NYU panelists: U.S. hotels suffer from poor international welcome experience

Pictured from left to right: Scott Berman, principal, hospitality industry leader U.S. at PwC; Eric Danziger, CEO of Trump Hotels; William Ferguson, co-chairman and co-CEO of Ferguson Partners; Colleen Keating, COO of the Americas for InterContinental Hotels Group; David Kong, president and CEO of Best Western Hotels & Resorts; and Thomas Morey, SVP, general counsel and secretary at Park Hotels & Resorts. (There is still much that U.S. hotels industry—and the U.S. as a whole—can do to improve the international traveler's arrival experience.)

NEW YORK — Attracting international travelers to the U.S. shouldn’t be hard, but as of March international arrivals were down 4 percent year-over-year, compared to a 7-percent rise in 2017, according to Reuters. 

Hotel industry leaders are cognizant of the effects the decrease has on performance, and the second day of the NYU International Hospitality Industry Investment Conference began with a panel that discussed the issue and possible solutions. Panelists agreed there is still much that the U.S. hotel industry—and the U.S. as a whole—can do to improve the situation.

“It’s hard to point to one thing that is affecting inbound U.S. travel,” said Colleen Keating, COO of the Americas for InterContinental Hotels Group. “Maybe it’s the strength of the U.S. dollar, maybe it’s because more people are traveling to more destinations around the globe. We’re working with the U.S. Travel Association and the [American Hotel & Lodging Association] to ensure the U.S. gets its share of inbound travel.”

Keating said she couldn’t recall the last time she boarded a flight to find empty seats, and with historically low unemployment in the U.S. she said we are certainly providing outbound travel to the rest of the world. In addition, she said the rise of middle classes from emerging economies the world over are helping support growing international travel, but she is still working to ensure the U.S. remains attractive.

William Ferguson, co-chairman and co-CEO of professional services firm Ferguson Partners, said the biggest change his firm has noticed over the last five to eight years is that capital has become what he referred to as “truly global.” This means that money is coming from all corners of the world, but the U.S. remains an anchor for international travel, despite recent trends.

“We’re viewed as a somewhat safer pick,” Ferguson said. “We have capital coming to Asia from Europe, etc., and that shows the heightened level of activity from all of us.”

David Kong, president and CEO of Best Western Hotels & Resorts, said his company has recorded double-digit increases in inbound travel to the U.S. this year, but he admits there is still more work to be done.

“From how much time it takes to provide visas and how welcoming we are, there is so much we can do,” Kong said. “We can do a much better job marketing our country and making it more welcoming.”

One way to improve the international community’s view of the U.S. is to make improvements to airports and embassies. Eric Danziger, CEO of Trump Hotels, said that comparing airports around the world reflects unfavorably on the U.S., and creates a negative impact on the entire travel experience for inbound travelers.

“Go to an airport in Shanghai or Beijing, they are stunning and a cart for your luggage is free,” Danziger said. “Our [airports] are ugly, and carts cost you $5. Our welcome needs work. But I do think New York is back, all you have to do is look outside. You can’t walk on the street for all the tourists, and that’s great.”

Are hotels paying entry-level workers enough to retain them for the future? Photo credit: Getty Images/djildesign

Disruption of Self

The conversation shifted to the growing need for new perspectives in hospitality, either through embracing diversity or including seemingly disparate skills or ideologies under the hospitality umbrella. Kong said it is his aspiration to think like a disruptor and act like a startup, which is growing more important in the face of generational shifts to come.

“We can’t be the status quo—we must welcome change,” Kong said. “We must anticipate change; just thinking about it is not sufficient. When you have a startup company, you have so much enthusiasm because the sky’s the limit. It’s do or die.”

In looking at prospects for the future talent pool in hospitality, “do or die” may be an apt phrase to lean on. Danziger said the issue surrounding a lack of talent in hospitality is a “larger threat to the industry than anything else,” and is something that is rarely addressed in a meaningful way.

“Finding genuinely caring, service-oriented people who can execute, if you don’t have those people then you can’t execute a thoughtful, almost loving strategy,” Danziger said. “You wonder why you hire these great front-desk clerks at $11 an hour and then they leave to go somewhere else to make $20 an hour. How much of this problem is on us because we don’t recruit right, don’t pay right and don’t take care of our associates? It could be a 20-year GM that you lose over starting pay.”

Conversations about associate pay always seem to gravitate toward automation, and this panel was no different. Danziger said the day hotels begin employing robots en masse to handle hospitality will be his “last day in the business.” If finding the money to pay associates is so hard, he reasoned, why not look to make cuts in areas that have become redundant, such as in-room coffeemakers?”

Keating said the use of technology in hotels should act as an enabler for more personalized, effective service, and it should stop there. She also said that in this era of technology it is easy to forget the human element behind the scenes, particularly when dealing with employees. For example, Keating referenced an instance at one of IHG’s unionized hotels where an employee asked for a day off the day before a scheduled shift and was denied. Keating didn’t want to disempower her manager, but recognized that the reason for the scheduling conflict was valid, and they came to an agreement.

“I think collective bargaining agreements can influence work roles and economics, but it doesn’t replace the roles and responsibilities of the leader to foster a culture of caring,” she said. “We all want the best for our associates, and the union believes they want the best for their members. At the end of the day, none of that replaces the culture of caring that we foster.”