Why Hospitality Struggles with Innovation

As a former innovation manager for a large hotel company, and a product manager for a large resort company, I’ve officially resigned myself to the fact that hotel companies will always struggle with in-house innovation. Why?

It’s actually related to the pedigree of the leadership and culture. Many of the VPs and senior directors have risen from front-desk to back office. They were born into a culture of always serving the customer. Always saying “yes”. As these executives become stakeholders to internal initiatives, they will not take kindly to a product or innovation manager pushing back to validate their ideas through some structured frameworks (such as Design Thinking). As an innovation team, we fortunately had the C-level support (until innovation became a bad word…more on this later) and we literally “failed” 70 out of 75 ideas presented to us from various executives.  At times, it felt like our team’s whole purpose was to build cases for saying “no”. But in this environment, we had very little time to perform real, customer-facing research.

There was another problem – access to guests for research. Hotels are extremely protective of guests, and there were policies to prevent us from arbitrarily contacting guests. Instead, the company had a pool of volunteers for surveys – not exactly a unbiased segment. Instead, we had to call upon friends and family who had stayed at a certain property- not exactly an unbiased segment.

Third is the culture of “perfecting the basics”. Our innovation team was a casualty of this after the online booking system suffered a number of failures. Imagine being a hotel owner who purchased a franchise, and you come in one day to discover you have no new reservations because of a technical glitch. The last thing you want to see is a press release about an innovative “new arrival experience”…without reservations, there are no arrivals.  But even beyond the technical basics, hotels strive to perfect the brand experience and provide a consistent product across all properties. There’s not a huge emphasis on the nuances and “extras” that can be offered unless it’s going to have a major increase in sales and satisfaction surveys. Many times, these softer items are rolled in as a part of a “brand standard” – the document that tells a franchisee how the property needs to be run. Getting these into a standard is a long process – something that takes longer than the tenure of a typical forward-thinking brand manager.

Finally, there’s the culture of consensus. This may be specific to my experience, but from what I’ve seen, the hospitality industry is very conservative. My theory is that it’s a cultural bias towards “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” mixed with a drive towards invisible, incremental innovation rather than bold breakthroughs.

This is not to bash on hospitality – as former business traveler with a personal agenda, I still fantasize about an opportunity to lead an innovation team with proper executive air cover.


Poolside at Paresa

When building products for consumers, there are a number of factors that create “resonation”. Today, we’ll be focusing on one – a person’s aspirational identity along with some methods for capturing it, and more importantly, how to design for it.


A person’s identity is simply a person’s characterization of their “self” – it’s how they see themselves. Depending on their self-awareness, their claimed identity could be considerably different than an observer’s characterization. but this is only scratching the surface – there’s another identity lurking beneath the surface.


While you can ask a person to describe themselves – revealing their conscious identity, there’s a deeper identity lurking beneath the surface – one that possesses underlying desires and wants.


Bob is an accountant who likes to ride a Harley, drink top-shelf bourbons, and volunteers at his church. Externally, he seems like the average 48-year old, middle-class, married man. Do you have a picture of him? That’s a “persona”. But Bob’s “identity” is more complicated – it’s an internal picture of himself. In this case, he sees himself as an man-of-integrity, achiever with the edginess and sex-appeal of a rock-star.

If you are familiar with “affinity boards” or exercises where you create a collage of similar brands to inform a new product’s “feel”, Bob’s purchases are the types of images you’d affix to the board. But what’s the “internal language” he’s using to describe the things they like? What is the relationship of these words to their identity? How does an innovator design for this?

In 2013, I did some cursory experiments with this. I interviewed ten people using an experimental model.

  1. I asked the Subject to list their “Top 5 Products/Objects” they love, want, or would buy if money were no object. I then ask them to list their “Top 5 People” they admire the most. NOTE: The answers don’t inform anything – be careful not to draw conclusions based on your own relationship to these. 
  2. I asked them to rank these in order of “resonation”
  3. I then asked Subject to assign five, single-word adjective to these objects and people.
  4. I then asked the subject to rank each word as it applies to their respective object or person
  5. Completed, I circled and scored the quantity of repeating words. This allowed me to create an “aspirational identity narrative” for both “things” and “people”.  Ex: Lisa desires beauty, elegance, and comfort in the products she loves. Lisa wants to be more ambitious, and accomplished.


Identity Insights Worksheet for interviewing consumers.
Identity Insights Worksheet for interviewing consumers. PDF available on request.



Repeating Words

We all have key “words” we use to describe the things we like.  For “Lamborghini” I might say “Sexy, Powerful, Awesome, Badass, and Ridiculous”.

The pattern of words that repeat themselves, oddly have a high correlation with a person’s “wants” and “aspirations” for themselves. They want/buy “powerful” because they secretly want to be “powerful”. During my interviews, a few subjects said “this is scary!” because it provided insights into themselves for which they weren’t fully aware.


Aspirational Identity

If you ask the subject to provide 5 words to describe themselves, you’ll see a stark difference between their high-resonation words and how they describe themselves. This is the difference between their “normal identity” and their “aspirational identity”.  This “aspirational identity” is what informs “resonation”…not a person’s reality.  This is not the same “aspiration” as in “aspirer persona” defined by Young & Rubicam  – this is simply an identity a person wants for themselves at some level.


We’ve created a narrative describing a person’s “aspirational identity”…so what now?  If your subjects are members of your target audience/consumer group, you can…

1. Correlate these words across a broader population to inform the “design language” of a product.

2. Present your prototypes and mockups to subjects and ask them to assign 5 words to it. Are they the same words? If so, then you’re likely on a path to launching a “high resonating” product.

3. Cluster personas into insight-territories that inform marketing messages and channels.

Identity Boost

I was invited to a wedding in Thailand where the couple significantly subsidized the hotel so that a majority of their friends could attend. It was a 5-star resort on the cliffs of Phuket’s “Millionaires Mile” south of Kamala Beach . My Facebook and Twitter feed exploded with photos of the resort, selfies, and comments. It’s unlikely this would have happened to this degree at the 4-star hotel in a U.S. city.

When a product or experience satisfies a part of someone’s “aspirational identity”, there’s a desire to “preserve” the shift towards this new identity. Essentially, I’m describing neurological mechanics of a “Kodak moment”, but it’s worth noting that repeated forays into aspirational identity-boosting experiences will have progressively lower resonation. Thus, your acquired product actually changes people – it reinforces their sense of self through the words they assign to it.

Author:  Dave Black



Three years ago, I awoke to the sound of rain and abnormally strong winds. As if by clairvoyance, my awakening was followed by a loud, creaky pop, followed by whoosh-crunch-thud. I knew exactly what happened. I got up, walked to the window to see – in the middle of our driveway was thirteen by one foot tree branch that had fallen from the highest point of an eighty-five foot tree. It hit my Jeep Cherokee like a giant lawn dart, passing through the front windshield, and crushing the dashboard with such force, that the center console around the gearshift had exploded. My beloved car was totaled.

Faced with the prospect of buying a new car, I thought about my impending move to the Bay Area – long commutes, outdoor sports, and excessive fuel costs. I developed a checklist of attributes I wanted – a hatchback, roof rack, easy access, good fuel economy, and a host of creature comforts. Out of this exercise, a few cars emerged but I settled on the VW TDi which I bought the next day.

A few months into owning the car, a friend asked me if I liked it. Without hesitation, I told him how it was “everything I was looking for” – “great on the highway”, “great mpg”, and “great for hauling my bikes”. If I were writing a product review, I would have given it 5 stars. But with every glowing review, I kept trying to reconcile the fact that I generally didn’t feel like it “fit” me.  A few weeks into this quandary, a situation led me to drive a friend’s old, ugly, gas-guzzling SUV – It made me feel great.

What was going on?

I clearly made a mistake somewhere – how could I simultaneously recommend something, while not liking it? How can something that feels good to drive, also make you feel bad while driving it?  How could I get everything I (thought I) wanted, but not be happy with the choice?

Whether it was result of making an expensive blunder, or some new mindfulness ability, I experienced a visceral understanding of the complex emotional side of the product experience.

In contrast to product reviews that rank a product’s intrinsic, observable and describable qualities with “stars”, we need another language for describing the personal, emotional feelings evoked by a product – “hearts”.


Hearts & Stars

A product that makes someone “feel” good can overcome it’s functional deficiencies to an extent.

In the book Switch by Chip and Dan Heath, they used the metaphor of an elephant being ridden down a path to represent humans.  The rider is “logic”, the elephant is “emotion”, and the “path” represents external constraints. You can ask the “rider” to turn left, but if there’s a bundle of peanuts on the right, the elephant is going to turn right.

Heaths’ simple view of human emotion explains people’s contradictory choices – why people fall in love with the “wrong person”, why people follow political parties that are against their best interests, why people act illogical in the workplace, or why seemingly good products are ignored. It’s all driven from emotional imprints formed in our very early years, intermixed with culture, identity and aspirations.

“Hearts”, aka resonation is not easily predicted.  At InterContinental Hotel Group, I was managing a research project with the goal of personalizing the front-desk experience in hotels. It seemed easy at first – harvest social media and in-hotel history for clues about biases, then address these biases with custom-tailored offers.

The fallacy with this approach is that a person’s “bias” (or psychographic segment, MBTI, etc.) is secondary to the person’s current “need state” – which is harder to derive from public data sources and transactional histories.

A less technical approach comes from DoubleTree, who greets guests with warm cookies. On a cognitive “stars” level, it’s a “freebie” or a “welcome gift”.  But through a “hearts” lens, it could be a cessation of hunger, a primitive symbol of welcome to our “tribe”, or a reminder of “mom’s nurturing”.  In any case, they are triggering a momentary boost of the brain’s feel-good chemicals at the guest’s first touchpoint.

While focus groups, competitive matrices, and trends can inform the  “stars” of a product, designing for “hearts” requires a much more authentic, human-centered approach that considers the emotional states of the person as they experience the product.  I’ll cover this in a follow-up post.