Experience is the new amenity, panelists say
30 SEPTEMBER 2014 7:55 AM
Experiences have become a new form of social currency, and independent hoteliers are in a unique position to cash in, panelists said during the Independent Lodging Congress.
PHILADELPHIA—A new amenity, the guest experience, can play right into the hands of independent owners and operators, according to a panel at the Independent Lodging Congress.
Titled “Leaders from another world: Capturing the movers and shakers,” the session featured innovative thinkers from outside the hotel sector who shared their perspectives on everything from guest recognition to authenticity.
“Experiences” was a common thread as well. Not only are they the new amenity, but travelers treat them as a form of social currency, explained Brad Grossman, partner, founder and CEO of think tank Grossman & Partners, which publishes the annual Zeitguide to examine pressing cultural issues.
“In the 1980s when we had a closed system … the way you could impress your peers was by buying a Mercedes or a boat, or building a new addition on your house,” he said. The rise of social media has created an open system in which experiences are easily shared and bragged about, thus giving them more weight.
“When you have these social channels to communicate, what we’re doing (is more important) than what we have,” Grossman said.
Independent hoteliers are particularly suited to exploit this cultural shift, as each provides a unique setting in which to create those share-worthy experiences, panelists agreed.
Even lenders are paying attention, explained Chris Kelly, managing director of commercial real estate for California-based lender CapitalSource.
“The safe choice for an investor and certainly a lender, from a commercial-real-estate perspective, is to look at the major brands, at the traditionally designed hotels. That’s the safe bet,” he said. “The risk-reward might be a little bit out of balance because you might be paying a little bit too much for the safe brand with the traditional box.”
CapitalSource lenders are looking more to the independent segment to achieve higher returns, Kelly added.
“There’s a little more clarity from a conservative lender’s perspective that there’s going to be more growth in the boutique and independent sector than there will be for traditional hotels,” he added.
Where everybody knows your name
Starbucks was on to something when baristas started writing the name of each customer on coffee cups, explained Michael Dorf, founder and CEO of City Winery, a growing chain of sit-down conference venues featuring high-quality wine. The ubiquitous coffee retailer recognized the importance of personalization in the guest experience, he said.
Savvy independent hoteliers recognize that, too, he explained, and they’re doing everything in their power to make guests feel recognized and special.
Panelists were quick to point out that recognition quickly can border on intrusive or downright creepy.
When asked when it goes too far, Dorf responded, “When we say, ‘Welcome back, Eric. How was your operation last week?’ That’s part of decorum. That’s part of hospitality. You have to know when you’ve gone too far.”
It’s a difficult balance to strike, panelists agreed, especially because guests are sharing more than ever on social media, which allows hoteliers to glean important insights about tastes and preferences.
Grossman explained one such scenario in which an operator searched a guest’s Instagram feed the night before check-in. That guest had posted a picture of his favorite margarita. When the guest checked in the next day, the operator had that same flavor of margarita waiting for him.
“The line can be crossed very easily,” Kelly said. “We’re probably in a danger zone with too much information and too much sharing.”
The most meaningful, authentic guest recognition comes when its bred of personal interaction, explained Roland Kassis, head of Kassis Ventures, which is developing an integrated residential community with high-experience retail outlets, such as restaurants and yoga studios. It’s far better for a hotelier to present a guest’s favorite glass of wine upon check-in because that hotelier has catered to the guest for years as opposed to doing a superficial perusal of a Twitter feed.
Feeding the authentic
Meaningful interaction often comes down to authenticity, panelists said. Guests can discern legitimate experiences from the artificial.
Kelly provided a hypothetical scenario of a hotel stay in Napa Valley as an example. There’s a big difference, he said, between a hotelier who provides guests with a cheap bottle of wine and a map of the region and one who explains the history of the region during a managers’ reception and arranges a follow-up visit to a winery that otherwise closes its doors to the public.
More and more independent hoteliers are going that extra step to provide truly unique, authentic experiences, he said. And more are charging a premium that guests are happy to pay.
“My personal view is that’s going to be an area of growth, but there needs to be a refined strategy and one that’s thought out,” Kelly said.
The drive toward authenticity is so strong that it’s actually changing the way people develop independent concepts or “brands,” Grossman said. Commune Hotels + Resorts’ Tommie brand, for instance, is making guestrooms smaller—and thus more affordable—while amping up public spaces to create a communal space for guests and locals alike.
“That’s the thesis for Ace (Hotel)” as well, Kelly said. The trendy boutique chain was mentioned a number of times throughout the first day of the conference as an example for which other independent outfits should strive. “Maybe the room you don’t spend a lot on, but the other aspects of the hospitality facility is what you draw on,” Kelly said.
Dorf said the most authentic hospitality experiences are found via peer-to-peer booking network Airbnb as the site lets guests stay in a home or apartment that’s inherently part of a local neighborhood.