By Alan Young, Hospitality Industry Advisor, College Professor, and Co-Founder of Puzzle Partner
At first – and even second and third glance, Neil Foster’s career in the hospitality industry gives no impression of being an accident. Instead, Foster has spent the last quarter century making a significant mark on the industry while working with hotel companies and technology vendors to uncover better ways of doing business. And yet, Foster himself would describe his introduction to the hospitality world as a happy accident.
What began with washing dishes and bussing tables later evolved into a role as an electronic data processing manager. Since then, Foster has been at the helm of various hospitality brands at transformative inflection points. Today, Foster is the Global President of HFTP, the world-renowned hospitality spokes group for the finance and technology segments of the hospitality industry. Bringing a holistic worldview that balances the needs of both hoteliers and vendors, Foster is poised to continue his resounding impact on the hospitality industry well into the future.
With HITEC just around the corner, I had the opportunity to sit down with Foster to discuss the evolution of his career, the wide-reading technological advancements he’s witnessed (or been a part of), and of course, all things HITEC Toronto.
Foster’s foray into the hospitality industry began in the mid-’90s in a decidedly humble fashion. “My first jobs included washing dishes and bussing tables in Northwestern Ontario,” he reiterates. “As I look back, this early exposure to the industry was the perfect foundation, as it offered me a uniquely grounded perspective. I learned early on that corporate and external viewpoints don’t always reflect the reality of the front lines.”
When asked what he loves most about the industry, Foster’s answer arrives without hesitation. “It’s the people I love most about this industry – and what’s kept me here over the years,” he shares. “It’s because of this that I have such an enthusiastic view of technology. When we find platforms or processes that solve problems and eliminate friction within workflows, we have a meaningful impact on the people working within the industry. By embracing innovative technology that makes life easier, we establish a better staff experience and help our people focus on providing the best possible guest experience.”
Foster became an HFTP member in 2000 and pursued his CHTP certification in 2001. “One of my early bosses, the late Carl Johnston, took me along to an HFTP meeting in the early days; I felt immediately at home,” he explains. “The CHTP inspired a lasting connection with the association and granted me further opportunities to get involved with the councils, chapters, the board, and the executive committee over the years.” Fast forward to today, and Foster has the honor of serving as HFTP Global President for 2022-2023. “I am deeply grateful and proud to serve the Association as President this year, following in the footsteps of the many amazing leaders over HFTP’s 71-year history. I couldn’t do it without the support and encouragement of fellow members, industry leaders, and countless colleagues, of whom there are too many to mention here,” he recounts warmly. “And from my earliest days in the industry with Starwood, I must attribute a special acknowledgment to Kosta Tomazos, Carl Johnston, and Dave Norton (no longer with us), who always supported and encouraged my involvement with HFTP in the early years.”
Foster notes that the progression to HFTP president doesn’t happen overnight – after time spent on the Executive Board, the Executive Committee term spans five years. “Working with a diverse board of committed directors and a capable executive team under Frank Wolfe’s leadership has made the transition into this role smooth,” he explains, adding that he has spent the last few months refreshing his knowledge on the diverse members and stakeholders HFTP serves. “It’s been a very positive start to the term as our industry embraces the post-pandemic era, and I’m lucky to be without the many constraints my most recent predecessors, Mark Pate and Michael Levie, had to contend with. Michael and Mark have served HFTP as effective crisis leaders, helping keep things together through the undeniably difficult pandemic while simultaneously working through unfamiliar association developments. I feel as well-prepared and supported as anyone can hope to be. I look forward to carrying out a successful term, together with an incredible Executive Council, Board, and Executive Team, in service to our members. It’s truly an honor to serve, and I’m grateful to be here.”
When asked about the recent transformation of the hospitality industry, Foster aptly terms it a “full-scale revolution” that has moved our deceptively simple, people-centered sector into a new era centered around technology. “To say I feel lucky to be part of this journey would be a gross understatement,” he shares. “As I got started in this industry niche, email and commercial internet adoption were only just beginning, and an EDP (electronic data processing) manager role had only just become a reality for a 300-room hotel.” According to Foster, early assignments within his EDP role which included “upgrading” the hotel events logging process (a big book) to an early S&C system, installing a first touchscreen POS system (Squirrel), and replacing an aging PMS solution (HIS) hosted on an IBM System 36 (with 10” floppy disks for backup) to Fidelio (now Oracle Cloud PMS).
“As technology has evolved to span the breadth of all aspects of a hotel’s operation, some organizations have elected to realign technology (which is no longer a subset of finance) to ensure the entire organization’s needs can be served effectively and evenly,” Foster explains. “In this way, decisions are less likely to be made based on cost without sufficient consultation with the most valuable stakeholders – the users. Furthermore, we can finally have an open dialogue about the enterprise-wide risks that hinge on thoughtful process design (i.e., guest data protection and security). Over the years, I’ve seen an inclusive, carefully managed, and consultative approach leads to the best technology outcomes.” If you ask Foster, the success of technology must be gauged by its ability to support positive human experiences.
Foster currently resides in Vancouver, BC, with his family but spent many of his formative years in Toronto, which he still affectionately calls “the big smoke.” He notes that the city has so much to offer – especially in the summer – making it the perfect location for HITEC 2023. “It gives me great pleasure to see HITEC in Canada again, especially in Toronto, where I spent the most formative years of my career with Starwood. I always think of Toronto as a uniquely welcoming place, where residents from around the world can embrace and celebrate the best of their cultures with the help of festivals, cultural centers, and a robust selection of culturally-influenced dining options,” he shares. “There are so many things to see and do in the city, so be sure to check out suggestions before HITEC to get the most out of your trip.”
Foster also notes that the last HITEC in Toronto in 2017 set an attendance record with over 6,500 attendees. Not only that, but the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. “So far, HITEC Toronto 2023 is shaping up to be another great success, with booth sales 99% sold as of late April and registrations trending above normal,” Foster reveals. “I am especially excited to share that a stellar education program is coming together for this event, thanks to Shannon, Steve, the HITEC Advisory Council they co-chair, and Bryan and Allison on the executive team. While we can’t let all the “cats out of the bags” just yet, we’re thrilled to announce a special reception in honor of Women in Hospitality Technology.” According to Foster, HFTP is expanding on this theme by building a comprehensive, data-driven profile of women leading the way in innovation.
“Women in the industry with technology-connected responsibilities are encouraged to complete this survey for a chance to be highlighted alongside other female leaders in the industry,” he adds. “I hope to see you all in Toronto for a HITEC you won’t want to miss!