Future Hospitality

S1E15: Adapting to Stay Relevant: Engaging Guests in New Ways: Jason Cutinella

October 30, 2020

Jeremy Wells: Jason, thank you so much for joining us today. We’re really excited to have you on the podcast.

Jason Cutinella: Oh, my pleasure guys. Thank you for inviting me.

Jeremy Wells: Yeah, for sure. Well, Jason, we’re excited to talk to you today. I know that we spoke a few weeks ago and learned a lot about NMG and what y’all are doing. And it’s just really exciting vision and what we’ve heard and seen is just really outstanding work and things that you guys are doing over there. For people that are listening right now that might not be familiar with NMG or just would like to know a little bit more about what you all are all about, I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit briefly about the origins of NMG and kind of where you got or how you got to where you are today.

Jason Cutinella: Yeah, no problem. Well, once again, thank you for inviting me on your podcast. I love what you guys do.

Jeremy Wells: Yeah.

Jason Cutinella: NMG started 11 years ago now, and I’m a born-and-raised New York guy that moved out to Honolulu, Hawaii to go to grad school. I completed grad school and I said, “Well, how am I going to be able to stay in the State of Hawaii and build something?” So in 2009, I came up with a company called Nella Media Group, which is now known as NMG Network. And I said, “Well, I feel nobody’s really zoning in on really building out super curated and targeted content for the State of Hawaii.” It was very broad and it was your typical media outlet. And knowing that I was in the State of Hawaii, which was primarily a visitor market, I said, “Well, how do I build a company that is based around tourism and travel?” So that’s kind of how the original concept came up of going, “Well, I’m going to get into this market and I’m going to start with building out a media company with multiple brands under it.” And I realized that the travel and tourism spaces are kind of where I wanted to focus on, because those are way to get the advertising dollars through my media channels.

I kind of always try to evolve my company.

How I got to where I started, it was really understanding that, once again, focusing on the travel and focusing on more of the higher-end demographic. My goal was to build out these, I like to call them curated media channels for select hotels with tour destination airlines and luxury residential condominiums. So it was a long journey, a lot of drive, a lot of dedication, and a lot of things I was doing against the typical kind of media kind of process. I kind of always try to evolve my company.

Dustin Myers: So Jason, prior to starting this company, you had some background in media, correct?

Jason Cutinella: That’s correct. In 1998, I had an uncle, my past uncle that was an accountant for McCann Erickson. And while I was going to undergraduate school in Manhattan, he asked me simply, he goes, “Oh, I realize you’re going to business school. But what are you going to do? Where are you going to work?” And being a young guy, I didn’t really have an answer to that. I thought I would like bartend or something. And he said, “But why don’t you intern? Or at least I’ll try to get you an internship at McCann Erickson.” Doing a little research, I realized McCann Erickson was the leading advertising agency in the world at that time. Long story short, I started interning. I had a six-month internship that led to two and a half years. All the way through my senior year, I was a national media buyer before I even graduated.

So my background in media is all I know. I’ve been doing it since I was about 19-year-old guy and worked two and a half years in McCann Erickson, graduated, and then I actually went over to Sony Music and I worked in the marketing and publicity department for two more years, from about 2000 to 2002. And then as we all know, 9/11 and streaming music came to our world, 3,000 of us got laid off at Sony Music. I was a young guy still, and I said, “You know what? I think it’s time for a lifestyle change.” So I applied for grad school, drove across country, and that’s how I ended up in Hawaii.

Dustin Myers: That’s really cool. So I feel like a lot of people start businesses with more incremental improvements to things that are already there. But what we see you guys doing with the in-room television programs, I feel like is just really out of the box. How did you think to start that idea? And maybe just give us some insights into how you thought to take such an innovative approach.

Jason Cutinella: Great question. And thank you. So in 2009, more 2010, about a year into my business, the first thing was, “Well, how do I get the best distribution possible and the most targeted and most focused and most high-end demographic distribution?” And my vision was always to be a video and digital-first company. But to start a video and digital-first company is very challenging, especially when you don’t have the capital. So I started out in publishing, producing these beautiful, I call them “magabooks”, because they’re not quite a magazine, they’re not quite a hardcover book. So I call them magabooks. And I started producing these books with a mindset of going, “All right, so I’m going to get. Into all of these distribution points through producing the best high-end publications I could possibly do for hotels, which will bring me to the reason why I evolved into television and soon to be we’re about to launch our whole digital network through hotel distribution.

But to answer your question, I went through producing, publishing. I built up an extreme amount of partners in the hotel sector and I built up the best advertising partners, the Harry Winston, the Gucci’s, the Fendi’s, the Louis Vuitton’s. And then once I had them, I go, “All right, books, book, magazines, magazine.” I accomplished that. It’s still very fruitful for NMG. We still do them. We still love them, but I go, “I need to evolve because I can’t be a publisher building my company and that’s the only offering.” So about, I want to say about three years into my business, I go, “What is the number one worst channel on a hotel?” It’s channel one. It’s their own channel. We’ve all traveled. We’re in the hotel space. You go to these hotels and channel one is 10 minutes of looping content and there’s like Mario Lopez on there talking about like what to do.

So I go, “Well, this is something super remarkable. If I could take over that channel, utilize my intern editorial team and bring in filmmakers.” So I said, “Well, I’m already producing content. We already got the creatives. Now it’s just bringing in the filmmaking team to really make sure the programming and the content is actually top notch.” So I did that. So it took me about, I want to say five, six years to build out all the advertisers, all the hotel distribution. And then I said, “I’m going to go dormant for two years,” and about a year and a half actually. And I go, “What’s the quickest way I could articulate my vision and do it at a rapid speed?”

So we acquired a company in Hawaii called Visitor Video, two great guys, they’re 74-year-old guys that built out a good distribution platform, but they never built off the programming. They did a little, right? It never really evolved. It was just the distribution platform with about, you know, 45 minutes of kind of decent content, but it wasn’t engaging. So I said, “All right, I don’t want to compete with these 74-year-old guys. They’re friends. We work together. Well, let’s figure out how to buy them out.” So we did that. And then instantly, I started kind of just maintaining that, but for a year and a half, two years, I built programming. I built a ton of video, an extreme amount of videos. So when we launched this television network, it looks robust and it’s not just a vision. So I spent two years building out the programming for some of our luxury hotels. The main one we have in Hawaii is a hotel called Halekulani Hotel, which is a five-star hotel, right smack in the middle of Waikiki. And we created a show called “The Art of Living” for them.

So to answer your question, it’s like, we’d go into these hotels. We took over channel one, but then we went a little further and said, “Well, what are we going to do to create a show that will really encompass your guests?” So the channel we created for Halekulani is called “Living TV”. Now Living TV is three seasons, five to six episodes per season, and now every season has a book. So I kind of reversed the model where I used to do three books a year, three issues a year and then that was it. So when I kind of went to the television space, I said, “Well, let’s call these things seasons. Let’s make a show for them and let’s have X amount of episodes per show.” So now if you stayed at the Halekulani, you would walk into season seven, we’re actually on season eight. There’s 40 episodics on this network, this channel one, and there’s a book to accompany this channel.

So the long story short, I looked at channel one, I said, “That’s an opportunity. The only way to make it good is ongoing content and keep evolving and producing more instead of just producing once and calling it a day.” And that’s what hotels do. They produce amenity-driven videos, which are beautiful, some of them, but they’re not doing true narrative editorial. And that’s what we do. That is how we evolve the channels. We’re not getting hired from the hotel to produce content about the spa, the restaurants, the food and bar and restaurants. We get hired to truly build out these curated media channels and that is what we pride ourselves on. And it started out in books. It’s in in-room television now, and soon with another hotel partner of us, we’re launching out our first digital platform that is encompassing and working with their current websites.

Jeremy Wells: That’s awesome. I mean, you’re a hundred percent right on the channel line and it always makes us laugh whenever you think of that in-room experience and it’s just this bland experience right when you turn on the TV. I think that’s really special what you guys have begun to create for these brands and how it’s helping them tell unique stories. And I’d love to hear some examples of the types of unique and engaging stories that you guys are telling on these channels, local experiences or things like that.

Jason Cutinella: Yeah, not a problem. And I always liked to tell this to my publishing friends. It really came from the publishing. We were telling stories since day one of Nella Media Group or NMG Network. Day one, we tell stories. But it’s really taking those stories and bringing them into video formation. I actually wanted to start the company being video first, but the amount of money. So to start doing videos, 10 years ago at a startup was virtually impossible and publishing was still very lucrative in Hawaii. So it really came that organic to what’s going. Remember I said I went dormant for about two years. I went dormant to the whole point that I turned off my website and just said, “We’re rethinking our business model pretty much.” That was a splash page. And the reason why I did that is I wanted to relaunch the webs, our personal website or nmgnetwork.com.

And if you go to that, you go, “Oh, that’s a video first company. That’s not a publishing company that’s trying to get into video space.” And if you look at every major publisher across the globe, they’re publishing companies trying to figure out how to evolve. So I went dormant, shut down my current operation of just thinking publishing, and I just produced video upon video upon video, utilizing my same editorial team, utilizing my same creative direction team. I just brought in filmmakers and I can’t reiterate enough. I didn’t bring in a video team. I brought in filmmakers because filmmakers know how to tell a narrative story. Video people are people that produce commercials, your typical commercials and agency style, which are great. And I work with those people all the time. But on our side of the business is we bring in true filmmakers, narrative storytelling, creative team to ensure that the content is truly editorial. And that is something very challenging when working with certain hotels, because it’s such a new mindset that people are not… certain people really don’t even have an understanding on what we’re trying to do yet. And that’s fine. It’s up to me to keep pounding the pavement and telling people what we do.

Jeremy Wells: So Jason, your story is, I mean, it sounds like it’s very much one of evolving and adapting and just staying on your toes, ready to pivot at any time. I’m curious, how did you manage to stay sensitive and aware of those moments? It’s never required you to make a shift or to make a quick pivot.

Jason Cutinella: I think it’s staying nimble. To be honest, I think COVID, how hard it was on my business and tourism in general, I think it made me realize how we started and how nimble we were so how we could pivot pretty instantly growing this company. And before I would say pre-COVID or around 2019, I would say, last year and a little into ’18, we were growing at a speed that I think was a little too quick. Meaning, we weren’t really watching what the true vision was of the company. We were just growing and hiring people and just going and everybody was happy because we’re a profitable company where now I feel like I’m back to square one and watching every little aspect of the company and making sure I’m shifting and pivoting in the right direction. I always made sound decisions when I was growing this company, really thought out and I was clear before I made a move.

I don’t know if it went off topic right there, but that is something like I always pride myself with NMG where I think last year it was growing too rapidly. So now I’m back in a space that I haven’t been this clear in my business probably in about four years before we took the jump from just being a publisher.

Dustin Myers: Yeah. Yeah. I think sometimes the difficult times can also be pruning and refining for us in our businesses and our overall mission. So I’m glad to see that that’s been some positive from it for you. So I feel like you’re kind of blazing a new trail. Were there any times throughout this journey when you doubted yourself or doubted, if the long-term vision was actually going to be able to come to fruition?

Jason Cutinella: Being a founder, I think you always have doubts, right? I think we’re some of the most emotional people in the world. We take everything so emotional and sensitive. So yeah, there’s always something a doubt. Right? But I know my vision and my goals are something unique. What really wakes me up in the morning is to prove to the world that I’m actually going to build a true luxury and lifestyle hospitality network. And there’s no such thing as that. So when I get a little down, I just say, “You know what? I want to be the guy that creates a true travel and lifestyle luxury network.” And that keeps me going. And yeah, I’m not giving up.

Dustin Myers: Yeah. It’s awesome.

Jeremy Wells: Looking into the future of NMG and where you guys are headed, do you think that what you guys are doing do you see that becoming the new normal or the new expectation from a guest experience, walking into the room and seeing this really curated content that’s really unique and thoughtful? Is that your hope?

Jason Cutinella: It’s definitely my hope and it’ll be a reality. Once again, hotels do a great job of marketing their hotel. Our vision is making sure once they get the guests that they’re getting a curated experience, I like to say I produce content for the guest. That’s what I like to say. So yeah, I think a hotel guest, especially the demographic we go after, is in need of content. They definitely want very engaging content and they’re always searching for something new and exciting. It’s just up to NMG to keep pushing on what we’re doing and keep working with our hotel partners to educate them that these curated media channels are neat and their guests are looking for them. And educating the hotel executives, which I work with a lot, and they’re all great people, but really educating them, it’s not about talking about the hotel all the time. That’s called “pre-arrival marketing”, and those are great, you have to do that as a hotel. But once you get that guest, you need to make sure you’re doing something beyond your typical luxury hotel and giving them something, and that’s what these media channels are for.

The beautiful thing in today’s world, and you guys know this best, is the content we create leads them back to the hotel because once it’s out there in this viral world and you’re watching a video about a wood maker in Santa Monica and that wood maker video happens to be the video that’s on Shutters on the Beach media channel, that’s going to bring them back to Shutters. So there’s all sorts of angles. But once again, it’s up to us to make sure we educate not only the hotel, make sure the guests, this is a truly narrative editorial.

Jeremy Wells: Yeah. That’s really cool. Yeah. I think there’s so much opportunity out there. Do you find it challenging? You mentioned talking to some of these hotel owners and managers and things. Do you find it challenging to communicate the value of what it is that you’re offering them.? Or how do you make that an easy conversation for them to understand?

Jason Cutinella: Every day, it’s challenging. Every day. The day that it’s not going to be challenging is when we are known for what we do. Meaning, when NMG Network is known as the company that creates curated media channels and people really understanding what that is, but every day I constantly have to go back to my team and go, “Guys, when I pitched this hotel, I articulated what we do.” And then right, I’m the one that kind of gets the business going and then I hand it over to my team that completely understands what we’re trying to accomplish. But then the hotels will kind of come in and redirect their brand to becoming the agency for the hotel. And I got to go with that. It’s a constant battle and it’s okay because if it wasn’t a battle, that means it’s done before. That’s my thought process. If it wasn’t a challenge, there would be no such thing as NMG Network. I would be an agency. That’s what I would do. And I always tell people, I do a lot of service work, big part of our business, but building a network is priority. And that to me is if we’re not building the network, then we become a service company. And I didn’t seek out to be a service-based company. I love service-based companies. I work with service-based companies all the day. I think they’re the best.

When I work with their agency service-based company and we understand each other, oh man, it’s the best relationship ever, because I kind of helped the agency because I’m not trying to step on their toes. I’m trying to produce content for the hotel. Right? And some agencies like to say they produce content, but the ultimate dream is our partner NMG is the content people. We’re the brand people, right? And if you could find that synergy, it’s magic, but it’s still a little challenge, and to answer your question, every day. I got to re-pitch them almost. You remember that we talked about this is narrative editorial and we’re going to create a show that’s going to have episodes. For some reason, they understand the book.

When I start going to video, sometimes it’s a 180. I’m like, “Wait a minute. We send in an edit for a book. It’s pretty easy. We send in our editorial like pitch on these the stories we want to cover. Say yes or no.” And they usually just look it over because they want to make sure the people that we’re covering is not going to tarnish the hotel brand. So they say, “Yes,” and then we produce the book and then we drop off the book. For some reason, when I tell them, like we evolved into this video television network, all of a sudden, they’re not clicking sometimes. But in time, when they do click it’s beautiful, and Halekulani Hotel in Hawaii is a true example of success on all fronts, print, in-room television, and now this curated digital channel that we’ve produced for them.

Dustin Myers: Yeah. Well, I would assume that the more you do this, the more case studies you have on your website, the easier it’s going to be for people to really appreciate the value of what you’re doing. For any of the listeners who haven’t seen his stuff, check out nmgnetwork.com and look at some of the video content. It’s just gorgeous, really, really creative films. As you’ve said, it’s not just videos, but it’s, it’s really engaging stuff. So I think that will get easier for you, the longer you’re at it.

Jason Cutinella: I hope so or else I’m going to be driving and flying around the world, which I enjoy. The case studies are getting a little better. Halekulani was such a success. That’s how we landed Shutters on the Beach and Casa del Mar. The ownership group, and I’m sure you guys are familiar with Shutters on the Beach and Casa del Mar.

Jeremy Wells: Yeah.

Jason Cutinella: The reason why we landed that and people ask me all the time, “How are you getting this business?” We landed Shutters on the Beach and Casa del Mar because the ownership group stayed at Halekulani called me the next day going, “Are you the company that produced these videos on channel one?” And I go, “We are.” The lady said, “I never sat in a hotel and watch two hours of content in any hotel in my entire life.” So I didn’t even pitch. There was zero pitch. I went to Santa Monica. I met their GMs. We shook hands. That was it. Agreement happened. And now this month, we are launching, it’s called Waves TV. We created a channel called Waves and that consists of in-room television, beautiful book, and we are building out, which is not launched yet, the sub-domains for both shuttersonthebeach.com and casadelmar.com. So imagine obviously everybody that’s listening knows what a sub domain is, it’s Waves that shuttersonthebeach.com.

So we go in and now we’re starting to own the sub domains of these hotel websites.

Jeremy Wells: That’s awesome.

Jason Cutinella: I’d have to pause guys.

Jeremy Wells: Yeah.

Jason Cutinella: Sorry about that.

Jeremy Wells: So I know that you have big plans for the future and scaling up your company now with the foundation that you’ve built, what are you most excited about as you look to the future of travel and the hospitality industry in general?

Jason Cutinella: How much of a rebound we’re all going to have, everybody in this hospitality and travel space. I’ve literally been on the road for three months. And if you were truly a luxury or leisure hotel, which I go after, they’re packed still. They’re playing it safe, you’re wearing your mask. They’re understanding the relevance of how important their outdoor things are, like their dining and their activities related. And I’m excited to get back to work to be honest. I don’t stop, but anybody that plays in the travel and hospitality sector, we’re all going to have to help each other because we need to make sure, especially, the United States that we promote that it’s a safe travel environment. And I think people have been cooped up for a while. I think we just got to be ready and I think any company that focuses on that sector needs to be able to react quickly. So that’s what we’re gearing up for.

Jeremy Wells: Yeah. Yup, definitely. So we talked about the future of travel and hospitality now. What’s next for Jason now? I know you’re on the road, doing some cool stuff. So what’s exciting for you in the future?

Jason Cutinella: You know, building a company for 11 years now, I have the best team in Hawaii. I really truly. They’re like family. Right? You start a business, you build a team. They’re family. So the first thing I’m going to do is make sure my team in Hawaii, we get Hawaii back up and running again. We get the team back on to full-time work and really get that moving again. But for me, I’ve always wanted to scale a company and be a global company. I’ve said it from day one. If you look at my first notebook, I said, “I want to be a global company based at Honolulu, Hawaii.” And this next year to three years is going to prove that. We’ve already proven that we can scale. We were already working out of Hawaii with beautiful partners, like Shutters on the Beach and Casa del Mar. We were about to launch the global Kimpton Hotels Media Channel in 2020. That obviously got pushed to 2021.

We worked with a smaller hotel group called the Provenance Hotel Group and there’s a bunch of others that will come on in the mix. So what’s exciting for me is the really show that this small company out of Honolulu, Hawaii, that never had investment is now one of the global leaders in the travel and lifestyle space. That’s what drives me every day. I’m still in love with what I do and I challenged myself to evolve on a yearly basis. I never wanted to create a company that felt like a lifestyle company that I come in to work, talk about my weekend, and it was always about pushing the envelope and making sure I evolve. So I think the only thing for people to do to follow myself and NMG Network is to keep in touch. I’m always available. I love having conversations with people on what we do.

When you guys offered to be on your podcast, I was very excited. Mark told me about you guys. I did a lot of research on you guys. I love what you guys do. And I love speaking about my business. And I’m not afraid to talk about it. I’ll sit in a room with eight million of my competitors. I’ll tell them exactly what I’ll do. And whether they do it or not, it’s up to them. But I’m that passionate about it. So that’s the next step from me and NMG is constantly evolving.

Jeremy Wells: Yeah. That’s really exciting. Well, I’m excited for what’s in store for you guys and I can’t wait to see how you guys continue to evolve into the future. How can people stay in touch with you guys?

Jason Cutinella: With individuals at NMG or just staying in touch with us?

Jeremy Wells: Just learning more about you guys and how to get in touch.

Jason Cutinella: That’s a great question. So we’re in the process of putting like this newsletter out that represents NMG and all the brands under it. We have two consumer-facing brands. One’s called FLUX Hawaii, and one’s called Lei Culture. Now FLUX Hawaii is a brand that started out in the magazine and still is a magazine, but we have a ton of other digital and video content, but that’s a brand that kind of really articulates the arts culture, music in a modern mindset of what’s going on in Hawaii. So you could follow fluxhawaii.com. Or we have a brand called Lei, Lei Culture, and that is a beautiful brand. That is for the LGBTQIA that articulates not only with the beautiful culture in Hawaii is, it’s becoming a national brand. So that one’s leiculture.com and then other one’s fluxhawaii.com.

Those are two brands under the NMG Network umbrella. You follow those on Instagram as well and that will lead you to what’s going on with NMG as a whole. Or simply, our Instagram channel I feel is a cool one. It’s just NMG Network. And then, yeah, that’s pretty much it.

Jeremy Wells: Awesome. Well, Jason, thank you so much for joining us today. We really are appreciative for your time and hope you have safe travels.

Dustin Myers: Thanks, Jason.

Jason Cutinella: Thank you so much, guys.