Independent hotels and resorts are discovering opportunity in a balanced approach

By Zak Dabbas and Cindy Johnson

Digital mindset. A term we’ve heard continuously over the past year, especially as we arise from the depths of the COVID-19 outbreak. The pandemic helped identify chinks in the armor of many industries, but it also helped accelerate the digital mindset across the board.

It’s assumed customers want a low-touch, seamless guest experience, whether that’s in retail, finance or hospitality. And while that may be true, there’s also an art to identifying the healthy balance between the low-touch digital world and the human yearn for connection and tradition. This is a science independent hotels and resorts are grappling with daily, as it’s their foundation but also their window of opportunity to future success. The end-user is the hospitality industry’s ultimate decisionmaker. Whether opting for low-touch or high-touch, innovative or traditional, the guest decides the end-product through their experience, feedback, and ultimately, their habitual preferences.

The industry is beginning to embrace the digital mindset and many properties have implemented the low-touch and highly efficient innovations many guests have become accustomed to. For example, some guests want the option to get from their plane to their hotel room with minimal to no communication with another human being, whether that’s a bellman, front desk manager or housekeeping staff. In fact, a recent study conducted by Oracle Hospitality shows that 73% of people want hotels to offer technology that minimizes contact with the staff and other guests. The hotel apps these larger chains have built allow for online booking, housekeeping requests, ordering food, touchless check-in and check-out, and even radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags to access the room. The guests have voiced their opinions and the hospitality industry has adapted accordingly.

This is a pivotal time for the industry, as the study reports 95% of people plan to travel in the next six months, especially with the pandemic limiting so much travel over the past few years. It’s also a pivotal time for independent hotels and resorts. They must continue adapting to the constantly evolving guest demographic that desires a tech-enabled environment, but they also need to stick to their roots and make the most of their greatest value proposition—the total experience. It’s imperative for independents to have an open mind about digital technology and its clear guest benefits, but also to create a balance so the unique experience is maintained and guests can customize as they wish.

Independents have accepted that they need to implement technology—such as apps to navigate the property—to heighten the guest experience, but they also want to provide the high-touch luxury experience many of their customers expect and desire. For example, doormen greeting guests by name when they leave and arrive at the hotel, or the bellman bringing bags to guests’ rooms and providing a brief overview of the room and amenities during a short stay. This is the balance independents are constantly striving to perfect.

While independent hotels and resorts may be wary to fully adapt to the digital world, they do understand its capabilities and the value it can offer when leveraged in the right manner. For instance, attracting and retaining talent is a huge issue the hospitality industry faces. Similar to any other industry, the employees have expectations they want met. This includes anything from competitive compensation to the easing of daily job functions to core values. Independents have implemented digital capabilities to assist in their employees’ everyday functions, whether that includes communication, occupancy overview, employee benefits portal or future planning tools.

Though the guests may lack loyalty in today’s environment, the employee often seeks an employer with aligned values. Independents may offer a more family-like approach and the opportunity for quicker promotions due to a more direct hierarchy. This may be more attractive to recruit and retain talent. Meanwhile, employees at larger chains tend to view their jobs as stepping stones to achieve higher goals in their career. Larger chains have embraced this and use it to their advantage in the recruiting process. Today, whether a large chain or an independent hotel and resort, there’s a huge focus on meeting employees’ needs and bringing them back to the industry.

Many independent hotels and resorts have stuck to the same recipe for many decades, but as mentioned earlier, the pandemic has caused many industries to innovate, and independents are no exception. Add on that the baby boomer generation is aging and the newer generations are becoming the bulk of their guests, and it becomes a critical point in history for independent hotels and resorts.

The time is now to innovate and explore new tools. Independently run hotels and resorts have many characteristics that can make them very successful at implementing these tools. Independents are historically nimbler and quicker to market with decisions, which contributes to a strategic and operational opportunity. If they have an open digital mindset and identify the technology their guests and employees desire most, then there’s a new frontier that lies ahead.

It’s not always about having the budget to trial a project, yet rather knowing what not to do that saves you time and money. Independents who are deliberate with their projects and manage efficient approvals processes, will lead from the front and trailblaze the industry. They have the advantage of experimentation, creation and innovation being woven into their DNA.

Independent hotel and resort operators are in the unique position to voice the opportunity that lies ahead. While there are many obstacles, there are also many advantages for independents. Ultimately, the independents know what works and are constantly evolving to their guests’ desires. As long as independents continue to keep an open mind digitally, all while keeping their traditional foundation intact, they will continue to live on and flourish for years to come.

Cindy Johnson is a director with Wipfli with more than 37 years of experience in the luxury resort hospitality industry with over 25 years in the 5 Star, 5 Diamond environment and has served as the chief human resources leader in the hospitality industry.

Zak Dabbas is a principal with Wipfli, and has more than 15 years of experience with digital innovation and custom software delivery. He founded Punchkick Interactive, an award-winning agency focused on digital solutions for brands including Microsoft, Nike and Marriott International.

This is a contributed piece to Hotel Business, authored by an industry professional. The thoughts expressed are the perspective of the bylined individual.