Keeping your independence in today’s hospitality industry as more travelers opt for authentic experiences backed by heartfelt owners and their teams
On October 25th and 26th, a very special gathering of the top hospitality professionals attended the 2022 Boutique Hotel Owners Conference by BLLA in Westlake Village, CA. Over the two-day event, hotel owners, operators, entrepreneurs, and managers celebrated the prosperity of independent boutique hotels in the industry. They collaborated on topics such as consumer markets, hotel operations, and technology innovation; some unconventional topics such as energy and the philosophy of deal-making.
The annual conference facilitates discourse on the future of boutique lifestyle design and operations. Inviting entrepreneurs to ‘come together and refuel our industry as we navigate the next phase of boutique hotel ownership and contemporary travel,’ BLLA’s CEO and COO, Frances and Ariela Kiradjian, curated an engaging atmosphere in the neighborhood snugly situated inside the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains. The event theme, “Spill the Tea,” encouraged transparent communication among cohorts and underscored the togetherness of like-minded entrepreneurs.
“I don’t think there’s any other industry in the world where people and community come together and drive a business,” smiled David Goldstone, Executive Vice President and Chief Sales Officer of World Cinema. As attendees considered the future of hotel operations, a recurring theme organically transcended the roundtables and Q&As: people.
Leveraging new technology is a huge topic in most industries, including hospitality. In The Hospitality Innovation Roundtable, managers discussed balancing the implementation of technology and restructuring staff responsibilities. Vaughn Davis shared the viral success of Dream Hollywood’s delivery robots. The innovative technology delivers amenities to guests 24/7, helping labor shortages and attracting curious visitors. The Manager of Dream Hotels believes the industry will see more robot implementation in the near future. Participants wanted to know how these new features will affect staffing.
While Richard Valtr, Founder of Mews, agreed that technology will undoubtedly expedite certain tasks, he doesn’t see it completely replacing real people. Validating driver’s licenses, taking credit cards, and giving key cards are duties “we should just assume technology is going to do,” said Valtr. However, he underscored the value of human interactions in hospitality experiences. “Have a sales target and a guest experience target … those are the things I think humans do really well, and technology does the boring admin work really well, so I think the biggest change is the mindset. Let’s assume all these [amid tasks] are going to be done by technology, and let’s be proactive about how we use humans,” offered the entrepreneur.
“What the technology allows you to do is now be hyper-focused on people who are guest experience machines, right?” For him, the key is restructuring talent acquisition strategy. “How are you hiring, and who are the individuals you’re putting in the right position?” prompted Davis.
Hoteliers shared similar sentiments albeit diverse techniques in The Lost Art of Innkeeping. Ariela facilitated a vibrant dialogue on the evolution of hospitality management. The panelists shared thoughts on shifting hotel management, the organic relationship between guests and staff, and the balance between leveraging technology and encouraging irreplaceable human connection. “Innkeeping is a funny topic, you would think, in 2022,” Ariela smiles, “but it’s time to go back to the quintessential: what is hospitality?”
The speaker’s responses highlighted the soul of independent, small-scale as well as larger projects. For Rob Blood, Founder of Lark Hotels, boutique hotels especially represent the life of innkeeping. “The idea of Innkeeping has evolved in a more modern way, which I think is a great thing because it really needs to be guest-focused on nonprescriptive service, letting people experience this stay in their own way. I think that spirited independent hotels do that really well. So, in some ways, the spirit of Innkeeping is still alive, especially in this room. It’s just absent in a lot of the white box, larger soulless hotels.”
Agreeing, Alex Kirkwood, Founder & CEO of Kirkwood Collection, added, “the boutique experience dies when the process takes over,” eliciting nods of approval from the room.
Leveraging new technology and cutting-edge design are trending topics in 21st-century businesses. Still, Ariela expressed concern that modern perspectives may be a distraction from the essence of hospitality. “Design and technology are extremely important. I’m not saying that they’re not, but I think we’ve become obsessed with it, where we’ve forgotten what hospitality is. Is hospitality still alive?” she asked panelists.
Confirming that, yes, hospitality is alive and well, the hoteliers weighed the pros and cons of modern and traditional operating systems. Each emphasized the value of people and expressed appreciation for interpersonal connection.
Sims Foster, Co-Founder of Foster Supply Hospitality, invests in hiring driven individuals. His passion for building a welcoming community drives his leadership. “We’re super archaic,” offered Foster. “For the people on the front lines, I made a choice. I don’t know whether it’s right or not, but we barely have any technology. Basically, you have to show up and actually answer the phone and talk to somebody. On the frontline, you have to pitch in to help. You have to fill your 10-hour day or 14 or whatever with actual engagement with other human beings. So, it really weeds people out. If that’s not what you want to do, it’s not going to work for us. I think that hospitality is alive. We’ve got to find the right people with the right perspective for, you know, the intimate scale of our properties. It starts from day one for us. Outlining why we do what we do and our three pillars; community, guests, and the team. If you’re making a decision based on any of those three things, it’s the right decision.”
For Rob, technology and design are important features of building a hotel; however, in the panel, he emphasized that people are essential in creating a prosperous environment. “Design doesn’t create soul, right?” he said, “when you go into a beautifully designed restaurant, you can feel good, but if the service isn’t good, it’s nothing. It’s off. Where innkeeping and hospitality come together is the point of success. You can stay at a beautifully designed hotel, but without the service and the hospitality. It’s just a place. It’s a bed,” Rob explained. “We design our hotels, and that’s a good baseline. But what’s most frequently referenced in guest reviews is not the design; it’s the person in the connection to the place. Because of the people that we empower on our teams. And that will always be true.”
Maintaining that spirit across multiple properties is an added aspect of his work. Rob continued, “the independent spirit needs to shine through just like our people. We do not prescribe how our folks provide service. We want them to be unapologetically themselves. And so the independence and the feel of each property come through that personality, right? So if you’re working in one hotel and I’m working in another, it’s going to have a different feel. It will feel authentic and unique.”
These leadership styles encompass the boutique lifestyle’s dedication to protecting authentic experiences through connection. As the industry discusses increasing profitability and methods of bouncing back from the 2019 global pandemic, the resilient attitude toward individuality persists. It remains, both guests and staff are at the center of the industry. Technology can enhance the guest experience, but hospitality experts recognize that tech can never replace human connection in an industry built on providing genuine experiences.
Understanding the value of investing in the right staff, citizenM, a brand based on business travel and affordability, takes a unique approach to hiring personable teams. Blair Dodson, VP and Global Head of Partnerships, explained in The Power of People and Community, “communities are definitely at the foundation of what we do. I think you could see that in terms of even the way we hire and staff all of our hotels or what we call ambassadors. We actually hire based on personality, then we train them on everything they need to know. Every single person in our hotel is cross-trained, so the same person that is serving your coffee, serving your drink, or bringing you an extra towel could be the same person. And so their job is to create a connection with the individual guests. I think that kind of folds into the sense of community we build within our spaces.”
However, employees and guests aren’t the only people affected by hotel development. New hospitality projects often significantly impact pre-existing people, families, and ecosystems. In the same conversation, Jayson Seidman, Founder and Principal Managing Partner of Sandstone and its various affiliates, Drifter Hotels and The Basic®, explained his “grassroots” perspective on designing unique (and beloved) spaces.
Seidman captivated the room with his passion; “I approach everything from an emotional perspective. Especially with the boutique hotels, it’s our job as owners and innkeepers to be the hub, or the central point of connection, for people in a community. A lot of other larger hotel groups have kind of lost sight of that because they have to cater to conventions and much larger groups of people. And I’m glad that market exists. What I take pride in is, I really reverse engineer all of my projects. I start with the community.”
To begin a project, Seidman closely observed the culture and needs of the local communities in an area. He then makes strategic decisions to build empowering spaces that appeal to both tourists and locals. “I start with the community. I try to ask these questions: ‘where are people going, where do they want to go, where are they going to start, where do they hang out, or what’s trending and what’s not?’” he said. “I evaluate the neighborhoods to understand where the pulse is.”
Seidman told the story of a challenging project he recently undertook in New Orleans. Repositioning an iconic bar, he considered how to honor the infamous energy and utilize the neglected accommodation space. “The idea is, when people are traveling to certain cities, they’re going to say, ‘OK, well, where do the locals go?’ It just so happens we are those places, so I’ve really focused more on building the community. I focus on what are awesome spots the locals want to eat at, what are the awesome spots they want to drink at or grab their coffee and buy their retail? I mean, considering all aspects of these things, it’s clear the community comes first. It’s been a great success.”
Seidman’s properties run artist residency programs and invite artists from local communities to stay on-site, work, and sell their art in the hotel. “It’s all about the community. As a boutique hotel, it’s our job to respect and represent.”
Though boutique hotel owners and management companies bring different methods to incorporating connection into operations and design, this recurring theme of people, of listening and prioritizing the well-being of guests, employees, and regional residents demonstrates the core values of boutique hospitality. By cross-training staff, leveraging technology in the back of house, innkeeping on an intimate level, and curating accessible creative environments, boutique hoteliers navigate success through both modern and timeless techniques. BLLA’s captivating few days confirmed that connection and community will never go out of style.