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Reimagining the Hospitality Sector for Experiential Travel Seekers, with Bashar Wali

Bashar Wali, noted Hospitality Evangelist and Founder of PracticeHospitality.com, chats with Robin Trimingham, The Innovative Hotelier Podcast Host regarding the rise of the “hybrid human” and the extent to which the pandemic has accelerated both changes in human behavior, and what travelers are looking for now at all levels of hotels.

Touching on the importance of realizing the value of AI and new technology, and equally of embracing the need for hotel staff to be skilled in exercising emotional intelligence, Bashar explains why creating spaces that are conducive to hybrid behavior and offering an ultra-customizable experience are the keys to successfully attracting luxury travel guests and building brand loyalty.

Highlights from Today’s Episode

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Episode Transcript

Bashar: I think we truly all have become hybrid humans. There’s not a single day that I say, “Today, I’m going to work,” and I do nothing else but work, or, “Tomorrow, I’m going on vacation,” and do nothing else but vacation. Our job in our industry is to create spaces that are conducive to this hybrid behavior, which by the way, continues to be evolving every day. And I think we have to be open-minded, and we have to adapt fast and adapt quickly in order to be relevant and successful.

Woman: Going up.

Robin: Welcome to the “Innovative Hotelier Podcast” by “HOTELS” magazine, with weekly thought-provoking discussions with the world’s leading hotel and hospitality innovators. Welcome to the “Innovative Hotelier Podcast,” brought to you by “HOTELS” magazine. I’m your host, Robin Trimingham. And my guest today is Bashar Wali, hospitality evangelist and founder of practicehospitality.com. Today, we’re chatting about reimagining the hospitality sector for experiential travel seekers.

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. Welcome, Bashar.

Bashar: Thank you. Delighted to be here.

Robin: Well, I have to say, you’re a pretty impressive guy. You travel all the time. I don’t know if you’re ever in the same place two days in a row. When I was doing my background reading about you, I was reminded of some of the conversations that I had towards the beginning of the pandemic with CEOs in a variety of industries who were talking about the need to pivot their businesses.

So, let’s start today by helping everybody try to reimagine what the hospitality sector is becoming. Obviously, to start with, hotels have been struggling but occupancy levels, particularly domestically, are really quite high this season. And I think some of the data says that they’re gonna exceed over 90% of 2019 numbers. So, I think there might also be a tendency to think, “Oh, well, things are just getting back to normal.” Why is it so important for hotels everywhere to be open to embracing change?

Bashar: That’s a great question, and a great point you made about the occupancy, which I’ll touch on in a minute. Look, the pandemic obviously was a traumatic event for all of us. And nothing compares to anyone who lost a loved one, obviously, who cares about any business for that matter. But the pandemic beyond the issue of social distancing and hand sanitizer and hand washing, I think those were all temporary things that are already are a thing of the past. And hopefully, we won’t think about them again or experience them again.

But in my opinion, the pandemic truly created an acceleration in trends that were inevitably coming. We were starting to see behavior change. And I think the pandemic, again, caused those behaviors to accelerate, and for the change to come about a lot sooner than it wouldn’t have without the pandemic. So, I view that as a positive outcome of the pandemic.

And the particular thing I talk about often is this idea that trends obviously come and go, right? Trends, by definition, have a shelf life. I am a keen observer of human behavior, and human behavior takes years, decades sometimes to change. And it’s elastic, it lasts for years or decades. It’s not a five-minute hot nightclub tonight that’s gone tomorrow.

And I think the biggest thing I’ve noticed in human behavior is this idea that because of the pandemic, most folks, particularly single people, were at home to sleep. They didn’t work there. They didn’t exercise there. They didn’t cook there. Most of them didn’t because, you know, eating out became so easy. And the pandemic has forced a lot of those people, all of us, to make our homes be one and all. We had to work there, we had to exercise there, we had to eat there, drink there, do whatever it is that we did in our daily life in our home.

And there’s a sense of convenience about it, and a sense of comfort with it that came along with that. So, people talk about hybrid spaces now in our industry. And I think it’s so much deeper than that. I think we truly all have become hybrid humans. There’s not a single day that I say, “Today I’m going to work,” and I do nothing else but work, or “Tomorrow I’m going on vacation,” and do nothing else but vacation.

So, I think our jobs in our industry particularly is to create spaces that are conducive to this hybrid behavior, which by the way continues to be evolving every day. It’s not like done and finished. And I think we have to be open-minded, and we have to adapt fast and adapt quickly in order to be relevant and successful. The idea that someone goes on a trip to a meeting and gets in the Uber, goes to the hotel, goes to the meeting, and back to the airport [inaudible 00:05:23], that’s gone now because that person no longer needs to go back to the office the next day or the day after because they don’t have to be in an office.

So, if I’m going to Charleston, a city I haven’t been to…I love Charleston by the way and I have been. For somebody going to Charleston who hasn’t been, says, “Well, wait a minute, I’m in Charleston. I can live here for three days. I’ll work during the day, and I’ll go see a new city and meet new people, and really explore the world where before I didn’t.” So, how do we, again, in hotels particularly, create an environment that allows them to not only be able to do it but actually enjoy it?

Funny, we hotels forever were fighting over desk in the room, no desk in the room, desk in the room, no desk in the room. So, we decided no desk in the room. But now, Robin, who lives in Barcelona, but her job is in San Francisco, needs to take a call at 3:00 a.m. on Zoom, she needs a desk in her room. She doesn’t wanna go to the lobby, but that’s one tiny, simple example. There’s so much more than that. And there’s a lot of startups that are starting to address those issues. And I can talk about those later.

Now, to touch on the occupancy thing a little bit. Last year, we had revenge travel, affectionately known as 1.0, I call it. People that were cooped for so long that were able to travel, and they traveled largely domestically last year. And I think this year, we’re seeing revenge travel 2.0, which is bigger, faster, and more furious. I am still reluctant to say that this is here to stay.

I think the tell-all for me will be after Labor Day this year when kids are back in school and summer travel is over, the business traveler, the road warriors, he or she were our bread and butter, particularly in these urban hotels. We know they are back. They will be back. What no one can answer is at what percentage, 90%, 70%? If it’s 50%, it’s devastating. If it’s 90%, okay. So, I think that’s what I’m cautiously optimistic that’ll be a light decline in business travel, but who knows?

Robin: If people could see us right now, they would’ve seen me nodding my head furiously up and down when you were talking about hybrid humans. Believe it or not, I published an article just yesterday on the subject of the rise of the hybrid humans. So, you and I are completely in alignment on this subject. So, you talked about hospitality 1.0 and revenge travel 2.0, which I love by the way. When we get to the next phase, because I don’t call it the new normal anymore, and it’s certainly not how things used to be, let’s call it hospitality 3.0. When things start to become a little more mainstream, what is that gonna look like in the new age of travel? What do you foresee?

Bashar: I think, and please, I hate with a passion buzzwords, so please forgive me. I’ll use them in the absence of other. This experiential travel idea has always been around. It’s just become a buzzword now. I don’t know anyone who says, I wanna go on a trip and have zero interesting experiences or memorable experiences, and just have a good enough hotel to sleep in and a good enough meal. No one ever says that.

And by the way, people associate that with sort of luxury. Experience isn’t about luxury. I have great experiences staying in hotels that are 2-star that I paid 50 bucks for. So, it’s not about money necessarily, or about the location you’re in. I say I love this quote that says, “A tourist sees what he came to see, a traveler sees what he sees.” So, I think people are becoming more and more travelers because I hope and I think and I believe we’re sort of done with the Instagrammable moment, chasing iconic photos just to impress people we don’t like that we’ve been there.

And I think people are starting to really think about, how do I go and discover more and learn more? And again, another quote that I love is, “Don’t travel to discover the world, travel to discover yourself.” So, this idea of experiential travel is here to stay. And I think, again, hotels have to be the conduit for this. And what does that mean? Don’t just send me to the top 10 restaurants in the market because I can find that on Eater on my own. Tell me what’s happening in this town that excites you, that makes you proud to be a citizen in this town.

And we talk a lot about building culture, but we think building culture is going to the cool person in town, who does something cool and bringing them to the hotel. There’s so much more than that about building culture and building community. It really is all about hotels were, at the turn of the century, the living room of the community. It’s where happy things happened, where sad things happens, where everyone took business meeting, where the power breakfast used to be, and the weddings and the bar mitzvahs, and everything in between.

And we’ve created this barrier now between stanchions and velvet ropes and doormen that are intimidating to locals. And I think I’m seeing a lot more movement to really now be a part of the community. And I think if you don’t, again, listen to what the consumer is telling you, you’re gonna be left behind. And when I go to a town, I don’t wanna meet other tourists. I wanna meet locals. I wanna sit next to you where you live, and have a conversation with you about why you love this place you live in.

Robin: I think you make an excellent point when you talk about experiential travel existing at all levels from the youth hostel up to the five-star. So, in your mind, what’s the commonality here? What’s the number one thing that will inspire all of these different types of people to want to travel to a destination, and then stay at a particular property?

Bashar: So, two parts to that answer. I’m a romantic when it comes to this conversation. I say, Anthony Bourdain, who’s not the patron saint of our industry, he really is the prophet of our industry. I wish to see the world through his lens, and his entire premise wasn’t about the fabulous meal, or the great food or, or, or, or, it was about sitting on the floor with a bunch of people who live in that place and just sharing humanity with them. So, to me, the common denominator that makes a great experience is just that. It really is the human connection.

So, I’ll give you my neurotic story that you probably know. So, my claim to fame is I never stay in any hotel more than once or one night, New York, three nights, means New York, three different hotels every time. Last week, I stayed in my 221st hotel in Manhattan and Williamsburg only, 221.

Robin: Wow.

Bashar: And people say, “What stands out? What’s your favorite?” And I say, look, I love the Baccarat, but I can’t tell you what kind of marble is on the floor or what kind of art is on the wall? I can tell you it was all nice. I can’t tell you what kind of things in the minibar at the Ludlow they had. Like, it doesn’t matter. So, my answer usually is I only remember when someone goes out of their way and genuinely cares, engages in a conversation with me as a human and as an individual.

By the way, there’s this fallacy, and forgive the flex, I’m a whatever, VIP and platinum this and diamond that, and people get excited about it. And I say, “Listen, I show up to the gate at the airport and I’m diamond status and I’m number one on the list and I get upgraded. I Bashar didn’t get upgraded. Some algorithm said, this statistic, this number hits the hurdles we deem to be appropriate for an upgrade, give him an upgrade. So, to me, it’s lost on me. I don’t feel great about it. I say, “Yeah, sure. Okay, I’m on the list. I’ll take it. I’m not gonna turn it down.”

But when I go somewhere and someone finds something about me that they shouldn’t have known, that they’ve actually did some work to find out and does it, or tells me about it, or asks me about it, that’s what blows me away because fundamentally, then I’m an individual, not a statistic. And no matter what anyone tells you, by the way, everybody wants to be somebody. Some people say, “Oh, I wanna be nobody. I wanna be in the background.” I’d call BS on that. Everybody wants to be somebody.

We wanna be valued for our individuality, not for our tribe. We wanna belong to a tribe and brag about our tribe, but I wanna stand out on my own. I wanna be me, and I want you to recognize me as me. And I think I truly believe the future of luxury is ultra-customization. This idea of individualization and customization. Don’t give me what your brand tells you to give me what I want.

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I was fortunate enough to find the TED Talk that you did. And I just think that you’re so right. I’ve worked inside the hotel industry at a reasonably good level. And it’s all about understanding the individual person in the sea of humanity. Now that we’re all catching on to this, and the importance of both authenticity in the experience and making it customizable, how do hoteliers set about identifying the attributes of the sort of traveler who’s going to love their property now?

Bashar: Right. Great question. I think we often wanna go do focus groups and ask our guests what they want and think about what they want. And we neglect the most important data point in this whole equation, our team members, who see them every minute of every day, who engages with the guests every minute of every day. We need to ask them, “Hey, what do you guys think our guests really would care about? What amenity would matter more to them?” Rather than us either copying someone who’s done something that we think is cool sitting in our office 2,000 miles away from the hotel.

So, we ignore the information that we have at our fingertips. Now, I do believe part of the acceleration of trends during the pandemic was the use of technology, and many used it under the guise of touchless to try to cut cost and cut labor, which they had to to survive. I’m not judging. I think we as an industry are so backwards in our adoption of technology. Our industry tends to be dinosaurs when it comes to technology. And we’re finally realizing the value of it to remove friction and create memorable experiences.

So, you think about Instagram, right? Literally, I’ll say to you right now, skis, and I’ll open up my phone and skis will show up in my Instagram feed. Why can they do it and we can’t? Why can’t we truly understand our guests, listen to them, and give them what they want, and customize the experiences to them? So, I think, generally speaking, our industry has failed miserably when it comes to big data and using big data. If you think about it, staying in a hotel room is an intimate experience. And technology has now allowed me to be able to find out anything I want about you.

I could tell you how many gallons of water you used when you took a shower, and how long you took the shower for. We have all that information, and what do we do with it? “Oh, she likes a green M&M on her pillow.” Really? Is that what matters now? So, how do we take the plethora of information that we have on individuals using technology to simplify the process because you can’t do it manually?

I’m a pragmatist when it comes to that stuff. You can’t Google every guest and spend an hour looking through their profiles to find more about them. But technology allows us to do more and more of that. So, how can we put technology to work to allow us to create those customizable individualized experiences to surprise and delight our guests? And I’m sorry I said that buzzword, by the way.

So, the other thing I will mention here is this idea that cancel culture is here and it’s real, and we’ve seen its effectiveness. But we only think about it in the negative sense. Let’s think about the positive side of the opposite of cancel culture. I am working in my shop, and forgive the French, on coining the term, givashitability. And what that means to me is really it has twofold, has the team members on one hand, and the guests on the other hand.

If I want you to come work for me, and there are five others like me in a row that are probably blocks away that give the same pay, that have the same benefits, that have the same…all that has been democratized now. What can I do as an employer to encourage you future team member employee to choose me over them?

And similarly with the guest, when you have three hotels that are the same, beyond the shock and awe factor and having, I don’t know, a big fancy sculpture in front of my building, how can I create a set of values that will resonate with you? And by the way, not with everyone because if everyone that looks at you likes you, you’re doing something wrong, right? I mean, at some point, you have to have an authentic view, which is unapologetic. You have to have an opinion. You have to have a viewpoint and stand behind it.

So, I think this idea of giving people a reason to care beyond a fabulous offering, beyond a great paycheck, is what’s going to be so important in the future. And generationally, you’re seeing that. I mean, I look at my kids, they wouldn’t be caught dead in some establishments because they just don’t align with their set of values. And this is a non-political statement by the way. Of course, sustainability is huge and becoming more and more relevant and important, but it’s so much more than just the greenwashing or the political conversation or… And you have to be authentic about it because particularly kids now, the next generation, they’re so smart and will see right through it.

Robin: You said an awful lot there. I think you’re right in that hotels went for a very, very long time telling the traveler what they should like, what they should want. And AI and big data because they can know precisely what temperature you like your shower and all this minutia detail, it has a tendency or a possibility of going too far in the other direction. “Oh, we know everything we need to know about you. We don’t actually need to talk to you.”

I’m wondering if the middle ground here might simply be to somehow leverage AI to ask every guest what would really make this experience, this stay, special for you, and then finding out because I bet in a lot of times, we don’t have to cough up purple elephants in the lobby. All we really need to do is go, “Oh, you’d like directions on to how to find this,” or, “Oh, you’d really like to eat dinner there. Oh, okay, we can help you with that.”

Bashar: Great point and great question. And again, multiple prongs to it. The big brother issue is real, but it’s real in everything we do today. Literally, everything we do. I fill out my taxes, and I have to fill out everything and give them my social security number and my mother’s maiden name. It seems like at every step, we are giving away a lot of information. You know, you have to have some checks and balances. I don’t subscribe to the conspiracy theories. I’m like, “Listen, whatever you wanna know about me, it’s easy enough. I’m everywhere on everything, and it’s all public and open.”

So, I’m one end of the spectrum. And there are people at the other end of the spectrum, and you have to be respectful of where you belong in that spectrum. There’s no right or wrong answer. It’s a personal choice. What I’m talking about big data is using the things that don’t matter. That remove the friction. You used a great example. I like my room meat locker year round, 64 degrees. I am top status on multiple brands.

You would think one of them ever would turn the temperature on in my room before I arrive, and send me a note that says, “Hey, take credit for good work you do. Don’t let it go unnoticed. Hey, by the way, we know you like your room at 64. We took care of it for you. Enjoy.” So, the point I make is, if you use big data and use AI to learn about the things that are inconsequential, they are conveniences, not surprises or delights. If my room was [inaudible 00:21:00], I’ll appreciate it, but it’s sort of a price for admission, right?

Like, you said, you remember back in the day, hotels would say, free HBO. We have Wi-Fi. We have flat-screen TV, all that stuff has become price of admission. If you wanna win me, this is now the other part of this conversation. I’m having a conversation with the dean of a hospitality school in Academia, not my alma mater. And he and I are talking about this idea, in my opinion, I don’t care what college degree you have, or what school you went to, or none of the above matters to me for our industry.

I went to a hotel school for four years. I don’t wanna scare anyone away. You don’t need it, right? I wish I studied finance. You don’t need it. So, what I think you need in our industry are two things. Number one, common sense, which is probably the most uncommon thing out there, right? Because it’s really simple what we do. Most of it. Revenue management is a science, accounting is a science, but what we do day in and day out on the service side is an art. So, you need common sense, and the second thing you need, the most important thing, is emotional intelligence.

So, this dean of this hospitality school and I are talking about, can we perfect a test for the hospitality industry specifically that can determine your aptitudes for emotional intelligence before I hire you? And to me, emotional intelligence solves everything you’re asking for because when I show up at the desk and I’m checking in, if you’re emotionally intelligent enough, you’ll read my cues and my body language and all of it and say, you know what? This guy does not wanna be talked to. Just hand him his key and send him on his way.

Robin shows up fumbling through her bag, giving you all the signs and cues that she wants to complain about her Uber. And she wants to know about your spa. And she wants to know about all the things, give her what she wants. But if you come to me, and you go through the spiel, the robotic spiel that your company makes you do, and by the way, it’s 11:00 p.m. I’m checking in. I’m leaving at 7:00 a.m.

Robin: Yeah. That’s the last thing you need to hear.

Bashar: Why are you telling me about brunch? I will not be here for… Or better yet, like I love when they tell you about something that’s happening, but not when you’re staying. Like, why are you telling me about the brunch? It’s Wednesday, I’m leaving on Thursday. So, emotional intelligence to me solves that middle piece, technology takes care of the friction. So, now I can actually engage with you as a human and read the cues you give me to give you what you want to make sure it’s exactly what you want, no more, no less.

Robin: There is one more question I’d really love you to touch on briefly. You commented recently that travel is the new social currency. So, how, in your opinion, can properties work to leave travelers with the impression that everyone needs to experience a stay at their hotel and to motivate the individuals who’ve been there to actually tell everyone this?

Bashar: A great question. And if I knew the absolute answer, I wouldn’t be telling it to you publicly because it’d be my super-secret for my hotels.

Robin: Well, I had to try.

Bashar: Yeah. I honestly think ultimately that really the answer is, and again, back to where I started with this, the only time I go home and tell someone about a place is either because of a person, right? And a person, by the way, back to my local community idea, it isn’t necessarily always the employee. It may be Robin, the local, who’s sitting at the bar next to me, and struck a conversation up with me. So, it’s not always the employee. It’s creating an environment conducive for me to engage in the beautiful art of human connection.

The other thing is thoughtful and intentional things that make my life simple, right? Not shock and awe because I’ve seen shock and awe. I go to a mini-bar and there’s the “Walk of Shame” kit. That’s shock and awe. I’ll talk about it, but it’s not a memorable experience.

But we had a hotel where we did beehives on the roof of the hotel, and the honey from the beehives, we would bring down and we’d use it in the restaurant and in the bar, in the food and the drinks. And then we would have little vials of it for sale in the mini-bar basket. So, instead of you showing up and wanting to bring a gift to your kid, a t-shirt or a spoon or whatever that’s gonna end up at Goodwill, now you bring them a jar of honey and you say, “You won’t believe this. I took this from this hotel I stayed in, and bees only travel within certain miles, and it’s gonna taste like the vegetation that’s around the hotel.”

That’s a memorable, thoughtful, intentional thing you do to create a memorable experience for your guest. The reality is, Robin, we keep trying to out-design each other, and out-brand each other, and out-cool each other, and all those things become ubiquitous. I stay in so many hotels, none of them matter anymore. So, it’s been hard to stand out because I think we’ve been focusing on it from the wrong lens, from the shock and awe part, not from the, what can I do that’s thoughtful and intentional to make your stay better and more memorable? So, ultimately, more humans in the center.

Robin: You know what? I love that you’re talking about the human experience and the human connection. Bashar, I think I’m gonna have to have you back again, maybe in the spring, to chat some more. This has been a wonderful conversation. 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.

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