Photo of businessman in expensive hotel. Aged businessman wearing suit, standing in nice hotel room, using tablet computer and looking at camera

Learning From ‘Old School’ Hoteliers

Hans J. Gerhardt

Klaus D. Tenter

Recently, I had the delightful opportunity to sit down with two ‘old school’ hoteliers. While both continue to have their hand in the game via part-time consulting projects, their days of managing luxurious properties are behind them. The goal of my interview was to get their perspective on the current state of our profession and see what lessons could be gleaned that are applicable to those of us still in the trenches.

Both born in Germany and with classical European hotel school instruction, their work experiences include a myriad of properties. Klaus Tenter spent most of his time with various Four Seasons hotels then latterly to the luxurious Hazelton Hotel in Toronto. Hans Gerhardt’s experience rests primarily with the Sutton Place Hotel, also in Toronto.

What do you see as the greatest issue facing hoteliers today?
Tenter: The ability to attract good, and even better, great talent. It used to be that hotel management was a very desirable career choice. While our profession was never one that paid top dollar, at least it had class. But, the idea of the ‘grand’ hotel is fleeting. Without that, how can hoteliers ever compete with technology and finance for new graduates?

Gerhardt: It is not just the talent pool, but also the aspirations of those graduating our hotel schools. Somehow, the idea now is that you can complete your studies and instantly assume the role of general manager or close to it. Graduates do not want to go through the multi-year investment to build their own experience base. Just as in our days, to succeed takes time. There is no such thing as instant gratification in hotel management.

Have advancements in technology helped or hurt the hotel business?
Tenter: You cannot operate a hotel today without technology. The key is to adapt technology to enhance guest services rather than use it to hide from the guest. For example, there are digital concierge programs. These are clearly better than having no concierge program whatsoever, but they pale in comparison to live services. Technology makes hoteliers better as they can lever the data to improve their guest service delivery.

Gerhardt: It comes down to understanding what your property’s goals are. The obvious technology elements such as a property management system as well as other back-of-house programs are tremendously useful. But I am concerned that if we lean on technology too much it becomes a permanent crutch, lessening our all-critical need for the personal touch.

Should hoteliers be concerned with the rise of the sharing economy?
Tenter: Airbnb is a well-entrenched business, and a good one at that. Hotels that continue to embrace personalized service will withstand its inroads into the accommodations industry far better than those properties that merely offer a bed and a shower. I hope that the industry takes Airbnb’s growth as a wakeup call to reinvest in a true service culture.

Gerhardt: Even the best properties will feel some affect as adding inventory to the market more than the demand will deflate prices and occupancy. But those properties who are more limited-service are most vulnerable.

How has the guest changed in the past 20 years and how should hoteliers adapt?
Tenter: The greatest change is the myriad of options available to the guest. First, a guest can consider full-service, limited-service or no-service accommodations. Next, they can research their decisions to stay using TripAdvisor, general web searches or by contacting their travel agents. And they can choose how they are going to book – travel agent, reservations hotline, online (OTA, brand.com, meta search, deal website) – in order to get the best deal.

Gerhardt: I think the hotel guest of today is more price conscious than brand conscious. Just about every hotel delivers the basics well. With limited differentiation between hotel brands, hoteliers are literally encouraging their guests to go price shopping. Hoteliers need to recognize that guests are much more educated insofar as their travel accommodations options.

What’s next for our industry?
Tenter: Service-oriented hotels and resorts will solidify their client base, attracting new customers through personal relationships and referrals. Limited-service hotels will retain their marketplace positions as well, given the demand for generic-style ‘bed and shower’ properties. Hotels in the middle range, sadly, have no future.

Gerhardt: People will continue to travel, and in doing so temporary accommodations will be required. Hotel managers will have to get used to incorporating Airbnb properties into their market supply. There will be continued pressure on room pricing for those properties who cannot create unique points of difference for themselves.

What has the hotel industry lost since you’ve gone out on your own?
Tenter: The current theory is that everything is measurable. This is nonsense. There is no such thing as a happiness metric. And as a result, we’re losing our humanity. Hotels are all about people, both the staff and their guests. Numbers are important but guests drive numbers not the other way around. It used to be a hotel team was a family. This imperative to relate everything back to the budget has all but driven this concept to the dumpster.

Gerhardt: We have lost our sense of adventure and our sense of humour. Hoteliers are afraid to venture into the unknown and try new initiatives because they’re petrified of failing to meet targets. Budgets are squeezed so tight that hoteliers can’t even laugh anymore because that’s not in the plan!

What services from years’ past would you bring back to help a hotel differentiate itself?
Tenter: It’s not really services; it’s service! Service makes a hotel. The industry should never lose sight of this. Limited service is for the youth hostel model. That’s fine for some travelers, but don’t call it a hotel. A hotel should be a special place, better than what the guest would get an home. Differentiate your hotel on service quality and create loyalty by making memories.

How would you inspire the next generation to live up to the grand tradition of hospitality?
Tenter: Give them leadership opportunities early. Involve them in the community. Encourage them to create their own thumbprints. Most hotels are members of their local CVBs or hotel associations. But to what degree are they involved in committees and programming? Here’s a fantastic opportunity to both build their knowledge base and their leadership capabilities as well as add value to your organization.

How would you mentor an aspiring hotelier?
Gerhardt: There is so much information available online. Read as much as you can and post comments. Attend at least one conference per year, more if you can. Don’t just attend but make a presentation to the team on your learning. Work in every department. Learn the hotel industry from every aspect. Go back to school and take courses to advance your competency. Become an early adapter of technology. Always ask, what if?

(Article by Larry Mogelonsky, published in eHotelier on March 30, 2017)

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