HB ON THE SCENE: What’s the story? At Lodging, executives share theirs

PHOENIX—Much like a film, book or even an industry conference, a hotel stay is a story. It’s a story of the trip—from check-in to checkout, from the first impression to the nightcap at the lobby bar—the story is what defines a property, and even more, keeps a guest coming back. And so, if a guest can relate to the story a property is trying to tell, a guest is more likely to return.

But are hotels always getting the story right? Is the story relatable? Has the story been told before? Each brand has a story, but if that story is fatigued or lost, this may leave the guest confused or uninspired.

Much goes into the making of this story—service, technology, amenities, etc. If those don’t work in tandem, or possibly don’t even work on their own, the story runs the risk of getting lost.

In its 25th year, The Lodging Conference (TLC) gave industry leaders a forum to discuss these very points, christening the first year at its new location at the JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort & Spa.

The brand experience
Whether or not that story is successful and resonates with guests is up to hotels and the minds behind them.

Each industry leader has his or her idea about the genetic makeup of each story, but, at TLC, many execs agreed that it isn’t necessarily finding an untapped niche or market, but rather, delivering a stay that addresses basic guest needs, does it well, and, possibly, lasts a lifetime.

“[The younger generations] will elevate dining and travel much higher than the pecking order of their needs, much higher than we would have when we were their age,” said Arne Sorenson, president/CEO of Marriott International Inc., in his opening address at TLC, explaining that younger travelers often brag about their experiences via social media, telling stories of their own.

We all have the same wants when it comes to storytelling: captivating characters, a substantial plot, maybe a bit of the unexpected and, of course, the famed fairytale ending, but now, new platforms are adding more dimensions.

“The more engagement we get, the more guests can dream about that location,” said Jenna Hackett, global head, Curio Collection and Tapestry Collection by Hilton. “We all make decisions so much more now based on photography, and it’s not just a picture of a room; it’s everything that happens in that hotel and the vibrancy that makes a hotel unique. Bringing in those types of experiences makes all the difference, but we need to know those stories.”

Hackett said that while every guest seeks out these moments and often shares them online, when it comes to brand selection, guests tend to go after “stay types” rather than “brand types.” Meaning, guests traveling with large groups or families may choose to stay at an extended-stay property while business travelers may go after luxury or full-service.

The lifestyle space, however, Hackett explained, may be conducive for more visible storytelling. “People love rich and Instagrammable moments no matter where they stay, but with the independent space, somebody can have an independent identity,” she said. “Owners that have done focused-service or full-service properties for years can then have what I call their ‘baby,’ their one hotel that’s their essence that they’ve put their soul into. It’s more than just the ROI; there’s love there. Those are the properties that we want, the ones that have those stories.”

Jay Stein, CEO, Dream Hotel Group, lives and breathes lifestyle. He defines lifestyle or boutique properties as highly stylized ones, ones that have a strong approach to F&B and, more broadly, are just great hotels.

As for brand proliferation, Stein said, “I’m not sure it’s too meaningful to the consumers. I wonder if companies are seeing the opportunity to grow existing brands… If it’s a great brand and you’re keeping the ones that you have open, that sounds like they’re brands people would want to continue to develop.”

He added that it could be the case that legacy brands are difficult to reposition and, therefore, challenging to appeal to the evolving mindsets of travelers.

“But nobody wants to put out a poor product anymore, which is commendable,” he added.

The looming downturn
Overall, the economic outlook at the conference remained optimistic, but there were nuances between hotel segments. Brand saturation may force companies to get creative, but the economy segment—especially dual-brands—is faring pretty well.

“There’s some brand confusion out there but our advantage in the economy segment is that we haven’t had a lot of new supply and the expectations are very clear with economy,” said Mike McGeehan, chief development officer, G6 Hospitality. “We actually weather economic downturns in the economy segment pretty well because people still need to travel, so some people need to buy down and tighten their budgets. We hear that from our developers and our franchisees—that they still get positive cash flow during downturns.”

Dual-brands also help save on costs McGeehan said, since one staff supports essentially two properties.

“There’s the advantage of the operational efficiencies, so it’s a better return on investment,” McGeehan said.

He added that not many new brands are coming out [in the economy space]with midscale and select-service getting most of the attention. McGeehan predicts that the industry will see a slowdown in new-construction in the upper-select and select-service segments because of the influx of new supply.

“It’s not clear where their price point is or what their customer profile is that they’re going after, whereas we’re defined,” he said. “That’s what’s made us inviting to developers that have not considered economy lodging—we’ve done a number of signings this year with developers who have come into the economy space because they want to diversify their portfolio.”

Extended-stay presents similar advantages in terms of expectations and labor, but presents different challenges, like property confusion with different prototypes and municipal ones like zoning laws and length of stay.

Marriott International’s Arne Sorenson (left) sat down for a one-on-one interview.

Transition of tech
It would be remiss not to mention technology when discussing the evolution of guests and their expectations. As guests seek out more content and ways to access that content—and want it all at the speed of light—hotels are often playing catch up.

“The key is tech. It’s the connectivity and how fast the WiFi is,” said Jim Alderman, chief development officer/EVP, Extended Stay America (ESA).

ESA is revamping its entire system—which the company hopes to complete by the end of this year—with a project called Cheetah, aimed at enhancing the guest WiFi experience.

“Quite frankly, tech is an arms race because it’s never enough. I’m just not sure if we’re ever going to be fast enough. If 5G becomes what it’s [expected to], phones are going be faster than anything I’m going to be piping into that building—then, they’re just not going to need it. Tech needs to be super simple in this space because you just can’t afford for it not to be,” he said.

Others view technology as a disruptor in a different way, threatening the industry as a whole.

“The OTAs had a tremendous impact on our industry, more than Airbnb; the internet has probably affected our industry more than any other industry,” Stein said. “We got hit 15-20 years ago when you could see every hotel within a three-block radius and every price they were selling by an OTA.”

Sorenson agreed that tech disruptors may present new challenges, but with those, comes new opportunities.

“Airbnb is one thing, but I actually think that Google, Facebook and Amazon are the extraordinary juggernauts. How do we navigate our role in that space so that our customers are our customers? That’s about having a relationship with them through service, through technology, through a breadth of choice,” Sorenson said.

Stein remains hopeful as well. “We were disrupted long before the Uber-type and Airbnb-type of disruptions. I think a lot of the disruptors will get disrupted,” he said.

An industry of optimism
For whatever story a hotel, company, brand or segment is trying to tell, the lasting effect is the ending of that story, the feeling the guest goes home with. The industry’s goal is to make that feeling a positive one through authenticity.

Alderman shares this confidence and described hospitality as an industry of sharing and visibility.

“Coke and Pepsi are not at a conference right now telling each other whether they’re going to come out with Raspberry Zero and Raspberry Max; this industry will tell each other exactly what they’re about to do,” he said.

It’s also an industry of inclusion, feeding on human connection and ties to location.

“People relate to that [locality],” Hackett said. “Without a doubt, culture is the biggest driver for revenue that comes from that hospitality and that vision of people serving people.”

It’s also about employees serving employees, embracing diversity of thought—which Hackett attributes to a necessity in hospitality—inviting workers of all backgrounds.

“We are the business of everyone, a highly diverse workforce from all around the world, from all walks of life welcoming everyone to our business,” Sorenson said. “We’ve got Donald Trump staying at our hotels and Bernie Sanders staying at our hotels—and both are welcome.” HB

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