As a visitor attraction operator, Merlin Entertainments, which owns Alton Towers, the London Eye, Legoland and Madame Tussauds, focuses on creating memorable experiences for its guests.
This mantra is also reflected in the benefits and reward package it offers to its 8,000 UK employees.
Its focus on building memorable experiences has had a positive impact on staff. In Merlin’s 2013 employee opinion survey, 86% of employees said they were satisfied with their benefits. Debra Corey, group compensation and benefits director, says: “Similar to how we develop and deliver fantastic attractions and experiences for our guests, our benefits programmes are designed to deliver fantastic, memorable experiences for our employees and show them we care.
“From a benefits perspective, from an HR perspective and from a business perspective, the company is growing. It has a way to go on this journey, so it’s exciting to be a part of it.”
(Profile continues below video, which features Debra Corey discussing how Merlin aligns benefits to business strategy)
The main thrust of this strategy has been a two-year reward harmonisation project, which was largely completed early in 2012. Since 2005, Merlin Entertainments has acquired a range of attractions, including Legoland Parks in 2005, Tussauds Group in 2007 and the Sydney Attraction Group in 2011. The group now comprises 94 attractions, seven hotels and two holiday villages in 22 countries.
To ensure it was creating memorable experiences for all employees, the organisation first wanted to ensure staff across all its sites were offered a consistent benefits and reward package. “Not only did we harmonise the different plan designs, we also harmonised the benefits providers,” says Corey.
One of the harmonisation projects was the 2012 launch of Merlin Xtras, a voluntary benefits scheme that offers staff internal and external discounts. For instance, the Merlin Magic Pass, which gives staff free access to its attractions, was not consistent across the organisation. The new harmonised scheme offers 20 free entries to all staff in their first year, and 40 entries each year after that.
Merlin Xtras also includes access to Merlin Marketplace, an online site that offers discounts at high-street shops and restaurants. “Whenever I ask people what their favourite benefit is, it’s normally under that umbrella, whether it’s the Merlin Magic Pass, the hotel discount or the Taste card,” says Corey.
“We make sure we’ve got the core benefits in place, but if these are the things our staff are telling us they are most interested in, this is the area we’re going to continue to evolve.”
New benefits in 2012 also included an employee assistance programme (EAP) and a discounted health cash plan for all staff. There had previously been an EAP in place at just one attraction, while the cash plan was added to fill a gap in healthcare provision, because only management-level employees are provided with a private medical insurance (PMI) scheme.
All these changes were introduced between 26 June and 26 July 2012 at 15 benefits fairs held at various Merlin sites. More than 1,000 employees attended the fairs, which will now be an annual event.
Other ways in which the organisation communicates benefits to staff include television screens and computers in certain staff rooms. Each site holds team briefings each morning and shares newsletters with benefits information.
The reward and benefits team also has a communications strategy calendar to schedule in the benefits it communicates each month. Corey says: “We’ll write something, we’ll put it in a newsletter or a poster, we’ll break it up in different ways, just so we can touch people with the different benefits at different times.”
Merlin also operates two global peer-to-peer recognition schemes, which were harmonised from 20 different programmes. Its peer-to-peer Star and CEO Award Plan helped the organisation win ‘Most effective motivation or incentive strategy’ at the 2012 Employee Benefits Awards. Merlin was also a runner-up in the category ‘Most effective reward or benefits strategy for staff based outside the UK’.
The Star programme recognises staff who live and breathe the organisation’s values, while the CEO Award Plan rewards employees who have demonstrated outstanding performance, excellent customer service and contribution to charitable causes, by giving them shares in the organisation.
In January 2012, Merlin Entertainments also harmonised its long-service awards for UK staff. Corey says: “Different attractions were recognised at different intervals, and were giving different awards. We brought it all together and started it at five years [service]. At 10 years, they get cash and a one-time day off. It was a great way to say, ‘we are all in it together, we all get recognised’.”
Merlin has also begun to harmonise long-service awards globally. Staff with five years’ service receive a certificate. Schemes were launched in Germany this year. “We have a certificate that we designed to work globally, says Corey. “The foundation of the programme will be the same, but the individual elements may differ based on country-specific practice and regulations.”
A final harmonisation exercise will see all employees merged into a single online payroll system in May 2013. Previously there were multiple systems, and harmonisation has been spurred on by pensions auto-enrolment. Merlin’s staging date has been postponed from September 2013 to December 2013.
“If we think about our population, we’ve got a lot of seasonal staff who leave in November,” says Corey. “Fright Night on Halloween is one of our last seasonal attractions. It would be difficult for them to join [the pension scheme]in September when they’re going to be gone in a month, so we thought we’d take advantage of the postponement.”
Merlin’s group personal pension (GPP) plan provided by Scottish Widows is compliant with current auto-enrolment requirements, having a minimum employer-matched contribution of 1%. Different staff grades within the organisation receive different levels of employer matching, up to 6.5%.
As it neared the end of its harmonisation project in January 2012, Merlin’s main focus was to ensure communications were consistent across all its attractions. “In the past, it was decentralised and everyone would communicate benefits in a different way,” says Corey. “Once we harmonised, we all worked as a group and came up with a three-prong approach to benefits communication, which had never been done before.
“It included things like pulling all our benefits into a brochure and having benefits fairs. Through the power of being harmonised, we could do that for the first time.”
Previously, some employees had received a single piece of paper with a summary of their benefits, others received 10 different pieces of paper, and some had posters hung up in their staff room. “There were a lot of good things being done,” says Corey. “As a team, we said let’s take all the good things, then add to that and make things even better.”
In 2012, Merlin also put diversity on the agenda, beginning by setting objectives around an increase in the percentage of female leaders in the organisation, and putting a women’s leadership group in place.
Its charitable work is also growing. The Magic Wand programme allows staff to develop unique ways to raise money for charity. “We are one big company, but we do encourage our attractions to be unique,” says Corey. “Everyone supports the charity and goes about raising money for the charity in different ways.”
With the main parts of the harmonisation project now complete, a streamlined benefits package and communications campaign in place, and plans ready for pensions auto-enrolment later this year, Corey is proud of all the work put in by her team.
“We felt it was really important, because we’re one organisation, to make sure everybody is treated in a consistent manner,” says Corey. “It’s never easy harmonising, and we’ve been able to do it in a way in which it doesn’t impact the employee experience or how they feel about their benefits programme. If anything, it makes people prouder to be a part of Merlin.”
MERLIN ENTERTAINMENTS AT A GLANCE
Merlin Entertainments was formed in 1999 by a management buyout of Vardon Attractions from Vardon. Its origins date back to 1979, when the first Sea Life Centre was opened in Oban on the west coast of Scotland.
Since 2005, it has acquired a range of attractions, including Legoland Parks (2005), Gardaland (2006), Tussauds Group (2007), Sydney Attraction Group (2011), and Living and Leisure (2012).
Today, the group comprises 94 attractions, seven hotels and two holiday villages in 22 countries across four continents. Its UK attractions include Alton Towers, Legoland, the London Eye, London Dungeons and Madame Tussauds.
At peak times, such as school holidays, Merlin employs about 8,000 staff in the UK. The average age of employees is 33, with about 52% male and 48% female.
The group’s attractions saw 54 million visitors in 2012, up from 46.5 million in 2011. Total revenue for 2012 was £1.07 billion, up from £933 million in 2011.
KEY BUSINESS CHALLENGES
- Keep up with delivering against its growth strategy, including building a positive, proactive global culture, which underlines all aspects of the business.
- As an HR function, it is to support the business in ensuring the right people are in the right places at the right time to ensure attractions are developed and staffed to deliver the best experiences to guests.
- Ensuring these memorable experiences are transferred back to employees through their day-to-day work and their reward packages.
CAREER HISTORY: DEBRA COREY
Debra Corey has been group compensation and benefits director at Merlin Entertainments since June 2011.
With more than 20 years in the industry, her roles have included senior director of compensation and benefits, Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) at Quintiles; head of reward and performance at Morrisons; director of compensation and benefits, EMEA at Honeywell; and director of compensation and benefits, Europe at AS Watson.
“The common thread in organisations where I feel I’ve been effective is where people are passionate about what they do, which is definitely the case at Merlin,” says Corey. “Everybody loves the work they do, loves being part of the organisation, and it really makes my job a lot more fun and a lot easier.”
She was also one of Employee Benefits’ Hot 100 Benefits Managers in 2012. She adds: “It really encourages me to keep pushing the boundaries and looking at benefits design and communications in different ways.”
CASE STUDY: Honor Wadeley, customer services executive
Honor Wadeley has worked at Merlin Entertainments for six years, and is currently a customer services executive based at the London Eye. “I deal with the weird and wonderful world of customer service, from complaints through to one serial emailer who has some interesting suggestions, such as turning a capsule into a swimming pool and taking your car for a spin on the London Eye,” she says. “Although it has its challenges at times, it is a great role because I get the opportunity to change a negative into a positive and have a real influence on our guests’ lasting impression of their visit.”
Wadeley’s favourite employee benefit is the Merlin Magic Pass, which provides 40 visits to Merlin attractions for employees to use annually or share with their family and friends.
“Being from South Africa, I am always proud when friends and family visit and I can take them to the various attractions to show off,” says Wadeley. “It is also great when travelling abroad. I can offer that little bit extra to the trip with something fun, scary or relaxing.”
For instance, she has used the pass when visiting her family in Amsterdam, most recently to visit the Amsterdam Dungeons and Madame Tussauds Amsterdam.
“They had never visited these attractions, so they had a great day out, as did I,” she says. “My friends also love it when I bring [the pass] along on our trips around the UK.”
- Group personal pension (GPP) plan.
- Matched employer contributions which vary across grades, ranging from 1% to 6.5%.
- Contributions can be made via a salary sacrifice arrangement.
- Merlin’s auto-enrolment staging date has been postponed from September to December 2013.
- Private medical insurance is available for management-level staff.
- Discounted health cash plan, with BHSF, available for all staff.
- Employee assistance programme with access to Best Doctors, available for all staff.
- Company cars are available for management-level employees.
- Payroll-giving scheme.
- Childcare vouchers.
- Long-service awards.
- Two recognition schemes.
- Employee discounts scheme.
- Performance-related bonuses are available for all employees, based on the organisation’s performance and individual performance targets each year.
- Seasonal staff start on 20 days and permanent staff on 25 days a year.