Adding a Guest Wellness Program to Build Brand and Increase Revenue, with Don Lightfoot

Don Lightfoot, a Global Wellness Ambassador and currently CEO of Hospitality Wellness Group chats with Robin Trimingham, The Innovative Hotelier Podcast Host regarding the extent to which fear of illness continues to influence international travel and how the right guest wellness program can be a value-added amenity that guests appreciate, thereby increasing booking rates, brand loyalty, occupancy rates, and revenue.

Discussing the trend toward ever expanding wellness programs at luxury resorts, Don also points out that Millennials are not just becoming the largest demographic group of travelers, they are also most likely to appreciate a cost-effective AI driven technology amenity that supports their wellness.

Highlights from Today’s Episode

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Episode Transcript

DON: And the thing with our wellness program, any other wellness, amenity costs, money, costs staff payroll, or insurance, it costs a lot of different things. Ours costs zero from our operational costs it doesn’t cost anything as well. So that’s good.

ROBIN: Welcome to the innovative hotelier podcast by hotels magazine, with weekly thought provoking discussions with the world’s leading hotel and hospitality innovators.

I’m your host, Robin Trimingham and my guest today is Don Lightfoot, a global wellness ambassador who really needs no introduction. Don has advised everyone from Hilton Hotels and Chrysler to the United Nations. He’s currently CEO of the Hospitality Wellness Group. Today we’re chatting about adding a guest wellness program to build brand loyalty and increase revenue. 

This podcast is presented to you by Franke Coffee Systems by Franke. At Franke we think coffee is about more than beans and machines. It’s all about the moment when you create an amazing coffee experience for your customers.

Welcome, Don!

DON: Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure being here.

ROBIN: Well, I think that because we both have sort of an interest in wellness and helping people travel safely, this is going to be quite a good conversation. To start off here. I was doing a little reading and I saw a report from the International Air Transport Association, which of course in the industry we all call IATA. They recently released some statistics which indicate that domestic travel numbers are anticipated to reach as much as 93% of 2019 levels this year. But international travel is still lagging behind and really only expected to reach about 69% of the 2019 numbers. So, how much would you say concerns regarding the risk of becoming ill while traveling are still affecting the decision to travel?

DON: That’s a good question. As you probably know, as of Sunday, the CDC has no longer requiring US bound travelers to show a negative result for testing before they come into America. So that has been eliminated, we should be given a a bit of a bump for our international travelers to want to get over to our destinations here in the States. And the thing about this is international travelers spend a lot more time planning their vacation, and thus they spend more time saving up for other vacations as well. So they really spend about 20 25% more than those domestic travelers based on them. But one of the things that was reinforced just last week, when I did a presentation to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, which was having a conference in Madrid, was that the primary focus now is on health and well being and wellness properties that allow for people to take care of their health and if they lose it in some fashion, there is a way for them to be able to get immediate help and get healthy very quickly. So I think that that’s gonna be a driver in everything that we talked about today is the focus on health and well being for the hospitality sector.

ROBIN: I think you make an excellent point when you talk about the fact that because they are spending more on international travel, it’s also a much bigger decision whether or not to go when you think about the whole range of guests wellness programs that you’re aware of they’re currently being implemented. Can you give us an example of the spectrum what would be sort of a bare bones example versus what I’m going to call the full service approach?

DON: Well, let me use the star analogy. If you have a zero star hotel versus the five star, a zero star hotel would have probably a very many fitness center. A few items that you can do some workout, so forth, and that would be when you move all the way up to the stars up to the five star. Now we’re talking about a full service Fitness Center. We’re talking about a larger area spa. We’re talking about wellness rooms, and within the wellness rooms. We’re talking about purification and water filtering. These systems we’re talking about shower water that’s infused with vitamin C, which I just experienced myself in a hotel in Vegas, healthy menu items would be on there. And they even have guided meditations narrated by Deepak Chopra. So if you will, so they can get right totally immersed in everything that has to do with wellness. Now there is an expense factor to that there has to be understood. But when you’re a five star and you have high every daily rates, that would be incorporated in that cost.

ROBIN: Continuing on this thought, I haven’t been reading about the debate that’s been going on with some of the resort destinations, where they are focusing a lot on how to get guests back to the resort, and they’re trying to decide whether it’s better to cut resort fees, which I guess ultimately cut some of the luxury services you’ve just been referencing, or enhancing amenities, and trying to give people a better holistic experience. What’s your take on this?

DON: This is a very important point, I want to take you back to 2005, if I may, I was enjoying a wonderful glass of Italian vino over in Tuscany. And I thought about I had put together a number of telemedicine programs for employees of hotels. And I thought it’d be even more beneficial to have a telemedicine program for the guests of hotels for a number of reasons. So I call Chip Rogers, who is the president of American Hotel and Lodging Association (AHLA). And I said to chip, I’m thinking about putting together a program for your for the guests of hotels, which would really encompass a major health and well being type of services. And he said to me “we just did a survey of our guests”. And it’s interesting, he would say that, because one of the major things that they were looking for was how they can protect her health and safety for them and their families while they’re out of property. So he said down what you’re putting together is right on the button. So at that point in time I said okay, then this is we’re on the right track with that. And that’s what I said “Okay, it’s time for us to really get into it”. But back in 2005, I was involved in the startup of TelaDoc, which was the first real telemedicine program in America. And from that development period, I had an opportunity to address the General Assembly of the United Nations, September 2005. And I may mention as an aside, thanks to my wonderful friend, Gloria K, who was the grand DOM of the United Nations and of New York and Paris, London and Riyadh, and so forth. She got me on the agenda. That was the first time a non head of state addressed the General Assembly since they were formed in 1947. So it was quite an honor. And the topic was global telemedicine. And that’s how I really got into putting that idea out to the world. 

Shortly thereafter, I had an audience with Stephen Bollenbach, who was the CEO of Hilton Hotels worldwide here in Beverly Hills. They’ve since moved to the East Coast. And I said, I just did a presentation of his friends with him, we were involved in a couple of the same organizations here in LA. And I said “I want to talk to you because what I have put together here for the address, the General Assembly is really hit a button that people really see that this is going to be the next wave in healthcare, how we can increase the revenue for countries all kinds of different reasons”. So I said “Well, let’s go have lunch”. So we want to have lunch. And what else was Barron Hilton, the son of Conrad. So I had Bernard and Steven over lunch, and we talked about it and they became the first global 500 company to put in telemedicine for their employees. That was the start of all that. 

It limped along for a number of years until the pandemic, obviously, and that’s when it picked up. But during that time, a lot of companies were using telemedicine, but only a half or 1% of employees would use it. So it wasn’t really taken advantage of what all a telemedicine program could do for a company. So I said, I’m gonna put together a program where they will definitely use it and it will be to their benefit of the hotel and to the benefit of the guests. I guess I put together a value proposition page, about 14 of them, and they’re all very, very good. And that’s where I said, Now we’re going to start talking about the value of the resort fee because the resort fee was one of the things that was causing headaches are hopeful tellers, federal government, local governors were were on their case, because the lack of transparency and the fact that it was going up from $10 to 2030 4050, not pushing past $60 A day plus tax mandatory. And when they did that, that really upset that guests. So they’ve been looking away for a way to improve on the resort fee so that they can take that pressure off. So that’s what our program really does as well. I said to them, if you look at what the resort fee includes every clothes, things that people think “hat should be in my daily rate, why are you putting that in the resort fee? You can go to the pool, you can go to the center, you can go to the health club. I mean, that means what does that mean? I mean, you are supposed to be able to do that, because you’re in the room”. Well, yeah, I mean, those types of things. 91% of people who just like to say this, there was no value to it. 80% of guests say they don’t mind the resort fee if capital if there’s value to it. So I said, you add the program that I put together, and you now have value in your resort fee. And that’s what they’re seeing. And that’s what’s making a difference with our program right now.

ROBIN: That makes a lot of sense to me. Because if you have a value added service that is perceived by the guests themselves as having real intrinsic value, then they’re going to appreciate it and they’re going to not mind the fee so much. That’s correct. Can you give us any demographics regarding the characteristics of the type of traveler who’s most likely to appreciate a health and well being amenity sort of like this?

DON: I’m going to go back again to that survey that was done by Chip Rogers, where it was a cross section of guests. And for the most part, they all said they would like to have health and wellness type programs to protect them and their families while they’re there. However, the more you go into the four and five star hotels, the more they’re going to have a very robust wellness type program. And they’re going to have many of the amenities that are available from a spa, to the exercise room, to the wellness room, and so forth. So those rather more expensive hotels will be having guests that are more wanting to have that type of service. So obviously, that’s why I’m really focusing right now on the four star and five star. I’m talking to Jerry and Xarelto. And I’m talking to a couple of the other executives at the Forbes travel guide. And what we’re talking about is having the type of program I have put together as part of their evaluation for hotels for their house security verification badge. And that would be helpful as far as what they’re doing for the guests from the standpoint of wellness. So that would be very big to be able to add that to and I think that’s what’s what’s really going to happen here in the not too distant future is that will be a bigger focus on hotel, what are you doing to increase the guests experience? The guest experience? Underlying is what it’s all about right now for hotels, what can we do that would give the employee and to give the guests a feeling that this was a brewery, wonderful, the stress being at the hotel, which then equates to greater loyalty, a greater word of mouth advertising, and all those things that would generate revenue in the future. So we see that that’s going to be happening pretty soon, yeah,

ROBIN: I can see that if the guest feels cared about, they’re really going to buy into this. 

DON: We’re just started. We just launched this couple of months ago. But our first client is a five star deluxe hotel, the number one resort in Italy. And I got that from the UN ambassador from doing my presentation in January 2020 When I did a presentation to the private sector form of the United Nations, which included UN ambassadors and executives of fortune 500 companies, which included Hilton, Marriott, Dorchester, Four seasons, all of them. But one of the UN ambassadors from Italy says, you know “this is a great program. I’m gonna mention this to a friend of mine, who has his five star hotel”, and I said “fine”, and come to find out it is a hotel I have stayed out. Blue as five star Deluxe. And what that means is, that’s a six star quite frankly. And it is was the Grand Hotel, Villa Serbelloni, Lake Como and Bellagio, Italy, and it’s an amazing, amazing property. And I assume the owner who the President, I met the whole family when we did that. And I said “what was it that made you want to implement this program?” And he said “We don’t care how many people use it. We don’t care if no one uses it. In fact, we hope no one has to use it. But the We Care message is so huge. We care enough about you to protect you and your health and your family while you’re here and our property”. And I thought I realized that’s one of the biggest value propositions of this program.

ROBIN: We’ve been talking about the fact But your company has this program. And I’m sure by now people want to know. Okay, exactly how does this work? I know on your website, it says you have AI driven technology. So as briefly as possible, can you give us a little explanation of exactly what happens?

DON: Well, I can give it to you real briefly, because I don’t know the interval. All I know is that it allows for virtual type of consultations, it has a number of hands, intelligent diagnosis is available because of this technology. And it just enhances the guest experience. I mean, it’s, that’s basically what it is, and why it’s very, very important that AI is used in this, we’re talking about 1000s of physicians worldwide, and who are coming together diagnosis from other doctors around the world when they’re making their own informed diagnosis with the individual. So in order to have that happen, you have to have a mountain of data that’s available very quickly.

ROBIN: It’s amazing how much the world is changing and what’s available based on AI coming on line. Yeah. Okay. So I think the big question in a lot of people’s minds, hotels, it’s no secret, they’ve been struggling the last couple of years because of the global pandemic, and very low or no occupancy at all. So any new amenities going to have to offset itself, either in fees or increased bookings? Why is a guest wellness program a key revenue enhancing service?

DON: Another good question. And that’s the answer to the question I had to answer before I went out and start talking to to hotel owners. There’s no doubt that right now, the competition for getting back the guests that they had, and getting guests from other hotels is very keen right now, they’re all trying to get to the same point. And so they’re looking for what is the uniqueness of their guests experience or other wellness program. And that will be a generator for business for their particular property. It’s important that they understand that what the consumers are looking for what the guests are looking for, and that they do something about it. That’s why I said, I put out a email where I said “Why not do this?” And so I gave all the reasons why not have the answers about why you should? But why would you not want to put together and have part of the resort fee, a guest enhancement program that they want, that they they’ve asked for. And that just makes perfect sense to do that. Western hotels put did a survey that said that 60% of millennials say that their health and well being are the most important thing in their lives. If that is the case, and they’re going to be 50-60% of the guests and more depending upon the area, then why wouldn’t you have a program that addresses directly that. So I think that’s a great turn right play. And I said, you can either add that to the resort fee, or gonna add it to the average daily rate. And the average daily rate, by the way, has gone up over 37% since the first of the year. And Miami has done a 58% to his daily rate. And for since the first of the year, guests don’t care, they are so into the van to go and have fun and be a tourist that they don’t care. So that makes no difference for them whatsoever. That’s why I said “wherever you want to put it”. In Vegas, everybody has that 45 dollars for a resort fee. Nobody wants to be the first one to raise it up from there. So I said if that’s the case, then increase it in your average daily rate. And that’s how you do it.

ROBIN: I think you’re making an excellent point because after having to stay home whether it for longer than all of us wanted to people are really desperate to get out of the house to go places. But I think the importance of the quality of the experience has gone up astronomically. I don’t think mediocre is going to cut it anymore. Oh, we only have a minute or two left here. So look in the crystal ball for me here. Where do you see hospitality wellness amenities developing as hotels pivot their business models to adapt to the needs and the desires of these millennial travelers that are going to be coming online in bigger and bigger numbers?

DON: Yes, I’m going back again to the focus is on guest experience to the extent that the hotel understands that and does something of value with that, that’s going to drive occupancy exam, it’s going to drive revenue. I just think some are getting it. So that’s where I see it’s really going is if you learn that involved in that and the thing with our wellness pro program, any other wellness, amenity costs money, costs staff payroll, costs insurance, costs a lot of different things. Ours cost zero. We just put it in a number and the end the guests just goes right from there into the telemedicine. So from our operational costs, it doesn’t cost anything as well. So that’s good.

ROBIN: Don, thank you so much. This has been a very interesting conversation. I’m always on the edge of my seat when we’re talking about anything to do with AI.

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