THE value that a multi-national business places on being singled out for excellence in one of England's smallest historic counties will surprise many people. But the Huntingdon Marriott Hotel is immensely proud of being the current Employer of the Year in The Hunts Post Huntingdonshire Business Awards. It sees the accolade as a ringing endorsement of employment policies that stand out from much of the rest of the hotel and catering industry, which nationally does not enjoy the finest reputation. At the Marriott, though, there are no "employees". Those who work there are "associates", partners in a "family business", with clear career development potential, according to Ian Pask, previously the hotel's manager and now cluster manager for the group's six hotels in eastern England. "From the very start (the first hotel opened in Virginia 80 years ago) the Marriott philosophy has been that, if you look after your associates, they will look after the customers, who will keep coming back," Mr Pask said. "The award was recognition of what we fundamentally believe to be important. That's why we have people staying with the group a long time. It's as important for us as profit, because it's what generates our profitability." Mr Pask's own manager, the area vice-president, joined the group as a chef 25 years ago. Many of those who work there now have done so since it opened nine years ago as a Swallow Hotel, later acquired by Marriott. Others have been in the group for longer. It is typical for senior managers to have been involved for 20 or 25 years, he said. But what convinced the judges last November? Mr Pask said: "There must have been an expectation that one global brand was much like another. But we set out to demonstrate our commitment to our own people. I meet regularly with managers to discuss individual associates, their career development, their training needs. We have clear processes for that, and we build an element of fun into that. Every year, we have an "associate appreciation week" with special events to thank, reward and develop them, but that's only part of it." With 3,500 graduates a year applying for just 70 places on the company's graduate scheme, word has clearly got around the universities that some parts of catering and hotel management have rewarding careers to offer. The Huntingdon associates are a mix of those who came in with qualifications, but no experience, and those who have acquired a wealth of experience in the hotel. They learn from one another. What is striking is not just the Marriott's enthusiasm but its self-confidence. Every year, associates are asked to complete an anonymous on-line questionnaire about their jobs. And they are encouraged to be as forthright as they wish about the way they are managed, training and benefits. And if they would recommend friends to apply. "It's very important," said Mr Pask. "It generates increased loyalty from associates and ultimately from customers." He is enthusiastic about the potential for the awards to help develop Huntingdonshire's economy, So much so that he is contemplating starting a networking club to share best practice. "We have some really super businesses in the area," he said. "I can think of a very good location for the meetings.