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Hotel Moment episode #55: "What can hoteliers do to stay grounded in their guest connections?"
Hotel Moment episode #55: "What can hoteliers do to stay grounded in their guest connections?"
The Hotel Moment podcast — episode 55

What can hoteliers do to stay grounded in their guest connections?

In this week’s episode of the Hotel Moment podcast, Karen Stephens, Revinate’s CRO, and Sean Dee, Chief Commercial Officer at Outrigger Hospitality Group, explore the ways strong guest relationships impact your hotel’s success. They dive into how monitoring guest feedback can improve the stay experience, and why embracing local offerings can help guests feel more connected to your property.

Tune in to gather inspiration for strengthening your relationships with guests, so you can increase loyalty.

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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Hotel Moment episode #55 quote graphic about guest satisfaction.

Monitoring guest feedback

The anchor of hospitality

Hotel Moment episode #55 quote graphic about embracing local communities.

Embrace what is local

Balancing technology and human connection

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 am joined by Sean Dee who is the Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer for Outrigger Hospitality Group. Welcome, Sean.

Sean Dee: Aloha. Hey, Karen.

Karen Stephens: Aloha. That’s right.

I’m very excited. Um, a lot of people are listening to this, uh, on a podcast, but for those of you on YouTube, you know that Sean is wearing a Hawaiian shirt, and I’m excited about that. So it’s always great, uh, to have, uh, someone from Hawaii on the call. And I think when people think about Outrigger, they think about Hawaii, and we just crested 75 years, uh, in hospitality for the Outrigger Group, so congratulations on that.

Sean Dee: Thanks. I’m looking okay for 75.

Karen Stephens: You’re looking great.

Sean Dee: It’s our, it’s our company’s, company’s anniversary. And, uh, but I did have one, one small clarification cuz our head of operations would be like, wait a minute, that guy, he’s not an ops guy. Although, actually, technically, I did start in the ops side, but I’m actually the chief commercial officer, so.

Karen Stephens: Oh, I’m sorry.

Sean Dee: No, no, and it’s, and part of the reason it’s relevant for your audience, it’s very relevant. One of the things. One of the tools that I oversee as part of uh, my day-to-day work is the rev, the Revinate tool.

Karen Stephens: So there we go. Chief Commercial Officer. Thank you for the correction. You know, it’s funny cuz if my title has revenue in it, a lot of people think that I’m in finance and it is important to clarify what we’re all doing.

Great. So I wanna hear all about Outrigger and your role there, but I have a few questions to start if that’s okay with you? Okay, so the first question.

Sean Dee: Fire away.

Karen Stephens: You got it. The first question we ask all of our guests, when did you start working in the industry in hospitality and do you remember your first day on the job?

Sean Dee: I actually do remember my first day and, and it kind of depends. I was, I had the benefit of getting some pre-questions, so I, I had a chance to reflect on my career and I was trying to debate what exactly, or how exactly do we define the industry? So I’m gonna put it loosely as hospitality, um, but I’ve worked across actually a variety of industries.

But if you say hospitality, I actually started working at a little restaurant called Pearls Oyster Bar, which is long gone, unfortunately, in Palo Alto, California when I was blessed to go to Stanford and was trying to work my way through school. And so I took a summer job at Pearl Oyster Bar. And I remember going to the first day as a server, and true story, shucking oysters.

That was actually.

Karen Stephens: Oh wow.

Sean Dee: My job, which was actually a really fun job, frankly, a way to meet girls, I have to be totally honest, what I was trying to do. And so I went to my first day, I went a few, few minutes early and the GM was like, “oh, it’s great. Yu’re here early. You can come to the fish meeting.” I said, “What? What the heck is a fish meeting?” Right? And so what it was, was they would actually, the chefs, the GM, and a bunch of the servers would gather together as a group. It wasn’t a big restaurant, maybe 10, 15 of us, and go over the menu. Cuz every day the menu changed. It was always whatever was fresh. And then when it was gone, it was gone. So the whole premise of the, the fish meeting was basically to, to brief the staff on the best and the greatest.

And we hadn’t, we had no menus at the restaurants. Everything was handwritten on a chalkboard. Every day. And then the chef would bring out and give people a chance to sample products they may never heard of. A lot of the seafood in the Bay Area, you know, changes pretty dramatically over the seasons and based on what you could get.

So it was an early lesson on kind of, you know, a pre-operation meeting, how to market to guests, you know, basically real real-time delivery if, if you will, of a food, a food and beverage experience. But I, I, I remember that to this day.

Karen Stephens: Oh, that’s so cool. You know what, and I, I also started, uh, I guess if you count hospitality, going back to restaurants as well. I started as a server as well when I was in college.

And I think it’s great for everybody to, to get that kind of experience, you know, that’s really front lines customer service and, you know, really, really learning the ropes.

Sean Dee: Well, and if, you know, if you, if you, and it sounds like you’ve had the role as, I’m convinced people that actually worked in the service industry are a lot better customers.

Karen Stephens: Amen to that. Amen to that. Yeah. Okay, next question. So, what was the most uplifting moment so far in your career?

Sean Dee: That, that is such an ambitious question, right? And so, you know, I, I was, was reflecting on that, and I, I, I’ve been blessed to have a long and prosperous career. And there there’s been many, many uplifting moments from starting foundations.

I oversaw a foundation with, uh, with Hard Rock in Orlando. Uh, I oversaw a couple different foundations for AEG, including the Grammy Museum, which to me was really uplifting. So these are 501c3s that raise money for everything, for music education to, you know, saving the planet as it relates to hard work.

We actually now have a foundation here at Outrigger called Outrigger Cares, that we stood up during the pandemic, right? What’s the old expression? Never let a great crisis go to waste, right? So we actually were able to do some good things. But the thing that actually, it, it ties back to Covid and the pandemic that, uh, has stuck with me is we had to close the majority of our hotels for a period of time, some as long as 18 months.

And one of our properties that we had just finished renovating and then had to close was the Outrigger Waikiki Beachcomber, which we call our first craft hotel, right on Kalakaua, uh, Avenue. And it’s anchored by a Maui Brewing Company, hence the craft designation. We have activity sales there, concierge, aroma cafe as well, all local operators.

But that was one of the properties we had to shut for nearly 18 months. So I went to the property the day it opened, and as I came through the lobby, The concierge, it’s actually an outsourced concierge, but a phenomenal, uh, operator, Blue Hawaiian Helicopter Tours, actually is our partner. This big guy who I’ve known for a long time, but I hadn’t seen him for almost a year and a half — He comes up and gives me a hug. And I’m, I would say, my wife may argue, but I’m, I don’t think I’m that huggable of a person and this guy is not. So the 2 of us hugging each other in the lobby, it was a little bit weird and it wasn’t very busy. I said, “why are you hugging me?” He goes, “I just booked a family 4 for a helicopter tour.” He goes, “I have not sold an activity in a year and a half.” And he goes, “just thanks for giving me a purpose again.” So that was pretty intense. Yeah.

So I go to the restaurant and the restaurant’s open. The first day I go to the bars. Now it’s like 4:30 in the afternoon and I, it was just a long day. So, I ordered a, a beer from the, from the bartender and she starts crying. I, I said, “what’s wrong?” I said, I said, “are you okay?” And she goes, “I remember you. You’re one of the executives that comes to our properties and, and is always really positive, and brings us a lot of business.” She goes, “I got my first tip today in 18 months.”

Karen Stephens: Wow.

Sean Dee: And so, you know, we’re, we’re so focused on recovery in the pandemic that you kind of forget that this is people’s livelihoods. This gives them not only, you know, a means of surviving and, and prospering, but also for many of them it’s, it’s their sense of purpose to have, to have a job. So, you know, a lot, a lot’s transpired before and after that, but, but to me, those are some powerful human moments that are connected to the industry that I think sometimes we just take for granted.

Karen Stephens: Absolutely. I mean, we have a lot of customers including Outrigger in Hawaii, and I know that Covid pandemic was hard for all of us, but particularly for markets like Hawaii where it’s, you know, relied so heavily on tourism for everything. You know, it’s that inbound traveler when that got cut off. So really glad to be sitting on this side of it.

And what a great story too. You know you hear about people recovering in more ways than one. That’s awesome. Uh, so speaking about kind of food and, and hotels and all of that, what’s your most striking experience so far in terms of a stay or a restaurant or food for you?

Sean Dee: Well, I was gonna, building kind of on the covid and the pandemic theme, I had sort of a, I guess, a life-changing moment happen for me, kind of right in the middle of the pandemic. We basically, you know, everything shut down. We kept 4 of our properties open around the world for a variety of reasons, but mainly to service critical healthcare workers, air crews. There’s still people flying cargo and pilots needed a place to stay.

So some of our, our properties stayed open. Um, but I moved my family, they were outta school. They had nowhere to go, so I moved them to, we call it, “the big island” or “Hawaii island”, which is 1 of the 4 main islands. And that, that’s actually where my wife’s family’s from — where we were married. And so it’s a special place for us.

And so we had some other relatives come and join us and we’re blessed to have a house there. So we spent almost 2 and a half months kind of sequestered, I mean like right after Covid broke out. So the resorts were closed, the Mauna Kea Resort — very famous resort, the Westin Hapuna, which is connected to it, were completely shut down.

I think they ended up having to furlough close to a 1,000 employees at those properties. And so, we were involved with food drives and raising money for those people because they literally had no job and no, no, no real means of, you know, supporting themselves. Um, and then I flew back and forth every week here.

A few of the executive teams stayed in place and, uh, we worked through the pandemic, you know, together. But with the properties closed, you suddenly had access to these incredible beaches with no people, you know, maybe a fisherman here, here or there, a painter. I mean, it’s, it was just an incredible, you know, change.

And so, 1, I decided to take my daughters down to the beach — Kona Honu Beach, very again, very famous beach, but usually pretty busy and crowded. And they had left the lights on in the bay, and so the bay lights were attracting manta rays and they usually had manta rays, but a lot of boats and congestion. Well, there’s no people. It’s pitch black. The, I mean, literally the, the resort is closed, but they give you access to the beach and the state here for Hawaii, the beaches are public, and although they were closed for a period of time, incredibly, you could go to the water, but you couldn’t stop on the sand. I mean, that’s how, that’s how nuts things were for a while, so, right?

I took my, my, my daughters and they were 4 and 8, I wanna say, at the time. And we took ’em out. We’ve got some, you can get diving lights, and I said, let’s go and see if there’s any mantas. And they’re a little trepidatious, little nervous about it. And you know, 2 hours later we had walked down the beach and walked out to the middle of the bay and we had literally the bay to ourselves.

And we’re surrounded by hundreds of giant, Imean, these are the biggest manta rays you’ve ever seen. Because the big ones had come in. They weren’t worried about, you know, being hit by a boat or something like that. So, you know, I had, it’s sort of a, I know it’s not a stay per se, but you know, it just reminded me the importance of connecting with my family, connecting with nature, you know, um, and then again doing it in this incredibly iconic kind of surreal moment, you know, at 9, 10 o’clock at night and pitch black.

So, you know, well, I know my daughters will keep that memory forever. And my wife actually came to the point and videotaped us. So we have it actually now as sort of a, something to look at whenever we’re frustrated by traffic.

Karen Stephens: Right.

Sean Dee: Work. Say, “okay, hold on.” There’s moments that we’ve had that will cherish forever.

Karen Stephens: Right. That is a striking experience. So that fits the bill. That is definitely a striking experience. So, wow, that is so cool.

Sean Dee: And actually as a, I have to give a plug since I’m here with, with Revinate and it’s somewhat of a commercial experience. Yeah. Since then, we’ve actually acquired, Outrigger has acquired a property on the big island just in Kona, the Outrigger Kona Resort and Spa. And, and it arguably is the top place in the world to see manta rays. So you can go, we call it a signature experience, right off the point right in front of our property any day of the week and join people. And for those who, who are scared, my little daughter has told people many times, they don’t eat people, they eat plankton.

Karen Stephens: I think you’ll be alright.

Sean Dee: They’re not gonna hurt you. And it’s a, it’s a super fun experience. So come out to Outrigger and swim with the mantas. It, it, it is something that will, will change your life.

Karen Stephens: Wow. Done. I’m there. No, that’s fantastic. Okay, question number 4. Have you met any celebrities while in the trenches?

Sean Dee: So how, however I answer this, I’m gonna come off sounding totally, you know, vain or whatever the right, the term is.

Karen Stephens: Name dropper?

Sean Dee: Name dropper. Yeah. It’s just because, because the truth of the matter is I, I’ve been blessed. I grew up in Southern California. I grew up in LA and my uncle was actually a big, pretty suc — he’s still alive, successful Hollywood producer. He was Merv Griffin’s partner for many, many years and ran Merv Griffin Studios. And so as a kid we’d go to the shows and we grew up in Hollywood, basically in LA going to — so celebrities were just kind of part of the mix. I mean, if you live in LA and you were in the, in the industry, you didn’t really think about it as anything special. It’s just kind of who you were spending time with. And so I actually worked, I was a runner, which basically is the lowest level PA, right? That’s you’re just the go, the errand guy for a show called Dreamgirl USA. And I always joke with my uncle, like his timing was wrong. It was, you know, America’s Got Talent before America’s Got Talent, you know, hit it in a big way.

So I, I was a showrunner for that show, and then went to college and it was kind of my first paid gig. Not technically hospitality, but in the entertainment space. And then, since then, I went to work for a big agency in San Francisco — Levi’s. Which Levi’s, our bread and butter was putting jeans on celebrities, you know, from, you know, Madonna, you know, to Shakira to, you know, you name it. That was what we did. We worked with stylists, we worked with the artist direct, and music was really, really important to us.

From there, I went to become the first CMO for Hard Rock International. And at the end of the day, that’s Hard Rock’s, whole positioning, right?

Karen Stephens: Yeah.

Sean Dee: And so, it’s not just our restaurants, actually, we grew it to, I think about a 100 now, hotels and casinos around the world. Live music venue. So every day at a Hard Rock, everywhere around the world were celebrities. That was the whole, we had no marketing budget, we had no PR budget. We just worked with artists and musicians and acquired their memorabilia and helped them promote themselves. So, you know, I’ve been blessed to be on stage, you know, Bruce Springsteen to Ozzy Osborne to Shakira again.

Karen Stephens: Oh my gosh.

Sean Dee: Amazingly to Will, and the Black-Eyed Peas. So again, I’ll, I’ll be called a relentless name dropper, and I, I, I don’t want that to be the case, but to me, celebrities are just real people. They’re just like us. They just happen to do it in a kind of a, a rarefied air at times with a lot more attention, you know, autumn, than we have to deal with.

And so I’ve always been sensitive to the pressure that they’re under as real people. They got husbands, and wives, and family. So, we host a lot of ’em. Uh, after Hard Rock, I went to work for a company that’s not well known, Anschutz Entertainment Group, but AEG Live is Coachella and Stage Coach. You know, Taylor Swift is a, an AEG artist.

You know, the list goes on and on. They own the Lakers, our portion of the Lakers, the Galaxy with David Beckham, et cetera. So I’ve pretty much been in the entertainment and hospitality space my whole career. And then 10 years ago, came here to Hawaii to work with, uh, with Outrigger. And, you know, we continued to host, you know, again, celebrities, whether it’s local musicians. We just took, um, about 8 of them to the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles during Grammy week to celebrate Hawaiian music. So these are the best Hawaiian musicians. And this year we had a big emphasis on hula. Which is becoming a more well-known, you know, dance form if you will. Art form really? And it’s spectacular.

And so, and are these celebrities? To me, they’re just people that we work with, and just talented people. I know no one wants to see me dance or, or sing. So my job is to give a platform.

Karen Stephens: We leave it to the professionals. Yes. That’s great. I actually, when I was getting ready for the segment, I actually saw the, the clip of, um, the Grammys with all of the local, uh, Hawaiian musicians that were there.

And I thought, “wow, that is really cool.” But I had no idea that your experience with celebrities was so vast in all the different ways. That’s really cool.

Sean Dee: Some get, you know, not, not the same pay grade as, as any of ’em, to be clear. Right?

Karen Stephens: Well, sure. But how fun, I mean, it’s just what a, you know, it’s, it’s nice when you wake up in the morning, you’re like, ah, I’m ready to go to work and I’m gonna have a good time.

It sounds like, sounds like you’ve had a lot of that, which is awesome.

Sean Dee: Yes, it’s, uh, well, and I, I’m a believer if, if you can handle, you know, the needs of, of some of our celebrity folks, you know, you can handle pretty much everyone. I mean, I, I have some hilarious stories. Think things that certain celebrities wanted, you know, from the Green Room build, you know, we only want green M&Ms.

Those stories are real. They actually, they exist to an artist who shall be nameless in a 6,000-seat live music venue, did not like the major chandelier and said, “I, I refuse to play unless somebody takes the chandelier away.” It’s like, it’s built into the ceiling. Like you can’t.

Karen Stephens: Oh my gosh.

Sean Dee: So we can’t, we can’t take that chandelier away. So anyhow, I digress. But it’s been a, it’s been a, it’s been a ride.

Karen Stephens: Yeah, that’s great. Okay, last question for you. Who are the women at work you’ve been most inspired by?

Sean Dee: You know, that, that’s, that’s an awesome question and, um, a little serendipitous. In fact, the VP of Corporate Communications, who didn’t start as the VP,, but she now is on my team.

So as the Commercial Officer, the Corporate Communications, uh, if you will, discipline, uh, reports into me that’s internal and external. So she’s recently been, well, she was promoted a few years ago. She has continued to grow more job responsibilities. Monica Salter is her name, and she just was named one of the, I think it’s 10, I forget the exact number Women who Mean Business in Hawaii by Pacific Business News, which is obviously our, our local B2B, you know, pub. So we’ve expanded her role to include, you know, at the time it had a different title, but now it’s all the ESG initiatives, right? With a focus on the environment at Outriggeer.

If you think about us, we’re always on the beaches. We’re known for being Hawaiian and being on the beaches. We’re surrounded by coral reefs. So the health of the oceans is really, really important to us. And so the environmental side of ESG, they’re all, they all matter. But, that part is something we lean into. We call it the Outrigger Zone, but it’s basically our, our coral reef conservation initiative.

And she, she champions that. So I’m super, uh, proud of her and inspired by. Also within, uh, Outrigger is a woman named Jenna Villalobos, who actually would be familiar to probably some of, uh, some of your listeners. Uh, she has been recognized by HSMA recently as top 25 minds in the usiness. Super smart lady, very data-driven, very inspirational, oversees our call center, which is based in, uh, in, based in Denver.

So yeah, the, the, I think the, the women who inspire me, you know, today are the women on my team and both of them are Vice Presidents who have been promoted. So I’m very proud of, of — and I was thinking, I, I track back to my time at Foote, Cone Belding and Levi’s. I mean, we hired a woman named Jen, say, who’s been, been in the news a little bit because she was the president of Levi’s. But I worked with her for many, many years, helped get her promoted up the, up the system, if you will. So I think she was 1 of the first Presidents. I know Laine Zackham is a, a good buddy who’s now retired and Jenk. And then a woman named Anna Brockway, who now founded a company called Cherish, which is, uh, a great company that does basically high-end consignment goods, uh, online a hundred percent.

So a lot of these folks have done well in the digital space, uh, Anna. And then, you know, both Hard Rock and at AEG, I was able to get women promoted onto the leadership teams for the first time in the history of those companies. It sounds odd, but we had no women actually in executive roles at those places when I started.

So really proud of the team that I’ve had. And then, um, along the way I’ve had some great mentors and women that I’ve worked with from my time at Foote, Cone Belding with Becky Sager, who is, uh, now retired but was Senior at Schwab and Visa, uh, and other, and others like her. It’s, I’m excited to see the opportunities for women, cause I have 2 young daughters.

Yeah. Um, continue to expand in, in all different industries, but specifically the hospitality industry.

Karen Stephens: Yeah, that’s great. So shout out to all those ladies you mentioned. That’s really, really cool. Um, and I think you know it, it’s funny you say, oh, it’s, it’s shocking that we didn’t have women on the boards. It’s, it’s crazy ho slow progress has been on a lot of different levels, but I think now things are, are happening. Um, I love that question because I get so many great answers and so many accomplished women, so thank you for that. That’s great. Okay, so shifting gears a little bit, let’s talk about Outrigger.

We, as I mentioned at the top of the show, I think a lot of people, Outrigger Hospitality is synonymous with Hawaii. We think about, we think about that, uh, a lot. Can you tell us, we’ve had a lot of international expansion, uh, without Outrigger over the last few years. Can you give us just kind of the high level of what the, what the group is today and the countries you operate in?

Sean Dee: Sure. And, uh, thanks for the acknowledgment. Yeah. We’ve been on a pretty good expansion, uh, track, actually twice I’ve been with the company, uh, just under 10 years. When I started, we were owned by the Kelly family. So a privately held family company. To your point, always based in Honolulu. And, but the family was concerned in terms of the concentration of wealth all being in one place.

And, and literally, if you think about this, you know, a hurricane, a tsunami, and suddenly 3 generations of wealth can be wiped out. And so their pivot was to expand into Asia. What we felt Outrigger was already known for was beaches in Hawaii. Well, could we be known for, you know, beach destinations all over the world where people from the mainland go, but also from Japan and Australia, where we actually had some pretty high brand awareness and that led us to an expansion track to Thailand, Mauritius, Fiji, where we had a presence, uh, and the Maldives. But, the common thread to all those places is either island or beach communities, generally in the tropics. And so, uh, at 4 to 4 and a half star family oriented types of properties. And so that really helped us also not only support our development objectives, but also our brand positioning objectives.

We wanna be known as the premier beach resort company in the world and really deliver on high guest expectations for service level. Uh, but then continued investment in product as well as the renovations. And then also in terms of new acquisitions. So we were on that expansion, we contracted a little, little bit in the mid-2010, 2016.

We were acquired by, uh, private, uh, equity company, KSL Capital. And they liked the brand. They liked the company. I think they felt they could invest a little bit more in the people, the systems, and also the product. And that was something that was a little bit of a, a legacy issue. So they sold some properties, and then over the last few years have now been reinvesting again.

So we’ve actually expanded in Hawaii. I mentioned the Kona property, that’s the new Outrigger, uh, Kona Resort and Spa, and then really doubled down in Asia. So we’ve acquired in the last 18 months, uh, 3 new properties in Thailand, a certain beach, a really interesting area called Calak, which is about an hour. Uh, Phuket Island and then Costa Mui, where we had been before.

We’re now back with a really beautiful asset. These were 3 properties that had been shut during Covid that we, uh, acquired, and then we were back in the Maldives. We acquired a 6-star spectacular, really nice luxury, uh, resort in what they call the South Ari atoll. There’s about a 100 atolls that are inhabited up and down on about a 1,000 islands, and we’re in what they call the seaplane corridor.

So you can fly just 20 minutes from the main airport, uh, to our property. So 81 keys, mainly over water. Uh, and I always butcher the island, but Maafushivaru. I’m gonna go with that. Maafushivaru. Outrigger Maafushivaru. I’m somewhere where somebody’s cringing on my team saying, don’t let him even say it.

Karen Stephens: Don’t even go there.

Sean Dee: Say the word.

But, so we, so it’s been, it’s been really, really, really good for, uh, for us as a brand and a company to have a private equity firm backing us and investing in us. Uh, and really, I think if you haven’t been to an Outrigger in a while, you know, I urge you to come check it out. We’ve invested heavily in the um, a lot of the systems obviously to, to make sure we’re competitive with the, the biggest brands.

We’ve got good brand awareness, but a lot of people think of us from 15 to 20 years ago. And our, our pipeline is pretty robust. We’re hoping to announce 2 new deals here, uh, first quarter,

Karen Stephens: Oh great.

Sean Dee: Uh, which we continue to grow. And we’re the, the majority of what we operate is under the Outrigger Resorts, uh, brand itself.

So that’s, that’s the growth vehicle for us.

Karen Stephens: Great. So let’s talk a little bit about, yeah, brand experience, guest experience, and consistency across all of those different hotels in different locations. And you mentioned investment in technology, but can you kind of tell us how you think about that as the Chief Commercial Officer when you’re trying to be consistent and, and grow the brand across different, different geos?

Sean Dee: Well, it’s, it’s, it’s been exciting to be part of this, you know, transformation, if you will, going back a decade. I, I remember my first orientation with the HR department and they talked to me about this process that they had, that they developed with a, a gentleman, a cultural historian, Dr. George Kanahele, who’s no longer with us. But he worked with Outrigger about 25 years ago, and developed the system that they called the Outrigger Way.

And basically it’s kind of a proprietary, somewhat unique training methodology for our hosts. We call all of our staff, hosts. And there, there’s a purpose for that, and it basically creates this linkage between the host, and the place, and the anchor is the place. And so we want to be the experts on the place.

So we don’t take Hawaiian culture to Fiji. In Fiji, we celebrate what we call the Bula culture. The Bula spirit. And then we have 2 properties, 1 Castaway Island — very unique place. And then another I, another, um, on the Coral Coast we call it. And those are very different in terms of the villages, and who lives there, and the history of the place, et cetera.

So we really dig in with our hosts, and as well as our guests, and try to connect that sense of place back to Outrigger. And so when this, when I was briefed on this, I said, “well, that’s the platform for all of our marketing.” And they looked at me like, “no, no, you have to do special advertising.” I said, “No, no, no. All we need to do is showcase the Outrigger Way. That’s the, that, that, that’s the heart and soul who we are. We’re a hospitality company. It’s all about our host culture. And our host culture’s unique. And it’s what we train on and it’s super authentic.”

And 10 years later, you know, we’re blessed to have new owners that embrace this. And, uh, CEO’s been with us about 4 years who fully embraces this. So the anchor of our hospitality model is the Outrigger Way, and we continue to reinforce that, you know, every day in terms of bringing it to life.

You know, I remember 1 of the ops, uh, leads, I said, “Well, how do you train on it?” And he said, “Well, it’s all here in the heart.” I said, “Well, that, that’s interesting.” I said, “It’s hard to train that. I obviously gotta recruit.” Uh, and so we worked on creating guest experiences, the interface basically between our guests and our hosts that reinforces that sense of place. And we call ’em signature experiences.

So as an example, in the Kona property, I mentioned the manta ray diving, you know, is a, is a signature experience. We think we operate the best luau, the most authentic luau. It’s a third generation family and we operate 2 times a week at that property. And then we have cultural tours of the whole area, the area’s actually the birthplace of Kamehameha the third. The birthstone is actually there. It’s just about a 10-minute walk away. So under the direction of our cultural, uh, leader Rolinda Beam, we actually do cultural tours, not like once a week — every day. And then they Aloha Center their anchors, those activities, and we, and so we, that’s the same methodology really at all our properties.

But what’s unique is we try to embrace what’s local and unique to the place and bring that to life for our guests. We also, we think, 1 of the, 1 of the stronger hospitality companies, uh, in terms of bringing experiences to life if they involve music and live entertainment.

So we talked about the Grammy artists earlier. So 7 nights a week here in Waikiki and Kaupua Grill. We have live Hawaiian music every night. It’s free. It’s part of how we want people to enjoy, uh, their stay at Outrigger. And then the reef itself, where that property is located is really, uh, it, it, it’s, it, it’s a combination of, of respect for the history with the paintings and the art, and then a nod to more contemporary culture as well.

So the mix artist is old and new and the language is celebrated and, and the music is celebrated every day throughout the property. So that’s a, a little bit of how we do it.

Karen Stephens: I love it. I love it. It’s really the authentic experience of the culture that you’re going to visit and having that come out through hosts and just the idea of saying hosts instead of, whatever word we might also use, you know, the front desk or somebody who’s in reservations. But it’s like, no, we’re, we’re hosting you in our home.. I love it. That’s really cool.

Uh, so one thing you mentioned, we were talking a little bit about the pandemic and the, and the hotels coming back online. Are all of the third-party, uh, vendors or I guess, outlets that you work with as part of these resort properties? Can you give us an idea? Because it sounds like you go into 1 of these hotels and there’s a lot of services and things that you can access from the hotel. So can you gimme an idea of how you work with those 3rd-parties and, and what innovations you’re seeing on that side of things

Sean Dee: No, it’s, it’s a great question.

It’s, uh, it’s a little bit unique. I mean, I, my background was more sort of on the owned and operated side and controlling most of the outlets. Outrigger’s history’s a little bit different and, and it, it dates way back to, to the Kelly’s where they built their lobbies even on the second floor of their hotels so that the first floor they could monetize with higher-end rent for third-party retail.

And that would take some of the risk out, but then it also creates a complexity, right? And to the guests, it’s all the same. They don’t know that it’s run by third-party or not, and we treat it that way. So we actually train all of our third-party partners on the Outrigger Way kind of expectations.

We use both Unifocus as well as Revinate as tools to basically monitor how we’re doing. We have a proprietary program with, uh, with KSL called the Four Keys. It’s basically creating guests for life and we measure things on productivity levels, uh, ultimately leading to the recommended score. “Would you recommend Outrigger, the stay at Outrigger to a friend and family?” And that for us as we feel like if people are saying yes to that, that’s the the 90% level we want to get to.

So we have very, it’s very metric driven at the service, at the service side.

And then from a partnership standpoint, again, the training, the ongoing testing that happens on a, on a, on a frequent basis.

And it’s also picking great partners. I mean, I really feel we’ve got best-in-class partners in a place like, you know, Honolulu on the restaurant side. Very difficult to make, you know, cost of goods is high, cost of labor is super high, rents high, et cetera. So you have to be very selective, you know who you work with.

And we’re blessed to work with a company like TS Restaurants, which is famous for Duke’s Hula Grill. And then Handcrafted. We’re about to open a new handcrafted, a Monkey Pod by Peter Merriman at the Outrigger Reef. And we currently operate the, the, um, not the monkey pod, sorry, but the, uh, Maui Brewing Company with our friends from Handcrafted as well.

So I think it’s having, making the right choice up front with a, a third, the right third-party. We then partner with them. So we invest with that partner. So we’re also invested in the mutual success, and then a lot of ongoing dialogue about how to make sure the operations continue to exceed, uh, the guest expectations.

And, you know, I was, I was thinking about this discussion and technology has come up a, a little bit and it’s really a pretty significant, I think, game changer for the restaurant business here in, in Hawaii. And 1 of the, 1 of the challenges, you know, we expected after Covid that guests would not want housekeepers in the room and they would want contactless check-in at the front desk and that they wouldn’t wanna see a lot of people.

It’s absolutely not the case. So what we have found is people want housekeeping daily. They wanna check in and get a lai when they check into the hotel. They are paying you. They’re paying resort prices. They’re on a trip of a lifetime, even post Covid, and they want that type of interaction. So that actually challenges us to, to pivot a little bit on the restaurant side though.

You know, staffing has been really, really, really hard, a struggle, right? And so how can technology be utilized from the simple QR code that takes the place of a menu to now be basically being able to order off of iPads or centralized point of sale system and then the food to be delivered to, you know, at the table. So it’s cut the labor down significantly. The concern, you know, I have personally is, is that the right, you know, guest expectation in terms of delivery?

And so I think technology has allowed a lot of our restaurants to be able to continue to function because they’re just, they don’t have the staffing capacity that they once have. But what’s the expectation of the guest and technology to deliver at that guest expectation level? I think that’s a, for me, that’s a, a TBD.

I think we’re gonna, we’re gonna see over the next few years how that shakes out, especially in leisure resort destinations. I think when you’re on a business trip and you know, a, a big box hotel, you’re looking for speed, efficiency, and the experience isn’t as important. When you’re with a family of 4 or 6 and you’re spending, you know, resort prices and resort destinations, I think your expectation is for uh, a much, a much greater experience than, uh, than maybe technology can allow for. So there’ll be some, I think, balancing and shakeout here over the next couple years.

Karen Stephens: Between those 2. Yeah, I think you’re right. I think you’re right about that. Okay. So I had 1 more question for you. I, I was definitely wanted to make sure I got the chance to talk to you about what you’re seeing in regards to travel.

So are, are there any trends you’re noticing that you think hoteliers should be shifting to accommodate these changes? Um, you know, in the leisure market.

Sean Dee: Yeah, I mean that’s the, there’s, there’s a lot of information out there, obviously, and, and we’re not a mainland, you know, city-based, uh, group hotel.

That’s not what we do. We’re a 100 percent leisure. That’s our focus. And so we see that, uh, but we know, we know that we feel pretty well. And there have definitely been some, some significant changes coming outta Covid and some have maintained, some are starting to, to, you know, emerge, if you will, as, as I think just new, it’s the new business model. But I think the booking window we saw shrink dramatically. The booking window for Hawaii used to be 60, 60 to 70 days, plus or minus. It shrunk to as, as short as 2 weeks.

Karen Stephens: Yep.

Sean Dee: Coming outta the pandemic, it was incredible. So people were booking trips to Hawaii in 2 weeks notice.

Airfares were good. Hotels had inventory. And sos that caught us a little bit off guard, right? And so, cuz typically 2 weeks in, you’re not seeing much booking demand. Well we, we have, and we still do. We still are seeing booking demand, you know, for next weekend, this week. Well, you know, 2 or 3 points of occupancy in the week, further week for Hawaii, which is unheard of.

So, it’s gotten a little bit back to where it was, but it’s still nowhere near where it used to be. So much shorter booking windows, which I think gives marketers and commercial depart- departments, the revenue teams opportunities to convert business that they would’ve thought they had no shot to convert.

And I think that’s likely, especially that the airlines have maintained pretty lax cancellation policies so people can cancel, rebook, cancel, rebook. And the pricing I think is still pretty good, especially out of the mainland. So shorter booking windows, generally length of stay is longer, has been our experience.

We’re also seeing people wanting to stay in the same property longer. And so what, what I mean by that is Hawaii, historically, people would book 2 or 3 islands to travel to. But I think dealing with cars, dealing with airports, you know, places with a lot of people that they’re not as familiar with, I think that trend may be here for a while as well.

So definitely some significant, I think, changes in terms of how people travel to leisure markets. Uh, especially like, uh, especially like, like Hawaii. I think that’s gonna be the mix, right? The geo mix — totally different. I mean, we were in Waikiki about 60% mainland, 40% international. Um, we are now probably 80% mainland, 20% international — very little Japanese business.

Karen Stephens: Right.

Sean Dee: And it’s 3 years. I mean, we’re coming on 3 years past kind of the heart of Covid and our Japanese business has recovered to maybe 10 to 15% of where it was. So while the main came out, you know, really, really strong outta Covid, other parts of the world have not. Uh, China is just now slowly opening. If you’re doing business in Asia, very, very different in the airports there. Uh, if you’re in Japan, I was in Japan about a month ago and it felt like the US did 2 and a half years ago. Everybody’s wearing masks, you know, very limited, uh, interaction between people, not a lot of travel, and very little international travel. So I think that that will recover as it, as it always does.

It’s just gonna take us longer than we thought. But I think some of the booking, uh, may, they may persist for quite a while.

Karen Stephens: They might be here to stay. Expect the unexpected, I guess. And that’s, yeah, that’s, that’s fascinating. I didn’t even think about Japan. I mean, they didn’t even open up until September, if I’m not mistaken, 2022.

Sean Dee: Just a couple months ago.

Karen Stephens: Yeah. So, and I obviously, that’s a huge impact to the Hawaiian, uh, market.

Uh, well, Sean, this has been great. So if, if our listeners wanna find out more about Outrigger, where do they go? What’s the URL?

Sean Dee: Well, obviously outrigger.com.

Karen Stephens: Boom!

Karen Stephens: Nice and easy.

Sean Dee: Nice and easy. Nice and easy. Nice, nice, and easy.

We actually, during Covid, completely rebuilt again with the benefit of, uh, our, our investors completely rebuilt our outrigger.com experience, so we’re really proud of that. Continue to, to work on that. That’s something you work on every day, as your listeners would, uh, would know, but continue to try to optimize that, and merchandise it more effectively, and new partners are emerging in that space as well.

Uh, excited. But yeah, please, uh, check out outrigger.com and we welcome people. If you haven’t been to Hawaii or Waikiki in a while, I tell people it’s completely different than it would’ve been a decade ago.

Karen Stephens: That’s fantastic.

Karen Stephens: So come check out all, all that we have to offer.

Karen Stephens: I love it. Sean, this has been so great. Many thank yous and, uh, hope to see you soon. Mahalo.

Sean Dee: Mahlo. Aloha.

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