Sankar Narayan, CEO of SiteMinder joins Joanna Todd, AWS’ Head of Worldwide Accommodations and Lodging, for a broad-ranging discussion about the recent disruption faced by travel and hospitality companies – and his company’s response to that disruption. SiteMinder is the global hotel industry’s leading guest acquisition platform, earning the trust of more than 35,000 hotels, across 160 countries, to generate in excess of 100 million reservations worth over US$35 billion in revenue for hotels each year.
This Executive Conversation is one of a series of discussions held with industry leaders, where we seek to learn more about their resiliency, tenacity and capacity for innovation. The series follows the publication of the AWS Travel & Hospitality E-book: “Building Resilience For The Long Run”. Filled with strategic observations, hints and tips, the E-book provides guidance for building a more resilient organization, potentially serving as a useful resource as travel and hospitality companies address both current challenges and those yet to come.
Joanna Todd: While your business is recognized publicly by many, what’s one unique characteristic or feature that is either lesser known or understood about your company?
Sankar Narayan: There are a few, including the misconception that we’re only in Australia or that Australia is our largest market. We’re incredibly proud of our Australian roots, but it often surprises people to hear that we have seven offices around the world, plus customer support in 11 languages and a platform in eight of those. We have the largest global footprint within the hotel technology vertical and our largest market is Europe.
Due to the fairly niche space in which we operate, I’d say the other lesser understood characteristic about us is that we’re a tech company that serves the world of hotels. Hotel tech – or, more broadly, travel tech – isn’t as familiar to people as, say, martech or fintech, so people sometimes don’t know whether to call us a tech company or a travel company. We’re a tech company that creates software for hotels. It actually is that simple. As an extension of that, the complexity of our tech stack is typically understated. It’s our job to make our product appear simple to our customers, but make no mistake – behind the simple user interface is highly sophisticated infrastructure with endless rows of code that support 35,000 hotels in real time.
JT: Many companies across travel and hospitality have been managing through a period of unprecedented disruption. What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced during this recent period and how have you managed through them?
SN: The biggest challenge has been navigating through the unknown. I’ve experienced turbulent times with airlines and traditional media, so I’m no stranger to crises, but COVID-19 has truly been unlike anything any of us have experienced in our lifetimes. As any other leader, I was looking at the data every day, trying to identify future patterns. I realized I was searching for a playbook, until I realized early on that there was none.Knowing that we’d have to write the playbook as we went along, my leadership team and I immediately planned for the worst and looked months in advance. As hotels, our customers have been some of the worst hit businesses in the world and it was important from the outset that we doubled down on our efforts to support them. We very quickly mobilized people from areas across the business into critical areas such as customer success. We paused any thought of growth and focused entirely on retention. It was all hands on deck, and I’m still blown away by the passion and commitment I’ve seen in the SiteMinder team over the last few months. Their unrelenting spirit is what’s seen us through the worst of this crisis.
JT: As we all prepare for the next phase of traveler or guest demand, what are some of the changes your company has taken (or plans on taking) to adjust to the current operating environment?
SN: We’ve been sure to highlight some of the more timely features of our platform, such as the contactless guest apps that are available for hotels to plug into through our Hotel App Store.However, for the most part, we’ve focused on our DNA. The truth is this period has made us more relevant than ever before. We provide marketing and distribution technology that’s necessary for every hotel to be successful, during any period but especially as they re-emerge from a crisis that has completely reset guest patterns. We’ve always played a critical role in helping hotels to navigate through a complex landscape and this period has given us the chance to really prove that, and I hope that we have. From the outset, every decision that we’ve made has been to ensure we see our customers through this crisis.
JT: In the face of the current disruption to the travel and hospitality industry, we’ve observed incredible innovations coming from across the industry. How has your company innovated through these challenging times and what are you most proud of?
SN: We introduced three initiatives. The first was the World Hotel Index, which our tech and product teams spun up within a matter of weeks by leveraging the flexibility of AWS technology. Incredibly, the World Hotel Index has grown to become the leading indicator of hotel reservation and guest arrival trends globally, but the initial idea was simply to share data that would give hotels the best chance to prepare for their future guests.
The second was “React, Respond, Recover,” which was a series of virtual forums that we created and tailored alongside more than 50 of our partners so hotels could learn about the latest changes happening within their local market.
Finally, there was HomeForHotels, which was a website that we launched for hoteliers to share their personal stories and feel comforted to hear the stories of successes and hardships from their peers. We knew a lot of hotels felt isolated, and HomeForHotels was a reminder that they weren’t alone.
I’m personally most proud of our “React, Respond, Recover” series because during this period of huge uncertainty, our customers were telling us that shared knowledge and experiences were the best form of support we could provide and so that’s exactly what we did in the absence of any hotel playbook. More than 5,000 hoteliers attended those forums. If we were able to help even just one of those, then that’s one business leader that we supported through what will likely be the most difficult situation they will ever face in their career.
JT: The travel and hospitality industry is incredibly resilient. As you look toward recovery, what role does technology play for your company moving forward? How do you see technology enhancing the customer experience and improving operational efficiency?
SN: We know through our own research and data that the post-COVID traveler isn’t willing to go too far or book far in advance. Due to both travel restrictions and personal circumstances, travelers today are minimalists when it comes to planning and, rather than being influenced entirely by price, the biggest deciding factors when it comes to their choices of accommodation are now 1) well-promoted health and safety practices at that hotel and 2) flexibility through changeable bookings and free cancellations.Understanding these new traveler preferences and behaviours are fundamental to how hotels shift their business and remain resilient. It’s a challenge because, for the most part, hotels have come to know their prior guests so well and they depended on historical data to inform their marketing and distribution strategies. In response, not only have we increased resources in certain areas of the business, such as customer success, we’ve used this time to resolve internal inefficiencies and to enhance automation for customers, so that when resurgence comes for the travel and hospitality industry, we’re well positioned.
JT: There’s much talk at the moment about how the travel experience has changed and there will be a “new normal” going forward. What does this “new normal” look like to you and how do you think the travel experience will look three years from now?
SN: This crisis has brought out genuine innovation across the hotel industry, from the reimagination of how hotel spaces can be repurposed as quarantine facilities, to the creation of new revenue streams such as F&B delivery. The new normal, to me, is just that. It’s constant innovation. Everything right now is so unpredictable. We’ve seen through our World Hotel Index, for example, that there are now four stages of hotel booking recovery in any given country. They are: domestic acceleration, deceleration or plateauing, destabilization, and finally international acceleration. For years, right through to the start of this year, most travel destinations only ever experienced that last stage of international acceleration with tourism numbers being broken every year.I expect that we will see instability for some time yet and likely until a vaccine is found. Three years from now, I expect consumer confidence will largely be back and we will resume a lot of the ways we used to travel, just with a heightened sense of personal health and space, perhaps. The technology transformation that is happening right now, like keyless room access, will make for a more streamlined guest experience. Certain other things will become permanent fixtures, such as hand sanitisers in every hotel lobby, but the need for human hospitality will always be there, just reimagined.
JT: What makes you excited for the future of travel and hospitality? As a traveler or guest, where are you looking forward to visiting next?
SN: The future of travel and hospitality may have changed, but it is strong. It’s a human desire to want to travel, so for as long as people yearn to experience the world, hotels will always have a critical role to play and SiteMinder will always be there to help. That opportunity to grow and learn with our customers excites me.I’m looking forward to visiting our teams around the world again. Prior to this period, I traveled to at least one SiteMinder office each month and I do miss having that chance to connect with our teams on the ground in ways that are a little more difficult to do virtually.