Future Hospitality

#3: Breaking Away from the Herd: Bashar Wali

May 13, 2020

Jeremy Wells: Hello and welcome to another episode of the Future Hospitality Podcast. I’m your host, Jeremy Wells, joined today by co-host, Dustin Myers. We are partners at Longitude Branding, a hospitality branding, and experience design agency.

At Future Hospitality, our goal is to interview the brightest minds in the industry, gathering insights, ideas, and inspiration to share with you. Today. We are joined by Bashar Wali, President at Provenance Hotels and a leading voice in the hospitality industry. We’ll discuss Bashar’s recent announcement of his departure from Provenance Hotels, how the industry has been impacted by COVID-19, and how he believes hospitality needs to evolve moving forward. Let’s go ahead and jump in.

Dustin Myers: So here we are. It is April 17th. Crazy times. We just heard this week from Bashar Wali that he is departing Provenance [Hotels]. Bashar, I think this announcement came as a shock to a lot of people. Could you give us just a look at some of the events that led up to this decision this week?

I’ve grown tired of the next thing because the next thing was always about things.

Bashar Wali: Yeah, I mean, really, this is not driven by any COVID related. I am a partner in the company and I’ve been here for a long time. I just felt that our industry at large has sort of become a hard industry. We kind of all follow each other. And often my colleagues in this space are always sort of talking about the next thing, and truth be told, I’ve grown tired of the next thing because the next thing was always about things. Who can outdo the next guy? Who can throw more stuff against the wall to see what sticks? And it became sort of the race for shock and awe and the race to outdo the next guy and keeping up with the joneses as it were and it sort of became, in my mind, and I don’t mean to sound sort of righteous here, but it became somewhat empty and shallow. So as the race for the next thing continues, and you know I jokingly talk a lot lately about walk into any hotel lobby today and it’s like an Amazon jungle in there because somebody decided, “Let’s put plants in the lobby,” and the next person does more and more and more and it’s sort of what started as a good idea becomes silly and thematic and Disneyland-ish.

So I’ve often, in my mind at least, and with close friends, talk about, “You know what? Forget the other thing. Forget the next thing. I want to go look for the other thing. I want to sort of break from the herd.” Because look, as I think, you guys know, and I’ve talked about this repeatedly, I have the badge of stupidity or a badge of honor for someone who never stays in any hotel room more than once or one night. And 99% of the time I’ve been at hotels, right? So I’ve, I’ve kind of seen it all and I tell people like if I’m in New York three nights and I move around three times, which is what I do always to three different hotels, by the third day, if you take the signs off of any of those hotels, shuffle them up and stick them back on the buildings, it’s all the same. It truly has become all the same because we all follow each other. And I wrote a piece about sort of hoteliers being lemmings, these sort of rodents that when one jumps off the cliff, everybody jumps off the cliff to their own deaths.

So again, I don’t mean to sound righteous or pretend that I’m changing the world. I’m just, in my own mind, saying, “You know what? It’s time for the other thing. Forget the next thing.” And COVID clearly, look, for a road warrior through and through, you ground me for two weeks and my brain goes to places maybe it shouldn’t go. So part of the beauty of having been locked in has really given me time to reflect and reflection is a very sometimes dangerous thing because people have midlife-crisis, grow ponytails and buy Corvettes. Thankfully, my infatuation is my industry, and if I were to have a midlife crisis, it’s going to be industry-focused.

So my quest is to look for the other thing, come up with the other thing, and I’ve often preached humanity. Again, humanity is too big of a word and really I’m trying to not sound righteous again here. I’m not a saint. I’m not saving the world. I’m not curing cancer. I’m not curing COVID. At the end of the day, we’re providing shelter, a room and a shower for someone. So I’ve always talked about humans being at the center of everything we do. And I think we as an industry have strayed away from that severely. And I think in a post-corona world, the word that I am preaching today and will continue to preach is kindness. I believe kindness must be at the center of everything we do. Kindness up to your boss, down to your employee, left to your coworker, family, friends, and strangers. Kindness is a powerful tool we humans have and we’ve experienced it during this crisis because you’ve seen it and you’ve seen the value it brings to society, let alone to a business.

So I really think the idea of kindness has to become central to everything we do. So what Corona has done, it’s really solidified my position and my view on this idea of trying to look for the other thing that centered around humans and I’m going to try dying if it kills me. I want to make sure I do something. Hospitality runs through my veins. So I will not leave the space. I’m in this space. I remain a partner in this company and a friend obviously I’m selfishly invested in its success, but clearly it’s been what I’ve done for the last decade-plus and I want to make sure it continues to thrive. But often kind of breaking away really brings fresh perspective not to you but also to the company and new ideas. So this is positive all around. It’s friendly. I’m here for a while still and will continue to be involved long term as an advisor.

Jeremy Wells: That’s great. Yeah. I think a lot of people were kind of afraid. I saw even on LinkedIn, a couple of people posting as if you’re leaving the industry entirely.

Bashar Wali: No. no.

Jeremy Wells: Yeah. I’m glad to hear that you’re not.

Bashar Wali: I’m too dumb to do anything else. This is all I know.

Jeremy Wells: As far as how this came to be, I mean, you gave a great picture I think of the story leading up to now and obviously there’s a lot that plays into that, but when do you think, I guess, began the slow, I guess, erosion of the industry-wide, as you call it like hoteliers and hotels are kind of lemmings, like following the joneses? These are some of the words you’re using. When do you think that began? I mean, was it back in like the ’80s and ’90s or was it even before that or more recently?

Bashar Wali: No. It’s more recently. I mean, we’ve had some incredible pioneers in the industry, right? I mean, we’ve had obviously Ian Schrager, we’ve had Bill Kimpton, we’ve had Alex Calderwood. We’ve had some incredible, incredible change agents that truly turned the model upside down. I think prosperity often brings these kinds of things to bear. If I were to sort of loosely articulate a period when we started seeing this sort of notion of everything looking the same, it really began I would think after the last cycle, after the ’08, ’09 cycle when prosperity started to prevail, people were traveling more, needing more hotel. I’d sort of throw it into the category of the minute we started “dumping supply” into the market is when the craft went away and mass production came in. That’s how I sort of describe it because remember, Alex Calderwood, when he did the Ace in Seattle, his first Ace, and then the Ace in Portland, I mean that was blood, sweat, and tears. That wasn’t an idea that he had one night over a drink and the next day went and executed it. It was a long time in the making. It was a way of life for him. It’s how he and his friends lived and they wanted a place to hang out. There was a lot of thought put into it. It wasn’t just, “Oh, I have money, let’s go build a hotel,” and built it.

So this whole idea of dumping supply in the market is when craft goes away and mass production, the assembly line, as it were. Imagine this as sort of an assembly line and every person working on that car is a person with their own ideas, but at the end of the day, it’s the same car. Innovation went away. Now, again, look, I’m generalizing a lot. There’s been a lot of innovation, but I feel that the majority of the work we’ve done has been sort of assembly line and mass production. And not to say, you know, like we talked a lot about the idea of bringing the outside day and then doing localized things. I mean, everybody now does the same exact thing.

There’s been a lot of innovation, but I feel that the majority of the work we’ve done has been sort of assembly line and mass production.

So when it becomes a table stake it loses its specialness. Like, imagine going to a restaurant now that says, “We’re farm to table.” I assume your farm to table, that doesn’t get you any credit. And again, to use a more severe example, imagine a hotel that says, “We have Wi-Fi, or, “We have a flat-screen TV,” as they used to brag about back in the day. For a moment, that was a novelty then it became an expectation in a table stake. So we are doing “innovative things”, but I think those have seen their days and it’s time to think about things differently. And thinking about things differently isn’t always about doing more. More is not always more. Sometimes more is less. And maybe focusing on the things that matter on the core of our business, which is hospitality, and I’ve often debated and argued that we are not in the service business. Service is what you deliver. And I use this example a lot. I go to get my car oil changed. Well, they’re in the service business. My dentist is in the service business. They provide a service. A service to me is something prescribed. And of course, hotels have to deliver service, but they could do that on a checklist. A robot can do it for the lack of a better term.

Hospitality, in my opinion, is how you make people feel. And until we can make robots read and understand human emotions and have emotional intelligence, you cannot make me feel, certainly walking into a beautiful hotel with arts and plants and blah, blah, blah, blah is part of a feeling I get, but at the end of the day, how I am made to feel is not usually always a product of my human interactions.

Jeremy Wells: Yeah. Yeah. I think that as you’re alluding, it seems like the hospitality industry at large has almost forgotten its roots. I like the differentiation you make of service and hospitality. I’ve heard before, “Hospitality is more of a mindset, and service is an action.”

Bashar Wali: Exactly.

Jeremy Wells: And I think you’re spot on. I think that the industry needs to get back to what it really means, what the root of the word hospitality is and what that means.

Bashar Wali: Exactly right. No, not to say that we don’t need plants in the lobby and cool art. We want all that stuff because it’s all part of creating a holistic experience, but a holistic experience without that feeling becomes just things. It’s not a memory, but the kind of marble used in the bathroom doesn’t leave me with a memory of your place. It’s the things that move me and that’s usually people and people have action, not just people because you can have terrible people doing terrible things, ruining the experience. It really is about creating that warm feeling of hospitality.

Dustin Myers: Yeah. To your point, I think that we see this in many industries and really across multiple topics of just like waves of change starting out with something different revolutionary over time. Other people and everyone else kind of catching up and trying to outdo each other. But as you’ve noted, this crisis is definitely going to be a marker in time where we kind of see what the next phase looks like, what creative ideas come out of this. So I’m excited to just watch from you as a leader in the industry, what some of the positives that are going to come out of this will be.

Bashar Wali: And by the way, when we talk about creative ideas, thank you, you’re very kind, I don’t want someone to tell me that they figured out a way to make sure the door handle is sanitary. That to me is a necessary thing, not a creative thing. I think, again, how we work, mechanically speaking, as a result of this time, that’ll come in time and you’ll have authorities telling you how to do that and health organizations tell you how to do that. How we as an industry react to how we make our people feel again in an age of uncertainty is far more important than having hand sanitizer every door or figuring out how UV lights can kill germs on something. To me, that’s the mechanical part. That may make me feel safe, but it doesn’t create a memory for me. Travel, if you don’t want it to be a commodity, because at the end of the day like I said early on, we are selling a bed and a shower. But if you truly want it to be more, the only way you win is if you make me go home and talk about my experience. If I don’t, then you’re a commodity. I needed a bed. You gave me a bed. End of conversation. So if you don’t [inaudible 00:14:29] with me to talk to someone about, you failed.

Jeremy Wells: Yeah. Definitely. Bashar, I’m curious of your thoughts, obviously as a world and a nation and the economy being impacted by this, fear has kind of crept into a lot of people’s minds just as a whole consumers and travelers, I liked that you brought up the sanitation and operating procedures of your hotel are more of an expectation than just like some sort of delivery of hospitality. I think I even heard like a few days ago, there was someone that was making the point that they think that the sanitization of your hotel or your property is going to be at some point a differentiation or a positioning for hotel, which I thought was kind of almost absurd because I’m like that should be expected by default by any property, any hotel, any public place that you’re going that it needs to be clean. But when you think about like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the triangle where it has at the bottom, like there are the basic needs: food, water, there’s the need of safety and then it goes up from there to the need of relationships, need of feeling prestige and accomplishment. I think right now as a nation we’re almost still kind of at that safety, like just feeling secure, feeling safe. How long do you think and what’s going to be the process of getting back to…? I mean, are we going to get back to the feeling of prestige or getting to the point where people are traveling, going to these more higher-end luxury hotels? Or is it going to be more of like affordable luxury or budget-friendly hotels? What’s that look like for the hospitality industry you think?

Bashar Wali: Look, I completely agree and do not want to underestimate the power of fear, and there’s a lot of fear right now. And fear is largely driven by the unknown. And there’s a lot of unknowns right now. I have full trust in our scientific depths in this country or the globe for that matter and our ability to eventually come up with a vaccine for this thing. The minute there’s a vaccine, conversation over. It’s like any other major disease that we used to deal with years ago, decades ago, centuries ago. Once there’s a vaccine, I think this conversation changes completely. Meanwhile, clearly feeling safe where you go becomes really important. And truth be told, sadly, most of it is optical. Like pull out a dollar out of your pocket and go test it for germs, right? I mean, there’s a lot of things we deal with every single day, Pre-Corona, post-Corona. You can’t cleanse every dollar you have. You can’t cleanse the air when you’re walking behind someone on the street. We’re not going to maintain physical distancing, by the way, is what it should be called. I’ve, again, recently sort of cried the blues about we should be doing more social gathering remotely, obviously, and doing physical distancing, but the idea that this would be the equivalent of me telling you, “Listen, we changed our sheets. The bed better clean. The beds are clean. Feel free to come and stay with us.” I think in the immediate post-Corona world, there has to be a standard of care that we all take to make you feel good. But to me, that should be the price of admission.

Again, I shouldn’t brag in the same token about my room being cleaned or your sheets being changed daily. I shouldn’t brag that if you stay in my hotel, you’re not going to catch a disease. That should become a standard. Early on, obviously, you have to demonstrate to people that in fact it is and how and what you’re doing about it, but really there’s nothing foolproof. Zero. It doesn’t exist. It’s not going to happen.

So I think early on for those that are more cautious than others, they will want the assurances that it is in fact safe. But for others, it may not matter. Right? And I’m kind of one of those like I’ll take a flight today if I had to. I mean, I don’t have to. I’m not going to take unnecessary risks. But if I have to take a flight, I’ll take a flight. So fundamentally, I think post-Corona for a little while it’s going to be slower, slower growth, and we as hoteliers are going to have to be in tune and sensitive to different people’s needs. For someone like me, you don’t need to tell me anything. I’m sort of going with it anyway. But for someone else, they may want the assurances that you are in fact doing the right things, but we shouldn’t think of that as marketing ploys. We should truly think of it as, again, the price of admission. There’s only one definition of clean. Your room is either clean or it is not, right? There isn’t partly cleaned, mostly cleaned. It’s clean or it’s not clean. So from that perspective, I think you’ll see a lot of people trying to capitalize on this as a marketing ploy, but I think we as an industry and our government has the burden of ensuring that folks are following the right protocols to ensure the public safety.

Now how this change post-Corona madness as it were, I think people for a while will be shell-shocked because this was so incredibly broad and deep people will be shell-shocked. So I don’t know that this will change one’s mind about staying in a luxury hotel or a mid-scale hotel or a low-end hotel. I think obviously people have been hurt meaningfully, financially, but I sort of view this thing as that, I hope, this is the optimist in me, that we’ve pressed the pause button only. And when you hit play, it’s going to move again. But some people, the alarmists are like, we’ve pressed up not only the stop button, we’ve ejected the CD, we’ve tossed it out the window. So I’m saying we’ll just press the pause button.

So part of this though, and I really want to hone in on this idea, a lot of these things are self-fulfilling prophecies as we know, right? Everyone I talked to, and I’m starting a movement that, you know what, if you know you are going to go to Chicago at the end of the year for something, to visit family or whatever or if you know, having been cooped up for a while, you’ve got to move, whether it’s drive or fly or whatever, first of all, enjoy the wonder and the joy of booking, looking for a hotel, perusing hotels and booking, and in factbook, and if we hoteliers are stupid enough to tie your hands with cancellation policies when you don’t know any more than we know, hopefully, we’re all being flexible, but the minute you book, you’ve booked, you tell your friends you’ve booked, your friends tell their friends they booked and we hotel people start seeing that bookings are coming in and all of a sudden we start feeling better and our messages are better about, “Well, when are we going to open? Well, we’re seeing activity in September. It looks like a really good month. We should be thinking about opening then or opening in July or whatever.” So this idea of we as a society need to start, we don’t need Trump to tell us that we’re going to reopen. Let’s create the economic engine movement one by one.

Now, look, if it is unsafe to travel, well, you’re not going to travel, right? But my point is if we feel September is a good month and you know you’re going to travel to Chicago in September, go book that room. What are you waiting for? Because I think that will make unclog the engine and allow it to move. So I’m here telling everyone, please go book, book your dinner reservations, book your party, book your room, book your flight. And again, I’m calling on everyone in our space to be very flexible with people so that they’re not worried about, “Oh, well, if I book, are they going to not let me cancel or make me pay a penalty, et cetera?” If we’re flexible, think about the power of that movement with people starting to book reservations and book airline reservations. It’ll give confidence. We need confidence right now because we lack it severely.

Dustin Myers: Yeah. I could not agree with you more. I think that as you said, that can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the sooner that we show our support in this way, I think the stronger we will come out of this and the sooner that we can all start to heal and move forward.

Bashar Wali: And look, the facts are the facts, and again, someone who’s lost a friend, a family member, a colleague is probably throwing up in their mouths listening to this right now, we’re not underestimating the power of what’s happened. You know, 700 people a day are dying in New York. It is mind-blowing, it is heartbreaking, but I think like everything else this too shall pass and I actually posted something on Instagram. The idea of right now, this looks like literally you are going through hell, but you take this period over your lifetime and it’s literally nothing but a blip on the radar, right? You cannot let this singular incident destroy. I mean, look what it’s doing to the economy. Again, be safe. Don’t be stupid. Don’t risk your health or anyone else’s for that matter. Follow the guidance. But if you can create some movement for the betterment of all, for the benefit of those that have been out of work or industry has been decimated, I think it is our duty, if you are even remotely connected to this industry, I’m calling this our duty to go and book and create movement in our industry.

I’m calling this our duty to go and book and create movement in our industry.

Dustin Myers: Absolutely. Well, as you’ve expressed, this white space has given you some time to think and reflect and make plans, which I think is before us to get those opportunities off the road and just to think about where we’re headed. What particular responsibility or mission do you see in front of yourself for making the hospitality industry more human, as you would say?

Bashar Wali: I’ve been preaching this gospel for the last decade, basically, and I feel that I have not been practicing what I preach. I have not been walking the talk, not to the fullest extent. So this time has sort of forced me to say I’m either going to be true to everything I say because otherwise I don’t want to be a hypocrite or I’m not. So what it looks like post, and I’m not going to give away all my secrets right here, right now, I am really thinking about, the only thing that I’m, again, I’ve used this often, so people say I’ve stayed now in Manhattan and Williamsburg in 204 different hotels. Okay, 204. I literally believe I hold the Guinness world book of records number on it. I haven’t called them yet. I might have to just for my ego I suppose, but people say, “What do you remember? What stands out? What stands out?” And I’ve stayed at from hostels to Baccarat and everything in between. I couldn’t tell you what arts were at Baccarat or what tile was at the Ludlow or what. I couldn’t tell you any of that.

So my answer to that question always is, “I only remember when someone goes out of their way and genuinely gives a shit.” Literally that’s it. It is such a low bar, yet with 204 hotels, I’d be hard-pressed to name more than one handful that have accomplished that. And what does that mean, “Genuinely gave a shit”? It means someone recognized my name when I walked through the door without having to look down and didn’t call me Mr. Wali, but literally called me by my name because they remembered our interaction. I had a problem that I came to you with that you couldn’t solve, by the way, because not every problem can be solved by the poor guest services agent, but you pretended enough to convince me that you genuinely cared. Those are the things that stand out. And I think we as an industry have failed miserably. And this is not about ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen, because that’s a credo you read from a card. It’s not true emotional intelligence.

So I think figuring out, and it’s very hard, it is very, very hard for a transient industry with people that come and go, figuring out how to create that. It’s not training. You can train me to be the absolute perfect service delivery person following every step you convince me to follow from a checklist and I could be the rudest person you’ve ever met or the coldest person you’ve ever met. But figuring out how to create, foster, and encourage an environment that celebrates the behavior, that warmth behavior, that’s sort of giving a shit behavior for the lack of a better term genuinely, I think that’s a culture you create and it’s one of the hardest things we do. So if I had to say my magic secret formula, that’s it. How we get there is a different conversation that requires a lot more than, again, a checklist or training.

Jeremy Wells: Definitely. Well, I’m certainly looking forward. I know Dustin and I are excited to see what the future hospitality looks like for you. I love your ethos and your mindset and I think it’s something that we all need a reminder on as well. Bashar, thank you so much for joining us.

Bashar Wali: Please be safe. Thank you all. Bye.

Jeremy Wells: Thank you so much. I hope you enjoyed today’s episode of Future Hospitality Podcast. If you enjoyed today’s topic and episode, please leave us a review. You can also find us on Instagram at Future Hospitality and on Facebook by searching for Future Hospitality.