A Howlin’ Good Time

Anne Marie Malleau has taken Great Wolf Lodge Niagara Falls’ lupine theme to heart, and her uplifting employee initiatives have made her staff just as passionate

The front of the lodge features a giant Muskoka chair, one of the most popular spots for family-photo opportunities.

At Great Wolf Lodge Niagara Falls, they stomp. They clap. They howl. And they have fun. But “they” are not the guests. They are the staff—from the general manager to the cabin guide—and under the leadership of HR director Anne Marie Malleau, they’ve gone from a staff to a pack.

Great Wolf Resorts is a North American family-entertainment and hospitality corporation specializing in water park hotels. Great Wolf Lodge Niagara Falls is a franchise of Great Wolf Resorts, and consequently, when it opened in 2006, it had the autonomy to implement a unique company culture. When Malleau assumed that responsibility, she took the brand’s corporate mission—“Creating family traditions, one family at a time”—to heart and applied it the more-than-600-member pack at Great Wolf Lodge.

Malleau’s decision to lead the Ontario lodge was the culmination of hard work and experience, calling on all aspects of the human resources experience she’d gained in her previous roles. Up until 2003, it seemed she would spend the whole of her life in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. She and, eventually, her children were born and raised there, and when her husband passed away, his ashes were scattered there. Surrounded by beautiful lakes, trees, and people, “it felt so safe like a cocoon,” Malleau recalls. “It had that total sense of belonging.” While there, Malleau worked as a human resources manager at the Holiday Inn before working for a private vocational school, teaching hospitality courses, heading up the career-placement department, and eventually becoming the Sault Ste. Marie campus manager. But ultimately she knew her niche was in human resources, and she soon felt distanced from her HR roots. The experience would eventually bring Malleau back to her passion of HR, serving as human resources manager for RMH Teleservices.

After a few years there, though, her two daughters were university-bound to Southern Ontario, and Malleau decided the time was right for her to leave town, too, and see what other opportunities awaited. It was a difficult move, particularly because she had family that remained, but when her house sold within 24 hours of her putting up a “for sale” sign, Malleau says, it seemed like it was supposed to happen.

Great Wolf Lodge Niagara Falls is Malleau’s new territory, and when you walk through its halls, her influence is evident. “You might have the best skills in the world,” she says, “but if you can’t howl, maybe this isn’t the place for you.”

The place that Malleau has created is an incentive-driven environment that prides itself on exceptional service and guest experiences. To encourage and reward her staff’s commitment to those standards, Malleau created the Paw Program, a token system whose success has been so great that it was picked up company-wide by Great Wolf Resorts in 2007. Pack members can earn coloured “paws” and cash them in for gift cards. In Niagara Falls, pack member Bev Beverly—Jo, as she calls herself—earned a $350 credit and wanted to buy her son a TV, so the lodge offered her a card for Best Buy.

At Malleau’s lodge, everything is themed, and all members of the pack remain true to character for their entire shift. That includes stomping, clapping, and howling. It may seem hard to believe that Malleau could convince more than 600 employees to operate with the same mindset and determination, but she says that’s where leadership plays a role. Year after year, she continues to foster and grow the culture she fell in love with. Rather than high-fiving pack mates for a job well done, they “high-paw in the hallways,” Malleau says. “If there’s no high-pawing from our leadership team, it just isn’t going to work.”

While managerial participation lends legitimacy to Malleau’s programs, engagement transforms the production that is Great Wolf Lodge from an act to a culture. Every month the lodge hosts an event for employees and their families, from barbecues to carnivals—even the Great Wolf Olympics, which raise funds for local charities.

Great Wolf’s succession plan also falls to Malleau, but as should be obvious by now, she has put her own lupine spin on things. The Emerging Wolves (EM) program allows employees to apply for management training with the lodge’s executive team. “If you asked a server what a PNL is or what ROI is, they may not know,” Malleau says. “We want to take the basics of how management operates and give them an example.” Participating wolves go through training, are given assignments such as starting a hypothetical business, and discuss the process after. Since 2011, four have been promoted through the program.

“Keep learning. Expose yourself to all aspects of human resources, which will then help you determine what your strengths are. Then continue to work on those strengths. It is leveraging them that will define you as an HR professional.” —Anne Marie Malleau, HR Director
“Keep learning. Expose yourself to all aspects of human resources, which will then help you determine what your strengths are. Then continue to work on those strengths. It is leveraging them that will define you as an HR professional.” —Anne Marie Malleau, HR Director

In Niagara Falls, employee retention is tough because most businesses operate seasonally, and Great Wolf often competes with large hotel chains offering higher seasonal wages. To keep employees from jumping ship, Malleau and her team do everything from providing ice cream to everyone on hot days to hosting monthly events. Malleau says the EM program is one reason that she had 20 boomerang pack members last year (those who left and came back) and that the lodge is able to retain 65 percent of its workforce—a significant improvement over the 98 percent turnover rate in 2006. “People know they can grow, and if they show interest, we’ll show interest in them,” she says. “It’s fun to see the director of housekeeping training other departments and to get the director of finance out of his office, where he’s typically surrounded by computers and papers.”

The tourism industry associations of Ontario and Canada took notice of Malleau’s efforts and awarded her and the lodge for excellence in employee attraction and retention and HR. Reflecting the group dynamic that is central to the lodge’s success, Malleau says the recognition is the result of a team effort, one that she believes will continue to make the lodge a destination for guests and pack members alike.

“To us,” Malleau says, “the awards represent the pride of our leadership team, the environment we’ve created, and the hard work of the people who want to work and stay here.”