5 questions for Marcus Hotels' Joe Khairallah

(Joe Khairallah)

Joe Khairallah’s journey to the leadership of Marcus Hotels & Resorts late last year was the latest step in a varied career in the hospitality industry: Born in Lebanon, he graduated from the Haulot Institute in Belgium and speaks six languages. He joined Hyatt Hotels Corporation in 1983 and eventually became VP of rooms, spa and security for the company’s Americas Group, responsible for 155 properties. He joined Marcus in 2013 as COO, assumed day-to-day oversight for the hotel division a year later and became the company’s president in October 2016.

After several months overseeing Marcus, Khairallah spoke with HOTEL MANAGEMENT about what he has learned over the course of his career, and where he sees the hospitality industry going in the future. 

1. After three decades in the hospitality industry, what do you think are the most important qualities for a hotelier to have?

Today’s hotelier should have three main qualities: 
1) the spirit to serve; 
2) the attention to details; and 
3) the ability to deliver, through passionate people, a great product and a strong profit.

As part of this combination, hoteliers need to remember that we are in the business of serving people. People are the most important part of any organization. People are not only our guests, but also our managers, associates and the communities in which we operate. Providing unique experiences and personalized service brings life to a property and endears it to its community. It turns the hotel into a business that is engaged with its guests—a place where people serve with care. 

2. How do you keep your team "engaged with its guests?"

First, you hire for passion and then you train for skills. You have to build a team of emotionally intelligent people that easily connect with others. You seek associates who are not ashamed to serve and who derive joy from, and take pride in, making their own ordinary day someone else’s extraordinary day. 

I am not speaking of Japanese “omotenashi”or “omoiyari” (the active sensitivity to others), which are taught at a young age, but rather a simple motivation to serve and delight. You also encourage people to have fun and celebrate success, intellectual honesty and fresh ideas.

3. As a very global business professional, how do you believe globalization is affecting the hotel industry, and will affect it going forward?

Tourism has become the world’s largest export industry. The hotel customer base has increased substantially, involving enormous flows of people and capital across borders. People travel not only for vacation, but also for business, health, education and many other purposes. The globalization of the hotel industry is a complex topic presenting both opportunities and challenges.

One of the most important things I learned, and continue to see every day, is that globalization will ultimately touch all aspects of the hotel industry. The global hotel companies that have already expanded internationally have done so with a common product and brand position. They have developed sales-and-marketing programs that capture global economies of scale. They have created organizational structures that allow for global delivery of services while retaining local operational control. They conduct cross-border associate training to support operations and use the world capital markets as sources of funding. They do this in an environment where they need to communicate over vast distances in foreign languages, deal in many currencies and cope with a variety of political and social systems, regulatory environments, cultures and customs.

International hospitality is much more difficult than growing within one country or region. However, I believe that most hospitality businesses will need to think globally if they are to survive. Why? Because the competition for customers, management processes, associates, products and sources of capital will increasingly transcend national boundaries.

4. In your recent speeches to leading hospitality colleges and universities, you have said that nothing will replace the human touch in hotels. With the industry becoming increasingly focused on technology (especially for millennial guests), how do you maintain a human touch? 

One of the challenges for all of us in the industry today is the balance between high tech and high touch—between technology and personal service. There is no question that technology has improved the operations side of the business, for hotel operators and guests alike. Just a few years ago, the majority of guests made reservations by calling the hotel and talking to a live person. Now, more than 50 percent of hotel bookings take place online. Interactive websites with chat features, digital marketing and social media are primary tools consumers use to research hotels and restaurants, make reservations, and provide real-time feedback. Google, the technology giant, is predicting that our worlds will change even more with the increased use and sophistication of artificial intelligence, where you will be served information before you even ask for it, based on your past actions and behaviors.

But nothing will replace the human touch because our business is to create memories and our duty is to make those memories the best they can be. While guests enjoy using the newest hotel app, what they remember most is the memory of their experience. This is where the human touch makes the difference. Buildings are just brick and mortar. It is people who bring them to life by welcoming guests with a friendly smile and a show of empathy and care. Thus, it is important to combine the latest innovations with the personal touches that help create memorable experiences.

5. What do you see is the future of the hospitality industry?

I predict that hotels will evolve into communities where like-minded people will experience places that transcend their nationalities and backgrounds, and respond to their needs. Hotels will empower guests to customize their stays, based on their preferences. As a result, the industry will use new technology to provide customized experiences and personalized services.