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Careers in Hospitality

Chip Conley Discusses the Impacts of COVID-19 & Evolving Technology on the Modern Hotelier

Photo: Courtesy of Lisa Keating

Hotelier and entrepreneur Chip Conley shares his advice for hospitality professionals facing the many challenges of COVID-19.

What are the top challenges facing hoteliers and hospitality professionals today? 

The shelter-in-place orders associated with the pandemic have meant that hotels, restaurants, event venues, and similar businesses have had to “roll with the punches” in ways we’ve never seen in the modern era. When you have a recession brewing, you can see a slow reduction in your revenues over time, but COVID-19 was a sudden jolt to the system with no preparation time. So, the key has been to be resilient and adaptable. Resilience buys you time to recover and adaptability buys you a future as your business may need to evolve.

What advice would you provide to these businesses? 

Sometimes, we have to get back to the essence of why we’re in business. A question every hospitality leader should ask themselves is this, “What business are we in?” I’ve used this exercise both in my boutique hotel company, Joie de Vivre, as well as at Airbnb.

As for the latter, the obvious answer was “we’re in the home-sharing business,” but if you ask that question multiple times — not being allowed to answer the same way twice — you may discover the essence of what makes you different. In Airbnb’s case, we are in the “belong anywhere” business and, once we did the archeological dig to discover that, it influenced our strategic thinking, how we trained our hosts, how we marketed the company and the like. Find the differentiator for your business and you’ve discovered gold. 

Which technologies have you seen make the biggest impact on hospitality recovery efforts during the ongoing pandemic? 

I hate to say it, but social media has probably been our number one tech tool during the pandemic as it’s allowed us to stay in touch with our customers and understand their evolving needs. 

Let me use our Modern Elder Academy (MEA) as the model here. Prior to the pandemic, we had a singular beachfront campus in Mexico and were full with mid-lifers from all over the world coming to take our week-long programs. Then, we immediately had to close in March 2020 and had no idea when we might reopen.

It was through Facebook groups, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Twitter that we were able to test ideas on our alums and broader community and listen to their suggestions. By the fall of 2020, we were able to turn our campus into a minimum two-week experience called Sabbatical Sessions; introduce an MEA Online product; acquire a 2,600-acre ranch near Santa Fe, NM for our first U.S. MEA Regenerative Community; and create a monthly subscription program for our most loyal alums, all helped by our social media connection with our community. 

What qualities do successful hospitality professionals have in common? 

Grace and grit. Friendliness and ferocity. Empathy and empowerment. It’s the juxtaposition of being a good human with being a savvy entrepreneur. The first quality is obvious and it’s part of the reason why so many of us were drawn to the profession: “I become a better human by being a hotelier.”

However, it’s the second quality that has become more prominent in the more competitive 21st century. Having a strong merchant sense and creating hospitality products that are differentiated enough that they gain attention is part of the mix that makes for a successful professional, especially if you’re in a small to midsize hospitality business. 

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