Make Yourself Unforgettable, with Nanci Sherman

Stepping into the fourth quarter of the year, there’s a question every innovative hotelier should be asking themselves: What can we do better next year? In a candid conversation with host Robin Trimingham, Sherman presents radical ideas about how hoteliers can change the focus of their staff and hotels on what clients really want: better experiences.



Highlights from Today’s Episode

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Episode Transcript

Nanci: There is a tendency to rely on the status quo, but it is always time to review processes and these tragic and difficult times actually propel us into the ring before we are even ready. But it’s always time to review our processes of technology, cleanliness, food service and above all, do what makes you unforgettable in the eyes of all your stakeholders. Care more than you think you have to.

Narrator: Welcome to the “Innovative Hotelier Podcast” by HOTELS magazine, with weekly thought-provoking discussions with the world’s leading hotel and hospitality innovators.

Robin: Welcome to the “Innovative Hotelier Podcast” brought to you by HOTELS magazine. I’m your host, Robin Trimingham, and my guest today is Nanci Sherman, author of “How to Win at Business.” Today, we’re exploring hotel marketing strategy from the customer point of view.

Narrator: This podcast is presented to you by Franke Coffee Systems. 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.

Robin: Welcome, Nanci.

Nanci: Robin, it is such a pleasure to be here. I get to talk about my passions and my pet peeves about hospitality all in one.

Robin: I think this is going to be a fantastic conversation. I don’t know if you know this, but I have a bit of a hotel background too. And I think this is such a great topic because so often we sit in the office or the meeting inside the hotel, and we’re deciding how things are going to be for the customer. And we’re either praising each other or berating each other for the reviews that we got or didn’t get. But a lot of the time, we don’t really focus on, well, what is the customer experiencing? So to start this conversation off, there’s been a lot of chatter by analysts regarding the impact of the ongoing health crisis on the hospitality industry. In your opinion, how has the customer actually been impacted by the events of the last two years?

Nanci: Now first, I want to say the etymology of the word customer starts with custom, like as in customize. So I just want to make that distinction. So I was running hotels in New York City during my hotel in New York City during 9/11 and in Los Angeles during the Northridge earthquake. And what I want to say about these kinds of events is it is possible to turn every threat into a strength. Excellence is not and should not be relative. When conditions change, it is time for extreme creativity and a few maxims hold no matter what is going on.

Always show your internal and external customers that they are your priority, they will always remember you for that. Stick to your values, if someone is making others uncomfortable, they can go elsewhere. Don’t wait around for the brands to figure things out and pass it down. Innovate ahead of everyone, and communicate that through public relations and marketing. Don’t just do what’s right, communicate it. Communicate why you are doing it differently. Creating distinctions will always create interest in what you’re doing.

And you know what, Robin? People always get closer in difficult times. With fewer guests in house, the general manager can make personal phone calls, see if the guest has a story they need to share, something that they need or just to make them feel more comfortable. There is a tendency to rely on the status quo, but it is always time to review processes and these tragic and difficult times actually propel us into the ring before we’re even ready. But it’s always time to review our processes of technology, cleanliness, food service, and above all, do what makes you unforgettable in the eyes of all your stakeholders, care more than you think you have to.

Robin: I think you’re making a lot of excellent points, and I remember what it was like being a business traveler right after 9/11. That was a terribly difficult time. We’re going into the fourth quarter of the year here and as you know, every hotel is going to be engaged in forward planning for next year. Why do you believe that the traditional SWOT analysis that a lot of our listeners will be clinging to leaves the customer out of the equation? Is there a better way to access market opportunities?

Nanci: Indeed there is. Personally, I have never been in a SWOT meeting in 30 years where people discuss the guest from a customer-centric perspective. We talk about our strengths, our brand, our location, our renovation, our threats, construction, new properties coming on board, etc. But we are working in an experience economy and I have recently trademarked the term “The Emotional Economy” because it calls in more on what it is to create an amazing customer experience. But I never hear people talking about how do we become a customer magnet doing the SWOT analysis. So I am suggesting that we transform SWOT into SWOTE, and by that I mean making the emotional component, some essential to a strategy in something we talk about because the whole idea is to create customers for life and that will turn every weakness into a strength and every threat into an opportunity.

You know, it’s odd to me that when hoteliers talk about assets, it’s never about the customer or the associate. It’s about real estate, IP, furniture, technology, inventory, the greatest assets we have are our guests, their word of mouth, being viewed as an employer of choice is more important today than ever. So we need to put more attention there and that should happen in strategy meetings. And we will learn that what you appreciate appreciates.

Robin: I think you’re making a great point, but help me understand this one a little better. You know, business travel, as we all know, is still in recovery. Your average die-hard business traveler might travel as much as 50 weeks a year. How do we emotionally appeal to a guy who just wants to get out of the lobby as fast as possible, doesn’t want to talk to anybody, and will be gone at 6:30 in the morning?

Nanci: Well, as I said earlier, it’s about customizing. There are some people that want to chat or some people that want to know, you know, things to do in the area. And again, we look at processes, we do arrival’s the same thing for every person. But if we know this guest, if we’ve got history on him, why do we even need to check him in? Why are we standing at the door with his key or have his key in his phone? I mean, it really is about customizing the experience and this is not a one size fits all industry because experience is personal. So the more we know about our guests, the more we can get to that experience. And also, if we know why he’s in town, if we know what he uses in terms of greater bandwidth, whatever it might be to make his life easy, comfortable, and customized is differentiate, differentiate and do it again.

Robin: I think that’s an excellent answer. I’m going to ask you to expand on that one a little bit. I know that you have a theory that hotels should think long and hard about maybe doing away with the front desk altogether and having what I think you refer to as a host, who’s sort of a combination of door person, front desk agent, and valet with the luggage all in one. I really like this idea. Can you talk to us a little bit about anywhere that you worked, where you did this, and what was good about it? What were the challenges?

Nanci: Yeah. Oh, Robin, now you’re asking me how I chose to be despised by my colleagues.

Robin: Okay, fair enough.

Nanci: So one of my roles when I was with Kimpton Hotels was the director of re-engineering of a company that was always in the process of re-engineering the hospitality industry. So thinking through old processes to get breakthrough results, that was what I felt my task was. So my colleague and I were looking at her front desk one day, and the first thing that occurred to me is why do we name people based upon the furniture they stand at? We have a front desk clerk, a doorman, a bellman, a telephone operator. Do these titles really inspire people to be at their best or just to hang next to their furniture? Then we question the reasons for barriers, we’ve got the technology not to have to be behind a desk. And why should our guests, in an emotional experience economy, have to tip somebody 3 times before they get to the room while they got their luggage 3000 miles with no help. So we decided to bring the desk and roll several positions into one. And that way, the guest would be able to have some personal time with their personal assistant, which I will refer to as their host.

And there were lots of things to consider, group arrivals. Okay, well, then let’s take the top 20% and give them our welcome ritual. We actually create a welcome ritual because arrival is something the guest does. And of course, if the gentleman who doesn’t want a welcome ritual we already know that about him so we’re going to get him in there to the suite. But always time to reconsider processes, Amazon trusts that when you give them a credit card, it’s your credit card. Why do we still need to take the credit card at the desk? Why is accounting still running, what should be a customer-centric experience? Anyway, if the idea of taking away the desk scares you, at least get your people up beyond the desk. Get them to the door to welcome you like a dear friend when you’re coming in. Do the research ahead of time, know their names, know what they look like, know their predilections, be able to greet them like that and make name recognition a must in a hotel, not just while you’re staring at their name.

There are ways to teach, to get out of training and get into what I call performance art, which will completely reinvent the customer experience. And look, there will always be naysayers everywhere, wish them good luck and then while you steal their market share. A customer-centric vision is what matters and making everybody part of the process.

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Robin: I am kind of interested in what you had to say about doing away with the front desk because I actually stayed at a hotel in St. Lucia personally where they had done exactly that. I walked in. It looked like a lounge. They sat me down on a sofa and handed me a cool towel and somebody checked me in and said, “Okay, we can go to the room now.” You know, it was a much better process. Yeah. And actually, it would be a great way to make a connection with the die-hard business traveler who will be stunned that you actually did something different. I’m sure when you’re running an establishment with 400, 700 rooms, that’s probably a lot to wrap your mind around, but really, you can transform anything if you really put your mind to it. I was intrigued in your book, you talk about sometimes when you have a hotel that’s got occupancy issues, the thing you actually need to do is what you’re calling an irrational value assessment and maybe radically increase the price. Now, I think we’re going to have a couple of revenue managers who are going to be a little bit skeptical but explain it anyway.

Nanci: Okay. Well, these revenue managers are going to get a kick out of what I have to say about this. I could give you many, many, many examples, but a rational price assessment, a value assessment has to do with price and value perception. So I have a friend who is a very famous sommelier who specialized in boutique brands, boutique wineries, and he performed a wine tasting with some very sophisticated oenophiles, wine lovers, that will prove this point. He poured what he told them was a from a great boutique vineyard, a $10 bottle of wine. And while they were tasting, he went in the back and he took the same bottle of wine and he aerated it in a blender. And he came out, he poured another tasting and he said this bottle was $45 and they tasted it and everybody agreed that the $45 wine was superior. It was the same bottle, and because 95% of our buying behavior comes from our subconscious, we automatically believe the more expensive version is always superior.

We’ve been led that price is everything in choosing what we buy. And this is a sensitive subject in my family revenue managers because my brother, Eric Orkin, literally has the patent on the word yield management in the hotel industry and created Delphi. He’s a smart guy, but I’m going to refer back to the experience economy. People will pay more for how you make them feel your brand when it says something great about them. The old paradigm of price, location, and product no longer are the key drivers. Experience is, how you make people feel when they spend their time and money with you.

Years ago, I jumped ship from Hilton to boutique lifestyle industry and my colleagues at Hilton said I was crazy. I was with the big boys! And I was crazy, I was crazy about extreme hospitality and I wanted to get away from the transaction-based mindset of customer service. Think about it. Most of your employees go to Marshall’s to return a shirt and the standard or sign, this is customer service, it’s a business deal, it’s a transaction. You go to stand at customer service to pay for your tires, it doesn’t teach people what luxury is. So I love the idea of giving people more than they expect what they’d never experience in a hotel. And we moved market share so much so that all of the big brands were trying to follow what we did it Kimpton and W Hotels and finally to drive it home. Starbucks is a great example of the irrational value assessment. The benefits that a customer experiences in a Starbucks hits them the moment they walk in. They’re assaulted by this delicious, strong brew. There’s global music to soothe the soul, you can occupy a table for hours, you have personal baristas, technology eliminates waiting. They basically turned a commodity into a designer status, people will pay for ambiance, prestige, and connection.

Robin: Yeah, it’s interesting how the psychology of buying actually works. So as I said earlier, we’re about to be in the fourth quarter of the year here, and why is it essential for hotels to continually ask themselves, what will it take for us to capture the greatest market share and then make budget allocations accordingly?

Nanci: Another great question. You know, the revenue managers really need to get together with the experience team. I just wrote an online course that I’m about to launch, it’s called “Dare to be Exceptional, How to Maximize Market Share in the Hotel Industry.” And in it, I use the principles that my team and I used to bring 21 hotels, some out of bankruptcy, to number one in their market. The year after I consulted with Windstar Cruises again from an experience economy situation. Continent has voted them the number one in the world in small luxury cruise lines. And really, the bottom line is that social media is the new sheriff in town. You have to think through processes that will want to make your customer go home, tell 20 people, get on your social media, and you need to be in the top 1% of five-star ratings. And that is what is going to bring you more customers. People don’t talk about the thread counts in the sheets. They don’t talk about the marble in the lobby. They talk about what happened at your hotel, the experience that you had. And you can raise the price and you can be 20 blocks away from where they need to be and they will still come to you.

Robin: So it’s almost as if you’re telling me that it would be a great idea to comb the comments that you got on social media and see what people really liked and see how many times the lobby bar got referenced, see how many times it was the sandwich in the restaurant, and do your budget allocations to expand and improve those kinds of things.

Nanci: Yeah. And I beg hoteliers to think beyond the status quo. I call it the benchmarking flow. Most people don’t do anything until another hotel has done it and it’s in their market so they need to do it. And there is no innovation, there’s no story there. So it’s really about innovation. I ran the first rock and roll hotel in the United States, the Hotel Triton in San Francisco, at the entrance to Chinatown. It was a rock and roll hotel, we brought in Carlos Santana to create the Carlos Suite. We brought in Graham Nash and he wrote “Teach Your Children” on the wall at the Graham Nash Suite. We had a… Kimpton was known for its wine hours, we brought in tarot card readers that we just gave tips to, they had just received tips we didn’t pay them, and deck massage. I mean, things that you want to do that no one else is doing. The whole idea is to find your competitive edge and they don’t teach this in business school. But again, after taking 21 hotels to number one using the same principle that I’m explaining here and working in the spirit of upliftment and taking training to performance art and literally creating experience teams. Also comment cards, you get so little information, I understand why people have them and because they get bonuses and they look at how everyone’s doing. But literally, you should ask two questions, what did you love about this hotel? What would you change immediately? And just get some new juice flowing.

Robin: Nanci, I love a good out-of-the-box conversation. It’s been a pleasure to chat with you. You’ve been listening to the “Innovative Hotelier Podcast” brought to you by HOTELS magazine. Join us again soon for more up-to-the-minute insights and information specifically for the hotel and hospitality industry.

Narrator: You’ve been listening to the “Innovative Hotelier Podcast” by HOTELS magazine. Join us again soon for more conversations with hospitality industry thought leaders.

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