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Hotel Moment episode #52: "Realizing the benefits of technology for hotel operations"
Hotel Moment episode #52: "Realizing the benefits of technology for hotel operations"
The Hotel Moment podcast — episode 52

Realizing the benefits of technology on hotel operations

In this week’s episode of the Hotel Moment podcast, Karen Stephens, Revinate’s CRO, and Tobias Koehler, Chief Commerical Officer at BIG MAMA Hotels, emphasize ways hoteliers can use technology to streamline operations. They also discuss how to become technologically savvy and gain confidence about digitization in hotels.

Tune in for some practical use cases for different types of hotel technology and tips on what hoteliers can do to level-up their tech education.

Red, yellow, and blue lines to indicate soundwaves.
Headshot of Karen Stephens

Meet your host

As Chief Marketing Officer at Revinate, Karen Stephens is focused on driving long-term growth by building Revinate’s brand equity, product marketing, and customer acquisition strategies. Her deep connections with hospitality industry leaders play a key role in crafting strategic partnerships. Karen is also the host of The Hotel Moment Podcast, where she interviews top players in the hospitality industry. Karen has been with Revinate for over 11 years, leading Revinate’s global GTM teams. Her most recent transition was from Chief Revenue Officer, where she led the team in their highest booking quarter to date in Q4 2023. Karen has more than 25 years of expertise in global hospitality technology and online distribution — including managing global accounts in travel and hospitality organizations such as Travelocity and lastminute.com

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Transcript

Karen Stephens: Hello and welcome everyone to the Hotel Moment podcast. I am your host, Karen Stephens, the Chief Revenue Officer of Revinate. And today I’m excited to be joined by Tobias Koehler, who is the Chief Commercial Officer for BIG MAMA Hotels. Hi Tobias. How are you?

Tobias Koehler: Hi Karen. Thank you for having me. I’m very good. How are you?

Karen Stephens: I’m wonderful. I’m so excited to see you. We’ve, we’ve had a past history together with some other brands that you worked for, most notably Ruby Hotels in Germany, and I’ve always considered you somebody who’s at the forefront, the forefront of kind of the digital transformation within hospitality. So it’s a true pleasure.

Tobias Koehler: Thank you so much. This is really kind of you.

Karen Stephens: Oh, excellent. Of course, of course. So before we get going, I have a few questions that I ask all of my guests just to warm us up. So I’ve got 5 questions. They’re really easy, you’ll know all the answers, so we’ll start with the first one, which was, when did you start working in the hospitality industry, and do you remember your first day on the job?

Tobias Koehler: Well, I really had to, to think about it because I already started working, um, in the hospitality industry during my school time because at some point, we decided to make– we want to make a trip without teachers, without parents or anything. So I said, okay, let’s just organize it ourselves. And so I put together a skiing trip for, yeah, first of all, 20 colleagues of mine and friends. And this has grown over the years to an event with up to 120 people and I built my own, uh, booking website in 2001.

Karen Stephens: Oh my gosh.

Tobias Koehler: And that’s how I, yeah, started to learn. I really love to create experiences and also combined with technology. And because I’m actually really lazy, so I always want to make it easy for myself and, using technology for that is super helpful and, yeah, saves me a lot of time.

Karen Stephens: That’s great. So the combination of technology and guest experience. That’s perfect.

Tobias Koehler: Simple. Yeah. And from that on, I, I always tried to, yeah, work in bars and, um, found out, yeah, event management is pretty cool. And, yeah, took some internships at a, airline for example, and, wanted to learn more. That’s why I studied tourism management in my master’s degree as well. And yeah, somehow, stopped, uh, at the hotels and yeah, found out this is really a great place to, to work and, for me, combined so many things with, hospitality, technology and, um, yeah.

Karen Stephens: That’s great. That’s excellent. Okay. Question number 2. What was the most uplifting moment so far in your career?

Tobias Koehler: Oh yeah, there were so many crazy moments and um, so many experiences. And what I found for myself is that opening a new hotel is always very special, especially, you know, when you start thinking about where you can actually place a hotel or, uh, where you can sign a hotel and start with the initial offer and go into, uh, the construction site, and then seeing it filled with people, filled with the furniture and, the first guest arriving.

This is super special. And, yeah, for me also very interesting and comparable with, building, um, new technology. Um, things in the background. Like for example, uh, at Ruby, we switched to a, a new PMS which was a project of almost 3 years, and until we had a rollout, rolled out for all those hotels.

And it is great to create something and then seeing it’s brought to life. Um, or being filled with life, with the guests, for example.

Karen Stephens: Yes, those are huge projects, so that’s exciting. Um, we do a lot over here at Revinate as well. So the big, big project launches, which require a lot of coordination across a lot of teams. Yeah, that’s exciting. Okay, so the third question. This is more personal now. So what is the most striking experience so far in terms of a personal food experience or holiday or stay?

Tobias Koehler: Yeah, that is a really good question because, um, I traveled a lot, and because I love traveling, I love experiencing other cultures and, um, had some stops at some wonderful hotels in my past. Also, I like to think back to the Honeymoon Hotel where we stayed in roads on, uh, on an island in Greece. However, what struck me the most is the hospitality that people give to their guests that don’t have much. Like, for example, I, what I experienced in Cambodia or Indonesia, where, I was, uh, in times before Airbnb, yeah, there was, there was, um, a platform called Couch Surfing. And, um, I was, uh, hosted by a friendly person. And he showed me around. He brought me to his family gathering. He, he brought me to a ceremony, uh, which was awesome, and so uplifting to see with how little things, wonderful experiences can be created. And um, yeah, this is something we tend to forget with all those material beautiful, shiny things we, we have.

And, um, thank you for bringing back this memory.

Karen Stephens: Yeah. And where was this in Indonesia? Where was it in Bali?

Tobias Koehler: That was in, in Bali, right. In, uh, near Ubud.

Karen Stephens: Yes. Ah, that’s a magical part of the planet. What a cool story. That’s great. Okay, so number 4. Have you met any celebrities while you’ve been in the trenches working in hotels?

Tobias Koehler: Well, knowing you, you’re from the U.S. you, you might not know them.

Karen Stephens: Okay. That’s okay. We can take it.

Tobias Koehler: They’re, so they’re, they’re, they’re, football players. Uh, soccer, uh, you would say.

Karen Stephens: Yeah, we have a, you know what? We have an office in Amsterdam and a lot of European customers, so let’s go.

Tobias Koehler: SLo I met, so I met Lothar Matthäus and Rudy Feller, which are, um, I think they, they won the, uh, world Championship in 1990, uh, during my time at Jumeirah and Frankfurt, where we hosted them. And, um, yeah, where I had a, where I did have a quick chat with them and was kind of shy, but also irritated because they were really small in comparison to what I was expecting from the, the pictures on the TV and so on.

Karen Stephens: Oh wow. Okay. Very cool. That’s nice. All right, well, we’ll give a shout-out to all of our European guests who are impressed or impressed by that, so that’s good. Okay. And then the last question, who are the women at work you have been most, inspired by?

Tobias Koehler: Very good question, and I really love that you’re, uh, trying to show female persons in, in our industry really make a difference. And for me, um, I didn’t have to think long about this, uh, is, Isabella Owen, which is or was my Director of Sales and Marketing during my time in at Jumeirah. And I learned so much, uh, from her in terms of marketing, branding, but also how to hustle. You know, when I thought, “I’m getting up so early today, nobody else is in the office. I’ll be the first one.”, she was already sitting there. And, since, yeah, Jumeirah was basically my first hotel job. I really had a lot of questions and I can imagine they were not always the smartest, and she always took the time to, um, explain me everything.

And, yeah, it really made a difference. And in the, in terms of thinking, in terms of, um, how to approach marketing and, I’ve been taking a lot of that from that experience. And yeah, there’s so many other women I’ve worked with, it’s, it’s hard to mention them all. I do want to mention also Anna Hoyer. Um, she’s the CEO if you will, from, the HSMA association in Germany. She’s doing such a great job in bringing together the industry. She’s always super positive and, and a super smart brain. Um, yeah, I learned also a lot from her how to counter hard experiences or um, not-so-friendly people in a very positive way.

Karen Stephens: Yeah, diplomacy. That’s right, that’s right. Wow. And we’ve certainly seen our fair share of, of interesting times, particularly in the DACH region, you know, not only with Covid, but now with everything that’s going on with with heating expenses and their energy and all of that. So, and we’re gonna talk a little bit about HSMA here in a minute, but before we get onto that, I wanna talk about BIG MAMA Hotels. Cuz, first of all, I love the name. I mean, right out of the gate, what a brand, but can you tell us a little bit about what the brand is, and where the hotels are, and all that good stuff?

Tobias Koehler: Sure. Uh, so, I joined BIG MAMA Hotels about one and a half years ago, and, um, David, one of the founders, um, approached me because he wants to, um, grow. And with BIG MAMA Hotels–BIG MAMA is a Berlin-founded family hotel actually. So they, they were founded in 2013, basically with the idea to make a hostel and hotel out of this building here in a maybe not-so-friendly neighborhood in Berlin, and let’s take it from there. And, yeah, what they’ve created is a really cool place to, to get together, to experience a really good time because, what is on the forefront of everything in, in there, is the experience with people.

the design of the place is also very interesting. Um, you get a lot of impressions, uh, in the public areas, uh, where you can talk about. But you meet so many great people starting from the receptionists over to the housekeepers. Everybody has their own story to tell and are so friendly and happy to share their personal experiences with you as a guest in the destination.

And 2019, they, um, took over another hotel in Leipzig, which is in Eastern Germany. And just this year we opened another hotel in Dortmund, in Eastern Germany. Some of you might know the, um, football club, Borussia Dortmund.

Karen Stephens: Okay. Very cool. Yeah, well I have to say Berlin is one of my favorite cities just cuz it’s so cool and eclectic. And I’ve had the honor of being there multiple times for ITB, which hopefully it’s back this year–ITB Berlin. I hope it’s gonna be a huge show. We’re really excited to be there yeah, but what a great city. It’s, it’s all hours. It’s a lot of great people. So I can see how um, a hotel that’s a hotel hostel, you know, a lot of different kinds of people coming through would be a really great experience.

Tobias Koehler: Yeah. Yeah. And the name by itself is, uh, derived from David’s mother, uh, Clarissa. She’s, uh, the OG “big mama”, if you will.

Karen Stephens: That’s so cool.

Tobias Koehler: That started with a nickname, you know, um, she’s, uh, having, uh, across the corner of the hotel there’s also, uh, ho, home for elderly people, which she managed. And, her nickname is, Big Mama and, while they were brainstorming about the name of the hotel, and asked so many people, at some point you just decided, let’s just call it BIG MAMA.

Karen Stephens: I love it. Well here, shout out to Clarissa, the, the OG big mama. I love it. I love it. Okay, so you mentioned before the Hospitality Sales and Marketing Association, so HSMA in Germany. Can you give our listeners a better idea of what kind of work HSMA does and why hoteliers should have HSMA in their toolkits.

Tobias Koehler: Sure. So HSMA is an association, uh, where you can get a member, uh, or become a member and, be part of, sharing knowledge and, bringing knowledge to, to our industry. Um, the great thing about HSMA is I think, that not only hotels yes, uh, can become a member, but also, um, partners from the industry.

Like I know that Revinate, for example, is a partner as well, and is part of HSMA, and HSMA, uh, lifts most of it from the events, and bringing people together. Um, for example, on the yearly HSMA day, whereas a big, congress, um, with interesting keynotes, with, uh, workshops, with all kinds of, um, information about the industry, about technology.

And, what we are trying to do is, um, gather knowledge and to everybody. And that’s maybe an important thing to know, um, Germany or the German-speaking areas, also in Austria and, uh, Switzerland is, driven by small and medium-sized, hotel companies rather than in the US, as far as I know, most of them are big brands. And all those small chains, all those family-run businesses, they really need some more input in terms of technology, in terms of how to do sales, maybe in terms of how to do marketing or just a place to exchange information, to exchange ideas. And, that’s where HSMA brings everybody together.

Karen Stephens: I just wanted to say, you know, I think that is so important because you know, as we kind of highlighted at the top of this, you’ve had a, a deep love for technology from the jump as well as experiences in, in hospitality. But a lot of, when you’re talking about smaller to medium-sized, either single hotels or smaller groups, in some areas they’re really just hospitality focused.

They might be family operated, so they haven’t had enough exposure. And to have an organization where you’ve got partner hotels that can come in and do some education, and of course, vendors are there as well. But, you know, I think hoteliers wanna have the full scope.

And I know that you recently gave a presentation there. Can you talk a little bit about the, the publication that you did through the organization about digitization and getting into that modern place?

Tobias Koehler: So, so what, what we’ve, put together, uh, during the last, uh, 3, 4 years are so-called “expert circles”-uh, where we try to gather experts, for example, from HR, from sales, from distribution, e-commerce. And one part is also the expert group technology that I’m part of.

And what we’ve been working on over the last year or half year is, a project that we call “back office automation”, where we want to put a focus on the general digitization of this time, not the customer, guest, or the guest journey, rather than what’s happening in the back of the hotel. Like what’s happening in HR, what’s happening in housekeeping, and so on, and how can digitization help to improve processes and, uh, costs or, um, several other things as well.

Karen Stephens: Yeah. And that’s great. And I think what was interesting when I was kind of going through the presentation itself is that this really improves not only the efficiency of the hotel, but also the satisfaction of the staff. Right? Because it helps to eiminate some of the monotonous tasked things that they’re doing and move that into more, you know, I think they could focus more on the more fun parts of their job, which have to do with guests.

Tobias Koehler: Absolutely. This is, this is something, I think Covid taught us the hard way, that, we need to make space for our colleagues to really take care of the guests, to take care, or to, enjoy the fun part of our jobs better. And, also looking at, um, how many people left our industry during those hard times. People don’t have too much time on their hands anymore, and it helps to look at all those processes, and how to make them easier, to make them maybe faster, or to even eliminate them with the help of technology.

Karen Stephens: Absolutely. Absolutely. So I know that we are, we’re talking a lot about, you know, even just basic tech adoption, which is something we all hope to come along, bring through the industry, but then, you know, it is changing very fast, and getting very advanced very quickly. So where do you think AI is gonna take us in the new world? So maybe talk a little bit about what AI is, and then where do you see that going, as we start to kind of come into 2023 and beyond?

Tobias Koehler: Very good question. I mean, um, this is the topic of the year I’d say or since, uh, or even last year since ChatGPT, um, was released. And everybody’s now talking about, uh, OpenAI. Now all those crypto guys have something new to talk about. And, what I really appreciate is how everybody’s really concentrating now on how can AI actually help us.

Yes, there are some people who questioning the whole role of AI in general. However, let’s quickly have a look at what AI can do for us in the hotel industry. So, artificial intelligence is something that can learn from patterns, that can learn from text, that can learn from all kinds of input and create their own ideas out of it. So if we’re looking at our industry in the hotel industry, and as well as, on the lack of staff, we can, for example, have so many cool, um, uses of AI. Um, let’s just say when we talk about the back office, um, in revenue management, for example–AI can easily identify, and I know that some of the, um, revenue management systems already do this, um, at what date, um, there’s a high demand, and maybe to raise prices, or to maybe do something, um, for a special target group. And also in terms of CRM to then, if the revenue management system realizes, “hey, we do have a need of, more bookings during this and that time?”, maybe ask the AI to create a newsletter about this.

So maybe only a person like the marketing department or um, can have a look at it and say, “yeah, that sounds good.” Maybe here and there a little tweak, and then go for it and send out a newsletter that’s– for example, one thing, uh, we’re currently trying, with BIG MAMA to make use of ChatGPT, and create newsletter targeted to different target groups. Also, have it create landing pages that are matching

Karen Stephens: Personalized.

Tobias Koehler: …what is said in the, in the newsletter. Exactly. And, for me, as currently, since we are at BIG MAMA for example, working on a, a very lean structure, meaning that we are only 2 guys in marketing at the moment, and running 3 hotels, and have a lot of other things on the plate, this helps us a lot, uh, to teach. So we recreate already some prompts, that the artificial intelligence already can write in a way that we would. Not only, uh, does it mention, yeah, do this, and that, and that; it says, it says whatever it has to say in our tone of voice that we created for a BIG MAMA and with every other prompt, with every other tweak, we tell it, it’s getting better and better.

And so, we save a lot of time. Also, for example, uh, what we are using it for is, at the moment, we are translating our website to French. And yes, we did have somebody translate it to French, but the person didn’t, um, translate sale relevant, um, tags,for example, or keywords or, the sentence that is shown then in Google when you search for, I don’t know, BIG MAMA Hotels group bookings. And that’s where ChatGPT helps us to create a, a copy for something in, in seconds, which I would have to make my mind up, uh, for a little bit longer.

Karen Stephens: Right. Yeah. Yeah. It takes a minute. Wow. That is really exciting. This what I’m talking about. You’re at the forefront. You’re really cutting-edge with this stuff. And I said it before, jokingly when we talked a few years ago, that, you know, you might have a job at Revinate someday. I’m just saying if you ever, if you ever wanna come to the dark side, come into technology over here. Uh, we also leverage a lot of machine learning and AI and have a lot of exciting things coming. As you said, it’s exciting because a lot of these platforms are open now, so if you, you know, if you’re not afraid to kind of jump in and roll up your sleeves and, and, and tinker around, you know, you can get a lot of things done.

Tobias Koehler: Exactly. That’s, that’s the main point. I would suggest to everybody to just play around. Try things out. You can’t break anything. That’s what I’m telling my colleagues. Always. in the times of, backups or whatnot, it’s really hard to break things, and I’d rather repair something, somehow, uh, than you didn’t test it.

And, um, so. Yeah, I think that is something that should be done by a lot more. Not always saying, “yeah, I don’t have time to try this new thing.” It’s always good to try new things. Yes, sometimes it’s a waste of time, but, um, from my experience, you, always learn independent of the results actually. And then, you know, it’s nothing for you.

Karen Stephens: Right. Exactly. Yeah. At least you know what you’re doing. You know, it’s interesting cuz I think everybody is so busy, but if we carve out time in our day to think strategically or you know, just get some time away to, you know, out of what you do day-to-day, and test and try and poke around And, and also seek out organizations like HSMA, whether you’re in the DACH region, or in other regions, finding organizations where you have colleagues—people in your field who are willing to share that information. It’s really worth your time.

Tobias Koehler: Absolutely. No, I think, um, that’s exactly the point we’re, we’re not competing, um, in these terms. And I think there are enough guests out there. Uh, so we can only learn from each other. And, um, it’s always great to, because I’m really super enthusiastic about all those things, and I’m trying them out. And it’s always also good to then discuss this with people, and they’re like, “Hey, have you thought about uh, terms, I don’t know, privacy or something? Maybe not, but good that you’re imagining it!”

Karen Stephens: Yeah.

Tobias Koehler: Yeah.

Karen Stephens: I love it. I love it. Well, hey Tobias, this has been awesome. So, so just so our listeners know, where can they find more information on BIG MAMA Hotels? What’s the URL for that?

Tobias Koehler: So visit us on, uh, bigmamahotels.com or join us on Instagram. That’s our most active channel there. And, hit us up on LinkedIn. I think all of us are happy to answer any kind of questions or reach, uh, out to anything. Um, it’ll be great to stay in touch.

Karen Stephens: Absolutely. This has been a delight. Thank you so much Tobias, and I wish you, a great 2023 and have fun in Berlin at ITB. Hope to see everybody there.

Tobias Koehler: Yeah, thank you.

Karen Stephens: Absolutely, thank you.

Tobias Koehler: Thank you for having me. Bye-bye.

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