Skift Take

Perhaps the big hotel chains will learn that high tech doesn't have to mean a lack of hospitality and a guest experience devoid of personality.

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Steve Hafner, the co-founder and CEO of Kayak, argued that the company’s under-development hotel technology can take the burden off staff at its three hotels to deliver a better guest experience.

Having a well-known brand like Kayak, and parent company Booking Holdings’ resources behind the effort “doesn’t hurt, either,” Hafner said.

Hafner will appear in a session with Tyler Morse of MCR Hotels on the first day of the May 11-12 Skift Future of Lodging Forum on a panel discussing “What Comes Next for Hotels.”

Dennis Schaal: What chutzpah makes you think that Kayak can be a disruptive force in hospitality?

Steve Hafner: Because we’ve done it before in other areas, and especially in metasearch.  There’s a lot of innovation in hospitality, but it is unevenly distributed.  Large hotel chains can afford to invest in better tech.  But much of the resulting value accrues to the brands and not the actual hotel owners.  On the flip side, new startups like Sonder and others, are reimagining the entire experience  — but they’re losing money doing so.  We believe Kayak can leverage our brand awareness, tech prowess, and global distribution to accelerate innovation, especially for independent owners and operators.  

Our meta heritage is a big advantage.  We’re very adept at talking to hundreds of software systems, standardizing information, and revealing insights.

Schaal: For guests staying in Kayak hotels, what about the experience is unique in terms of digital interactions with staff or in backend hotel operations?

Hafner: We’re focused on building digital tools that enhance the traditional guest experience.  The Kayak app and our kiosks will let you manage your stay without talking to humans.  But we’re still staffing our three hotels with friendly, welcoming staff too. We are aiming to find the marriage between the ease of a digital experience and the warmth of an elevated hotel experience.  We are just getting started but our three hotels (Kayak Miami Beach, Kayak Sol and Kayak Luna) are giving us space to test and learn in real time.

Schaal: Aren’t Sonder and smaller companies like Alice already doing these things? What can Kayak possibly add?

Hafner: Many smart people and companies are chasing this space and I expect multiple winners.  Our advantages are in our brand awareness, global scale, team, and access to a strong P&L (profit & loss) and balance sheet.  Being part of Booking Holdings doesn’t hurt, either.

Schaal: How do you maintain the hospitality in hospitality — meaning memorable interactions with hotel staff — within your techie playbook?

Hafner: There are some who believe technology ultimately leads to more functional interactions. We do not believe that tradeoff exists. Technology takes a big burden off staff so they can deliver even more personalized and memorable experiences and will reshape how guests engage the physical and service attributes of a hotel. By rooting our tech around specific experiences we want to deliver, our tech stack will be differentiated and unlock new value for the industry too. 

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Tags: ceo interview, future of lodging, hotel technology, kayak, kayak hotels, mcr development, metasearch, skift live, sonder, steve hafner, technology, tyler morse

Photo credit: Kayak's Steve Hafner believes the company's metasearch experience serves it well in operating hotels.

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