Bryan Guillott Jr. of Thomas Lee Group: The Future of Travel in The Post Covid World
We have seen it with the airlines — reducing or eliminating change fees — and it will impact hotels as well, as travelers expect us to be more understanding and offer more flexible cancellation policies. While “non-refundable” travel will not go away entirely, travelers will expect to be able to use or apply their funds at a later time should their travel plans need to change.
As part of my series about “developments in the travel industry over the next five years”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Bryan Guillot Jr.
Bryan Guillot Jr. has been with Thomas Lee Group (www.thomasleegroup.com) for over ten years. As President, Hotels & Resorts, his responsibilities include sales, marketing, publicity, advertising, revenue management, customer acquisition, and managing onsite property operations teams. Before joining Thomas Lee Group, where he has been instrumental and a key contributor to the company’s overall success and that of its clients, Bryan Jr. earned degrees in Entrepreneurship and Family Business and Finance at Auburn University, which he followed up with positions and internships with leading national hospitality brands that allowed him to fine-tune his hospitality sales and marketing skills.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
When I was a kid, my father worked for Westin Hotels and so I grew up in the hospitality business. We moved around a lot — Atlanta, Houston, and Orlando — and for months at a time we would relocate to a new city. For the first 2–3 months, we would live in a hotel while we waited for our new home to be ready for us to move in. That is all I knew growing up. It all seemed perfectly natural to me and our family, and it reminds me of a funny story my family loves to tell even to this day.
I was four years old and my grandparents were taking care of my sister and I. My grandma asked what I wanted for breakfast and I answered, “Pancakes!” When we were ready to eat, I looked at my plate and said, “these aren’t pancakes?” They could not understand why I would say this, until I explained that “pancakes have a silver lid!” (By age four, I had stayed in enough hotels and been served enough pancakes to know that if they did not have a lid, they could not possibly be a pancake.) Needless to say, the grownups had a good laugh. So even from a young age, hospitality became a big part of who I am, and I grew to enjoy both the travel aspect and business side of the industry, along with the many people I met along the way.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
One of the great things about hospitality is that we get to help people enjoy that one time of year they set aside to get away and enjoy themselves. Whether it is a once-a-year vacation, weekend escape, or milestone event, its our responsibility to make sure its memorable and that we live up to each guest’s expectations and wishes. Now imagine it is a bride and groom planning a destination wedding during a hurricane!
As part of my responsibilities under Thomas Lee Group, I serve in the role of Director of Marketing for Seven Stars Resort & Spa on Grace Bay Beach in Turks & Caicos. I remember we found ourselves with a frantic bride whose destination wedding (scheduled at a neighboring resort) was left up in the air without a venue when the resort they had booked had to close due to damage from one of the 2017 hurricanes that passed through the region. The big day was only three weeks away, and they came to us to see if we could help them. Within two weeks I worked with the resort staff, guest services and food and beverage team to pull it off, including accommodating all 50 of their guests and working with the wedding coordinator to make sure every detail the bride and groom had planned was executed without a hitch — from the ceremony on the beach to the catering. It felt good to not only help make her dream wedding a reality, but to know that the team and I could work together under the gun to make it happen!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Looking back, one of the funniest moments I remember when I was just starting out also turned out to be a great learning experience for me. I was working at Big Sky Hotel at their front desk. The hotel often gets Asian tour groups, and we had one in-house. I did not have a lot of experience then working with international guests and in the case of this group, I didn’t know which was their first name and which was their last name and how to properly address them. Things got more complicated when one of the guests in the group called the front desk to ask how to get to the club lounge. Thinking they were at the door to the lounge, I started to give them instructions on how to insert the key fob into the door. As it turned out, they were not at the door, but rather stuck in the elevator. I was about to call maintenance when I realized they were putting the key fob in but did not know they had to then push the button. Something so simple, and yet so challenging because we were unable to understand each other. I felt so bad, but I quickly learned the importance of putting ourselves in the place of our guests and remembering that what might be obvious to us, may be new or different to others.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”? Can you share a story about that?
Hospitality is a 365-days-a-year business, and being on the sales and marketing side, there’s always the added stress of keeping pace with the current trends, while looking for new ways to grow market segments and meet or exceed growth year over year. At the same time, new pressures and impacts arise that you have no control over, such as Covid, hurricanes or the elections, that create new challenges. I try not to over-analyze things too much, but I do keep a close watch of the property within the context of the market and what’s going on in the world, and how it can affect consumer travel demand, especially in the luxury travel space. Its face-paced and can be exhausting at times, so finding time to relax and step away to avoid burn out is so important.
Yet, while most people use travel to de-stress and take a break, most of us do so much traveling and spend so much time away from home on business, we don’t get to travel for pleasure very much, and often find excuses not to travel. In my case, I can easily spend 40–50 nights a year away from home. And though I try to “get in and out” as quickly as I can to be able to get home to my family, its tough and tiring at times.
But when I give myself the opportunity to vacation, it can be a blast, especially when I travel with my family — this is the best remedy for burn out. When we find a great deal, we book it and find a way to work around it. When our first daughter was only 11 months old, we decided to plan our first family vacation — to Paris! It had been so long since my wife and I had been away together, and we needed to do something, so we booked it and didn’t think twice. It was one of the most memorable and fun times we’ve ever shared!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
If there was one person that has helped me get to where I am and that I am grateful for, it would have to be my dad, Bryan Sr. Not only have I learned so much from him, but he has given me so many opportunities starting at a such a young age that I would never have had otherwise. But of course, with that also comes the added pressure of wanting to do the best that I can for him.
When it comes to hospitality sales and marketing, he has easily taught me 85% of what I know. I remember one of the first things he told me starting out was that hospitality takes a certain kind of person, “not everything we do is rocket science,” he said, “but not everyone can do it.” Communications is key, as is being honest with people about what you can and cannot do.
I remember attending my first trade show. It was a travel agent show and I was nervous as it was the first one where I had the lead role in representing the property. He went with me and I remember over the course of the first day, having to say the same thing over and over again to different people. I finally turned to my dad and asked, “Is this it? Is there more to it?” And he answered, “That’s it, but the challenge is to keep it fresh and personal, like you are saying it to each person for the first time.”
My dad has also had to work directly with different ownership groups and management at both the property and brand level, with tourism partners, even government representatives. And while they did not always see eye to eye, he always defended the role of marketing and sales and stuck to his position, though always in a respectful way. Observing him in those conversations and meetings and how he handled himself with those different relationships has taught me a great deal, and he remains a testament to me as to how business should be done. In many respects as I observe my dad, being successful boils down to relationship-building and fostering a genuine spirit of partnership between all groups. Our 10-year relationship with Seven Stars Resort & Spa, Grace Bay Beach in Turks & Caicos, and its Managing Director Ken Patterson, is a prime example of that!
Thank you for that. Let’s jump to the core of our discussion. Can you share with our readers about the innovations that you are bringing to the travel and hospitality industries?
Certainly — I think one area that I have been able to “own” and add to the skills that I learned from my father, is on the technology and social media side, and how those areas have evolved within and outside of hospitality, and how we are able to integrate them effectively even at an independent luxury resort like Seven Stars Resort & Spa. Most people assert that technology and social media take away from a hotel or resort’s core ability to deliver superior, personalized service. I believe, when used appropriately and in a very property-specific way, it can enhance the relationship between a resort and their guests.
I am always open to exploring new tech-driven channels even if they are not proven. I enjoy working closely with our advertising agency, Tambourine to learn about and test new platforms such as Adara or the latest developments on Google. Because Seven Stars is an independent resort, we can take some risks — which I think is important when you consider the bigger box hotel brands that we compete against not just on the island but in the Caribbean. We like to stay on top of what’s new and the various channels and platforms that become available, and we do a great job making sure that stay ahead of the curve, take calculated risks, analyze the returns, and determine what makes sense for us going forward.
The same is true on the social media side. Working closely with our public relations firm, Blue Whale Public Relations, we have successfully more than doubled our social media followers in the last two years by creating visually rich content, collaborating with influencers whose followers match our guest profile, and being consistent and timely in our tone, language and messaging. This approach has allowed us to maintain and grow our repeat business by giving us a channel to stay connected with our guests after they leave us; helped us expand our audience to reach and communicate with a younger, more tech-savvy affluent segment; and established an effective sales channel when introducing seasonal offers throughout the year.
In the wake of Covid-19, we have also embraced technology on-property in ways that have also helped us adapt and enhance the superior service Seven Stars Resort has become known for, while keeping guests’ wellness and safety in mind. Over the course of this year, I have helped roll-out the resort’s Anywhere Dining program which includes a QR code system for guests to order their meals as well as connect with our concierge and digitally access our guest directory; transitioned our daily morning news delivery from paper to digital; and on the low-tech side, converted — with the help of our amazing chef and food and beverage team — a previously unused rooftop space into an organic garden and private dining space.
By embracing technology and new concepts and applying them in the right ways at these various touch-points, it is possible to enhance the guest experience by meeting their needs more efficiently, without compromising our high service levels — which will always be our highest priority.
Which “pain point” are you trying to address by introducing this innovation?
With any innovation we introduce, I guess the biggest pain point is being mindful of the fact that we are not a big box as I mentioned before. We are managers of independent resorts and so we do not have a team of data analysts or in-house research or creative departments to lean on. We also do not have a lot of room for experimentation. But the upside to that is that we can be more nimble and self-guiding together with our great partners, while remaining razor focused.
How do you envision that this might disrupt the status quo?
Seven Stars Resort & Spa entered the market 12 years ago, with Bryan Sr., myself and our Thomas Lee Group marketing and public relations partners working closely with the managing director to shape and direct the overall guest experience in such a way that the resort would become a stand-out among the best of the best, both in the Caribbean and worldwide.
Over the years, we have done exactly that, and by doing so, we believe that we have helped raise the bar for other resorts in the destination. Since 2008, the resort has undertaken three major capital improvement plans — the most recent one completed in 2019 which included a top-to-bottom re-design of the resort and the roll-out of new amenities and offerings — all to raising the bar and keep up with and exceed guest needs, demands and expectations. We have introduced new guest experiences and amenities, and with our superior food and beverage team, we have exponentially raised the resort’s culinary experience with our chef being named a two-time Caribbean Chef of the Year. We have also consistently ranked among the region’s best resorts in all the major travel publications, earning top ratings year after year.
All of this has been achieved by knowing who we are, who are guest is, and what our sweet spot is when it comes to the finding the right balance between service, comfort, and convenience. There will always be a place for technology, and I am sure that we will continue to look for innovative ways to integrate it into the guest experience where and how it makes sense. But we also know that we need to keep it simple while ensuring that the personal guest experience that has become our signature remains our number one priority.
As you know, COVID19 changed the world as we know it. Can you share 5 examples of how travel and hospitality companies will be adjusting over the next five years to the new ways that consumers will prefer to travel?
If there is one thing Covid-19 has taught us it is the importance of being able to pivot and adapt. Like so many in the travel industry, we faced a summer-long shut-down and a volatile late summer and fall/winter as the virus, the elections and other factors continued to impact consumer and traveler confidence. Despite all those challenges, we adjusted and have begun to see bookings and travel return once again ever so slowly but surely, though we still have a long way to go. Here are some of the things I see those of us in the travel and hospitality industry having to keep in mind over the next five years:
- We have seen it with the airlines — reducing or eliminating change fees — and it will impact hotels as well, as travelers expect us to be more understanding and offer more flexible cancellation policies. While “non-refundable” travel will not go away entirely, travelers will expect to be able to use or apply their funds at a later time should their travel plans need to change.
- Cleanliness — A hotel’s cleanliness practices were never a selling point or used as a marketing message, rather they were assumed and expected and considered “back of the house” operational practices. For the foreseeable future, this is an area that will remain front and center, as consumers remain vigilant and demand ready access to information on procedures and protocols. And it’s no longer about having clean sheets and towels, its about access to hand gel, use of masks, socially distant seating in restaurants, etc.
- Deals and Discounts — For the next 6–12 months especially, competition will be high, with fewer consumers traveling, and those that are taking the leap, knowing they have more power and choice, and doing more comparison shopping than ever before as they look for the best, most robust deals and offers.
- Booking Direct — For the industry, Covid showed travelers that there is a benefit to booking directly with a hotel or airline — so they can ask questions, handle changes, etc. This is especially beneficial for smaller, independent properties like Seven Stars Resort vs. having to work through an OTA. It also puts an even higher value on having a solid sales team in place that can work with guests one on one.
- Operations and Staffing — From an operations standpoint, we learned how important it is to have depth in our on-site team to ensure that we are able to fill spots and back-up staff that may become ill or need to go into quarantine. This allows a hotel like ours that relies on a local (island) labor pool, to still run and manage efficiently and at a high service level. However, it also impacts scheduling, training, staff wellness and testing, and in our case, transportation (we have own van for staff transport so that they avoid public transportation/exposure). The idea is to both protect the staff and guests, while not finding ourselves understaffed at any given time.
You are a “travel insider”. How would you describe your “perfect vacation experience”?
For me, the perfect vacation experience is all about family. While we enjoy finding those special places that are nice to go back to, we love to discover new places, try out new hotels, new destinations, and new experiences. We are more inclined to visit boutique properties because they have more of a local flair and authenticity, which my wife and I really prefer. Whether it is a city, the beach, the mountains or the woods really doesn’t matter, as long as I’m traveling with my family, I’m happy. And we always have new places on our list that we are ready to explore!
Can you share with our readers how have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
One of the things I love about this business is that we get to help people fulfill a wish, a dream vacation, or just enjoy that precious time spent away from their everyday stresses and routine. At the end of the day, we are all about doing business the right way, whether it’s a guest coming to us with an issue or a special request. We are all human, things happen, life happens and we understand that, so our job is to make sure that even when those unexpected moments come up, that we do everything we can to make sure a guest enjoys their time while staying with us. So, we tend to be more flexible than most in doing whatever we can to make people’s travel experiences a bit easier. People often save up for their trips, its their time, their vacation, so we put people over policy. Its more important for us to do the right thing and treat people the way we would want to be treated. In the end, if you are fair and reasonable with people and treat them as fellow human beings — vs. as a booking — you have earned a customer for life!
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
My movement would be — we’re all human — and that means, treating everyone we come in contact with the way we would want to be treated, like friends or family, whether it’s a guest, a staff member, or a colleague. Everyone has difficult days, but we are all inherently good and deserve to be treated fairly and with care and understanding. The same is true in how we treat our wholesale and airline partners — that is as true partners with shared goals. That means having a willingness to take the time to find that middle ground, and to be able to compromise. When we do that — whether in business or in life — we all benefit. Somewhere along the way, these basic ideas have been lost, with people engaging in a “my way or the highway” manner. I would rather find that middle ground, figure out a way to make it work and do business honestly while treating people right and fair.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!