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Episode 42: “Reserving the Right to Change” with Shawn Weems, VP and Head of Digital Content and Merchandising at Hyatt Hotels Corporation

Shawn Weems, VP and Head of Digital Content and Merchandising at Hyatt Hotels Corporation, and Matt Swain discuss reinventing business models for growth and expansion; connecting with customers in new ways; and reprioritizing short-term goals for long-term gains.

Matt: I'm Matt Swain and you're listening to the "Reimagining Communications" podcast, where we discuss the opportunities and challenges facing companies on the road to optimizing their communications for the future. Today I'm joined by Shawn Weems, VP and Head of Digital Content and Merchandising for Hyatt Hotels Corporation. Shawn, thanks so much for joining today.

Shawn: Thanks for having me, Matt. I appreciate it.

Matt: Certainly, Shawn, I have to admit, when I was looking at your bio, you described yourself as a serial “intrapreneur” and you talked about your roles with companies like Groupon, Redbox, McDonald's, TGI Fridays, and others over the last 20 years. Talk to me a little bit about what that means to be a serial intrapreneur.

Shawn: Yeah, I actually got that from a Northwestern grad school session that I participated in some time ago when I was at McDonald's. And I really thought like, "Wow, that does describe me." One of the professors actually pegged me with that title. So what that means is, organizations who have gone after new technologies, or new products, or new ways of serving their customers, primarily in the digital space, most recently in my career, but even early on, being a buyer for OfficeMax, I was responsible for consumer electronics back in the day, so to speak. And, you know, back then consumer electronics really consisted of, you know, the new industry-leading things like mp3 players, and portable GPS for cars, and flash drives, and, you know, those technologies in the early 2000s that were still relatively new and changing the dynamic of the consumer electronics business.

So I started out doing that and that was a new line of business for OfficeMax at the time. So I've had a lot of experience beginning at that point of just taking something that didn't exist within an already established organization, and building it soup to nuts. Did that again at Redbox, where Redbox had an established media business, right, primarily centered around DVDs. And we had an opportunity to go over there and start the video game business. We were able to leverage the already existing infrastructure of a kiosk or a machine that can kick out a disk for movies. We turned that and we built a video game business around that. Now, I'll tell you the similarities between video games and DVDs really just stop at the physical media, right? There's a totally separate cost problem. When you talk about renting them, it's a totally different experience a model. So we built that from the ground up on top of an already existing platform.

Fast forward a few years from there, I got an opportunity to go to McDonald's, where they were starting their digital transformation business for the first time. And what we were able to do there is just kind of go there and start things from scratch, like their digital app, like participating helped them expand digital menu boards or the kiosks experience at the stores, as well as what we call a new store innovation back then, in the time where we were looking at how can we bring things like wireless charging into McDonald's stores? How can we bring customizable music into the McDonald's eating area? So just really looking at how do you take an existing space and leverage new businesses to help them expand and grow?

And it's no different than what I'm doing at Hyatt, right? You think of the hospitality industry, where it's really been in the digital ecosystem for a while. It's probably an innovator in that space because hospitality was probably one of the first industries to really embrace the internet. But now we're really looking at how do we optimize that experience and really drive digital transformation. And in doing that, the biggest thing that we always talk about is digital transformation isn't just taking an existing portion of the business. So, at McDonald's, the art strategy wasn't taking just a cash register ring and moving it into the mobile app or into the kiosk. We actually had to be incremental. We had to provide additional value. So, that's where the term “intrapreneurs” kind of stuck with me and now I use it.

Matt: So, I love that background too. I've got to imagine as an intrapreneur, you have to have had some good failures too to be a true intrapreneur. And does anything come to mind in terms of something that you thought would work but didn't work?

Shawn: Yeah, there's one in particular that I use a lot. I don't know if you remember the Microsoft Zune?

Matt: Oh, yeah.

Shawn: I was a consumer electronics buyer at OfficeMax at the time. You know, Microsoft came in and we had this meeting, we had to sign an NDA, and they really positioned this thing as the iPod killer. Right? And at the time, Apple's relationship with office supply wasn't necessarily in place, right? Apple really wasn't selling Apple products directly to office supply. So, this was an opportunity for us to fill a gap of carrying a major brand new mp3 player in the office supply channel. It's going to be the iPod killer and Microsoft is throwing all of this money behind it.

And, you know, legend has it that we had a buyer and this is where it really got crazy, that we had a buyer who had been kind of around the merchandising world for a while but legend has it is he was a buyer at Sears when Apple approached Sears to be an exclusive supplier for Apple products and he said no. So fast forward to me being the consumer electronics buyer and Microsoft comes to me and says, "This is the iPod killer," I'm thinking immediately, "I'm not going to be that guy. And I'm buying as many of them as they'll give to me." Right? So, I probably had one of the largest purchase orders of the Microsoft Zune, maybe in retail. Long story short, fast forward, we know how that worked out. I believe one of the challenges with the Zune is that it looked like a touchscreen, but it wasn't, especially the first one. And it was right around the time when either the iPod Touch or the iPhone was being released. So, it kind of missed this mark a little bit.

So, one of the largest campaigns I've ever been a part of at the time, we launched and I made this big pitch internally to get the floor space, to get the open a buy dollars, to be able to support it, the marketing position, all these things that were supposed to be great and allow this thing to take off and it didn't. And, you know, I kind of had to go with my tail tucked between my legs a little bit, trying to go back and figure out, "Okay, now that it hasn't worked, now that it's not the iPod killer, how do we get through this?" So, always use that as an example for people, especially people who remember the Microsoft Zune. And I have an original somewhere around here that I...

Matt: I was going to ask, after that purchase order, I've got to imagine that you're still giving them out to friends at every holiday and birthday, right?

Shawn: Oh, no one wants it.

Matt: Doorstops, bookends.

Shawn: Yeah, it was a great device. You know, I think maybe it was just the timing. But yeah, I was sold on. And, you know, looking back at it, so many things I could have done differently. Just really tapering my expectations around a device like that going through the office supply channel. I mean, we weren't Best Buy. And, you know, my thought was, "I'm not going to be the guy that told them no and this thing takes off and change the dynamics of consumer electronics." So, I went in heavy on it and it didn't do so well.

Matt: Well, thank you for sharing the story and owning up to it.

Shawn: Absolutely.

Matt: That's part of being in the business world is the decisions you make and learning from them and adjusting. I want to talk a little bit about Hyatt and man, like, what a time to be working for a company that thrives off of having people in-person in their locations. Can you talk a little bit about how the last year or so has been for you and how your role has been impacted?

Shawn: Yeah, absolutely. It's been a whirlwind of a year. Never in a million years would I have expected to be in an industry that would be impacted by something that wasn't necessarily in their control within the scope of their industry. Right? And while a lot of industries have been impacted by the pandemic, I've picked the right time to be in the hospitality industry. And we were hit hard and rightfully so. I think that the company made a lot of tough decisions early to really set us up to be ready for recovery. I think we've always expected that this too will pass but not necessarily knowing when.

We really had to revisit how we operate, what we prioritized, what we needed to work on, and how do we still go after a small core group of initiatives versus some of the other broader reaching long-term initiatives that we had in play? candidly, we have been very fortunate that there still been enough of the business around to really warrant us continuing to go after some things. At a property level, they've really taken some hits and experienced some pain. And we're just hopeful that they can rebound as quickly as possible.

Matt: And Shawn during the Webinar that I had moderated a few months ago with you, you had talked a little bit about where Hyatt was making some investments to bring a balance between, upgrading technology, but also remaining human. Can you speak to that a little bit?

Shawn: Yeah, absolutely. I'm a merchant at heart. So, you know, spending a bulk of my career early on being a merchandising and a buyer, my goals for a digital or e-commerce experience is to drive revenue. And that's why we are here. Digital transformation is, again, moving that already existing business, like a cash register, something you're already getting at a register level and just putting it online. Now, we're really trying to drive that incremental behavior from the customers and we're doing it by being targeted, we're being personalized, and we're really fishing where the fish are. So, we're bringing the right content to the right person at the right time in the right place. When COVID happened, we had to kind of pivot that because all of our business is experienced by the customer at the brick and mortar level. There were a lot of concerns around what are we doing to make sure customers are safe? What are we doing to make sure the properties are clean? What's open? What's closed? What amenities have been suspended? What operating model do we have? How often will the rooms be clean?

All these things that as a merchant, we don't think about because they're not necessarily digital revenue impacting, but we had a responsibility to our customers to make sure that we were providing them as much information as possible to give them a level of comfort that, you know, either we're doing the right things with cleaning and safety and being organized and how we're working or how the operating model at property is changing and evolving, or that you have flexibility in your reservations or in your bookings. Right? So, there were a lot of things that just needed to be communicated customer-facing at a broad level that we had to go after. So, we did a lot of different things... We changed our tone from, hey, book now, dream mapping, experience, different hotels and brands, and there was still a component of that but it quickly changed to, you know, one of our core principles is we care for our customers, so they can be their best.

And a lot of that meant, how are you guys cleaning the properties differently? So, we had a video that that was produced, and we put up and managed that. Each individual property had different things or different ways they were impacted by the pandemic. So, whether they had different pools, or buffet items, or just different ways of operating that, those things needed to be communicated to the customer pre-state. So that changed a lot of our content strategy, a lot of our merchandising strategy. It wasn't "Hurry up and book." It was, "Hey, we're here when you're ready. We have a new cleaning procedure. We have a different operating model. Some things may or may not be available. You're going to be able to be flexible with how you book and stay with us. We're going to do different things from a loyalty and reward standpoint with our great loyalty team." They extended and redid some of the policies to allow customers to not have to be disadvantaged in their long-term loyalty program with Hyatt by not being able to stay and consistently travel during the pandemic. So, it was just a lot of different things that needed to be brought upfront in our communication strategy.

Matt: I think there's also that element of humanity. You know, there's a lot of stress that goes with travel and then rebooking or, you know, even pre-pandemic, there's stress associated with the travel and that experience. Now you have to cancel reservations or you're traveling somewhere but you're more sensitive to things like what you said, you know, when was the last time the room was cleaned? How thoroughly was it cleaned? Who am I going to have to interact with at the location when I get there?

Shawn: Exactly.

Matt: And so, I can see how those would all be really important things for you to help address and help ease concerns ahead of the visit.

Shawn: Yeah, and, you know, we're global, so another one of our challenges has been that there's been areas of the world that are coming out of the pandemic in different stages, right? We see some great optimism, some things that are happening in China, how they're able to recover and they're recovering faster than certain parts of the world. So, we had to make sure that we weren't seeming tone-deaf and going after a global message like, "Hey, welcome back, we're here and ready when you are. Let's stay and get some bookings." Right? When certain parts of the world that may be locked down, or that may have some limited travel restrictions in place. It will just come off tone-deaf if we went out with, you know, more of our upbeat, broader message across the globe. So, we've had to be targeted.

And I think in 2021, we're going to have to be even more targeted, especially in the States because they're probably going to be areas of the United States that are going to come back in different phases, right? And we have to be cognizant of that.

Matt: Yeah, I think that segmentation of messaging, probably even in imagery and graphics use not having tight groups of people but, you know, a single person checking in at a kiosk or something like that.

Shawn: Let me tell you, we’re pushing close to 1,000 properties. Every property has its own individual website. And, you know, images was something that my team had to revisit early on because we have a lot of properties where we really promote the experience of being on campus or on property with a lot of other people, whether it's the restaurants that are on the property, some of the pool experiences, other dining options. And there was a lot of content and images around that. And we had to take a step back and say, "Some of that we need to really gate it."

And maybe in order for us to let our customers know that we're still on tone and we see what's happening, We took a step back and removed a lot of that imagery from the majority of our property pages, especially at the beginning of the property page. So, if a customer comes and lands on it, we wanted to make sure that we were being sensitive that we're not showing just crowds of people standing on our property like we normally would in certain cases.

Matt: I don't envy your position and the things that you've had to do...the extra work that team has had to put in to navigate this. But again, it's another experience in your toolbox or over the course of your career. And I wonder also if some of what has happened with other clients and companies that we speak to, they talk about that digital acceleration, things that they were planning to do that might have been road mapped one or two years out now became a three to six-month project or sooner. Relative to that, like, implementation of new technology, can you speak to anything that Hyatt has done to evolve that experience faster because of some of the technology that you've implemented?

Shawn: Yeah. So, we took a look at our mobile app. We already had a mobile app in existence that had been leveraged primarily for members to be able to do things with managing their stay, but there always has been this plan to evolve what you can do. So, some of the things are like leveraging the mobile app as a key to be able to go into property. And that's been functionality that's been around, and we've been in the process of scaling it. And they really put pressure on us to be able to scale those things faster to more properties, and how we leverage our communication while you're on property and being able to leverage our app to do that.

So I think what you'll see in the near coming future with us is the evolution of how you can leverage our mobile app to have a greater experience on property that's not necessarily consistently engaging with someone at the front desk. We have a great new brand that's being released, that we're coming out with called Caption by Hyatt. And it's a total rethinking or reimagining your stay from the moment you walk into a property and how you'll be able to check-in without leveraging anyone at the front desk, right? It's just a totally different experience. It's a really cool brand that we've started to talk about. We have some properties launching this year. But that should give you an idea of how we're thinking how technology can change how people stay.

Matt: So, Shawn, that's a good example of where some team has gone in and revisited the customer journey, the guests journey, and looked at it through a slightly different lens than historically, leverage technologies that you're using at some properties, but rolling out nationally and globally. When you take on those initiatives as an organization, how are they engaging different parts of the organization to get their perspective? Because your view of what's broken or what works well might be very different than somebody else's within the organization.

Shawn: Yeah, I think we're really lucky... I don't know if it's just really lucky with this company, or with this industry but the collaboration that I've found, since being hired or even in the hospitality industry is amazing, right? People quickly align to marching down doing what's best for the customer and doing what's best for business. So usually, when those things are kept at top of mind, it's easy to get people rallied around that topic and that discussion because we're usually nodding our heads and saying, "Hey, that makes sense," right?

But getting in a room together and saying, "Hey, that makes sense," and actually implementing it is two totally different things, right, especially in this industry, where you have so many properties, the operating systems at properties need to be able to be integrated into some of the systems from a content management perspective, or talk to our mobile app, or talk to systems that are leveraged on property on how they manage housekeeping or room service. Like, all these different components have to kind of come together and be integrated together on the back end. And I give much credit to our product team and our operations folks and our IT team because they're really the glue that brings all those components and disciplines together to say, "Hey, we're going to go after leveraging our app and your phone to be a key on property."

We're moving to an experience to where you can check in with your device versus going to the front desk and waiting on your key. But if you think through all the backend components, just to do something like that, the reservation system, “has that room been cleaned?” Like, all those things have to talk to the system so that the customer knows what room to go to then be coded with the key and just that whole experience has to be succinct, right? So, it's an evolved process but I think our mission of caring for the customer and obviously, putting our business lens first allows us to be able to have those conversations a lot easier than some other places that I've been a part of.

Matt: Excellent. And Shawn, when you're looking to the future, you've already mentioned some of this and some of the things that you're implementing but on the theme of reimagining communications, what new technologies or approaches do you anticipate are going to have the most impact on business to customer interactions? It could be within the hospitality space or elsewhere, but those interactions and broader communications in the coming years?

Shawn: Yeah, you know what? Honestly, I don't think it's new technology. I think it's existing technology. It's how we use it. So, targeting and being relevant to a customer is what's going to be most important. It already is. Previous lives, it was our primary focus, really to be able to drive customer value, incremental business. We need to really speak to a customer with relevancy, right? In this industry, it means being locally relevant based on where either you're staying or where you're traveling to. So if you come to hyatt.com, we need to make sure that the content you're seeing is relevant to what you're looking to do, whether you're staying with family or traveling for business, we have some historical data around you.

I used to use an example at McDonald's a lot that, you know, we talk about McCafé a lot. I'm not a coffee drinker. So, a lot of the McCafé messaging, which may be a big priority to the brand and the company, that messaging, that targeting, that merchandising, those offers fall deaf on my ears, right? So, we've had to figure out and we're figuring out now in this industry as well, how do we get better and more sophisticated at targeting and personalization? How do we talk to you about your stay before you get there, after you've stayed, revisit you if we haven't heard from you in a while? How do we make sure that we take some of the information that we know around the time of year where most people are trying to stay? Beach resorts has kind of this seasonal part of the business? How do we make sure content is relevant for that? Right?

The challenge is, while the technology exists, it's a very manual effort today, right? I'll give you Australia as an example. This is not the winter season in Australia, right? So traditionally, as a merchant or a content person we're managing globally and we're in the U.S. So for us to go forward at a global scale, just talking to fall and winter and, you know, showcasing images and ski resorts, and that being our main message, and if we position that to customers who visit us while they're in Australia, it's kind of irrelevant to them.

You know, and I would imagine that, you know, we'll see bounce rates and conversion issues. So, it's really just leveraging the existing technology at scale. And because this industry is so different than a majority of industries because you learn about us, and search, and make your purchase decision for the most part digitally but you experience us through brick and mortar of actually being our property. Our job is to make sure the life or the experience of that property is showcased to you, right, in the right way and it's also the types of property location and experience that you've come to us looking for.

So, it's just really figuring out how to take this very manual compartmentalized tactical execution when using technology, using it more at scale, but just being more personalized with it. And we should be able to showcase content and things that are relevant to you and bring up some information around your previous stays, just really leveraging the data and existing technologies.

Matt: Shawn, thanks so much for your insights today. Always great to catch up.

Shawn: Yeah, you too, Matt. I appreciate it. I appreciate the time. I love talking about this stuff. It just gets me excited. I know it seems cheesy, but this is some fun stuff.

Matt: Excellent. Well, I am Matt Swain and you've been listening to the "Reimagining Communications" podcast. If you liked this episode and think someone else would too, please share it. Leave a review, and don't forget to subscribe. And to learn more about Broadridge, our insights, and our innovations, visit Broadridge.com or find us on Twitter and LinkedIn.