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.