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In the light of the recent news of the Marriott – Starwood deal, has had the opportunity to ask hotel guru Bill Barnett, the founder of C9 HotelWorks about his views on the situation, as well as about his views on ‘the industry’ in general. Should Starwood employees be panicking about losing their jobs? Is ‘consulting’ just a euphemism for ‘unemployed hotelier’? – And what how can a former rock star manager become so successful in the hotel business?

The Interview

‘Hospitality Consulting’ seems to be the first word that hotel people use when they suddenly find themselves unemployed. How do you feel about this term, as it’s being used so much nowadays in the industry? Why is C9 is different from the others?

C9 Hotelworks has been around for 11 years now and operates at a pretty high level in the region with institutional clients and listed firms.  Many of our contemporaries like Horwath HTL, HVS and JLL Hotels have continued to raise the consulting bar over the past decade and certainly the tagline hospitality consulting as it equates to a professional services firm has redefined itself. I’m a member of the ISHC (International Society of Hospitality Consultants) based in the US and as I look at the growing membership of global consultants ranging from feasibility, legal, design, technical services and transactions the game is definitely changing. One question I am often asked is what does ‘C9’ mean? Well in a moment of inspiration and insomnia, I had a moment of clarity about cloud nine and how it relates to hotels, and counting sheep when you can’t sleep, hence C9! Now you know.

People who do ‘hospitality consulting’ would usually have a background in finance, law or have been a hotelier sometime in their life. How did a former road manager for a Grammy nominated songwriter end up doing so well consulting for hotels?

Well I did start out in the music business, and the process of staying in so many hotels plus learning management of people and events was a great stepping stone. I’m an avid believer in self-learning and that passion is the key. I love hotels and can’t learn enough, be it taking executive education classes at Cornell University at their Hospitality School in the US, to attending conference and reading as much as I can.

Professional development is one that can be learned but my career in hospitality has also been through some key mentors like Brian Deeson during my tenure in Hong Kong or a number of other very wise and astute hotel professionals. Even now at C9 I take on interns, as I believe you have to play it forward in the business and learn as well as teach the next generation. I’m very happy to see some of my former staff move to key roles at hotel chains and evolve. It’s all part of the magical journey of hotels. Who wouldn’t want to be in this business? In my opinion it’s been a beautiful ride.

What are the most common mistakes that you see being committed by your clients?

Believing a hotel chain or designer will deliver a market-leading hotel on their own.

There are so many new hotels in Asia and the crush of ‘same-same’, not distinct copy and past models is a recipe for disaster. Strong and sustainable hotels need a developer who has vision and is dogmatic to execute and drive this home. Hotel owners need to understand that at the end of the day, there is a reason it’s called the ‘hotel business’ and step up and be daddy in the development process.

Is Africa the next big thing? Where is the best place to invest in hotels?

Africa is such an expansive market and one that lags the world in the hospitality space. Over the last year we have been working more in Africa and while we start to see more ‘big box’ chain hotels coming at the high end. The midscale and budget sectors are not well developed. It’s a volatile market. Rise and reward are there, but again it’s like any emerging market scenario. Look at airlift, supply and demand and strong segmentation. I think East Africa will see some of the highest growth going forward and certainly in hotel residences this is a segment not widely developed yet.

If I were a Starwood employee, should I be worried about losing my job after the Starwood / Marriott Deal?

There is no such thing as safety in numbers and certainly property based hotel executives are not an endangered species – i.e. GM’s.  The same could be said for Fairmont Raffles. But certainly at higher levels in cluster services, development, sales and marketing and development these are natural areas that the merger will look at economies of scale. The largest operating expense of hotel management firms are salaries and benefits so it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to find out where the initial focus will be. That said the most important focus would be protecting the existing management agreements, ensuring the pipeline of new hotels is maintained and managing the relations and possible angst of hotel owners over the larger global move. Top line revenue is so critical and should be paramount to the exercise.

Are ‘Old-school’ hoteliers outdated in 2016? What should a hotelier adapt to or do for their hotels in 2016 ?

Asia has gone through such a dramatic change in hospitality in the past few decades and the region is now seeing local expertise grow and flourish.

Yes in the economic rise of the 2000’s hospitality continues to be a hard sell to bright and well-educated Asians, hence there remains a need to experienced managers. One key trend is that more and more regional expats are working ‘cross-border’. The other key point is as hotel chains grow more asset light and focus on management the issue of owner relations is key to retaining contracts. Old school GM’s are tried and tested and if anything we have seen a resurgence of them in the past few years. For hoteliers, yes they need to change skill sets and understand owners are now more active, sales and marketing channels are changing, technology, the emphasis on cuisine and also more astute business sense. The world is changing, not just hotels. If anything the traditional business model where you did an annual budget each year and followed this is done and over, we live in a disruptive time so quick thinking, strategy and business sense are key attributes needed.

Last question: Out of curiosity, What are you wearing for the conference this year?

I’m not going to tip off my opening for the 4th Annual Thailand Tourism Forum 2016 at the InterContinental Hotel Bangkok on January 25th but will say I may become a superhero, or I may not. Best to come and see. Registration to Thailand’s biggest hospitality event is now open at