Editor’s Note: This interview is part of Skift’s CEO interview series. This particular series is with hospitality CEOs talking about the Future of the Guest Experience and the evolving expectations and demands of hotel guests. Check out all the interviews as they come out here. Also, enjoy the previous series on the Future of Travel Booking, with online travel CEOs.
It’s hard to imagine a traveler having a bad experience at Six Senses Hotels Resorts Spas, a small collection of luxury hotels that integrates local culture and prioritizes experience in gorgeous outdoor landscapes. However, it takes work to improve technology, train staff, and deliver entertainment options even in paradise.
Tasked with leading the brand through a period of growth is CEO Neil Jacobs.
Jacobs’ experience in Asia aligned well with Six Senses’ inventory, which remains largely in Asia including China, the Maldives, Thailand, and Vietnam. The brand is set to double its portfolio in coming years with nine resort and spa properties in development.
Jacobs has unique perspectives on the hiring process, issues with technology, and the critical experiential element that most hoteliers overlook. An edited version of our interview is seen below:
Skift: What are the biggest challenges that you’re facing to improve the guest experience today?
Neil Jacobs: It’s always about people. We have hotels and spas in pretty far-flung destinations so it’s really about finding the right type of people that share the dream. Huge effort goes into the recruitment and training process. Much of our company is about wellness and sustainability so we need to find people that embrace that, understand it, and want to be part of something based on those pillars. It’s a challenge, always a challenge to find great people.
Also, technology. The speed of technology is going up so we have to keep up with it, determine what’s too much or too little and find the right balance, especially given that we’re a high-end brand. It becomes a very expensive part of what we do every day — staying on top of where things are and implementing what’s necessary.
Skift: What role does technology play in improving the guest experience at Six Senses properties?
Jacobs: It has a big role, but it’s also about implementing a technology strategy and platform that is simple to use, that is there but not intrusive. We need to have a tremendous interactive website. Mobile applications are becoming more important, even at the high-end. There are smart rooms, technology that controls certain functionality within rooms including lighting or air conditioning. I think we need all that, but what you don’t need is to have to have a PhD to turn the lights on. I think some hotel companies, particularly at the high-end, have gone a bit too far and it’s impossible to function in the room.
It’s about the right amount of connectivity and the ability to access remotely, whether it be a virtual concierge or just remain connected to the hotel. I think in a couple of years time everybody’s cellphone will open the guest room door. There are a couple of companies that are already doing that now and I think that’s great because it’s the future. The ability to save time by bypassing the reception or not doing a formal check-out is all critical for a business hotel.
The back-end technology is also essential because it allows us to remain connected with our customers, market to them, and mine and analyze data. We weren’t able to do all of this to the same extent a few years ago. Without it, hotels and companies are at a distinct disadvantage today.
Technology is hard work because of the sped at which it moves, but it’s also really challenging financially to keep up with it.
Skift: How has that hiring experience changed or evolved to improve the guest experience?
Jacobs: I spent 15 years at Four Seasons and I think one of the greatest strengths at Four Seasons was the culture it created within the employee family, so to speak. Everyone would ask us, “How do you do it? How do you create people like that?” Honestly, it was a process and it’s a process that we’ve certainly adopted at Six Senses. It starts with how you recruit. We, and I now, recruit fundamentally based on attitude rather than ability.
Many jobs within a hotel can be taught through good training. Not everything, but many. Our approach is multiple interviews by many people so each employee — we actually call them hosts — has four or five interviews. The general manager will also interview regardless of position.
Each interview is a little bit different. We adopt something called behavioral-based interviewing, which makes sure that everybody participating in the interview process talks about different things rather than repeating themselves.
It starts with recruitment and then once someone is hired moves into how you orientate them. Orientation happens before they ever touch guests or work the floor. It includes buddy shifts, functional training, generic training, and checking with the employe after 30 days and 90 days to see that they’re settled down.
A lot of people don’t have the time, inclination, or the money to function that way, but we think it’s essential if you’re going to get people that really embrace the culture and display it. We call it “emotional hospitality” and it’s really about how, at the end of the day, the employee or host is able to touch guests at an emotional level. If we hire the right people and go through the process that I’ve just outlined then we have a better chance of being able to achieve what we set out to do as a brand.
To some of us it seems like common sense, but actually very few people go about it in that way. Four Seasons has done so consistently for the last 25 or 30 years and that’s the way we do it too.
Skift: What’s one unexpected shift you’ve seen in guest expectations or demand in the last decade or so?
Jacobs: Some of the larger companies might say it’s unexpected, but I think that we are going through a period in which high-end customers are suffering from brand fatigue, truthfully. What’s happening in many cases is that a lot of the very successful luxury brands have become a little bit homogeneous. They all have good services, wonderful beds, but the content part, the experience, is often missing.
The high-end customer, at this point in our evolution, is less and less inclined to go to a Four Seasons, Mandarin, Peninsula, or St. Regis. They’re a bit fed up with it and looking for something more unique, small. Let’s call it the “anti-brand.”
The advantage that gives to independent and small chains is greater than it’s ever been. The smaller guys have to understand distribution channels, web marketing, and social media, but certainly the world is a lot flatter than it used to be. What you’re finding I think is that some of the smaller brands, ourselves included, are equally as focused on what I call content as much as they are on service delivery, good food, and a clean comfortable room.
I think to some of the larger hotels it is unexpected, but we see it as a huge opportunity for companies our size, with distinct personalities.
Skift: What are your views on the increase in hotel fees being levied against guests?
Jacobs: At our end of the market, it’s something we try to avoid in most cases. The last thing you ought to do to someone who is already paying $500, $800, or more to stay in your property is nickel and dime them. To give somebody another hour or two for a late check-out, particularly if the room is not being occupied, ought to be a no brainer. It leaves a very bad taste and certainly doesn’t work with our emotional hospitality piece. People would rather pay a little bit more. Build it in the rate rather than nail them for $50 or $100 at the end.
I’m also seeing a lot of resorts, even high-end, now charge resort fees on top of rates, which I never really understood how they had the courage to do that. There seems to be a move to nail people wherever you possibly can, even at a four-star level. It seems a little odd quite honestly.
If you’re running a limited-service environment then it becomes more like a low-cost airlines carriers. People understand it a bit more if you’re not paying very much to start with. It’s certainly not our approach.