Developing A Story

Forgettable Work

July, 1998...that's when I drew my line in the sand. That's when I (and my bosses) decided I wasn't going to do any more work that wasn't meaningful. It was then that I worked my last "job" (managing the hotel pictured above) where I was paid to show up and manage what someone else had concocted. I decided to start doing things that mattered, to help create stories that would outlive me.

Pretty much all the work I had done to that point was forgettable. Fifteen years of progressive hotel management...nice hotels, great locations and of course I met some wonderful people along the way.  But, by most accounts my work was pretty standard. I managed assets, processes and people. I didn't create much, I managed what someone else created. And, by traditional measurements I was successful. I received regular promotions, pay raises and more and more responsibility. With each occurence I was fulfilled...or so I thought. It wasn't until much later that I recognized I wasn't really making much of a difference. It wasn't until my last traditional hotel management assignment that I understood the path I was on...and it wasn't for me.

If you're anything like me (and you might be if you're reading this), your wired to do something other than follow a plan that someone else puts together. You're more likely to dream up your own plan, put together your own team and act it out. You're willing to live or die by it, knowing both the risks and the rewards.

If you're not like this, I encourage you to consider this seemingly risky and obscure path...just for a moment. Consider that when it comes to making a difference, enriching people's lives, giving your children and grandchildren a story to tell, forgettable work is not an option. Only legacy work counts. The other stuff is window dressing that eventually fades away.

Go out and create some legacy work...pretty please with sugar on top.

Choose Hard

Choosing hard is important. Hard defines you...much more than easy. No one remembers you for going through the motions...writing a work schedule, sending a store bought birthday card or mowing the lawn (unless you're in a wheelchair). Hard shows the rest of us that you care enough to do something meaningful and follow-through. Even if you fail, the act of trying matters. It shows the world you make tough choices, are willing to put some skin in the game and that you'll slug it out to be better than average.

The key then is to define hard in your be the one everyone else points to as the measuring stick. Whether you own a restaurant or are a freshman in college, defining the standard of hard has the same get noticed.

Some to get you going...

Lindsay Clark...the anti resume
Howard Hughes...flying an airplane that couldn't be flown...Spruce Goose
Nelson Mandela...almost 30 years in prison to end South African apartheid
Dean Karnazes...50 marathons in 50 consecutive days

Be Like

A lot of us spend a great deal of time, energy and resources trying to be like someone else. Our goal is to replicate everything they've done that's good, and then one up it. Better is the sweet spot. The problem is that virtually all of us will fail for two reasons. First, those that we are planning to overtake aren't standing still...they're getting better too. Second, we don't have the advantage of being first and owning the edge...they do.

The idea of being like the iPhone, Four Seasons or Haagen Dazs feels like a safe path. We rationalize that even if we fall short, we'll be good enough to steal a small part of the market. It's also much easier to copy someone else's story rather than inventing our own. That may have worked five or ten years ago because there weren't nearly as many choices and there was room for runner-ups. Now, there are hundreds and thousands of companies (often small ones) who are willing to risk everything to create their own stamp, their own edge. Those companies are the ones getting the attention, chipping away and stealing share. It's not the ones trying be like someone else.

Easy vs. Hard
Follow vs. Lead
Like vs. Unlike

You decide...choose wisely.

Matt's Molteni Story

Part of Matt's story is the equipment he uses to do his job. For people like Matt, building a remarkable career requires better than average design, more than standard function. In fact, what works best is a story within a story...makes the end user much more appreciative of what went into their experience. Translation...they feel better, perhaps more attached and are often willing to pay more. Tools, like the much coveted Molteni, are often the difference between just another restaurant and one that people go out of their way for.

Story Processing

There's something about process and behind the scenes that gets people really interested...makes them feel like they're part of the story. Or, at least closer to it. The Food Network capitalized on the idea. So, did Apple. Biltmore Estate has some. As does Viking Cooking School

Letting people in on a secret is very powerful...might just make the story worth repeating.

Hostess and PBX Operator jobs should be replaced

with positions designed to care, build relationships and to do something remarkable...not to hand-out menus and answer the phone.

Consider these are the first and last people your guests encounter. Consider they (and other front liners like them) have more face time with your customers than anyone else. So, why do we spend the least amount of time hiring and training them, why do we spend so little time cultivating them and why do we worry about an additional 25 cents per hour? Most importantly though, why do we teach them to function first and to care second? I guess we don't understand or don't want to believe that it's at this function-oriented, front-line level that we have the greatest opportunity to surprise people. This is where customers least expect someone to know the answer or take care of problems, let alone create any magic. This is also the place that gets remembered the most...the first and last impression. All in all, it's your sweet spot, the place where you can hit it the farthest, and the longest.

Answering the phone efficiently doesn't improve occupancy. Smiles and intelligence do. Greeters handing out menus while placing callers on hold doesn't increase the average check. Recognizing and engaging repeat clientèle do.

Caring always wins out over speed, systems and programs. Having someone at post is meaningless if there's no smile, hello, thank you or thoughtfulness attached. 

Job descriptions are incomplete if they don't include:

  • smile
  • hello
  • recognize
  • care
  • build relationships
  • pick-up clues and hand-off
  • thank you
  • do something remarkable

Replace function with care at all costs.

Ironing Board Desks

Picked up this "tip" from Daytipper...

Create instant hotel desk with ironing board
If you are traveling and find yourself in a hotel room without a desk, call the front desk and request an ironing board. Most are adjustable and can be set low enough to use with a chair as a temporary desk.

My the front desk and ask for a new hotel. I couldn't resist.

What Does $30M Get You?

A pretty slick ad campaign...Westin's New Ad Campaign Eases Travel Angst.

But, what if the headline had read, "Westin Spends $30M on Hiring and Training the Most Talented Service Professionals in the World".  What if Westin had spent the money to attract the best talent, cut turnover by 50% and truly became the hotel employer of choice? Would people be curious...would their story change?

Just a thought...

Water Stories


When it comes to selling bottled water, a good story is really important. Without the compelling spin of convenience , distinction and health, not many of us would splurge up to $4 for a small bottle. But, there's more to it than having a good story...there's authenticity. Turns-out, there's much more to the story than most bottled water companies want you to know.

So, when you craft your careful how far you stretch it. And, make sure that when the layers are peeled away, it looks the same on the inside as on the surface.


How Much Will We Pay For Health?


100%...that's how much more you'll pay for this organic milk in our local market. And, at least half of the time there's a sign on the cooler door warning that supplies can't keep up with demand.

Personal health and environmental sustainability are the two hottest trends right now...people want to feel good about themselves. And, people will pay more for what they want. Of course, you should embrace these agendas and make the most of them. Tony Longhurst and I discussed some of the "players" in the most recent episode of indieHotelier.

But, the real value and the way to create distance between your efforts and everyone else is to tell a story. Create a profile of the passionate employee who spearheads the recycling program, develop a blog for your company that highlights your actions, introduce the local organic farmer to your guests, give them space on your website, create a video of a mass light bulb change-out to lower wattage bulbs, promote your certifications (Like LEED) on the front page of your website. And, if you don't have any certifications...get some. This will soon be a standard...kind of like free WiFi.

People want to hear these stories more than anything right now. So, give them a chance to spread the word about you. Give them something interesting, something they want to sell to their neighbor or colleague.

Oh, and if you need some help, e-mail Tony.      

Traditions and Stories


One of the German Christmas traditions in our home is to have stollen. I must admit that as a child I ran (in the opposite direction) when I heard  the loaf was on its way to the table. It's just not a very kid friendly item (I was partial to milk chocolate). As an adult, my mouth begins to water when I have an opportunity to enjoy this holiday treat, especially if it's from overseas.

Getting authentic stollen from Germany is not an inexpensive proposition. And, even though you can make your own and even get your hands on some really good product stateside, it's not the real thing. The real stollen has almost 600 years of history, significant religious overtones and only 150 German bakers make it. And, that my friends, is what you're paying the rich tradition, story and history makes you feel from the time you open the box, until the last bite.

This year, thanks to our close friends, the Thalmans, we received our authentic stollen from the Kreutzkamm bakery in Munich. It was very tasty. But, the real gift was the story and how it brought back so many fond memories of my childhood, my mother and grandmother and my German heritage. It was also nice to see that the baker recognizes the importance of the story. Here's what's on the card that accompanies the very handsome package...

When Stollen was first baked, the ingredients were very different. The Advent season was a time of fasting, and bakers were not allowed to use butter, only oil, so the cake was tasteless and hard. In 1647, Prince Elector ErnstDuke Albrecht decided to remedy this by writing to the then Pope, Pope Innocent X. They explained that Saxon bakers needed to use butter as oil was so expensive and hard to come by, and had to be made from turnips, which was unhealthy. The Pope granted the use of butter without having to pay a fine - but only for the Prince-Elector and his family and household. In 1691 others were also permitted to use butter, but with the condition of having to pay annually 1/20th of a gold Gulden to support the building of the FreibergCathedral. The ban on butter was removed when Saxony became Protestant.

If you take the time to read the card before you partake, I assure you the cake will taste even better...and that's worth a lot more than some raisin bread at your local bakery.

Traditions make great stories...and often, that translates into a lot of sales. Please think about that the next time you meet with your marketing team.

Frohe Weihnachten!


Aloftsunflower Gc3lobbytexturing_1

Starwood is getting smarter...

By now, you've probably heard about one of their newest creations...aloft hotels. If you haven't, it's probably because they're not talking to you (or me for that matter). If you're not a young (25-40, someone else's definition, not mine) business traveler looking for a hip place to stay, full of around-the-clock energy (sound like a W?) and loaded with guest rooms that feel like a really cool apartment...then, you're not their type. And, that's what I mean by getting smarter. They're focusing on micro vs. macro, and on what a narrow group of people want vs. what they need. But here's the smartest part...they seem to understand their audience. They know how they live, work and play. Want to see what an aloft hotel will look like? Go to their website...but bring lots of bandwidth because it's loaded with flash. Better yet, want to see an aloft being built? Go to the blog...and go to Second Life. Haven't heard of Second Life? See what I mean...They're not interested in talking with you....

Starwood has resisted the temptation to use a traditional approach of shouting their message AT everyone. Instead, they choose the likely places where key influencers live, start conversations and get them involved in the process. Then, they let the viral, word of mouth effect take over to build interest...just in time for the real opening in 2008.

Are you spending your time and money on holding conversations with key people who want to talk with you? Or, are you doing it the old fashioned way, hoping someone will notice?

First and New

I've never liked using "new" and "first" as my primary stories because they don't last. The new part I've covered before. The first strategy only works as long as there isn't a second, or if you can somehow preserve and own the original idea. Being first demonstrates originality and the willingness to try something new. And that has value...people like that. But, what happens when the second one comes along, and it's better, modified to give people even more of what they want? Then, being first doesn't matter anymore. Here's a list of firsts by Kimpton Hotels (yes, they actually have a list). How important is it (now) that they were the first at any of these things? I suspect that in the case of free internet access, it was pretty important for about a week.

A better approach might be to be "the only". Of course, that's a lot harder...making something that isn't likely to be duplicated, or made better, or cheaper. But, once you do it, you've got marketing built-in, up front, that's going to last...way beyond being first.   

The Story of New


This graph shows the power of  being new for every hotel opening. It doesn't matter which segment you're in, where you're located or how much you spent on construction. Generally, the curve is the same.

The star represents the point where new starts not to work anymore. It also marks the time when your real story kicks in...the one that gets talked about for a long time. Views are a great story...until someone has better ones. Location is a great story...until someone else is closer, or being close isn't important anymore. Trendy design is a good story...until it's old fashioned.

Great stories are, they strike a chord with a certain audience. And, the best ones can't be duplicated. Some stories are built-in. And, some are developed over time. Your challenge is to do both, and put one into play that carries you beyond new.

The Long Run


Consider this...a good story lasts a long time. And, a great story is often timeless. Your story won't appeal to everyone. But, if it's good (or great), it's going to resonate with a specific group for a very long time...which is far more valuable than getting a bunch of attention up front, only to let people down with mediocrity once they pass through the front door.

The Hangar Hotel in Fredericksburg, Texas is using just this approach...a story built around aviation. While the new La Quinta Inn & Suites isn't. I wonder which one has a better chance of still being around 50 or 100 years from now?

P.S. Visit The Long Tail for a better and more in-depth review of this concept.

Story Building

The power of a story rests on believability…a combination of remarkability, authenticity and how many people are willing to buy into the idea.

I see a lot of hospitality marketing focused first on how many people they can attract vs. clearly understanding and defining the story they can tell. The result is almost predictable…a flood of gimmicks, lies and attempts to be many things to a mass of people.

An example of the “let’s try this” approach is the media hyped Smells campaign. Pump some aroma therapy into the lobby air and people will be so moved that they come back and tell all their friends. Obviously, this didn’t take long to think-up (or, at least I hope it didn’t).

Most really good stories aren’t made in a day, or on some agency white board. They evolve over time from hard work and passionate people who are willing to take risks, experiment and even fail. Sometimes, you’re fortunate to ride the coat tails of someone else’s story…like history. If you build a property next to The Alamo or on Biltmore Estate, I bet history is a significant part of your marketing. On the other hand, if you’re starting from scratch, be sure to spend a great deal of time on crafting your message around something that’s real and truly remarkable…like The Inn at Little Washington, where you go for the dining experience first, and everything else second.

Be sure you know exactly what you are, what you’re capable of and most importantly, who will enjoy your story…before you write the media and sales plans. And, most of all, don’t make things up just to get more people interested. That just leads to distrust, a lack of respect and eventually, less sales.

Why Stories Matter

Here's an excerpt of a great Ad Age article which precisely drives home my point about why stories matter...

Today's traditional brands are under growing pressure as cheaper alternatives and look-alike products invade the global marketplace. A brand is no longer just a matter of top quality or great design. Physical and rational attributes are easy targets for copycats. Companies that want to maintain brand status in the future must justify to consumers what makes them so special. Does your company have an original story to tell? A story that is so honest, captivating and unique, that we are willing to pay a price premium to become part of it?

Click to read the entire article

Thanks to Chris of Magellan Strategy Group for the pointer.

Stories Need Refurbishing Too


Sometimes a story gets stale. And, when it does, you can either start over, add some flavor…or both. Take Pensacola, Florida (I spent my teenage years there) which has long been anchored around one story…Go Navy…and to a much lesser degree, a really nice beach with very mediocre amenities. For the last twenty or so years, the city has naively clung to the smoldering Navy theme while purposely neglecting the development of the true prize, the fabulous beach. They let the USS Lexington and a mock-up fleet of Christopher Columbus ships sail away to Corpus Christi, and watched areas like Destin and Panama City charge full-steam ahead to become the north Gulf Coast’s premier vacation destinations. Well, after a couple of nasty hurricanes, the wake-up call has finally been heard. Pensacola literally has a clean slate…and, it’s time to rebuild. But, unlike in years past where the focus was simply to put buildings back, the town has finally recognized the need for an overhaul…not only of the structures themselves, but the story altogether. They’re adding chapters like Oriskany…bravo! And, as far as amenities, there’s a plan for much more there too…1,200 rooms, shopping, recreational components, water parks, etc. It sounds like their headed for a first class family destination. About the only thing missing is Disney World…who knows, maybe that’s coming too.

When your planning renovations or a rebuild, be sure to check the heart and soul as well as the bricks, mortar and F,F&E. While not as clearly visible, those pieces tend to fade and wear over time as well.