At 27, when most aspiring professionals are struggling to find their path up the organizational ladder, John Stocki, hospitality expert had already established himself. Now the Founder and CEO of the Stocki Exchange, a five-year-old hospitality consulting firm that offers a variety of solutions from branding and operations to e-commerce and training. John started his career with the luxurious Kempinski Hotels in the UAE and went on to work on projects across Australia, the Middle-East and China, overseeing operations, marketing, public relations and e-commerce for their luxury hotels. In between, he acquired a passion for traveling that took him to over 30 countries leading him to become an expert in the global hospitality market.
Prior to launching the Stocki Exchange, John also worked as a consultant for Choice Hotels. Currently John is involved as a host and travel expert for a luxury hotels based travel show called ‘Great Escapes’. John also loves to blog and writes extensively on a few different topics offering invaluable insights on the upcoming trends and changes in the hospitality industry.
John believes that the Hospitality industry is unique in the fact that every component is directly customer facing. Compared with other industries, Hospitality is all about experiences, bringing in a human element that is irreplaceable. John lives by the mantra, “managing expectations and over-delivering” in everything he does.
In an interview with us, he elaborates on these points and the importance of branding. His thoughts provide insights and tips into the key aspects of the hospitality industry and what makes a business operate well. In short, he advocates the importance of being in touch with local flavor, diversity and authenticity along with the necessity of excellent customer service. He also shares his views on the development of e-commerce, new millennial guests and other emerging trends in the hospitality industry.
Here are some excerpts from the interview:
Q: What aspects of the industry or just hospitality, in general, excites you?
JS: The reason I continued to work in hospitality is strategic. I don’t like selling things, I don’t sell pens; I sell experiences. And that is the one thing that makes the hospitality industry unique. So you’re staying in a hotel, you’re selling the use of a bed for a night but if you are only selling a bed no one would ever pay a thousand dollars for a night to stay in the hotel. It’s way more than that and that’s what I love about the hospitality process. It’s one of the only things that will be extremely difficult to automate 100 percent. You know that making of pens can be automated. The sales process doesn’t need to involve humans at all. But, I think that at least in my lifetime there’s always going to be this part of hospitality which is human-driven.
It’s that interaction, it’s that experience you get from how someone treats you, how someone acts or how someone provides for you that extra pillow in the middle of the night or whatever that part of the experience is; it’s the entertainer, the singer at the resort, the lifeguard at the pool. All that is creating an experience and that’s what I love about hospitality. That entire process that people go through during an experience at a restaurant is not just the food that they eat, it’s like, did they call to get a reservation? Was the call then confirmed? Do you have an App? It’s completely immersing yourself into the guest experience.
Q: What do you think is important in making brands what they are? And how much is operational consistency compatible with uniqueness?
JS: This industry is never done, there’s always room for improvement because consumer habits and trends are always changing. They want new things, different and unique experiences. So, you have a hotel but the process of staying at a hotel is so varied because people are always wanting something unique or different but at the other end, people want consistency. People enjoy consistency and they put trust into a brand because they know the potential experience they are going to get at one restaurant will be the same at another one.
At the same time, people are looking for that curated unique experience especially when it comes to food. This is a huge opportunity for local and independent restaurants to promote their areas especially when it comes to food. It’s promoting local cuisine, local cooks, local chefs, local ingredients. People are focusing on ‘farm to table’, the concept of knowing where your food comes from, who cooks it, and trying to minimize the distance it gets to travel to get to you. We are going back to the model where everybody knows your name, you’re buying things and supporting your neighbor this way and that’s great. In my opinion, that’s minimizing the impact all around and helps us become more sustainable. It’s like getting an inside scoop on where the locals eat but you can just do that because you are staying at someone’s house. So those types of experiences I think are really going to take hold in the industry.
Q: So for you, consistent experiences is what sets the backbone of all restaurant chains or even hotels. When applicable they should attempt to consistently involve their local community in their business operations?
JS: Exactly. The concept of what brands deliver, the expectation is changing, specifically with the North American consumers now to the way other countries, specifically say Europe, has done it in the past. The last hotel group that I worked for was Kempinski Hotels and their tagline was ‘A Collection of Individuals’. So from a branding perspective, yes it was a Kempinski Hotel, but it wasn’t a branding that we would consider of say what a Marriott hotel was 15 years ago where all the bedspreads were red, exactly the same, the design the look the feel, the check-in was on the right, the same exact standards were exactly the same because that’s the exact level of consistency people were looking for no matter what while traveling. Well, Europeans have had the concept of Kempinski, each place will have a level of standard and care and experience unique to itself but the experience you get there will be tailored to the local area and that’s where I think we are moving a lot more into in the US now. If you look at Marriott for instance, they are diversifying with 12 or 13 different brands underneath them which are targeted to niche targets and a lot of them focus on becoming relevant to their local areas.
Q: What in your opinion makes a great restaurant and for growing restaurant businesses what can help them become great?
JS: For any brand, the ability to make you great is your ability to innovate, react to the market to scale as quick as possible and that’s what is going to make any brand specifically restaurant brand, great. Think of a restaurant as a ship. The larger it is, the harder it is to change course. So, in today’s world, your ability to react to the market, specifically when it comes to food service who historically have low margins, you must survive on volume if you want to be a big brand. The ability to respond to the market is important all the while being consistent, innovative, relevant and price sensitive… these are so many different factors that go into trying to run a large-scale brand because you need to live on volume and loyalty.
People are looking for experience and expertise when it comes to interacting with humans. If you have a restaurant, the human aspect of, was the place is clean when they walk in? Was the person or the waiter intelligent, fun to be around, happy and inviting? Because you can have an amazing experience inside of a McDonalds and compare that to just a nice experience eating at a super expensive restaurant where you pay a hundred and fifty dollars. Are the levels of what you are going to be getting different? Yes, because just being a nice guy doesn’t cost money.
Service doesn’t cost money. Have you trained your people to just being nice people and educated and intelligent about their product and what they are doing? That part is universal whether you are selling a five-dollar hamburger or five-hundred-dollar meal and that’s the part I think is going to help separate chains and brands who want to grow is your ability to react and respond to the market, to make sure that your product is meeting demand and if it isn’t you have to change plans.
Q: Your consultancy also offers marketing services and brand management. Any comments on the changing landscape of the hospitality industry in this e-commerce and internet era?
JS: Make sure that your customer experience follows the marketing that you have been presenting. You are under a level of scrutiny because if someone has a bad experience and they put it on the internet, the impact can be amplified quite easily. Millions of people could see that information and judge their potential willingness to go to your restaurant based on others’ experiences. Managing brand perception becomes much more of a challenge for companies now. Brand reputation is a mountain that used to be like the foothills of some of the problems that brands would deal with and now it’s one of the most paramount things within brand communication.
The world of internet reviews is like a double-edged sword. A way to explain it is by looking at online reviews of a restaurant. It is shocking to realize that most people who complained about restaurants and leave negative reviews, focus on the service versus the actual food. So, I like to say, you can serve mediocre or even bad food but if you are a super nice guy, people will buy bad food from you because you are a nice guy. People will eat bad food with great service but will rarely eat great food with terrible service. That is a serious measure of how important service is to the industry of hospitality, understanding this fact key to being successful in the hospitality industry.
Q: What do you think are the three most important pieces of advice you give your clients on how to succeed?
JS: Basic things are authenticity, consistency and patience. Those are three cornerstones that any hospitality business, or really any business has to be based on now.
Instead of under-promise, over-deliver. Under-promising is wrong because it deflects from the authenticity part. So, I like to say manage expectations and over-deliver, that’s the way things have to go. You can’t under-promise, you just have to manage people’s expectations. That’s through your advertising, through branding and everything that goes into giving information about your product. Not everyone wants the same thing so once you realize that not every single person in the world is your potential customer, you really understand a majority of who comes to your restaurants. You can then start to curate and tailor your products and service specifically to them and then do that little thing that they weren’t expecting that keeps them intrigued or find a way that emotionally connects to you or your brand and that’s because you are your brand. People, at the end of the day, interact with people so managing expectations and over-deliver will lead to real success.
We really need way more patience when it comes to marketing, advertising and promotions. It’s about putting time and effort and investment without expecting immediate results. So, it’s understanding that language about having some patience when it comes to starting marketing stuff and realistic expectations of how long these types of things are really going to take to have an immediate impact versus how much time effort and money you are willing to invest into them upfront. Use of digital data to track trends can sometimes get too tied up with the analytics; those are important but you also should remember that human element, the emotional aspect that you put behind things. Context is more important than content. Understanding the language of how people communicate and which channels to advertise in is more important than just putting it out there. Creating a two-way conversation and listening more than you talk, those tools are way more important. So, always think about context before you develop content.
And the last thing is customer service. It really is the new marketing. People trust what other people say implicitly especially when it comes to talking about their experiences. So having twenty people under a brand who have all had an amazing experience, well that’s a form of marketing and that’s way more valuable than advertising for the sake of advertising. Your people are what helps to create the experience. Always remember that.