During a recent boutique hotel stay, Niki Leondakis, CEO of Two Roads Hospitality’s Hotels and Resorts unit, had a travel experience that’s all too common these days.

Wanting to grab a quick cup of coffee before she squeezed in a quick visit to the gym early in the morning, Leondakis stopped by the front desk to see if there was any way she could get that coffee, 10 minutes before the hotel restaurant opened. Instead, she was simply reminded by the front desk staff member that she’d need to wait until the restaurant opened in exactly nine minutes.

“It was pleasantly unhelpful,” she said. It should also be noted, Leondakis said, that this was not one of her hotels.

It’s those kinds of experiences — ones where customer service follows a strict brand standard playbook — that are stymying the hospitality industry overall.

Leondakis was speaking to the Skift Global Forum audience Tuesday in New York City.

And at a time when every boutique or lifestyle hotel in existence seems to emphasize the same things — authenticity, experiential programming, shared experiences, chef-driven restaurants, locally sourced everything, design, culture, etc. — hotels need to find a way to truly differentiate themselves, especially if they want to compete with alternative accommodations providers like Airbnb. All these things, she said, are simply “the price of admission” for today’s travelers.

“Boutique and lifestyle hotels are all beginning to look and act alike,” Leondakis said. “Throw in Airbnb and the marketing of local experiences they provide — how do we compete? Everyone [the hotel companies] has rushed to come in with their own boutique product, but it’s all centrally controlled. It’s not geared toward an empowered, locally centric business.”

So how can hotels create “the next-generation lifestyle brand?” Leondakis said they need to create “disruption from the inside out.”

Whereas boutique hotel pioneers like Bill Kimpton, Steve Rubell, Ian Schrager, and Chip Conley looked to unique touches like great restaurants, activated lobbies that doubled as nightclubs, and rock-n-roll influences, today’s boutique and lifestyle hotels have to look inward.

Leondakis argued that for hotels to foster genuine human connections with its guests, it needs to look to its employees first. It’s not about trying to find the next great piece of technology or the most stunning light fixture; it’s about empowering employees so they can provide the best customer service possible.

In short, it’s about adding the human element back into business, and back into hospitality.

“The language of the business world is completely devoid of emotion. Leaders are taught to communicate just the facts. When was the last time you told one of your team members how much we care about them? We speak unemotionally from the head, cutting off the heart. We’re creating transactional instead of relational workplace relationships. We train them to be friendly and to smile. To be pleasantly unhelpful.”

So what should travel companies, not just hotels, be doing to make that connection to their travelers? They need only look at examples of companies that know “the way to a customer’s heart is through the team member’s heart,” Leondakis said, pointing to examples including HermanMiller, Warby Parker, Zappos, Whole Foods, and Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group.

Companies “that get it,” that understand that concept provide the following for their employees: Meaning in the workplace; diversity and inclusion; recognition and appreciation programs; transparency; education and career development; and management commitment to workplace culture.

She said that at Commune Hotels + Resorts (which recently changed its name to Two Roads Hospitality following its merger with Destination Hotels), she strove to include all of those things in the company’s 10 core values as CEO.

“We have all those things that all the other boutique and lifestyle hotels have,” she said. “But what makes the difference are our people. It’s our higher purpose, our core values. They bring those to life.”

So for hotels or any travel company, really, that wants to be the real disruptor today, they need to understand this, Leondakis noted: “The basics of hospitality have been compromised to make room for innovation, but the best innovation comes from the inside out. Creativity happens when our employees are empowered and they are not feeling any fear.”

Or when they’re not afraid to sneak into the hotel restaurant a few minutes early so a guest can have her morning cup of coffee.

Photo Credit: Two Roads Hospitality CEO, Hotels and Resorts, Niki Leondakis, speaks to the Skift Global Forum audience in New York City about how hotels can truly disrupt themselves and create the next generation of boutique hotels. Skift