Category: Hotel Management

‘I was there’ will sustain

Main Photo: A ‘socially distanced’ Sylvan Lake (courtesy @papercandie – https://twitter.com/papercandie)

COVID-19 has been a humbling experience for tourism and hospitality owners around the world. Every design, financial and strategic consideration in the airline, hotel, sports, travel agency and restaurant industry (amongst many others) relies on the increasing wanderlust of people seeking to be the first to experience a life-changing moment in person. The post-2009 tourism boom has finally ended – and it took a pandemic to do it.

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RevPAR was slipping but COVID-19 killed things off for good

The (someday) post-Covid world will leave a lengthy shadow of fear. Many will point to these last five months as the time period that shifted mindsets from ‘I was there’ to ‘I saw it online and that’s enough for me thanks’.

I disagree. If anything, softness in the market has been developing for years.

While tourism has grown around the world, boosted by the low cost of air travel, the content marketing and digital media industries have already consumed a significant amount of investment and consumer dollars. The content marketing business will reach $107 billion dollars in 2026, built largely from people that consume entertainment electronically from home and attendance at sporting events have decreased – and continue to decrease – significantly. Tastes are beginning to change, sports (and the value of sports teams) have become increasingly expensive for the average fan (driven largely by the ego-induced bubble of the value of sports teams). The vast majority of teams, musicians, and plays are nearly completely reliant on ticket sales, especially where television revenues have struggled to keep up.

So: Is ‘I was there’ culture gone for good?

Doubt it. There are three reasons that makes me bullish:

Social distancing exhaustion is illustrative

People clearly are not interested in staying indoors – and risking health to get outside

As frustrating and alarming as the photos of people abandoning social distancing to crowd a beach or a hiking path, it’s illustrative of how the inability to achieve ‘I was there’ has reminded people of its importance. Most people, simply put, need to be around other people. An in person shared experience still activates the senses in a manner that we can’t seem to simulate without human contact. Zoom fatigue is killing us and building trust between workplaces or within a business is a constant struggle. We can maintain existing relationships digitally but promotion, trust and sales are still extremely reliant on person-to-person communication.

Near-total reliance on tourism is widespread around the world – and increasing

Thousands of businesses, teams and nations are too heavily reliant on tourism to allow it to fail. Though many airlines have consolidated or closed completely during the pandemic those that remain will see benefit in their ability to capitalize on pent up travel demand around the world. Hotels – with significantly stricter and more reliable cleaning programs than short-term vacation rentals – will benefit from increased consumer trust. Sports teams will continue to work tirelessly to integrate the digital experience into the in-person one. Entertainers don’t have much of a choice; there’s little revenue in streaming music sales, concerts remain the most profitable way to earn money. All these stakeholders will be incredibly aggressive in dragging consumers back and it is working. Even cruise ships have convinced people to get onboard (with predictable consequences) – if anything that should be evidence enough.

Content marketing unsurprisingly needs unique content

Online content marketing requires content – and even this generates clicks

Most importantly, however, in my mind? The most digital of businesses – online content marketing – is reliant on new content and the differentiation necessary to ‘stand out’. As the space gets busier this will require a larger investment in travel, clothing and camera work to be noticed. Flaunting wealth, even in the strangest ways, will still be used to create the envy, fame and popularity that brings the sponsorships and payments to ‘influence’ that makes those stars money. Outside of talent, of course, tourism, travel, and entertainment are still the simplest method for experiential content development.

The tourism industry’s focus needs to be melding the digital and in-person experiences to create reliance on both. I imagine restaurants interactive VR guests that you can interact with at your tables or virtual cocktail creation with the ability to precisely refine ingredients to your whims. Our business will change in creative ways that we have to embrace.

People will still value ‘being there’. If we are to survive, however, we need to embrace technology and ‘level up’ our investment in interactive experiences.

(C) Malcolm Denemark/Florida Today

It’s time for self-reflection, hotel brands

I wrote an article at the end of 2018 about the “Soul of Hospitality”, hoping that our hotel brands would see fit to support franchisees by managing supply growth and reducing the expensive – for ourselves and our clients – brand specificity of their new brand approach. Hotel brands are rewarded by shareholders for lean, often exploitative, growth to sell franchises and saturate markets. Hotel owners are a tool of the game. I never envisioned, however, that our brands would ever achieve that particular self-awareness.

I thought COVID-19 and the protests around George Floyd’s criminally wrong death had changed that drastically. Our brands are grasping desperately for liquidity to satisfy shareholders waiting to jump off the boat. Hilton (here) and Marriott (here) pre-sold billions of dollars worth of loyalty points to Amex (and will undoubtedly tank the value of those points further) in order to stay alive. Do what you have to do and all, I don’t blame them, but surely its purpose should be to support, throughout all their associated hotels, those that the hospitality business employs. Maybe this was the time.

Franchise responses have lacked focus, sympathy for their hundreds and thousands of employees

Sadly, their message to hospitality students – per Adweek’s summary of the virtual NYU CEO roundtable for students and Hotel Management’s discussion summary, at least – were a little hollow.

“All of us, as leaders, have a lot of people looking to us… what they need to have is hope, … a light at the end of the tunnel and it’s our job to give them that”

– Christopher Nassetta, President and CEO, Hilton

“We need [governments] to step in to help our hotel owners, most of whom are small business, navigate from where we are until… we can be going forward”

– Arne Sorenson, President and CEO, Marriott

Both of these individuals have accomplished a significant amount to be in the position they’re in. Both have added plenty of new brands to create more brand supply in major markets. Shareholders are happy, undoubtedly, and I don’t deny the importance of that. In June 2020, however, hotels are gasping for air and their largest variable expenses are directly associated with these brands. I do commend the leadership that Hilton, Nassetta’s company, and Best Western have taken in response to COVID-19. It’s something. After all, others have been downright negligent.

What they have not done, neither before or now, is address the value destruction that their aggressive franchise sales tactics have encouraged or the crippling effect that liquidated damages, excessive franchise fees, and restriction that ‘approved’ suppliers (those suppliers that can pay the brands the commissions and access fees that they desire) can have. Hotel franchises don’t quite see it the same way:

“Not every brand is going to make it to the other side… not to be harsh, but there are going to be winners and losers, and some in the middle”

– Christopher Nassetta, Hilton
No more ‘picking horses’

Our hotel brands need to take the ownership they profess themselves to desire. They dictate who the ‘winners, losers, and some in the middle’ will be this year (and every year, really). Hotels support the livelihoods of millions around the world, many of whom are visible minorities. The success or failure of our brands is critical to this goal, absolutely, but hotels themselves need to survive to support them. Organizations like NABHOOD and AAHOA exist because hotels provide growth meritocratic opportunities for so many to grow and thrive.

If we are serious about supporting hotel owners we need to focus on the survival of our hotels. We need to refocus on fair franchising and supporting aspiring minority hotel owners to get their ‘foot in the door’. We need our hotel brands to help ensure that jobs can be supported sooner rather than later. Like so many of us in quarantine, I hope our hotel brands follow the same self-reflection path that so many of us have taken. Our industry depends on it.

Carpet is not the Devil. Promise.

If you’ve ever hired us for hotel procurement you know that we’re quite particular about carpet. As operators we fear it; it stains, wears, and discolors. Our franchises want us to change it constantly. It’s like a car – the minute you drive it off the lot (or in this case, install it) it’s worth significantly less than what you paid. And ugly. It’s tempting to go in another direction. Our brands have agreed.

However, I’d argue the opposite. Carpet is necessary, practical, even. It provides a better guest experience.

Consider the following:

Torlys’ Everwood Premier LVT tile installed in Entourage sur-le-Lac in Beauport, QC. I never said it wasn’t nice, just that it wasn’t necessarily the best idea for the incremental cost.

1) Doing things properly takes time

Brands generally suggest (and I would concur) that carpet needs to be vacuumed daily and deep cleaned 2-3 times per year. Any more and the wear from shampooing tends to discolor the flooring; any less and stains become irreversible.

LVT is meant to be the solution. LVT doesn’t stain, true. I’d argue, however, that the time it takes to do things properly – vacuum, mop and hand scrub any particularly sticky liquids – costs time on a day to day basis. I know wet vacuums exist and yes, if you have a busy enough wood grain pattern maybe you get away with some stuck-on gum. The diligence required to do it right can increase the housekeeping minutes required per room over time (hours of housekeeping per month/total occupied room nights per month).

Will guests see a wear pattern or staining? No. But dust, dirt, and anything sticky will present itself proudly. Our guests notice, though, and let us know about it.

2) The impossible quest for ‘clean’

Imagine the hard surfaces in your home (or, if you don’t have them, in the gym floor of your elementary school). Imagine wearing nice, clean white socks on those floors (even Youtube knows that this is a thing). If you have hard surfaces now (or even walking on them as you read), you know your socks will have the gray/black outline of dust on them. And it makes sense, really. Without any fibres to hold it, dust sticks to the next soft thing it touches. A clean floor begins accumulating dust the instant the mop is removed.

We know our HVAC units – especially PTACs – don’t filter the small particulate matter in the air well. We also know that our average guest checks in around 3-4 hours after housekeeping is complete. How much dust accumulates during that time?

Additionally, the sheen on a relatively flat/lightly textured LVT in low light situations will always give the appearance of the floors being dirty. That trendy dark wood shows footprints, dust bunnies and hair. All this regardless of housekeeping performance.

3) Noise, noise, noise

This one is self-explanatory. Hard surface is just noisy. At best, you have a hard surface on a 1/8” (maximum) underlay. Carpet has a ¼” pile (approximately) with a ¼” underlay. Hard to compete on sound. Our guests complain bitterly about sound from the hallway, sound through party walls and sound from the bathroom to the guestroom. The value of the additional noise would have to be significant to justify the additional investment.

 

Creative Matters, Inc’s beautiful inset rug. Before it starts getting mopped.

Rug areas in bedrooms – set into the LVT or above – have been the brands’ countermeasure. This doesn’t change much – I’d argue it’s worse. The more transitions of flooring type the greater the risk of water staining on carpet or lifting or cracking of surfaces at the point of transition through repeated impact of vacuums and mopping floors. I never feel it makes sense to add complexity to a housekeeping job – it’s tough enough as is. One or the other is better than both.

 

I don’t hate LVT. A bit of LVT or tile in the entry area? Or public areas? Absolutely. Properly installed in a bathroom? I think this should be considered more often – no grout cleaning of grout and can last equally long if installed correctly. LVT is a fraction of the cost of tile (in most places) and we ourselves (and our clients) have used it with great success in bathroom settings. LVT holds up better to pet and smoke odors and damage. Just needs to be used in the right places, and I don’t believe the bedroom area is that place.

 

If you’re convinced, three things we look for when picking carpet for our clients:

1) A face weight and underlay suitable to the use (rather than simply the brand)

https://www.mohawkgroup.com/detail-durkan/Carpet/8692/144446/Cosmos-Tile

Mohawk’s lovely Interstellar Cosmos tile

*Nearly* every brand has the same guidelines: 32 oz in guestrooms, 36 oz in public areas. One hurdle to be cleared, that’s it. Reality is it’s like saying that every hotel needs an apple. There are hundreds of varieties of apples, each with a different character, sweetness and skin.

We worry less about the weight and more about use, pattern and color. Exterior corridor guestrooms should be extremely busy– with a hard surface entryway to keep some of it cleanable. Interior corridor guestrooms can have less variations of color or pattern but should have a variety of mid-gray or brown tones to keep eyes away from dust and dirt.

 

Don’t do this in your corridors. Or anywhere.

2) Pattern is key

 

Hospitality carpet is different – quite different – than residential carpet. The day to day wear is significantly higher and its importance to the overall character of the room (especially given the size of the space) is pronounced.

A few tips to knowing whether your pattern is suitable:

1) The coffee test. If a carpet sample can hide these stains well then you’re on the right track – coffee causes the most stains in a guestroom (after dirt and dust from shoes).

2) A small repeat. Every carpet sample will tell you how large the ‘repeat’ is – the height and width of the repeating pattern in the carpet. Aim for repeats less than 36”x36” for guestrooms – if you need to seam in patches of carpet it’s significantly easier to hide with a smaller repeat (plus creates less waste on installation). Corridors are required to be more artistic but keep your door drops – the area between sets of doors – a smaller pattern in an accent color. This will get dirty fastest (water staining from hard surfaces inside, wheels sitting while guests enter the room, etc. Good to have something you can readily change.

3) Pile height matters

Tandus Centiva’s surprisingly affordable Change II tile. Doesn’t have to be expensive to be nice!

Residential carpet is much taller than hospitality carpet, generally. We like our carpet at home to wrap around our toes and be extremely soft on our feet. This does not work in a hotel setting.

Look for carpets that have a lower pile height – say 3-4 mm. These will give you the best compromise between comfort and wear. Multi-level pile (‘textured’ carpet) can create another distraction for the eye – but make sure that the pattern this creates remains less than 48”x48” and the difference in height is small.

And, lastly, ensure that you have commercial grade flooring. I know so much of the time this is a farce – and I usually agree – but the finishes and densities of commercial flooring tend to be radically different from household quality flooring. It doesn’t make sense to spend the extra amount in a house but does in a hotel.

Hope this helps! I’d love to get some feedback on your experiences with this. Please contact me through the incorporated form or on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/alim-nizar-somji-133a257/!

Microbrands (and the fight for the soul of hospitality)

Hotel conferences are meant to be relaxing. Spend time with suppliers and friends. Get the ‘rah rah’ speeches from executives. Stay out late. Go home.

‘Networking’ or ‘partying’, depending on who’s asking.

The prevailing feeling this time, coming home from the Best Western Convention, was different – as a Member, as a hotelier and, to be honest, as a guest I was simply concerned. And it wasn’t just a dodgy cocktail.

Just prior to convention, Best Western announced their 12th and 13th brands – ‘Aiden’ and ‘Sadie’. They’ve gone from 1 brand in 2005 to 13 brands in 13 short years. They were absolutely thrilled by it. This blew my mind, especially as market penetration of BW’s existing brands continues to be exceptionally poor (my opinion, of course). And they’re one of the small ones.

Marriott has 30 brands.

Think about that for a moment. 30 different value propositions (theoretically), target customer segments (theoretically), design guidelines (theoretically), brand standards (theoretically), brand scents (theoretically; this was a big, extremely annoying Starwood thing), and logos on napkins (less theoretically – definitely different logos on napkins).

There’s an annoying amount of ‘theoretically’ there.

Think of how many things you have 30 of. Fun fact: that is more than, despite the 101 Dalmatians promised, the number of dalmatians ever named in the original book (6), animated film (8), unreleased early draft of the animated film (10), book accompanying the original animated film (19), live action movie (17), and the entire animated series (29). (the internet is a truly wonderful, random place).

“One of us is named ‘Hyatt House’ (probably)”; Copyright Disney, found https://goo.gl/images/fosNHV. The article it connects to is fascinating.

30 brands to support. 30 development pipelines to service.

FOUR soft brands. It defies reason.

Marriott, Best Western and <insert your chain here> folks are far smarter than I am, of course. They’re worth billions, I’m not. It is unfathomable to me, though, that each can be supported equally. It’s simply not possible.

My argument:

I call these ‘microbrands’ – it’s the best description I can come up with without being offensive. Brand messaging to franchisees on these is simple. Our customers can and will be as loyal to our microbrands as they are to our chains’ major brands. Our customers have specific needs and wants. Once they are trained on the extremely specific value proposition of our brand they’ll stick to it, and that microbrand will be the next Hampton Inn and Holiday Inn Express once distribution picks up. Get in on the ground floor.

Bullshit.

I accept that there are certain brands in every chain that people will go out of their way to find. Hampton Inn for Hilton, Holiday Inn Express for IHG, Courtyard for Marriott (ehh), Best Western (core) for Best Western (a stretch), Comfort Inn for Choice (a bigger stretch), Super 8 for Wyndham (best you got, I’m afraid, but it does dominate economy) and Country Inn for Carlson (I’m including Carlson here because I feel I have to). When those brands defined their subset of the market – the apple of their parent chains’ eye – their evolution was shepherded through by the top minds looking to innovate in how customers interacted with hotels.

Not so much anymore.

Rationally, though, we know why there’s a new brand every two weeks. It’s so Marriott can have 30 brands and 100 hotels in Times Square in NYC. So Choice Hotels can have every one of their brands on the I-10 in Phoenix. So Carlson can have a Country Inn next to a Radisson (that’s really just a hypothetical) somewhere in the country. Franchises have fundamentally moved away from hoteliers. Every new franchise agreement tends towards a marketing exercise rather than a bet of success or failure. The operator is less and less important because market valuation in hospitality doesn’t consider it important.

The valuation process that underpinned the purchase of Woodspring Suites, La Quinta and Knights’ Inn (so, so baffling) should show hoteliers the truth: a brand is worth the value of the committed contracts, liquidated damages and owned assets available to dispose of – no more and no less (I absolutely despise the Motley Fool but this is a decent discussion of it). Marriott unceremoniously dumped Starwood’s prize assets in New York City. The Waldorf Astoria is becoming a residence. We can’t even be surprised.

You’d hope – based on the ‘commitment to mutual success’ we’re told a franchise agreement means – that franchises would be laser-focused on creating the unique experiences microbrands promise but they simply have not. The continuing success of Airbnb and the successes of Solden and others similar are an indictment on our inability to perceive the individuality of our consumers and provide an experience that, when combined with the creature comforts of a hotel, will entice customers back ‘into the fold’. No brand – outside of the W concept, Ace Hotels perhaps – has come anywhere close. The consumer simply doesn’t not connect with microbrands and no matter what any franchise salesperson tells me, increased contribution of new microbranded properties has significantly more to do with the loyalty program and the promise of a new-build hotel than any connection with the brand, period. And, as we’ve already discussed, hotels don’t last forever.

This – this is hospitality done well, kudos to Ace Hotel, NYC; image sourced at https://goo.gl/images/tgmxGj. This link is far less interesting.

Our franchises used to represent more than a model room in a basement in Bethesda or Rockville, Maryland (other head offices are equally applicable). They carried hotels that represented the vision of what brands could and should be. Less brands made this significantly easier, for sure. If the franchise has no exposure to the day to day customer experience, though, they make decisions without context. How can we reasonably expect a franchise to appropriately support a hotelier and brand when the ‘new hotel smell’ is gone? What makes us reasonably expect our franchises’ support of their microbrands – with such limited distribution and (next to) zero risk capital outlaid – will ever truly hold enough attention to evolve?

Microbranding is simply bigger than the money, occupancy and ADR; the soul of hoteling is at stake. Dilution erodes customer loyalty. We may be ‘listening’ (or pretending to listen) to our customers but we’re certainly not hearing their feedback. Our losing market share proves it. Until we start to do so we’ll never earn them back.

Here’s hoping that our chains see it the same way.

Exterior Corridor Hotels

Alim’s Unprompted, Unrequested and (potentially) Ill-considered Opinion on: Economy Brands (and why do people sh*t on them)

From time to time I want to use this platform to bitch, complain or otherwise moan. This is one of those times.

Writing the PIP primer – specifically the ‘your brand doesn’t hate you’ section (they don’t – read the post) – got me thinking about the obscure differentiators brands try to steal market share, which got me thinking about a brand that we know and sometimes love that culled a bunch of ‘mom and pop’ exterior corridor hotels in rural markets (and subsequently tried to bring them back without looking like they were trying to, failing, adding their brand to try and further entice hotels – as they should have done in the first place – back and still failing as far as any of us can tell).

People like to sh*t on economy brands. That brand did it. We’ve all done it. We all looked at Choice (confirm) buying Knights’ Inn and thinking a) we didn’t know that was still a thing, b) what pathway to growing that brand could there possibly be, and c) for real – they got real money for that? (with all due apologies to Knights’ Inn franchisees that might be reading this; I assume the 4-6 of you know you still exist).

But why?

Economy hotels are not sexy. Hotels with ‘managers’ quarters’ are (generally) not sexy (apologies to those that live on property). I get that. Yet those friends of ours (that friend of yours that is always complaining about how much work he/she does on property but you know is hungover every morning and starts work at 2 PM) continue to make the money that we turn down.

I think of brand-who-must-not-be-named Harley Davidson partnership here, for example. They took a hard look at the core customer – blue-collar, older demographic, transient road-tripping business – and the hotels they had at that time – highway hotels, exterior corridor, drive to your door rooms – and found the perfect partner for it. And then – inexplicably – gave those customers and properties up to Choice (Quality Inn), Wyndham (Super 8) and Motel 6.

We’re all missing something.

I understand that people don’t necessary want to live in the middle of New Mexico desert anymore (my apologies to New Mexicans – other vast empty spaces with giant grasshoppers and empty highway towns are also available). I know financing is hard to get. I know the customers are extremely hard on rooms. Totally get it.

However – when we measure customer loyalty we can’t ignore the typical extended-stay customer. I would argue that they are the most loyal. People get used to a particular place. For better or worse, those properties have a following all their own. Why say no?

SO – to all of you that are making money on your economy properties: kudos to you. To those of us that are not – it might be worth a second look. And to those of you that own Knights’ Inns – good luck to you hardy few. The grass is (hopefully) greener on the other side (if, indeed, you haven’t all become Rodeways, Travelodges or Quality Inns yet).

</rant>

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