Not only is it difficult to staff the housekeeping department at the Wilderness Hotel and Golf Resort in Wisconsin Dells, Wis., but the introduction of new employees means constant training. Add to that the language barriers and cultural differences, and one might wonder about starting a program like this. But, these challenges and more are addressed immediately during the recruiting process.

Wilderness Resort partners with sponsors such as CIEE, a nonprofit organization involved in international education and exchange programs, and Intrax, a globally-oriented company that provides educational and work programs designed to connect people and cultures. These organizations assist by hosting travel and recruiting fairs in other countries, and inviting Wilderness Resort workers to participate.

“Our employees actually go to these countries to interview potential J-1 workers face to face and talk to them about the jobs we have available,” Tofson says. “We make sure they understand what they will be doing, the rate of pay, the training they will need to complete, the uniform they will wear and so on, and we make sure their English is strong enough for them to participate.”

Once workers arrive, Tennis says the staff does a lot to make sure they are comfortable. Wilderness Resort helps familiarize them with the climate, find or provide housing, and shows them where to shop for food, clothes and even do their laundry.

“There is a displacement factor involved, and it’s as important to get them acclimated to the community as it is to train them to do their jobs,” he says. “You have to make sure they are comfortable before you do anything else.”

Finding housing for J-1 students has long been a challenge. But beginning this winter, Wilderness Resort will be providing housing for these workers. The resort just purchased a housing facility next door that will hold approximately 150 J-1 workers, making it easy for students to safely walk to and from work.

Once workers have a place to stay, human resources handles the employee intake process, teaching J-1 workers about general policies and procedures, and helping them find their way around the resort. There are four different training supervisors for the four buildings on site. Each student goes through their training manual first then meets with their specific supervisor for a few days. 

“Every time a group of new workers comes in, they go through the same housekeeping training process; they’re going to go through their manual then meet with their supervisor for training in their specific area,” Tennis says.

And though Tennis says the human resources department does a fantastic job of assessing student’s language abilities, some challenges arise, which the housekeeping department circumvents by pairing guest workers with bilingual workers or translators.

“We always put an experienced worker with one of the J-1s so that they can help work through whatever problems or challenges that may arise,” he adds.

The exchange workers are also provided name tags that list their native countries. This helps guests be a little more empathetic if the worker seems to struggle with their English, Tofson says.

“We try to make sure they’re speaking English, communicating with guests or at least trying to communicate with our guests, because that’s a big benefit,” Tennis says.

Cultivating Culture

Dzhurov says he found the work he did — cleaning the hotel rooms, helping people find their way throughout the hotel, and working as a team with coworkers — both challenging and rewarding. He also mentions the cultural opportunities the work partnership presented.

“Wilderness is one of the best places in the world to me. All of the people who work there helped me every step of the way,” he says.

The social and cultural aspect of the program actually ranks higher among J-1 staff than the work aspects of the program, says Tofson, who points out workers travel to the United States to practice their English, learn about the U.S. culture and business practices, and then take those experiences back to their home countries.

“They’re getting a really strong understanding of how American businesses work, they’re learning customer service skills, and they are learning about the U.S. culture by fully immersing themselves in it,” he says. “They are truly bridging a gap and making the world a smaller place.”

Photo: Dzhurov tours Wisconsin visitor sites with fellow J-1 staffers while on break from work.

As for the Wilderness Resort, inviting J-1 workers in does so much more than fill a staffing need. Organizers truly believe in and embrace the cultural aspect of the program, and are convinced that providing a diverse workforce is important.

“[The program] enhances our guests’ experiences, allowing them to literally interact with people from around the world at our facility,” says Tofson. “For our staff, it makes coming to work each day a little bit more exciting.”

The Wisconsin Dells and Lake Delton area has banded together to form a consortium that works to ensure J-1 students are afforded every opportunity they seek during their stay. To craft cultural opportunities for J-1 students, Wilderness Resort organizes events such as a Thanksgiving celebration or a Christmas event. The goal is to demonstrate to the workers what Americans do on the holidays.

“We have had a Super Bowl Party at an ice skating rink, held community suppers at local churches, hosted picnics in the park, planned kickball and soccer events, and more,” Tofson says. “This allows different people in the community to get to know these workers, as well as learn more about their cultures, and vice versa.”

The consortium is attracting national attention, as well, and recently the U.S. State Department visited to see the activities and opportunities Wilderness Resort provides J-1 workers. The consortium’s efforts are now being hailed as a model for the rest of the nation, according to Tofson.

The J-1 program is a win-win for both the exchange workers and the housekeeping department at Wilderness Resort. The department maintains a full staff while providing international workers with knowledge and experience they can use to thrive once they return home. This model is one other facility executives can emulate. 

RONNIE GARRETT is a freelance writer based in Fort Atkinson, WI.

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Wilderness Resort Makes Recruiting Housekeepers Look Easy