The Future of Travel: “Today’s travelers desire a stylized and customized experience” with Alan Brand, VP at The Keys Collection
Creating unique and engaging environments that reflect today’s travelers desire for a stylized and customized experience and facilitating their connectivity is only the first step. Using technology to anticipate their needs and exceed their expectations is critical. In this day of having countless friends but struggling to create new relationships, we are challenging our teams to use their local expertise and love of service to build those lasting relationships. Giving them the technological and environmental support to do so is where we can be truly innovative.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Alan Brand of Highgate Hotels / The Keys Collection.
Thank you for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Growing up in an energy industry family I had the opportunity to travel extensively and live overseas during my teenage years. One of the benefits of that lifestyle was experiencing some of the most amazing hotels in the world. I was always fascinated by the processes and attention to detail that went into delivering world-class, memorable experiences. After returning to the United States for my senior year of high school, I needed a job to pay for the necessities like gas and insurance. Given my international travels, I responded to a “help wanted: ad (yes, it was in a newspaper) for a local hotel. I applied for the general managers role and because I spoke Japanese, got the job and the rest is history.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Interesting is mostly defined by the people I have been privileged to work with and the amazing guests I have been lucky to serve during my career. Those lists are both extremely long at this point. To isolate one is difficult, but in retrospect, I would have to say one of the most interesting experiences was hosting the New York Yankees during spring training when they were still doing it in Fort Lauderdale. The opportunity to serve Mr. Steinbrenner, Billy Martin and the Yankees organization definitely classifies as an interesting highlight. It was certainly a challenging experience given the number of dynamic personalities involved and the unique needs of the individuals.
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?
Let’s just say, plunging a blocked toilet for the first time is not necessarily a natural activity for a teenager and it can have some unpleasant ramifications. What I learned is that if you don’t know how to do something, never hesitate to ask for coaching, it will in all probability save you from embarrassment at some point.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
There are, in my mind four distinct aspects of Highgate that make us unique and exceptional in the spaces we occupy. In no particular order:
Our commitment to our guests: Specifically, to building memorable and unique travel experiences for them both within our hotels and in the markets in which we work. It goes far beyond the basics of providing a clean comfortable room in a safe environment. By creating memories and emotional connection, we can earn customers for life. Without them we have no purpose.
Our commitment to building high performing teams: I learned many years ago that the best way to succeed was to align with and learn from the best and brightest individuals in any organization and to avoid getting sucked into negativity or acceptance of mediocrity. At Highgate, it’s really not that easy because as you explore the landscape of our teams, there isn’t anything but the best and brightest. It enables us to empower our leaders to run the business as if was their own and facilitates innovation in real time.
Our commitment to our associate: Never in my career have I seen an organization as committed to doing the right thing as Highgate is. This manifests itself every day in the support, opportunity and enrichment provided to our associates. The first time I truly recognized the depth of this commitment was following Hurricane Irma in 2017. The support provided to our teams in Miami, Key West and Puerto Rico during this period of great need was immense and immediate.
Our commitment to using our platform and the many blessings that have been bestowed on us as individuals to making the world a better place. Through our historic commitment to both local and global initiatives we have been able to affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of children and families both domestically and in areas of need around the world. This year through the creation of the Highgate Charitable Foundation we have been able to magnify our efforts and reach and even greater number of children in need.
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?
This is a 24/7/365 industry. It can be all consuming and many of us have a passion for it that can block out some of the most important aspects to a balanced life if we don’t manage it.
It is critical to provide care for yourself both physically and mentally. Build time into you work week for personal maintenance and rejuvenation.
Protect your personal relationships. Always be present both physically and emotionally. That balance is critical to your being a fulfilled and complete human. Don’t miss the important milestones, they may never come around again.
Give back. The emotional benefit of providing support to others cannot be measured. I didn’t really understand the importance of this one until well into my career, but it changed my life.
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?
That’s another long list but an easier one to answer. Peter Aeby was my General Manager at The Austin Hilton when I earned my first executive level opportunity. Mr. Aeby was the consummate Hotelier, Swiss educated, a Waldorf Alumni from when The Waldorf was The Hotel and an amazing mentor and leader. He taught me two critical things. The difference between leadership and management and how to overcome challenges so that you only have to do it once. Both skills that I have tried to share with my teams as my career has progressed. He taught me that how you make people feel is the most memorable impact you can have on your team and your guests.
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?
As an organization I would say we are focused on the ability to work within the unique intersection between purpose driven and experiential travel to create hotels whose DNA delivers an authentic local experience. We are currently focused on developing that emotional connection between our guests and the teams at the hotels through programming and branding initiatives across our independent, proprietary branded and lifestyle hotels. These initiatives run the gamut from the introduction of concert venues and integrated activity zones, artistic and design driven concepts and the creation of vibrant and eclectic F&B offerings.
A prime example of this is our new development of The Keys Collection in Key West, FL. Located on 17 contiguous ocean front acres at the gateway entry to Key West on US1 we have positioned four unique hotels, a programmed event lawn flexible enough to do intimate weddings or headliner concerts for up 1,400 guests, four unique pool decks, seven curated food and beverage outlets, meeting space, Starbucks, retail , local brand partnerships and a new water based activity zone that we’ll launch very soon.
This development is changing the dynamic for travels who are visiting in Key West. No longer is Old Town and the Duval Street corridor the only choice for an authentic Key West experience. For our guests to still enjoy the unique culture and environment of New Town Key West. At The Keys Collection we facilitate their adventure by providing continuous shuttle service in the central corridor on our WooHoo Themed Shuttles. We have shifted the travel dynamic in Key West and our guests are rewarding us with their repeat business and referrals.
The use of technology to move the needle in our deliverables. Our ability to capture and analyze not only historic data but to move into the predictive arena through machine learning and eventually will be game changers over the next 5 years. This manifests itself not only in our ability to predict changing market conditions but then to take that knowledge and translate it into actionable strategic initiatives enabling us to outperform the market and our competitors. The depth of available information today is immense and has moved far beyond the “how is our booking pace” discussion. Today the ability to understand and intimately know you your business and your guests is accelerating at light speed. We believe our use of technology here is paramount to maintaining our leadership position. Whether it’s the basics like digital key an predictive demand analytics or the platforms we use to geofence our environments to identify guest interaction opportunities, the technology component continually will evolve.
Which “pain point” are you trying to address by introducing this innovation?
A hotel room still has to be clean, comfortable, up to date and your staff friendly. Today’s travelers and their needs and expectations are far different than the travelers of 40 years ago, in addition to those basic expectations they need to be able to communicate and interface with the hotels on their terms and in their time frame. Creating unique and engaging environments that reflect today's travelers desire for a stylized and customized experience and facilitating their connectivity is only the first step. Using technology to anticipate their needs and exceed their expectations is critical. In this day of having countless friends but struggling to create new relationships, we are challenging our teams to use their local expertise and love of service to build those lasting relationships. Giving them the technological and environmental support to do so is where we can be truly innovative.
How do you envision that this might disrupt the status quo?
The major brands by nature are homogeneous and deliver a common/thread experience. They recognize this weakness in their model and are vigorously working to try and find a way to re-invent themselves through the launch of new lifestyle sub-brands or the acquisition of lifestyle hotel companies. Our ability to work quickly, innovate rapidly and pivot across the universe of hospitality concepts both branded and independent, big box and lifestyle gives us a unique lens to develop experiences for a changing demographic and strategic opportunities for our owners.
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 like to travel?
· Increased direct guest interaction through social media to communicate on the guest’s terms.
· Continued growth of the interactive room product where a guest can connect and engage with their media and desired experiences.
· Ongoing evolution of distribution channels and the relationships between travel sites, guests, hotels and non-traditional lodging providers.
· Loyalty programs will continue to change and mature. Today’s guest approaches brand loyalty in a totally different fashion than they did five years ago.
· Automation will continue to expand in this industry as guests continue to move to an even greater digital platform and as labor resources continue to dwindle.
You are a “travel insider”? How would you describe your “perfect vacation experience”?
I am a learner. My perfect vacation experience will always include a component where I can learn something new. Whether it’s to satisfy a long existing curiosity, discover a new culture or sometimes just make a new friend — that is a key for me. Of course, I like planes to be on time and the people I come across to be friendly — don’t we all?
Can you share with our readers how have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
As an organization, Highgate has companywide campaigns to raise funds for a variety of deserving initiatives. It can become quite competitive between our teams. During a campaign in 2016 as a passing comment during a fund-raising event, the subject of my hair came up and 24 hours and $20,000 later I was headed to the barber’s chair to get what few hairs I have shaved. A few gray hairs was a very small price to pay for the impact that money had on children’s lives through the Save The Children — Every Last Child Campaign. But the success? The hair actually grew back so I can do it again.
Thank you for sharing this!