Rob Delli Bovi of RDB Hospitality On How To Create A Travel Experience That Keeps People Coming Back For More

An Interview With Savio P. Clemente

Savio P. Clemente
Authority Magazine

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Double, triple, quadruple check — as mentioned a couple of times in this interview, this industry and process is filled with potential mistakes and pain points. Don’t assume just because something is booked and confirmed, that it will run smooth — you must stay on top of these vendors. Car companies are famous for not having the requested car available, and all vendors overbook and leave people in scenarios where they have to find a new option. Staying on top of all contacts global and local will lead to less problems.

As part of my series about “How To Create A Travel Experience That Keeps People Coming Back For More”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rob DelliBovi.

Since 2003, Rob DelliBovi has overseen hospitality sales, marketing, and revenue management strategy for many of the industry’s biggest names. In recent years with his company, RDB Hospitality, DelliBovi and team have served as full-service advisers or asset managers on properties in domestic & international markets. RDB Hospitality has worked with over 140 properties and brands worldwide.

Prior to his advisory portfolio at RDB Hospitality, DelliBovi was Vice President of Sales for Dream Hotel Group, overseeing the group’s portfolio of five brands. DelliBovi has also held various management positions with leading boutique and lifestyle hotel brands.

Since 2009, DelliBovi has also owned an IATAN accredited travel agency and concierge company, where his team handles day-to-day needs for more than 500 celebrities and touring recording artists, as well as various corporations, executives, productions, festivals and high-net-worth individuals.

Since 2017, DelliBovi has served as an executive recruiter & trainer for hotel, nightlife & restaurant companies, where his team is already one of the leading groups in these industries. In 2021, DelliBovi founded HMentors, a mentorship program with goals of grooming talent from underserved communities into the hospitality industry.

DelliBovi serves as a member of New York Celebrity Assistants, Disney Approved Travel Professionals, Virtuoso Travel Professionals (through Travel Experts affiliation), and is a GLG Council Advisor. DelliBovi regularly appears in the press, and speaks at tradeshows and universities as a Hospitality Expert/Investor.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Thank you for having me! My experience in managing hotel sales, marketing & revenue departments allowed me access to reporting that showed me that a very small percentage of travelers use a travel or concierge professional to book their trips. I thought this was absolutely crazy, because if people understood the value in this type of representation when booking their experiences, no one would ever go ANYWHERE without using a travel pro. I saw travel management and concierge as a major opportunity business. The 8 out of 10 people that currently book on their own directly or through websites could save money and enjoy an upgraded experience (with added perks) if they took advantage of my services. The business side of me said to pounce on this opportunity as the potential client base is so large, and my hospitality side said that you can really help people enjoy better experiences that they don’t even know they have access to — usually for close to free of charge, I might add. Also, in terms of business development, I understand that any person that I meet is a potential client (if they enjoy a 1-star, or a 5-star experience), and repeat business pours into our company as people are overloaded with value when we work together. Everyone travels, or needs a restaurant reservation, or needs help planning some kind of experience — the client base is endless. Also, on the travel side, this is an industry that was very popular and relevant in the 70’s and 80’s, so a good number of my competitors are within 10 years of retiring, which even further expands our potential as a business. Supply and demand aside however, there is a certain part of me that enjoys taking care of people, and assisting them with life experience and stories that they will never forget.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I started TWO companies in hospitality, understanding that there were many needs in what is a bit of an archaic industry. ONE — a strategic advisory company (read: consulting) showing hotels and food & beverage establishments how to make money, and TWO, the previously mentioned travel & concierge company. I expected these companies to operate independently — with no other cross-perks than an occasional fun story or anecdote, but immediately when these companies launched, we saw them work together and assist one another in amazing ways. Our clients under advisory benefit from a flow of direct bookings from our travel & concierge company, and our travel & concierge company benefits from insider deals from our advisory clients. This makes our company unexpectedly unique, and creates serious value offering for anyone to work with us. We have the luxury of saying we can do better than our competitors. We absolutely have much more interesting stories than this, but we have to protect our well-known clients’ anonymity!

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?

Sure! Immediately upon starting our travel and concierge company, we booked $20,000 worth of first-class flights on the WRONG date. June 14th was needed, and we booked July 14th. Clearly it was an enormous mess that we needed to go high-level with the airlines to make right — but we learned the biggest lesson we could’ve learned upon creating our company — which simply put is that we are in an industry where mistakes CANNOT HAPPEN. There aren’t many industries where you cannot make mistakes, but we’ve found one! This (huge) mistake ended up being the best thing that has ever happened to us, because it caused us to create a set of systems to double, triple, and quadruple check our work. I have an employee on our team that literally triple checks our work all day — that is her day, all day, every day. We position it as checking on the airline, hotel and car company vendor’s work, but it audits our own work as well. Everyone makes mistakes, we just catch ours early and fix them before anyone knows that they even existed.

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?

A number of people have helped me along the way:

MICHAEL ZAYAS (Sales & Marketing — Soho Grand Hotel) — Michael Z taught me to take pride in my work, and that any venue that we work on is our home. If we are walking around a hotel venue that we work on, and there is a candy wrapper on the floor — we pick it up and put it in our pocket. You can wash your hands later — but we keep our home clean and attractive. It is a reflection of our company and our work.

MICHAEL LINDENBAUM (COO — Dream Hotel Group) — Michael L taught me to never sit around and let our business just operate as usual. Always try new things, always throw things against the wall and see what sticks. Some ideas will be amazing, and some will fail — but live on the edge and don’t get comfortable. If you had a great month, don’t celebrate yourself, figure out how you can do better. Great advice that we have written on our wall!

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?

Of course! We like to say for our consulting accounts that we are bringing sales back. The hotel industry is not aggressive in terms of selling their experiences to the world. The days of target lists, cold calling (emailing?), not taking no for an answer, and strategic selling seem to be falling off. Many blame the millennial generation for not wanting to pick up the phone and call a decision-maker, or set up a face to face meeting — but I think it’s just as much Gen X’s fault for not preaching sales 101. I think the entire industry needs one complete sales lesson — which we offer by the way! Our playbook when showing companies how to sell, market and publicize themselves is very aggressive, and puts a focus on strong vendor and time management. We find that hospitality companies don’t spend enough time on creating targets or auditing vendor and sales & marketing team results. This is hardly technical innovation, but it is a bit of a science that we see about 90% of companies are missing the mark on. You can have the best product and service in the world, but that means nothing if no one knows that it exists.

On the travel side, surprisingly, we are introducing basic tech to a large percentage of our clients. Tech that many consider basic like shared documents and worksheets are completely unheard of with many travel decision-makers. There are so many changes in our business, it’s refreshing that we can all work off of the same document to confirm and reconfirm real-time. This is obviously a problem that directly relates to the general age of the industry and its average leaders. We believe that systems and programs in travel need to be “disrupted” (a word I don’t like, but applies perfectly here), and I am currently working with a newer VC type company on a few ideas. Stay tuned.

We also have very strategic means of scoring better rates and packages from hotels and venues, but we don’t want to give away all of our secrets!

Which “pain point” are you trying to address by introducing this innovation and how do you envision that this might disrupt the status quo?

The travel and hospitality industries are filled with pain points — simply because there are so many moving parts that exist at the same time, and they’re typically not joined in any kind of systematic way. Let’s say you’re going to France in February. You will need us to book flights, cars, hotels, restaurants, experiences. These experiences are all booked and billed in different ways, and MUST be booked on a case-by-case (non-systematic) basis in order to score the best value for your client. Also, when there is a change (which there always is), you need to speak again to different companies with different policies — money is lost and mistakes happen. Sure, you can speak to a DMC company and overpay to have all of this done for you, but the DMC will run into the same structure and system problems. What we do is centralize all of these bookings, include the client in the process via shared systems and documents, and don’t overcharge to do so on the fee side. What we are working on, on the VC and Lab side, is technology that does a better job on the operations, fees, change and mistake management fronts. There are some current options for this type of tool, but they are very weak, and filled with holes.

As you know, COVID-19 changed the world as we know it. Can you share a few 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?

The first adjustments will surround creating better systems and contracting clauses to protect their clients. A lot of travelers lost a lot of money during COVID-19 Alpha, and now we need to make sure travel vendors are being fair about cancellation policies, Force Majeure, and returning deposits. As we are on both sides, we are experiencing pain points on the hotel side on how to create these clauses while still protecting the hotel and not allowing someone who is simply afraid of a disease to cancel last minute. It’s a super fine line, and I imagine that you’ll see major adjustments in contracting moving forward.

Cleanliness, disinfection, and making customers feel safe and protected will also evolve over the coming years. We have already seen safety guarantees, social distancing measures, and disinfection promises — but moving forward, venues will literally be built differently to accommodate these concerns. The hospitality world has changed for good, probably in a good way. Unfortunately, this could spell trouble in terms of labor. Less human interaction makes travelers feel safer during a pandemic scenario — people don’t necessarily want valets in their cars, and housekeepers in their rooms, no matter what systems are in place to protect everyone. Hospitality companies need to be very careful in terms of protecting their workforce, I imagine unions will be getting involved. We will have to see where that goes.

You are a “travel insider.” How would you describe your “perfect vacation experience”?

I enjoy an array of diverse experiences, but I think a perfect experience would center around how I would feel afterwards. I want to arrive back at my home feeling relaxed, encouraged, educated, well-fed, and have a list of new friends and business partners that I met along the way. To me, a vacation experience where I’m not meeting new people with new points of view and cultures would be a bit of a loss.

Now, if we’re talking more specifically, I love a great hotel — it doesn’t have to be a 5 star, but it should be a place with amazing food & beverage, soul, and most importantly — a good bathroom. I LOVE bathrooms and bathtubs — it’s where I go first when I enter a hotel room. I’ve always hated when people tell us “we don’t care where we stay, we’re just going to be sleeping in the hotel” — that is absolute blasphemy to me. People should care where they stay, it speaks to comfort.

Eating, drinking and enjoying local experiences is paramount to a perfect vacation experience for me. I’m a big believer in the recent “bleisure” trend — if I need to be in meetings somewhere from Tuesday ’til Thursday, you bet that I’ll be staying in that city until Sunday to eat, drink and be merry.

The general goal is to have a network of friends and associates in every city in the world, it’s amazing to arrive in a place where some likeminded people know your name.

Travel is not always about escaping, but about connecting. Have you made efforts to cultivate a more wellness-driven experience? We’d love to hear about it.

Health & wellness is a big ask from our clients as of late, and like covid protection, it is something we are directly building into any new venue that we work on. Simply put, people are healthier now — it’s a priority in all parts of life. Twenty years ago when I started, no one ever asked us about health & wellness experiences, MAYBE they would inquire if a gym existed on property (which they would then never use). Now people want healthy food & beverage, yoga classes, expanded gym experiences, we even were working on a hotel that catered directly to eco-tourism (in a market NOT known for hosting such travelers). Both on the travel side and on the venue side, we are adding programming to speak to these newer requests that our clients need as part of their experiences. Personally, I think this is great — it’s now “work hard, play hard, health hard.” People will live longer, and less will come home from their travels feeling disgusting, a worst nightmare of mine.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a travel experience that keeps bringing people back for more? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Listen to the customer — I think a lot of professionals in our industry plan experiences that THEY would like — but as mentioned in the last question, not everyone wants what you want. Empathize and put yourself in their shoes, based on what they tell you, what would blow their world?
  2. Double, triple, quadruple check — as mentioned a couple of times in this interview, this industry and process is filled with potential mistakes and pain points. Don’t assume just because something is booked and confirmed, that it will run smooth — you must stay on top of these vendors. Car companies are famous for not having the requested car available, and all vendors overbook and leave people in scenarios where they have to find a new option. Staying on top of all contacts global and local will lead to less problems.
  3. Go the extra mile — Don’t just book a hotel or experience for someone in your system. Fight for your client — call the property and ask for an upgrade, an amenity, or something to make them feel extra special. Most travel professionals go into their agent systems and just book things — your clients will notice that you went the extra mile immediately and will always come back for more.
  4. Speak to locals — locals know best! We always dive into our network to see who we know that lives or has experiences a particular location that we might not be experts on. They enlighten us on hidden and less known venues and experiences — and when we pass those on to our clients, we look like champions. SOMETIMES, our local friends even help out by getting our clients into an exhibit or experience that no one else could have done. Your planners’ relationships and network are important.
  5. Follow up afterwards — check in with your clients and see how everything went! They will appreciate that you did so, and you can learn what they especially loved and hated for the next time that they call you. You can put together a profile for all clients with extreme detail, so you know that Mexican food is not their cup of tea, or that they love modern art. Also, from a sales perspective, you can gather info on when they’re thinking for their next trip, so you can follow up and win that business.

Can you share with our readers how you have used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Over the last 2 years, I have created a mentorship program called HMentors (short for Hospitality Mentors) that has a goal of exposing, educating and including underserved communities in our business. The numbers surrounding these communities’ successes in our industry are currently not impressive, and we want to do our part in leveling the playing field. Our launch was pushed to 2022, but we will be educating and mentoring high school students, college students, and entry level hospitality professionals on our business in general, including tricks of the trade and creating strategic introductions to help facilitate success. Those who are interested and stay engaged will have ample opportunity to learn and grow in our business. We are currently securing high level partnerships with brands to guarantee internships and information interviews with executives to help us succeed. Very exciting program that I will keep you posted on.

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.

I think relationships and communication are everything, so I would create a movement where everyone is forced to meet their neighbors and interact in their own communities as well as diverse area communities that may not share their same upbringings and priorities. I’ve told people about this idea before, and most people think it’s ridiculous, but if there were some kind official program that offers incentives or benefits to being a part of a movement like this — people would selfishly get involved, but come out on the other end better, more understanding people, and it would locally globalize humankind/the public.

More realistically, we believe HMentors is a great way to help people and selfishly improve our work force in hospitality. There is a lot of unrealized talent out there, especially in underserved communities that our industry can benefit and learn from. This talent might not know our industry well (very few in hospitality and travel actually go to school or want to do so at a young age), or don’t realize the perks!

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Rob DelliBovi and RDB Hospitality on LinkedIn

For the fun stuff, @Robdellibovi on Instagram

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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Savio P. Clemente
Authority Magazine

TEDx Speaker, Media Journalist, Board Certified Wellness Coach, Best-Selling Author & Cancer Survivor