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Why hotels must make room for innovation—and little bunnies: A talk with Cathy Enz

Professor Cathy Enz knows why hotels must get as good at welcoming innovation as they are at welcoming people. If she stays with you, make sure she has Wi-Fi—and the occasional stuffed bunny.

As a Professor of Innovation & Dynamic Management at the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration, can you tell us why innovation management is so key for the hospitality industry?

Innovation is about growth. In a mature industry like hotels, realizing above average rates of return and meeting performance expectations demand innovation.

But hotels can’t innovate by doing the things that they have been doing all along. Commercializing new ideas means rethinking, reinventing and modifying the status quo—it’s not about what worked yesterday.

This all sounds great—and that’s why this industry and so many others talk a good game around innovation. But I question whether they mean it, or whether they know what innovation truly entails. The thing that no one talks about is that innovation is hard work.

What expectations about innovation do your students typically bring to your classes?

My students are entrepreneurial and interested in new ideas, products and services. They expect to learn THE WAY to innovate. But there is no secret formula, only scaffolding on how to think about innovation.

People are influenced by a mythology that innovation is about “the guy” working in isolation. Think Edison, Einstein or Steve Jobs. But innovation is a team sport, and it doesn’t have a beginning or an end.

Everyone also thinks that good ideas will be embraced, which is so charmingly naïve. The sad truth is that it is difficult to move from what one is competent and skilled at to something new.

People resist loss, not change, and new ideas have some element of loss. People are all over the discovery part of innovation, but good innovation is always about execution.

What are the challenges to innovation in the hospitality industry?

The industry has many of the same misperceptions about innovation that my students do—but on a more complex scale of course.

The business franchise model is a big barrier to innovation. Franchisees are not locked into exclusivity. This creates a diffusion of innovation and loose treatment of intellectual property. Essentially owners can incorporate the best innovations from any of the companies into any of their properties.

And there’s the heterogeneity and sheer size of some industry players that makes innovating around services very tough. I often say that it’s hard to turn around a ship, but steering a dinghy is much easier. That’s why we often see smaller industry players make the first moves to seed innovation in hospitality.

What leadership traits are non-negotiable for managing successfully through innovation?

I think more in terms of behaviors rather than traits. Good leaders must be aggressive listeners. They must also have a deep commitment to information sharing and clear communication over and over again—even to the people they don’t like.

What industry innovations are you watching?

Intermediaries are driving a lot of innovation. They have the scale and market capitalization—without the physical assets—that go beyond what even the biggest hotel companies have, so I see them taking the lead in technology-driven innovation.

If intermediaries are good at technology innovation, where do you think hotels excel?

The heart and soul of hospitality is the person-to-person service experience. Engaging people with warm and welcoming behavior—truly treating them like guests. This might sound hokey, but this kind of earnest, genuine customer service that never feels forced distinguishes the industry.

As a rule, we don’t disappoint. Hotel operators spend a lot of time thinking about building customer relationships. There is innovation in this, but it’s process innovation, and that’s not the sexy stuff.

You have certainly experienced this kind of distinctive service from hotels. What was your most memorable experience?

I have had quite a few of them. The interesting thing is that mine are almost always when someone touches you with an unexpected kindness.

I’ll never forget taking a road trip in Arizona when my kids were little. We spent the night in an economy hotel. When we were on the road the next morning, we realized that my daughter had left her raggedy, well loved, and oh-so-special Little Bunny behind.

I called the hotel to ask if maybe they had found the bunny. They ended up mailing Little Bunny to us. They went the extra mile for us. It was this precious, unscripted gift. Moments like that keep me enamored with this industry.

So how do you describe yourself as a hotel guest?

I am a guest who pays attention to what is going on around me. I ask a lot of questions of employees. And yes, I time how long it takes to get services and I experiment.

Let me tell you about this hotel I visit often. The hotel charges me for a Wi-Fi connection for each of multiple devices, which I always ask about since the cost is high for three or four devices. They tell me every time that I stay with them that for just this one time, they will remove the extra charges from my bill. I’m fascinated that part of their protocol is essentially to scold the guest.

If a general manager asks me how my stay was, I’ll offer a short answer—“Fine, thanks.” The real test of a good hotelier is if he asks more questions. Rather than breathing a sigh of relief that I don’t have any problems he has to address, he wants my feedback and is willing to take constructive criticism.

What is the one hotel amenity that you can’t live without?

Forget those little shampoos. It’s absolutely Wi-Fi. I can sleep on the floor if I have access to my phone, computer and tablet—my life! And the easier and faster it is, the happier I am.

What does the guest experience look like in five years?

People may not want to hear this, but I think there are a lot of things that we do in the industry that are artifacts of another time. While tradition is a wonderful thing in some instances, I think holding too tightly to it will mean that hotels miss opportunities to rethink how things are done.

After all, this is where innovation starts.

Forget those little shampoos. It’s absolutely Wi-Fi. I can sleep on the floor if I have access to my phone, computer and tablet—my life!