Why working at Expedia is such a trip

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If you’re a traveler (and many of us are!), chances are you’ve used Expedia.com to book your trip.

Working for an Expedia, Inc. brand that also owns tripadvisor.com, hotwire.com and hotels.com to name a few, it perhaps comes as no surprise that the company spends a lot of time building an internal culture that’s engaged, enthusiastic…and, dare we say it, fun. In fact, this year in particular has special meaning for the company – it’s marking the 15-year anniversary of Expedia.com.

Defining a corporate culture

Much like the customers who use their services, the 9,000 Expedia employees love travel. And with offices in 25 countries, many staff often do hit the friendly skies, frequently sharing their experiences with colleagues via a bevy of internal social media tools.

Vice President of Engagement & Communication at Expedia, Inc., Kristin Graham, explains:

“We have international colleagues sharing images on our “We Love Travel” photo site with an affinity for representing the travel experience. We love our product; that’s what makes this more than a day job for us.”

She continues, “Nobody likes being in the security line at Heathrow Airport in London but we do it because we love the experience of traveling. We are our own customers so we try to round out the experience with travel reviews, tips and ideas. We aim to make communications interactive and always try to remember the fun stuff about why we travel in the first place.”

Moving with the times

Graham has worked for Expedia for nearly 5 years; in her current position – 5 months. Whereas internal communication used to be more of a formal function inside companies, it’s now focused on engagement and geared more toward the employee experience, she remarks.

“Communications has totally changed. I was trained in journalism; now journalism is less relevant. Twitter is now a major news source for people and the same is true internally. Employees expect instant information along with authenticity and transparency – plus they expect to like their job. Now, coming out of a recession, it’s gone beyond what people are getting paid. Employees want to be valued and treated well – from Day One of their orientation to the last day of their employment,” Graham points out.

According to Graham, people collaborate on what they are passionate about, and likens her position to being “a hostess at a cocktail party,” bringing people together to have their own conversations.

“We are communicators with a lower case “C” in this era. We have to be enterprising and collaborative,” she says.

Know your tools

While many companies have achieved success using tools like Chatter and Yammer in the workplace, Graham feels that there is a danger if you force too much conversation and employees get information overload.

“The majority of our workforce are in their 20s and 30s so they obviously spend a copious amount of time using social media tools externally. Internally, though, the attitude has been that people don’t necessarily want to have one more thing to check at work.”

Graham and her 8-person team are currently working to make all internal channels elective and are still in the learning phase of that process, including pilots of both Chatter and Yammer.

But as a technology company, the communications channel that Expedia employees tend to prefer the most is the most common: email. When supporting a global and, in many cases, virtual workforce, Expedia has found that email can be the most simple tool to reach broadly across the company. Even with a workforce attached to mobile devices, email is the easiest to digest quickly – as long as it’s short, compelling, and relevant.

To make the email channel a bit more sexy, employees are encouraged to create and subscribe to many social aliases, from Expedia Parents to Beer Lovers to the very popular “Travel Deals & Discussion”. Employees often compile responses and send back around or reply using only haiku format. This elective channel helps create a global water cooler effect via email.

On the company intranet, called BaseCamp, employees are encouraged to post travel photos and can also link to a travel recommendations page. The photo site was launched in March and already has 500 photos displaying images from Paris to Peru.

Perhaps the greatest testimonial of the photo pages is the fact that many Expedia executives have added to the buzz. Q&A’s led by senior management tackle employees’ travel questions such as favourite hotels and mobile apps as well as where the most hassle-free airports are.

“Beyond social tools, tried-and-true communication channels are still critical to ping employees occasionally,” says Graham, whose team uses electronic newsletters, employee profile articles, and create colourful posters for events and campaigns to cover their office “halls and walls.”

Recruitment

When it comes to employee recruitment, Expedia relies on its accessible job site to lure new staff. Photos on the site are posted by Expedia employees themselves.

Graham explains:

“We think of recruiting as the welcome mat. We want you to look in our front door and see us for who we are – we’re casual, we wear jeans in the workplace. We are a lean and mean staff. To work at Expedia, Inc., you need to have autonomy. You have to be independent and a self-motivator.”

Interestingly, Graham says, these days, cultural elements are winning out over fancy dental plans. Employees – especially Millenials – want to work at a compay for the experience, not necessarily for the money. Corporate values are examined as well, says Graham, from ethics to sustainability. “I once had a candidate ask about our compost practices so I walked them into the kitchen to show them our recycling and composting system,” Graham adds.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many are drawn to Expedia in hope of receiving lots of free travel perks.

Graham says:

“People think they’ll receive more travel deals than we actually can. The truth is, we’re not an airline or a hotel. We are suppliers.”

To better address the travel desire, one of the new travel benefits Expedia offers to staff is annual travel funds starting at $250 (or the currency equivalent) to spend on any of Expedia’s global brands. Reimbursement is simple, log on to the internal portal and enter the itinerary number of your trip and the amount. And the longer an employee stays with the company, the more travel money they get each year (5 years will earn $500 while $750 is rewarded to employees who have worked 7 years at the company).

“We did a cost analysis that found when employees leave a company, they’re paid millions of dollars (in unused vacation time). So we’re redirecting the investment to give people money to those who stay,” Graham explains.

Expedia has also developed a “use it or lose it” vacation policy where if employees don’t take their 3 weeks of vacation to recharge, it’s gone forever. They also accelerated how quickly you earn extra weeks of vacation in the U.S., with 4 weeks moving up to 3 years instead and 5 weeks at 7 years. Having the travel reimbursement program is a definite motivator to take the time and enjoy travel products when you do.

And just as Expedia customers want to enjoy their time off away from the office, Expedia management expects their own employees to do the same.

“When people are on vacation, they’re on vacation. We even encourage people to create amusing out-of-office emails so they remained unbothered during their holidays,” Graham says.

Offering an a la carte menu

With a young force like Expedia has, the best way to connect with their staff is to make their internal communication organic and let people choose the channel that appeals to them – whether it’s viewing a video or reading a CEO blog.

“If you give employees enough options, they can choose how to intersect with the company which takes away from the ‘what have you done for me lately?’ mentality. If an employee chooses not to attend a Town Hall meeting, the videos and photos are there if they miss the action,” Graham explains.

Communicating globally

The majority of Expedia’s offices conduct business in English, yet attention is paid to where and when to do localized content. Working with HR business partners is critical to ensure the message you and your client worked so hard on is received in the spirit it was intended and not inadvertently confusing. In these cases, the main message is sent out from the leader or business unit in English and localized content for some areas is either attached or forwarded from HR immediately following. It’s still more an exception than rule process but worth the effort for information in particular for messages regarding compensation or benefits.

“In a global environment, you often have managers who have employees in different parts of the world. So we aim to build in manager previews and FAQs for complex or new messages that affect employees. This was especially helpful when we rolled out our travel and vacation/time off changes at the beginning of 2011,” says Graham.

Events

At Expedia’s headquarters in Bellevue, Washington, the staff of 2,300 can expect to take part in a variety of events – from traditional CEO forums to events of a social kind, including taking part in local food festivals. “We provide a lot of free food and beer,” explains Graham. Expedia also sponsors at “Live at Lunch” music series where employees can enjoy some music on their lunch hours on the grassy grounds of the company alongside members of the local community. Family picnics and Halloween parties are also annual traditions.

Expedia has a strong philanthropic culture that fosters giving back to the community. One such initiative was the recent “CANstruction” event – an annual food drive where Expedia employees around the world created their own travel-related structures via cans of food. Among the entrants were Big Ben, a TSA scanner and a “CANcun sunset”.

Nine offices participated in total, represented by 17 teams. More than 1,000 employees voted for the CANstruction Champion and more than $21,000 USD was raised.

12,900 pounds of food were donated globally including 4,600 cans of food given to local charities selected by the regional offices. Expedia, Inc. then matched leftover CANstruction funds (beyond those used to purchase food items) up to $1,000 USD per office.

Defining success

With a multi-brand, multi-region workforce, Expedia is careful not to offer a one-size-fits-all approach to culture and communication. Respecting that employees identify most with the geography/brand where they work each day, flexibility is key. Some offices have their own intranet sites and Graham’s team works with the local HR partners to ensure the critical company information (benefits, etc.) is linked from the Expedia, Inc. intranet site so the information stays consistent even when localized.

It is also this approach with events and philanthropy in that the company headquarters will share ideas and activities that are being planned so other offices can choose to participate locally, if interested. It was this approach that made the CANstruction effort successful because the offices could select a local nonprofit to give food and money donations to versus being instructed on how and where to participate. This “give where you live” model enables employees to stay connected in a way that reflects their employee experience.

When asked to sum up what she hopes Expedia employees will get out of their overall internal comms experience, Grahams says:

“It comes down to having a choice. To achieve the right measure of success, people need to have options regarding how and when they want to upgrade their employee experience. Participation is key and you can’t mother them.

As a communicator, I’m not here to win a Pulitzer Prize. The best success is where my work is invisible – to put the tools out there and hope that people will have a good time. I want them to leave a little bit happier than when they started.”