The next step in innovation: What vision looks like

This is the second in a four-part series by David Keen, CEO of Quo, on what hotels need to do to stay competitive. Read last week’s installment: Hospitality has evolved – and hotels need to think differently. Next week: Reimagining your organization. 

For hoteliers looking to innovate, it is not enough to just have a good idea or to “know where the market is going.” The key to innovation – and to being an effective visionary – is the ability to drive change. This change needs to permeate every level of your organization and critically, radically alter the perception of your company, both internally and externally.

Arguably Groundhog Day for the contemporary hotel industry came with the launch of W New York in 1998. Starwood’s W brand set the tone for “lifestyle,” and to some degree “boutique,” and in one swoop evolved the interior structure of a hotel. And with that interior design came an entirely new perception of what a hotel could become.

Barry Sternlicht drove that vision. As chairman of the now-defunct Starwood Hotels & Resorts, he foresaw the desperate need for change within the staid hotel industry and drove that change. It was more than aesthetic. Driven by Sternlicht’s vision, a real estate investment company with a net worth of less than US$10 million was transformed into a global empire that eventually sold to Marriott for US$13.6 billion.

Sternlicht’s story defines vision. He knew that the hotel industry was crying out for something new. He had the foresight to know what global travelers were looking for – and he created a concept that satisfied that desire. But his W concept was not his only innovation. Sternlicht also conceived the Westin Heavenly Bed, with a simple marketing message that spoke to the reason almost anyone stays in a hotel: to get a good night’s sleep.

When Sébastien Bazin took over as chairman and CEO of Accor in 2013, he irreversibly changed not just the perception, but the entire structure, of Europe’s leading hospitality company. Bazin understands that the future of this industry rests on taking the hotel out of hospitality. Both his acquisition strategy (buying OneFineStay, Very Chic, John Paul and Potel & Chabot) and, perhaps more important, the launch of Accor Local, demonstrate this vision.

“With Accor Local, we offer hotel facilities to non-travelers for day-to-day life, whether they want to drop a package for someone, have their shoe repaired, pick up some food or take a yoga class,” he told in January.

Bazin’s vision embraces the digital age to such an extent that he believes previous economic cycles are no longer valid – that formerly predictable cycles are no longer predictable. He has leveraged that understanding and inculcated it into the primary vision of Accor.

His achievements at Accor are all the more remarkable because he was able to apply his vision across the entire organization and drive an entirely fresh perception of it, both internally and externally. Without the strength of vision and application shown by Bazin, larger hotel companies like Accor will struggle to embrace the forces of the digital age and the vastly changing requirements of the new global traveler.

Vision is also critical to the success of emerging hospitality entities. For smaller and more nimble companies, seeing white space and moving into that space is in some ways easier. Take Citizen M, for example.

Michael Levie saw that the democratization of society meant that guests no longer wanted to be bowed to. His vision for Citizen M deconstructed the notion that successful hospitality rests on uniformed employees offering deferential service to guests. Instead, he encouraged a symbiotic, honest exchange between guests and employees: Staff eat with guests, chat with guests and create true relationships based on natural interaction. It’s a service style that has been mimicked across the industry.

These are not the only hotel visionaries. But their stories speak to one important trait: proactivity. Successful leaders are not reactive. They see an opportunity, invest in it and drive infinite value.


David Keen spoke about Quo’s vision for the future of hospitality at the first THINC Innovate conference in Bangkok in May, on which this series is based.