On Wednesday, March 30th, the Jonathan M. Tisch Center of Hospitality hosted a Fireside Chat, Hospitality 4.0: How Technology Will Be Core to Hospitality’s Growth in the New Decade. Led by Tisch Center Clinical Assistant Professor, Vanja Bogicevic, PhD, attendees got to hear from three hospitality executives, Chinmai Sharma, Mark Skroch, and Ethan Hawkes, and gain insights into the impact and development of technology in the hospitality industry. With their different specialties leading to unique perspectives, the discussion detailed how to improve select key performance indicators (KPIs), the shift in focus towards influencer marketing, and recommendations for those wanting to establish themselves within the industry. Sharma’s, Skroch’s, and Hawkes’ current roles are detailed below.
Mr. Chinmai Sharma
President – Americas of RateGain, a global provider of technology solutions and one of the world’s largest processors of electronic transactions and price points for the travel and hospitality industry. Sharma’s relationship with hospitality technologies began as a user and naturally progressed into his current role as a technology and digital professional.
Mr. Mark Skroch
General Manager at BCV, a RateGain company that offers social media solutions across various sectors of the hospitality industry at a global level. Prior to getting involved in the hospitality industry Skroch had a breadth of experiences ranging from marketing to financial consulting. He credits his start in the technology sector to the sheer time at which he entered the industry, and technology’s rapid growth in the early years of his hospitality career.
Mr. Ethan Hawkes
Responsible for strategic partnerships at Hopper Cloud, a division of Hopper, the world’s fastest-growing mobile-first travel marketplace. Hawkes focuses his work on user experiences and finding the best travel solutions for consumers.
With each defining themselves as having ‘unusual starts’ in the industry, they soon recognized technology as one of the key advancements within the hospitality industry and likewise, saw the significant opportunities for growth as technology and society continued to develop at an unprecedented rate. For Sharma, he eventually found himself studying hotel management by process of elimination and knowing which careers he did not want to do. Focused more on revenue management, Sharma also gained exposure to the various facets of the hospitality industry and noted that whether you have a technology background or not, it is not unusual that you eventually find yourself shifting towards technology. For Skroch, his undergraduate degree was in marketing and following graduation, worked with local marketing and ad agencies in Chicago, Illinois. Through this, he gained familiarity with a variety of business models and explained how he actually worked with User Experience (UX) Design before it was even formally defined. Finally, Hawkes began his career working in restaurant management and general consulting but after interning at an NGO, really understood hospitality as a significant economic driver.
Speaking more to their individual insights on hospitality technologies, Hawkes noted that due to the nature of Hopper being a technology platform, there is a high leverage on talent and an innately tight feedback loop. Hopper has built off these notions and identified how to effectively respond to customer feedback and find the best option for consumers, largely being motivated by the desire to reduce travel costs for individuals. Further, by using technology to generate a price prediction tool for flights and other elements of travel, Hopper helps to give customers peace of mind when making travel plans.
Offering a more revenue-based and return on investment (ROI) perspective, Skroch explained that being in a digital age where there is so much information available, tracking and reporting are essential and can allow companies to show ROI based on media spend. It is especially important that individuals actively work to demonstrate success on platforms where their analytics are more guarded – an example being how data on Meta is much more guarded than on a platform such as Google.
Skroch noted that in business, you are always going to be selling. Whether that means selling to an investor or selling your business to prospective employees, it is important to consider your product in every situation. Similarly, Sharma described RateGain’s role in helping to boost hotel occupancy and improve businesses’ KPIs. One of the top ways that RateGain does this is through the use of technology to optimize hotels’ average daily rates (ADRs) and help to find the balance between knowing demand and not selling for too little or putting prices too high and consequently losing inventory. All three of the panelists also stressed how essential social media is in selling a product or brand, and how one of the best practices is to cast a wide net on social media and try to reach diverse audiences. In relation to social media, it is also important to note the apparent growth in influencer marketing. Skroch emphasized this transition and mentioned how he has progressively come to help advise on these influencer partnerships. Skroch detailed some key advice he offers to companies wanting to get involved with influencer marketing, most notably the importance of vetting influencers to ensure they are in a strategic location and positively align with the companies’ or properties’ brand.
The timely subject of the COVID-19 pandemic led to the panel’s discussion on changes in travel behavior since the pandemic. The course of the pandemic has brought about the biggest changes in the recorded history of travel and has brought about the need for forward-looking technology to better anticipate travel trends. Regarding some changes witnessed, Hawkes and Sharma noted the shift towards domestic and leisure travel and how while corporate travel will take time to return to its previous state, leisure travel is expected to soon overtake pre-pandemic levels. Similarly, there has been a growing emphasis on valuing experiences over material possessions in travel. Hawkes explained how through the pandemic, consumers have started to realize that life is short and creating valuable memories through travel is imperative and contributes to the overall richness of life. The pandemic also led to an increase in social activity on travel properties and contributed to consumers’ overall shift in shopping patterns and taking more time to think through options for travel. Part of this delay in planning is due to the ensuing transition to more of an untethered economy, providing many individuals the flexibility to travel and work remotely.
In concluding the discussion, Sharma, Skroch, and Hawkes were asked to provide any insights or recommended skills they may have for individuals entering the hospitality industry. Hawkes voiced that in terms of getting involved in technology, the earlier the better. By virtue of many attendees being part of the younger population, there is the inherent expectation that they will have more knowledge of technology and be a significant asset to companies in that regard. Additionally, narrowing in on a subject of interest often works to your advantage and allows those around you to see your deep-rooted passion and interest in the industry. This focus can also tie into the notion of having a key differentiator and definitively knowing what sets you apart. It is also important to remember that even if you go in with one focus, there is always room to grow and diversify your experiences. Finally, the panel unanimously agreed that the hospitality industry is intrinsically people-oriented. Relationships and teamwork are of the utmost importance, and it is recommended that individuals learn at the expense of someone else to gain new perspectives and better understand how they can build off of their professional relationships and improve their overall experiences in the industry.
Hawkes characterized entrepreneurship as “the fastest learning trajectory he has ever been on” and assured the audience that society has come to be very accepting of entrepreneurial spirit, and even failure. Big corporations are starting to appreciate entrepreneurs more and see the unique skills that entrepreneurs can bring to a company. As Skroch said in the discussion, there is no shortage of great ideas and if you have a business idea you are passionate about, you should take the leap and pursue it. It was an honor to host this discussion and the Tisch Center is grateful to Mr. Chinmai Sharma, Mr. Mark Skroch, and Mr. Ethan Hawkes for participating in this Fireside Chat and providing attendees with valuable insights into the hospitality technology sector.