Marriott, IHG, Hilton, Accor - there's a reason why brands like these are acquiring more and more hotel market share by the month, and why smaller brands are finding it harder and harder to compete on the same field as these snowballing giants - 'Service Standards' aka 'measurable metrics that can justify costs'. This shift in how the hotel business operates is creating an ever-growing divide between so-called 'old-school' hoteliers and the new breed of hoteliers running properties for this global superset of hospitality juggernauts.

The Grand Budapest Hotel's 'Old-School' Style Hotelier

The 2014 cult movie 'The Grand Budapest Hotel' tells the story of what it was to be an old-school hotelier, and more importantly, why they did it. Hotels have become institutions, and up until recently, it wouldn't be uncommon to see individuals spend their entire careers in a single property. A life run by and committed to the unwritten lores of an almost secret order. A General Manager for a property would know that property inside-out. They would know all of their staff by name, and as the years go by, they would be building up a replicable database of property history, staff, guests, their likes, dislikes, and all of their experiences whether good, bad, or ugly. Hoteliers are stable; hoteliers are evergreen; hoteliers are story-tellers; hoteliers are oracles; hoteliers are steadfast. These hoteliers don't provide outstanding service just so that they can get their end-of-year bonus. They do it because it's in their blood. The intimate knowledge that these hoteliers accumulated over a lifetime made them, in many cases, irreplaceable - dare one say ‘too big to fail’. Staff would remain loyal to the property, very often because of their leader. Likewise, guests would also stay loyal to the property because of the bonds that they had built over time with the hotelier and his or her team.

Familiarity Breeds Dust

I traveled to interview an old-school hotelier at an iconic property in a very popular tourist destination in Asia. When we arrived, we were given red-carpet treatment, escorted to the executive floor to check in, and presented with an amazing suite overlooking the ocean complete with champagne, chocolates, and an amazing array of amenities. We spent a couple of days at the property, ate wonderful food, and heard the most fantastic 'hotelier' anecdotes about the property and its famous (and infamous) guests over the past almost 40 years. All of the team loved their GM and the GM loved his team. It could almost have been the Grand Budapest Hotel.

About two months later, I was on an assignment with another client and they had booked a hotel room for me at that same hotel. It was booked under their company name and my room was booked under a different name to my original stay there.

I turned up to the hotel and there wasn't a single person on the door to greet me. I asked if someone could help me with my luggage and the security guard gestured that nobody was available and the check-in counter was quite a walk away over on the far side of the ground floor. I had arrived late, and the only room that was available for me was one of their 'ground level' rooms. I didn't mind and proceeded to my room.

I thought things were starting to go a little awry when I noticed that the carpet leading to my room seemed very old and worn, with a persistent, dank small wafting through the corridor. I entered my room and the dank smell followed me.

The room looked like it hadn't been dusted or deep cleaned for a couple of years. There was sediment all over the bathroom floor and the shower drain was clogged, leaving me to shower in an ever-deepening pool of waste water. The breakfast experience for 'the masses' was an experience in itself and the theme of 'dust' and 'dankness' followed me throughout the property for the rest of the stay.

I was perplexed. How could a property which blew me away the first time have changed so much in the space of only two months?

It seems that nothing in fact had changed. We were just given the royal treatment the first time through, whereas the second time I stayed there, I was 'privileged' to experience what was really on offer there.

The hotelier had been there for so long that he had become blind to the actuality of the surroundings that he walked through each day. Employees, like him, were for the most part long term employees, and all were living very comfortably in a very familiar 'groove' that they'd worn for themselves over the preceding decades.

Internally Run Service Audits - A Conflict of Interest

The hotel group had changed their service auditing policy several years earlier. Where before they would use third-party mystery shoppers like 59Club Asia, they now left the responsibility of service auditing to the GMs and HR Directors of each property. Given that the GM's bonus was partially dependent on KPIs that were based on service audit scores, as were the bonuses of his team, it wasn't in anybody's interest to 'fail' an audit. Service audits would just become another bureaucratic process where boxes were ticked mindlessly in a way to ensure that they would all live on for another end-of-year bonus.

A New Breed of Hotelier - Finding the Right Balance

In today's hotel environment, where brands are acquiring other brands at an unprecedented rate, there is little to no room within these brands for the traditional and stable old-school hotelier - long-serving and with intimate lifelong bonds with team members and guests. Hotel management companies need to be able to measure results and be agile enough to change things quickly in order to make the numbers work and hit their group's targets. Hoteliers need to be able to adapt, be tech-savvy, understand how all the moving parts of the hotel affect their P&L, and understand that change is the only thing that is going to enable them to survive. The challenge is to find the balance between these new white-collar, educated, tech-savvy, financially driven professionals and those who also have the interpersonal skills and leadership qualities of our old-school hoteliers.

The so called 'tyranny' of the long term hotelier here is that all those  things that were traditionally the strengths of these hospitality professionals may end up working against them in a fast moving hotel markets where GM's are swapped and traded and need to be able to tow the company line lest they find themselves out of contention for the next move.  Building up a personal brand might be a threat to the overall brand's goals.

Moreover, the longer one stays anchored in one property, there is a possibility of starting to look over things in the property that fresh eyes might pick up on. This is not to paint all long term hoteliers with the same brush, but it is a possibility.

Service audits are part of the solution, but doing them internally, given the nature of the industry now, might mean that the results of these audits are not a true representation of what's really going on in the property, which could lead to calamitous results for the property, the brand, and the owner.

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