Robert Santucci is the unlikely founder of one of the industry’s newest soft brands. After more than three decades working for major brands, including Marriott, Starwood and IHG, Santucci unveiled RockStar Hotels in January. The Boca Raton, Fla.-based company's portfolio already spreads across nine European countries, counting 40 hotels with nearly 3,000 rooms among its offerings. Here, Santucci shares his philosophy on how providing hotel staff with agency over structure can set a soft brand apart in an increasingly crowded marketplace.
1. Where do you see the soft brand segment evolving to?
RS: My belief is that the hospitality industry hasn’t really changed in the last 30 years, and I believe that we’re an industry that can be on the forefront of change. I see the soft-brand market being in an infancy stage that has not decided where it wants to go. Soft brands are trying all different formulas at this point. The industry spends a lot of money on market research and focus groups and comes away with a lot of information. But I don’t know that they ever look at the information and I think it does a great injustice to hotel ownership, to the major companies and to guests.
One example I can give you is from about six years ago when the industry did a blindfolded test on linens. They had 200- up to 400-count, Frette, mixed-blend, etc. Of 1,000 participants, 700 said 200-count, mixed blend was the most comfortable. But if you go to a hotel today, you’ll find 400- to 600-count linens as if that’s what guests want. But guests have already said this isn’t important to them. We’re not listening to guests and that’s not just happening in the hotel industry; it’s happening in other industries, too. Some hotels require staff to make eye contact with guests. But guests don’t want to be stared at; they want to interact with another human being. My concern is if the guest has a question, you make sure to answer the question.
2. How do you set a soft brand apart in this highly competitive segment?
RS: So many soft brands today belong to big brands that are trying to apply their standards to these independent hotels and it doesn’t work. Guests are staying at these independent properties because they want local culture and the local experience. It’s also difficult when you have individuals who aren’t part of the brand trying to apply these standards at their hotels; there’s always human error and if you make a mistake, you risk being excluded from the brand. I think soft brands aren’t being implemented correctly and often, they’re not thought out from the ground up.
3. How important is a guest loyalty program for an independent soft brand, given that travelers who book a stay at a soft-branded property under a corporate brand umbrella can earn points with the corporate brand’s loyalty program?
RS: If you go back to the birth of the boutique independent hotel and look at their growth pattern and how much market share they’ve taken, you’ll notice that most of them don’t have rewards programs. I don’t believe that they’re as important as brands believe these programs to be. Of course, there are people who chase miles and points. But the availability to cash them in isn’t what it was 20 years ago. So I don’t feel these programs are as important as the big brands want you to believe they are.
4. Corporate hotel brands promise great guest service, as do independent properties. But what really sets these two styles of service apart?
RS: It’s about pretense versus genuine. Big brands train staff to behave a certain way that doesn’t necessarily come naturally to them. Boutique, independent hotels are looking for something that’s inherent in the individual, that’s part of their nature, and I think when teams from corporate brands are looking at independent properties, they can’t get away from their brand backgrounds and that also applies to the human-resources aspect of hotel management. You can’t just hand someone a uniform and teach them how to behave. Guests want genuine interaction. Guests don’t want to interact with staff who are robotic.
If you have a corporate handbook that details how staff should look, act and how they will be trained, you’re not allowing them to be themselves, and I’m a believer in being yourself. It’s the best person you can be. I came from a corporate background and I enjoyed my time with the brands that I worked for. But as I get older I want to be more myself and I want to call it like I see it. I think people prefer that and I think human interaction is why we travel. Human interaction is what puts us at ease when we travel.