PHOENIX—While brand executives and hotel owners debated plenty of topics during last week’s Lodging Conference, one theme was prevalent: Guest data and preferences are more important than ever before.

On the “View from the C-Suite” general session panel during The Lodging Conference, every topic that speakers touched on—from demand drivers to hotel experiences to technology—circled back to the overriding theme of guest preferences and catering to them, no matter how different they may be.

Increasing travel 
Panelists agreed that favorable demand trends continue to have a positive impact on the number of travelers staying in hotels.

However, maintaining demand requires work and knowledge about guest preferences, they said.

“There’s great opportunity in the industry, but urgency is most important as we move forward,” said Kevin Frid, COO of North and Central America for AccorHotels. “You have to have speed to market (to gain advantages).”

Liam Brown, president of franchising, owner services and MxM select brands in North America for Marriott International, agreed. He said the industry must support whatever needs to be done to encourage international travel.

“Our challenge domestically is to make sure we get our fair share of international travel, and figure out—from the point of view of the United States—how to make sure we have safe, secure borders and a welcome mat for visitors,” he said.

Ken Greene, president of the Americas for Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group, said that supporting inbound travelers, particularly from China, will lend advantages.

“The world’s getting smaller,” he said. “Having that cultural understanding of the guest (is important), knowing where they’re coming from and being able to deliver the training. That’s not easy, and the company that figures it out is going to win.”

Creating individual experiences
Panelists agreed that catering to authentic experiences is a trend that’s worth investment, but it should be driven by data.

“We are big believers in spending money if we think there’s going to be a return,” said Mike Medzigian, managing partner at Watermark Capital Partners. “This trend toward experiential travel is important and plays well to our industry over time. We’re putting more people in our lobbies. Will it be more profitable to spend more money on that? Maybe, but we have to do it or we’re going to lose customers to the Airbnbs of the world. I’m convinced we should be able to offer a better experience.”

Still, Brown cautioned the industry against adopting too broad of a definition of “experience” and making it one size fits all.

“Experience means whatever it means to that individual guest,” he said. “What I want from an experience is very different from what you want. That goes back to managing metadata—understanding what our guests want and offering it to them at the right moment.”

“That’s why it’s so dangerous to generalize,” Frid added.

Tom Magnuson, CEO and co-founder of Magnuson Hotels, said he sees a big “consumer preference for individuality,” which leads to “opportunities for everyone” when it comes to finding the right property or brand to fit any given experience.

“We’re just following the customer data, from consumers and owners,” he said. “We also follow that data to empower our owners to play up (their) uniqueness.”

Making tech work
Technology is what empowers companies to get that all-important guest preference data, so prioritizing tech spend is critical, speakers said.

Greg Mount, president and CEO of RLH Corporation, said his company is building its technology platform to frame guest preferences.

“We’re focusing on letting the customer let us know, through technology, how they want to interact with us,” he said. The company is doing that by being visible to customers throughout their booking journey, even if it begins months before travel.

And they also want to use that data to meet guests’ needs in the moment.

“If we know something about you … we like to surprise and delight,” he said. “It’s about packaging stays for (you) based on what you’re interested in. It’s changing dynamically.”

Bhavesh Patel, principal at ADM Hotels and AAHOA chairman, said tech-forwardness can be a differentiator for owners when they’re choosing brands.

“There are so many brands out there and new ones popping up every day, so we have to do our due diligence to see what fits,” he said. “As Greg said, it’s all tech-driven. We have to look at what product and brand is driving the technology, and go with that.”

The panelists had varying ideas about where tech spend is most important. Magnuson argued for a focus on distribution when it comes to tech spend. Others, like Greene, reminded the audience that tech can “play a huge role in offsetting costs as you focus on revenue management.”

Brown said tech “at the end of the day should empower, strengthen and enable your culture. It should make our people’s life easier and more fulfilling and be support for them.”

How people fit in
That comment transitioned the conversation into the role people play in the hotel experience—particularly how human interaction factors in to what guests want out of the experience.

Greene said that balancing human capital with tech capital comes down to ROI.

“It comes down to having the right people at your properties who are well-trained,” he said. “Understanding where your customers are coming from and why they’re there … means you have to have the right technology, and that’s not cheap. … But we have to be smarter. We have to make sure that everything we roll out has an ROI. If it doesn’t increase revenue or decrease expenses, there’s no reason to ask an owner to do it.”

Brown said “service is the critical part; human interaction is the pixie dust” when it comes to creating total experiences.

The other brand executives on the panel agreed, but conceded the cost of that human element isn’t cheap.

“One of the challenges about where we are in the cycle right now is that we have all-time-highs in demand and occupancy, but in many cases, our labor costs are moving faster than RevPAR,” Medzigian said. “What’s the answer? We have to find more tech to pull down labor costs, but if you do that, are you alienating the guest who wants experiences?”

The panelists agreed that hoteliers and brands must be flexible in order to react to and anticipate the next trends of guest preferences.

“If you’re complacent today, you’re dead,” Frid said. “We’re fortunate to be in a business where demand grows every year, but the competition does, too. Competition is no longer just the hotel down the street. I’ve got to look at making sure my brands are very distinctive, and I’ve got to recognize why you’re traveling this week.”

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