one person responsible for the entire employee experience.  She sees it as a community effort.

Erica:  As a blanket statement, we are all responsible for employee experience. I would say that the execution and strategy for employee experiences fall under our fearless chief human resource officer. But again, leaders across the organization are accountable and responsible for cross-functionally delivering the entire experience for our team members.

Narr:  So she’s constantly working with her colleagues across the organization to make continuous improvements.

Erica:  I play in a sandbox with my HR operational partners, my brand operation partners, my technology team, and my communication teams on a regular basis.  And then even my direct team plays a pivotal role in delivering exceptional experiences. We do that via people, process, technology, whether it be through our HR team member services or our team member technology like Lobby Buzz, or our Microsoft stack products, or even through our people management system. It’s a wide variety of things that create an experience.

Narr:  So what is employee experience at Hilton, exactly? 

Erica:   I think we try to infuse the employee experience into all of the strategies, all of the top initiatives that we have going on. And it’s really a mindset, being in technology and being a product professional, there’s a product mindset. We try to provide that employee experience mindset to everything as well. And I think the easiest way to break it down is like, Always thinking about people, process and technology and how they live in concert with one another really drives a great experience and whatever you’re trying to accomplish.

Narr:  Erica’s job is to bring all the pieces together.

Erica:  I think that’s my unique role that I’m playing within this organization, being in HR and then coordinating, collaborating, cross-functionally working with all of my partners across the organization that I mentioned. The team that plays in the sandbox the most, but I would like to think of myself as the glue, the liaison that always thinks about those three distinctive pillars in people, process, and technology and make sure that we’re providing great experiences in relation to each one of those things.  Oftentimes I am the one that’s calling out the entire experience that we’re trying to create whenever we’re driving solutions or initiatives or strategies forward. And I think I’ve rubbed off, fortunately, on some of our counterparts, my HR counterpart’s, my technology counterparts, my communications talent counterparts, even operations. Just thinking how we solution in a more broader frame set of mind than what is foundationally our responsibility is what I kind of bring to the table. I’ve definitely taken some down, kicking and screaming, but at the end of the day, I think this process and this mindset of just delivering exceptional experiences has proven itself time and time again.

Narr:  And Hilton has been recognized as having an exceptional employee experience.  It was named Number 1 on the 2020 Fortune Best Companies to work for.  And technology played a large part in that.

Erica:   I think at the end of the day, hospitality is about being of service. I believe that Hilton receives all the accolades and the recognition, because first and foremost, we are providing our team members, a great digital employee experience. And so I’m a true believer of a happy employee surely equals a happy guest at the end of the day. And so when you talk in relation to people, process and technology, sometimes those things have to cross over and meld together, but sometimes a process is just a process. And so building out an exceptional experience could be inclusive of one of those things or all three of those things. And so we really take that into account. There’s no difference when you’re having a low tech experience or a high tech experience. It’s still an experience and it should be exceptional.

Narr:  So let’s fire up the engines and navigate through the best practices Hilton uses to create that experience in our next segment, First Class.

Erica:   First and foremost, I would call out consolidating and integrating employee platforms to eliminate digital clutter. Consolidate and eliminate as much as you can. Think of it as the cereal aisle. When you go into the grocery store, there’s just a wall of cereal. How can you make a choice? Or there’s going to be so many choices that you tend to not choose anything at all. As much as we can consolidate and focus our team members on the platforms that we want them to be on, we’ve seen greater success in that realm. Second, deliver mobile first technologies to employees, ensuring that they have capabilities available to them anytime, anywhere, just drive mobile first technologies to your team members. And third, optimize and automate employee operations. This allows you to create efficiencies and it really frees up your employees, your workforce to focus on the more complex problems.  If I just stay in the kind of communication engagement realm here at Hilton, we’re very entrepreneurial. We’re very innovative spirit. And we promote that and we empower our team members to go out and find new ways to solve their problems. And so I would say at one point in time, we probably had so many communication channels or platforms where it was hard to understand where I was actually going to receive information from. And so we consolidated those communications channels from over two handfuls down to literally three or four.

Narr:  But those changes aren’t always welcomed right away by employees.  That’s where change management comes in.

Erica:  There was definitely pushback. And I think that’s expected. We had to put on our big company, enterprise hat and show in dollars and cents why this made sense from an enterprise perspective. And then after we free up some of those dollars and cents, what other innovations we can apply those funds toward that were further drive what we were trying to do from a strategy or an initiative purpose. And then two, we had to manage expectations. People are going to kick and scream for at least a good 90 days. And they’re really, really persistent ones, I will say we’ll do it for 120 days, but then it usually calms down and quietness and people adapt and they accept the change and they move on. And then if you still have some fussing and screaming and hollering after that, that’s probably an enhancement that needs to be made to the technology itself or the process of how it’s rolled out. It’s not actually the platform that’s causing the angst. Because at the end of the day, most messaging platforms and communication platforms have very similar technologies. That’s just what we’re choosing to adopt.

Narr:  Hilton has created its own messaging platform– an app specifically designed for internal communications.

Erica:  Lobby Buzz it’s been instrumental in keeping our team members at Hilton connected, informed, and engaged in a modern, mobile solution that can be scaled to be inclusive of all our team member brand community sites and all the information and company needs that we want to share out with our populations where they’d be at a corporate office or hotel. And we’ve also used it to streamline and integrate our inner prize communication channels. We use it to promote operational efficiencies for our global publishing. And it’s infused with metrics, analytics, and insights that help to drive our strategic team member engagement strategies. Some of our top use cases include, like I mentioned before, company news, we use it for recognition broadly at our properties and tons of storytelling.  We’re telling team member stories. So every day our team members are really surprising and delighting. I call them hospitality heroes, and they’re out there face to face with our guests and we invite them to share those stories with us. Okay.

Narr:  So she’s consolidating platforms, automating operations and driving mobile technologies.  But how does Erica know if these initiatives are positively impacting the employee experience? 

Erica:  Measuring is hard. I’m still a believer that it really starts with engagement. So, if you’re not interacting with your customers in a meaningful way, it is hard to influence their behaviors to drive the desired outcomes. I believe that a great employee experience or great EX in general, it takes into account once again, the people, process, and technology, they have to live in concert with one another. We measure it in many ways, there’s surveys, there’s true analytics around engagements, there’s setting specific KPIs and measurements that we’re trying to drive to and attain there’s injury industry standards that we try to adhere to and exceed and over exceed to meet those expectations as well.  I tend to measure organizational success by if we are collectively able to solve complex problems quickly. And if we can minimize how many fire drills, like AKA reacting to the unexpected moments we have on a daily, weekly, monthly, and so on basis, I try to tell my team, I’m going to try to mitigate us having a fire drill as much as possible and plan for the unexpected.  And the ability for us to collectively solve complex problems quickly.  So, if you can solve complex problems really quickly, I think you are not getting caught up in that paralysis analysis piece of it. And then also you have people in your organization who are brave enough to make decisions. I think a big thing that’s missing from a lot of leadership teams and organizations today is just this idea of being brave, making the decision, owning the decision, being accountable or responsible for it. I think there’s a, a plague of cowardice going around. No one wants to be wrong, but that’s a big part of product, is like, you will fail, but like you will get up and you will succeed. So do the thing. Um, And so if you can do that quickly, I think that means the organization is really succeeding, even if they fail the first time. And then the fire drill is like, if we’re always in this reactive mode, we can never be proactive.

Narr:  Employees are much more likely to be proactive problem solvers if they’re engaged at work.  And they’re much more likely to engage with technology if it’s personalized to them.  So what does that look like? 

Erica:  This year, it took a little bit of a different stance and more and more I’m turning to this notion of inclusivity. So if you have inclusive experiences, they’re inherently personalized. Even simple things. Like I think of it mostly in the marketplace. So if you’re showing an ad, it has Hilton in it and we’re going through different scenarios of like how people can dream about spending their time at one of our properties or on vacation. If I can’t see myself in that dreaming experience, it does not feel personalized. But if Hilton, as a company takes the time and the effort to really create inclusive dreamy episodes, that includes different people of different colors, different ages, different genders, that I’m inherently creating this more personalized experience in an inclusive manner.

Narr:  This applies to both guests and employees at Hilton.

Erica:  We really need to think about the broader team member or the broader employee body to really be inclusive of storytelling across the board. And if you never see yourself in those stories, you start to question, not only is this personalized for me, or is this where I belong?  When I think about this, one of the best experiences that I had was in a leadership development program that I participated in. When I was transitioning from an individual contributor to a leader role, it wasn’t at Hilton. It was at Target. The experience was a culmination of once again, the people, process, and the technology, but Target recognized the fact that they needed to equip their first-line managers with tools to lead effectively. The process and feedback was highly personalized to my leadership dimensions and my specific characteristics, the training process infused technology in a frictionless way to aid in the development process. And then training really reinforced real simulations and incorporated analytics that measured progress and effectiveness. And so those are all the things I think that make up a great experience in one kind of big program or process.

Narr:  So Erica takes lessons from her personal experience as an employee to improve the working environment for her staff, but she also tries to mix it up for them.

Erica:  This is when I try to just throw the whole kitchen sink at it. Like how many ways can I make this experience differentiated. So can I do it through learning? Can I do it through just listening and audio and video? What can they touch or actually infuse them in? Is there like a VR, virtual reality experience or some type of simulation that we can throw in at the same time? Can I give them an opportunity to kind of regurgitate what they heard and speak on it and share it out? Whether that’d be verbally through a drawing, through like written word, I’m just trying to mesh all those experiences together at one time, because I feel like if I don’t get you with one way, maybe I can catch you another way and you’ll just go along for the ride. Cause now I kind of have you.  It’s really a framework. And so how do you model the framework, personalize the delivery for your customer audiences? It is about building purpose, scale, security, building for consumer behavior, which is ever-changing, building for exceptional experiences, but really focusing on the secret sauce. And so we’re all going to have that one thing that sets us apart from all of our competitors. Whether it’d be hospitality, whether it be retail, whether it be technology. So what’s your secret sauce? And like deep dive, really hard in on that with the consideration of all these other things in the framework.

Narr:  Hilton’s not-so-secret secret sauce is a true love for hospitality.  And Erica adds to that a layer of streamlined tech services.

Erica:   It’s the thread that connects all the team members, whether in the corporate offices, whether they’re in the properties. Like we are to be of service. And we love being of service. We love doing it with a smile. We are just hospitable people. It’s one of the things I first recognized when I joined team Hilton, I was like, this is crazy. Everyone literally has this in them. And if you don’t, you quickly are not here. And so like the most successful people at Hilton tend to just be very hospitable people at all costs.  Technology has to amplify the work that we’re doing in the hospitality space. It’s the way that team members can be in service in a way that’s frictionless to both them and the guests. I think technology is there to serve us well, and it’s really to keep everyone connected, informed, and engaged. So I can connect with people via technology. Technology is the holder or the keeper of the information that I need to know, real time. And it keeps everyone engaged in what I’m trying to showcase, tell, show, or have them experience.

Narr:  So far Erica has discussed the best examples of employee experience. But let’s adjust course and talk about the bumpier employee experiences in our next segment, Turbulence.

Erica:  This is not one specific example, but this happens all the time, where we just have this duplicative, unconnected processes, like we’re creating new processes without sunsetting the old processes. So there was a time where we had a handful of the messaging applications that you spoke of. We had Skype, we had WebEx Teams, we had Microsoft Teams. We had Slack. Thankfully we have one recommended enterprise messaging solution right now, but I think there’s a time where you can just get really aggressive or the new shiny object in any space, specifically around technology and platforms, and really just making sure that whatever you have is not duplicating something that you already have existing. And if it is, how do you decommission that, retire that, sunset that? So we keep the focus on the one thing and the one place we do want team members to be taking action.  I think really trying to find the root cause of what caused it to break and not treating the symptoms of it breaking. It’s like what really caused the demise or the situation to go really bad, really fast? How do we get to the root of the cause very quickly? Because then we can solve for making it better. And how do we avoid this same situation going forward? But if we’re just treating the symptoms and never get to the root cause then we usually end up back where we were at some point in time. I think right now, some of the biggest examples, I’m seeing is just in feedback. Like we’ve set up these feedback constructs. We’re asking team members certain questions, but we have the set guided answers that we want them to respond with. And I almost want it to be a little bit more freeform and then we apply some other technology on there, like AI or something to parse it out and make sense of it, or find the trends in the free form answer of it. Because I think once we guide people in their answers, we’re still baiting them with what we think from a bias perspective and not getting the true kind of nature of what they’re trying to communicate or articulate to us.

Narr:  When it comes to riding out the difficult parts of the journey, Erica shared with us some words of wisdom she uses to lead through tough times, especially the pandemic, which hit the hospitality industry hard.

Erica:  So, this is where I have my life mantra and it’s gotten me through the last 18 months. It’s really around being bold, brave, and brilliant. When times get rough, I add transparent and over-communicate to the back end of that mantra as well. You have to be bold enough to do the things that other people won’t do and do it just with this unrelenting tenacity that leads to this bravery that you didn’t even know you had in your head, mind and body. But at the same time, you have to do it with some level of brilliance, intelligence, or informed decision-making to make it really stick. And especially now, transparency is so key because I think there’s just so many moving parts. Everything is very dynamic. If people don’t understand kind of why you’re making these decisions and you’re not over communicating to them the decision that was being made. They get left by the wayside and you’re not traveling with the pack and you’re leaving everybody else behind or you’re so far behind that it’s hard to catch up.  There’s a whole experience associated with returning to work, but I think some of the unintended consequences are people don’t want to come back to work and we want people to be in the workplace as much as they don’t want to be in the workplace. But there’s other outlying factors, whether it’s safety, whether it’s health whether it’s benefits around unemployment. And so how do we bring people back to work in a manner or give them an experience that is desirable? And then there’s many ways that you can slice that and dice that as well. Do you come back to work two days a week, one day a week? Do you let team members decide when they come back to work? And we don’t even know where team members are these days. They could be in Georgia. It can be an Iceland. Well, we have some clue if they are not in the Americas, but they’re literally all over the place. And so getting back to work is not as easy as. One would see it to be. 

Narr:  Erica’s mantra has served her well throughout her career, especially when she made the transition to the hospitality industry.

Erica:  I think my career is made up of just like these moments of bravery, even just coming to hospitality. It was a huge shift from being into product and retail as a background and a staple and somewhere I got really comfortable. This was a total new industry, a total new organization. We were trying out something new in this organization. I was hire number two. We just had the makings of a strategy, but the strategy wasn’t even all in place, the funding wasn’t there. And so it was just coming in and really believing in this digital organization within the HR organization and how it could be of service and a benefit to the rest of the enterprise, and really taking something from nothing all the way to something. The manifestation of that is probably been my biggest bravery moment, but there’s oftentimes where I’m the only person of color and female in the room and the ideas or the concepts that are floating around are just rubbing me the wrong way. I felt like they would rub our team members and our guests the wrong way. And I often have to stand up and say, no, let’s think about it another way. Your way isn’t wrong but can we consider this as well in our thought process? So those are everyday moments.  Some people take a deep breath, but in those moments I usually take a deep breath and I repeat in my head silently, be brave, be bold, be brilliant. And that gives me the courage to do the thing that I need to do in that moment.

Narr:  I love what Erica says about these little moments of bravery.  Being in a position of leadership demands courage, especially when you’re basically pioneering a new type of organization within a very traditional industry.  To stand up and demand change in the direction of a more inclusive, diverse and welcoming environment is what makes Erica a true leader.  Without that, Hilton wouldn’t have the light and warmth that it’s known for.  But with it, everyone from guests to team members can truly see themselves in the customer experience.

Thank you for listening to this episode of Cruising Altitude. This episode of Cruising Altitude is brought to you by SocialChorus. SocialChorus is the creator of FirstUp, the platform that makes the digital employee experience work for every worker. FirstUp brings personalized information and systems access to every employee, everywhere.

No matter whether they’re wired, distributed, or on the front line. That’s how they help Amazon AB InBev, GSK, and many others stay agile and keep transforming. Learn more at

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Cruising Altitude

Lessons from companies over 30,000 employees

Conversations with leaders who are designing the best digital employee experiences in the world – from the front lines to the back office. Life is different over 30,000. Welcome to Cruising Altitude.

Hosted by Firstup Founder and CEO, Nicole Alvino.

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