by Sarah J.F. Braley, Loren G. Edelstein, Michael C. Lowe | April 01, 2014
 BENCHMARK HOSPITALITY

The stereotype of a family company has siblings squabbling, grumblings about nepotism and staff halfway out the door. The reality, at least at The Woodlands, Texas-based Benchmark Hospitality, is that harmony reigns at the top and all 6,400 employees are highly valued -- and they know it. That was a key mission when chairman Burt Cabañas founded the hotel development and management company in 1980, and continues to be a reigning principle since he passed on the title of CEO to his son Alex this past January.

The elder Cabañas, born in pre-Castro Cuba, came to the United States when he was 10. Over the past 35 years, he has built up a company with some 30 managed properties throughout the continental U.S., Hawaii and Japan, including 10 public facilities that are members of the International Association of Conference Centers.

"I wanted to work for an organization that really values its people," says Karen DiFulgo, vice president of human resources, who joined Benchmark a little more than a year ago. "A lot of companies talk about it, but to live the values and live the words they put out there is a different experience."

As new CEO Alex Cabañas puts it, "We don't talk about Benchmark as our family, Burt and I, but as the Benchmark family."

Learning, growing, giving
A visitor to the Texas campus first notices the overall ambience. Reflecting Burt Cabañas' love of art, works by local artists decorate the hallways, and the reception area is graced with an original mosaic whose many tiles represent each of the individuals who make up the company.

At the on-site Z Café (named for Bob Zapatelli, Benchmark's first vice president of food and beverage, who died in 2009), employees meet to eat lunch together. Nearby is the Quiet Room, where anyone can take a yoga break, play cards, read or just recharge.

As part of a hospitality company, Benchmark's employees get the usual travel discounts (a rate of $39 per night at most properties, plus a friends and family rate of $79, depending on occupancy and availability).Those who take advantage of the perk are treated like royalty: General managers typically provide employee guests with welcome gifts such as logoed T-shirts and mugs.

Education is a major focus at the company, whose Benchmark University is devoted to the individual's internal and external development. Online classes are available at a discounted rate through a partnership with the University of Phoenix. Classroom instruction also is given at the property level, and those who want to supplement their learning at a local university can apply for tuition reimbursement. "The classes do not have to pertain to hospitality, but we do encourage it," says DiFulgo.

Employees who go above and beyond can earn the instant recognition of a gift card or a free lunch. But the company also prizes a storytelling tradition, which has been turned into a companywide program. " 'Be the Difference' is the overarching culture of who we are," says DiFulgo. "We achieve it through storytelling, on conference calls, pre-shift meetings. Employees tell their own stories, or a property receives a great TripAdvisor rating or a guest calls in to praise someone." The program is about sharing and reinforcing the team spirit that infuses the company.

Cultural committees at the home office and at each property create opportunities to support local and national charities. The company as a whole supports the United Service Organizations, whose purpose is to "lifts the spirits of America's troops and their families." At headquarters, Benchmark participates in yearly themed dragon-boat races against other nearby businesses to benefit the South Montgomery County Family YMCA; the team-building event features competing groups of paddlers who are urged on by drumbeat. "We've also done events for local women's shelters, pet shelters," says Melanie Perdue, human resources generalist for the company. "We have partnered with the Interfaith of The Woodlands for about 25 years, collecting backpacks and school supplies for kids who need them. We sponsor local walks and runs."

Perdue started at Benchmark in a part-time position eight years ago: "I was able to help people, and every day was different, so I decided to stay. Having Burt or Alex come down to my office to have a professional or personal conversation with me speaks volumes. It's a unit, it's a team, it's a family. I look forward to coming here every day." - SARAH J.F. BRALEY

 EVENTBRITE

Last April, the three co-founders and executive team of Eventbrite took the stage under the bright lights of the Supperclub in San Francisco. Clad in black, the crew executed a choreographed dance to the hit K-Pop song "Gangnam Style." The crowd, some 200 Eventbrite employees (or Britelings, as they're called), went nuts.

It was the annual talent show of the San Francisco based self-service event registration and ticketing company, where employees can strut their stuff for colleagues. It's one of the many activities that help create Eventbrite's close-knit community, at times referred to as a second family. It's a fitting description for a company whose CEO and president are husband and wife.

Kevin and Julia Hartz were engaged when they founded Eventbrite in 2006 along with Renaud Visage, the organization's current chief technology officer. Via the website, Eventbrite.com, clients can create events, sell tickets and manage registrations. Last year, the firm sold 58 million tickets through its platform (up from 36 million in 2012) in 187 countries, amounting to $1 billion in tickets (a leap from $600 million in 2012). The platform also allows potential attendees to purchase tickets and share activity on social media channels.

The Eventbrite mobile app, which was downloaded 2.3 million times in 2013, lets event-goers to access their tickets and uses geo-location to discover activities nearby. Event organizers can use the app to transform their smartphones into ticket scanners and
registration-management devices.

In September 2013, the firm acquired Eventioz, a Latin America-based ticketing service, and Lanyrd, a London-based event-data firm. Even now, with about 320 employees, the Hartzes personally interview all new-hire finalists to make sure they are a good fit for the family.

Few trappings of hierarchy
Transparency and executive visibility are core tenets at Eventbrite. Every Thursday, employees can attend a meeting, during which the Hartzes sit down to go over recent events or answer questions. "We are a transparent company almost to a fault," says Miles Parroco, head of recruiting, who adds that the company's legal department isn't always thrilled with what its founders divulge to staff. "We try to share as much as we can so people understand how the company is doing and how what they do affects the bottom line," he notes.

Company headquarters, known as Briteland, features an open floor plan where even top executives sit at desks alongside the rank and file. "It doesn't matter if they're the CEO or president or a VP. If we want to go up and talk to them we can," says Parroco. The Hartzes have moved their desks around the office several times to embed themselves within different departments. "It's a clear nod to everybody that we're all on the same team," says Parroco.

Later this year, when the growing company moves into a new office just south of Union Square, the open floor plan will remain, using design and décor ideas contributed from employees via a Pinterest board.

If it's Tuesday, it must be yoga
An enviable roster of office perks helped win Eventbrite a slot as one of the 10 Best Places to Work by the San Francisco Business Times four years in a row. "Most candidates come here because they're interested in the opportunity to work on our product and contribute to the bigger picture," says Parroco. "But they definitely pay attention to the way we treat our employees."

And what they find are benefits like subsidized in-office massages, yoga classes in a large conference room twice a week, acupuncture and free healthy snacks like hummus, veggies and kombucha (a sweetened, fermented tea) on tap. Staffers are routinely treated to catered meals inspired by cuisines from around the world, such as grilled tofu skewers with a sambal teriyaki glaze, Filipino pork tacos, chicken goulash, and pork schnitzel, not to mention an accompanying keg of beer.

The company offers standing workstations and a treadmill desk, available upon request. Employees get a wellness stipend of $60 per month, and an extra $100 monthly is added to everyone's paycheck for transportation.

Many other initiatives enhance the sense of community. Following the monthly all-hands meeting, different departments are tasked with throwing a themed happy hour. Last fall, the sales team held an autumn-themed party complete with hard cider and Irish coffee, and a crackling autumn fireplace projected on the office walls. Britelings can embrace their competitive side during the quarterly Game Night, featuring activities such as ping-pong, bean-bag tosses and more.

Britecamps, held about twice per month, are opportunities for employees to share knowledge or hobbies with one another. Past topics have included espresso-making, photography, ergonomics and jujitsu.

"Because people are spending the better part of their day here, we want to be able to host meals so they can eat together, do yoga together, enjoy being together," says Parroco. "If you have happy employees, it will show up in the product." - M.C.L.