HM roundtable takes look at transformative technology

Pictured at the event [from left] are: Christopher Horn, VP of operations, Sixty Hotels; Nicholas Farina, GM, 1 Hotel Central Park; Jenna Eastman, head of customer service, Beekeeper; Jeff David, founder, Jeff David Hospitality; Andrea Belfanti, executive director, International Society of Hospitality Consultants; Mike Mueller, president of Super 8 by Wyndham, Wyndham Hotels & Resorts; Tina Burnett, division VP/franchise brand performance, G6 Hospitality; Stefani C. O’Connor, editor-in-chief, Hotel Management/Questex Hospitality Group; Brian McSherry, COO, M&R Hotel Management; Chris Wloch, account executive, Beekeeper; Javier Rosenberg, president, Northwood Hospitality; and Weldon Rohling, sales representative, Beekeeper.

With the crush of new concepts coming at hoteliers basically on a daily basis, choosing from among myriad options what might work and at the same time provide a value-add, cost-effective addition to operations has become an art form in itself. Assessing what will remain highly functional and relatively problem-free also adds a layer of decision-making to the selection process. Still, those within hospitality are bent on wrangling any connected challenges and integrating the innovations that resonate. So, what’s top of mind in this regard as the industry kicks off 2020? Hotel Management’s recent Executive Roundtable, “Reimagining Hospitality: Innovation that Sticks and Transforms Hotel Operations,” tackled the topic. Sponsored exclusively by Beekeeper, the event, held in November at 1 Hotel Central Park in New York City, brought together an expert panel from several disciplines that delivered intel on what participants saw as transformational operationally.

To its credit, the hospitality industry and its players are not knee-jerk when it comes to considering the new and the now. If there are any shades of a “wait-and-see” attitude, it’s because making the right move investmentwise is a key consideration. While trends may be intriguing, those in hospitality need to ensure their decision to add something new brings value, improves operations, enhances the product in consumers’ minds and has a lifespan that speaks to the top and bottom lines. During the recent Hotel Management Executive Roundtable sponsored exclusively by workplace communications provider Beekeeper, panelists examined some of the trends that have proven successful, as well as the dynamics of implementing innovations, particularly those that are contenders for longer-term adoption by the industry.

Brian McSherry, COO of M&R Hotel Management, feels the major chains, particularly those that franchise, have contributed to how innovation plays out. Citing Marriott International, he noted, “They actually look at the customer, think it through and try to decide what different elements of service and experience they can create to find that customer and satisfy the customer. So, I think a lot of it is changed because the brands have changed.”

Mike Mueller, president of franchised economy brand Super 8 by Wyndham, observed it’s often difficult to get buy-in from owners on new technology. “We have to prove out that the investment is going to have [a return on investment] before we ask somebody to make that investment. So, we spend a lot of time thinking about how do we introduce new opportunities at our hotels that guests are willing to pay more for? Because if they’re not willing to pay more for it than we shouldn’t really be doing it,” said Mueller.

He stressed that “the basics” need to be right as well. “If you try to give somebody mobile technology to open their guestroom but the guestroom looks like their grandmother’s bedroom, then what’s the point of that?” he said, noting that his brand has been working on rethinking its tech approach. “So, it’s not about taking the latest technology and trying to retrofit it into an older box, it’s about going back to basics and getting it right so that we can attract the next generation of traveler, give them a product that they’re proud to stay in.”

Christopher Horn, COO at Sixty Hotels, observed that timing is a key factor in making implementation decisions. “The most fascinating component of all of this is, when do you jump in? Because if you jump in now, but [it] isn’t a proven solution, it could fail. But if you don’t jump in and wait three years for [it] to be proved out … when you think about how consumers are spending, absorbing, making, buying decisions, and staying, it’s ever-changing.”

“If you’re listening to your customer, you never stop changing; you never stop,” said McSherry. “The faster you can make change based on that engagement, the better you’re going to sell hotel rooms.”

Javier Rosenberg, president of Northwood Hospitality, pointed to one of the industry’s conundrums when it comes to embracing tech. “There [are] a lot of new tools that are exciting out there; Beekeeper is one of them. But, fundamentally, I think as an industry we still haven’t an integration of systems, which is a huge barrier. Everything that you see tends to be siloed … I think our industry is still way behind.”

Still Cautious?

The question was raised whether the vetting process by hoteliers regarding innovative products and systems in itself still remains too long or overly cautious.

“I think that hoteliers aren’t bred for innovation,” offered Jeff David, founder of Jeff David Hospitality, noting that a hotel’s chief technology officer or human resources director often is not the best at wrangling systems integration. “I think a new breed of innovators and leaders [has] to be there.”

Another franchise company executive, Tina Burnett, division VP/franchise brand performance, G6 Hospitality, reiterated that those who are actually running the hotels—owners and managers—need to be on board with systems changes and advancements.

“We actually went through this exercise about four or five years ago. Fortunately, we own at least a third of our hotels so we can prove it outright before we make our owners actually do it,” she said. “Everything is now in the cloud and it was a huge step for us. But now the systems that we are able to roll out and put in place are much less expensive for the owners than they were because we aren’t tied to the legacy system anymore.”

And then there’s a difference between standing in front of a potted plant and doing that Instagrammable moment as opposed to the ops staff on the other side who have to wrangle the technology. With perspective from the trenches, 1 Hotel Central Park GM Nicholas Farina said he doesn’t mind his property being the beta for new systems and platforms. “I figure if I’m the beta, I can learn it quickly and figure out what’s working well, what’s not working well, get feedback from our team. The other interesting part has been, in an atmosphere like our property, having a different demographic of who actually works here and the expectation is that there is some sort of social platform. I had never used a program like Beekeeper before and now I find it incredibly valuable to the point where there needs to be a social and internal [public relations] strategy for your people inside which allows you to do that. It also creates that kind of buy-in when you want to implement guest-facing technology. The biggest challenge has been having all of these back-end systems that don’t necessarily all talk to each other in a seamless way because we are stuck with a lot of legacy programs.”

With hotel and management companies—from mega to minor—trying to parse the best solutions, ones that will last more than a trend turn, Andrea Belfanti, executive director of the International Society of Hospitality Consultants, suggested it’s important to bring in experts. “Think about how Apple rolls out their technology. They’re going to get their loyal customers and they’re going to beta test. And then they’re going to get it as close to perfect as they can and then they’re going to roll out some updates, that type of thing. I think it’s really important to take a slow-and-steady approach when it comes to rolling out, not when it comes to doing it because otherwise slow and steady takes forever. But I think it’s important to get experts involved, without a doubt,” she said.

Wrangling ROI

How hoteliers, brands and operators calculate the ROI on these types of integrations, from both the guest-facing and operations sides, also was addressed. “You have to set [key performance indicators],” said Rosenberg. “I think you have to really work to define KPIs, whether those are ROI-based or in the case of … Instagram, its impressions and you define your KPIs and that’s what’s going to help you make a decision. And not every decision will have an ROI base. Some of them may be accretive to the guest experience.”

McSherry contended that the ultimate success is the return of the customer while David felt loyalty and “viralness” were equally big factors. “The ROI may not be dollars,” said David. “There’s equity in social likes and followers and so maybe it isn’t [that] the customer comes back, but the customer tells 10 people and eight of them come to kick your tires.”

Helming economy brands, Mueller and Burnett acknowledged deployment of new platforms and technology needs to be very considerate of their owners, who very often operate with tight margins and limited capital resources. “We’re not a brand who’s going to have big social spaces with communal tables and lots of [food and beverage],” Mueller said. “And so what we decided to do was launch our eight-year road map called Elev8te, and that plans for how we track the next generation of traveler with things we can do today and then over the next eight years to plan capital investment for our owners so they don’t say, ‘I’m out.’ So they say: ‘OK, I can put $10,000 in today, not $100,000.’ And we do very sensible things like that.”

Toward this, Super 8 crafted what it calls Room8, repositioning some of its oversize rooms to include bunk or tiered beds, vintage video games, 65-inch TVs, board games to give the guestroom a communal “hang-out” space.

Similarly, Burnett noted that second- and third-generation franchisees, many of whom run economy properties, have grown up with technology and embrace system changes and innovation more readily.

The same could be said for hospitality “disrupters,” and ISHC’s Belfanti felt overall the industry itself has to be more forward thinking to compete against the Airbnbs, Oyos and other STR groups of the world in delivering, as Super 8’s Mueller said, “a great experience at any price point.”

“I think the way that we as hospitality professionals can do that and do that well is take back some of the control,” Belfanti said. “I think technology is moving so quickly and if we’re not careful, it’s going to be another [online travel agency] situation. The big companies aren’t working together. Other than maybe to lobby in Washington, they’re not really joining forces, and so it’s going to happen to us once again and we are going to be paying for it in a lot of ways, financially just being one of the ways.”

“Yeah, you’ve got to evolve or die,” said David.