Future Hospitality

#18: Blurring the Lines Between Real Estate and the Guest Experience: Colin & Ronan Hannan

February 2, 2021

Dustin Myers: Colin and Ronan, thank you so much for joining us.

Colin Hannan: Thanks for having us guys.

Ronan Hannan: Yeah, appreciate it.

Dustin Myers: Cool. So yeah. I had come across some of your work and some of the concepts that you’ve developed and just really impressed with how you guys put together a bunch of different aspects of a concept to create an experience and wanted to reach out and talk to you guys more, just kind of hear your story and talk about some of the philosophy and decisions behind how you got to where you are. So maybe for starters, just let our audience know how you guys got into the hospitality industry.

I think in short, we got thrown in at the deep end.

Colin Hannan

Colin Hannan: Sure. I mean, I think in short, we got thrown in at the deep end. We had been involved in real estate projects in Ireland where we are at the moment, the UK, and went on to South Africa for a number of years before we stumbled into Belize and fell in love with it as a destination, quite quickly raised some capital from investors to develop a number of projects and we started with a set of boutique resorts in a far away in corner of Western Belize. So we came in really with a hands-off role as developer, but we happened to open the resort just after Lehman collapsed.

So out of nowhere, we inadvertently opened a small, independent luxury resort in a little-known part of a very small destination with zero prior hospitality experience at the very start of a global meltdown. So I think when we started that project, we didn’t necessarily see ourselves being the hands-on guys, but very quickly we had to get hands-on and learn a lot of hard lessons from the ground up, I think, you could say. That project never had a big budget to play with. But if we wanted to stay open in those days, I mean, ’08, ’09, ’10 was miserable. And it forced us to look at things in new and interesting ways.

I guess it gave us a template for playing around and experimenting. There was no domestic market. There wasn’t much of an international market. So we had to figure out how to get international press that had kind of build a presence and engage on a consistent basis to try and turnover some revenue. So bit by bit over the course of a few years, we built up the business and ultimately made it very successful and paved the way for us into a lot of other projects since then. But that was our kind of Baptism of fire, I think, you could say.

Ronan Hannan: Yeah. I think just to add a little bit to that, I suppose. Like he said, coming from a sort of real estate background and we grew up in real estate development over here, obviously it was boom years all over the globe. And I think when we started really getting into hospitality, you really develop a real respect for the attention to detail on how much more is going on in a hospitality-based project than your sort of standard residential, multiunit development for real estate. So for general managers, for GMs, I mean their roles, their jobs, it’s a vocation in life more than anything. And I think that really appealed to us and we developed a big respect for and how much goes on and how devoted people are to hospitality. So just to add a little bit in there.

Dustin Myers: Yeah, that’s really cool. So your first project was what?

Colin Hannan: That was Ka’ana Resort in Belize. So it’s [00:04:49]. It’s still going strong. So it’s right in Western Belize and 17 beds, experiential property, really all about adventure by day and luxury at night. And we built it into that. I think it didn’t start off as that, but we find bit by bit that the reason people were coming to the area was to get out and see the Mayan rooms and dive and swim in the cenotes trek through the jungle. There was loads to do, but yet it’s a little known destination. So they needed us to be their local hosts to curate these tourists and make sure that they’re getting out there at the perfect time that they have the best tour guides.

And also, for a lot of people, they’ve never been there before. So it requires a lot of personalized attention to make sure that they feel comfortable, that they’ve had a chance to ask all of their questions and that they kind of really feel like they’re getting an authentic introduction and an authentic experience of the area because the area has so much to offer, but there weren’t many other people doing it. So we kind of have to build these guest experiences from scratch.

Jeremy Wells: Yeah. And the property is really unique. It’s very sophisticated. I wish I could visit there sometime because it just looks really awesome. The work that you guys have done is really all inspiring to me. As you journey through the years and as you kind of formed your company, Dustin and I, ourselves, are partners at Longitude and we know the challenges of a partnership and the good and the bad that comes from it, I think. Being a brother duo team, what sort of challenges or benefits have you guys seen throughout the years to having that relationship?

We … learned over time was how different we are. We are literally chalk and cheese.

Ronan Hannan

Ronan Hannan: I mean this question could go out on the other side No. I think what’s very interesting from our perspective and about ourselves and what we probably learned over time was how different we are. We are literally chalk and cheese. And so in order to get that perspective within work, we come at things from completely different angles. I’m an accountant by background or I trained as an accountant and obviously we’ve had our own businesses together for the last 17 years. But I’m a very linear thinker, whereas Colin, he’s an economist by background. He’s very commercially focused, but he’s totally driven by marketing and he’s a very lateral thinker and how he comes at things.

So I’m finance, he’s marketing and there’s upside and downside to that in how we approach things, but we’ve kind of learned over time that we have to give each other the respect and honor each other’s perspective and try to meet in the middle, I suppose, along the way.

Colin Hannan: Yeah. I think we’ve probably seen or reluctantly learned over time that oftentimes when we get into an argument, it’s that we’re looking at the same issue. We’re just looking at it from different angles. So it’s not always that one of us is right or wrong. But those times when you are right, it is glorious, as we said. No. Even in terms of relationships, we tend to gel with different types of people, which is a benefit to the people that I’m just no good with. Ronan tends to be able to put up with and the people that he doesn’t really understand or the people I kind of vibe with.

All relationships do take investment, they take time, and they take some deep breathing every now and again.

Colin Hannan

All relationships do take investment, they take time, and they take some deep breathing every now and again. But I think the more we go through life and this kind of professionals, the more you know, the more you respect all that you don’t know and the importance of putting good people around you and I think there’s a big part of that for us in terms of how we’ve learned to work together.

Dustin Myers: Yeah, that’s really cool.

Colin Hannan: How about you guys?

Dustin Myers: That’s a good question. Yeah, what’s the quote?

Jeremy Wells: Wait a second. We’ve never been asked the question.

Dustin Myers: We’re going to have to cut this out. Jeremy and I, we’re very aligned on like values and purpose, but I think we also come at situations and problems from very different angles. So it’s been a fun learning experience to figure out just to consider other viewpoints, other motivations and trying to reconcile what’s best for the business and what’s best for the team and everybody involved. So yeah, it definitely requires work. But I think the benefits of having multiple perspectives if you can get along is really healthy.

Ronan Hannan: Yeah.

Dustin Myers: So you started this Proven Partners pretty much going into the pandemic, right? And your previous venture was right at the last economic downturns. Is that right?

Colin Hannan: Incredible timing, really isn’t it?

Dustin Myers: Kind of walk us through that. What lessons did you learn and what lessons are you learning as you’re kind of starting things when people would think is not the best timing?

Colin Hannan: That’s probably a peculiar reference, but for some reason what springs to my mind is I remember learning how to swim and I had to wear pajamas in the water and how hard it was. But one day you eventually kind of swim without pajamas and it’s that much easier. And it felt a bit like that with Ka’ana as an idea of a point of this. Trying to start an independent resort and get it up and moving is really, really difficult at the best of times, but doing it in a really difficult economic environment is so much tougher. And yeah, we got nailed by the last recession. I think it taught us that there’s no way to fast-track projects. There were much bigger projects we’d worked on in the years leading up to this, but a lot more money involved and they were just so much easier because everything was selling. But when the tide goes out, you kind of find out who you are. And I think we earned our stripes in those following years because we had to break down every single thing into minute details and really just focus on the core of our products.

I think we earned our stripes in those following years because we had to break down every single thing into minute details and really just focus on the core of our products.

Colin Hannan

In a good time, you can open a resort and maybe start selling from day one. I think that’s not realistic, unfortunately, even for people today. And so it requires you to take a much deeper dive into, “Wait, why do you exist in the first place? What is it that people are actually looking for when they come here? Are you actually really delivering on that? And are you communicating that through your digital messaging?” A lot of our focus at the moment is on the development side of things where you’re trying to figure that out before you actually exist. So making sure that there is a strong process to the development of concept. And we’re very commercially focused, but we’ve seen that if you want to have sales when you’re open, if you want revenue, and that’s if you’re resort real estate or if you’re boutique resort, whichever it is, the value that we found through the lessons that we’ve learned in kind of really working on those concepts in that brand, which you guys are all too familiar with. If you can get it right, it just sets up your marketing and your sales for success. And if you don’t, then your sales marketing teams are really going to be working with one hand tied behind their back.

So a lot of people, I think, kind of roll their eyes a bit when you start to talk about concept and concept building, conceptual fact signs, intangible that sounds fluffy, but it’s a very, very real and practical process to go through. And I think getting that kind of cohesively ingrained in the design and into the pre-opening of the operation is something that, yeah, I guess, we took away from those early years.

You take those lessons and you remember them and you bring them forward for all your projects beyond that.

Ronan Hannan

Ronan Hannan: Yeah. And I think being honest even like when you come through certainly that recession, when we were coming through the other side in 2011, 2012, we had already started to incorporate sustainability into our resort on levels of digital that weren’t being used in other places, mostly because we had to. Our front page of our website, even for Ka’ana at the time when we started to build this into and other projects because we had started consulting on other projects at that stage, was a video. And back in sort of 2011, ’12, there weren’t many places doing that. But my point being that we have to really just push boundaries before we’re thinking and try to be creative, I suppose, and on very small budgets and how we approach things. We’ve taken that. And I think a lot of people have, and especially those who really got hit hard in the recession. You take those lessons and you remember them and you bring them forward for all your projects beyond that.

So certainly remaining forward thinking and looking ahead and trying to be not way ahead of the curve, but just thought little bit ahead of the curve can really just drive your project forward. And as long as you don’t rest on those laurels, I suppose, and become complacent and continue to stay and just slightly out of that curve can be very valuable.

Jeremy Wells: Yeah. And the work that you guys have been involved in and the properties that you’ve had success with, I think one thing that I’ve seen from the outside looking in is like you’ve managed to create through the services that you offer. I think your core services are like development service, real estate development services, financial planning, marketing, and concept development. I think through that, all those processes that you have, it’s really a matter of, and we see this even ourselves on the projects we work with, or this like creating this holistic experience that starts from early planning that involves every step along the way.

As you mentioned earlier, like sometimes early on that was more of like a bootstrapping or like trying to look for extreme efficiencies that required oftentimes more creativity sometimes to get around those hurdles. So when it comes to like creating this cohesive concept from the beginning to the end and executing it, do you have any examples of how that’s kind of played out just on a project basis, maybe one project where you went through that whole process and it just worked out perfectly or maybe some of the challenges you faced along the way?

Colin Hannan: I think one of the things we’ve learned more than anything is to make sure that concepts and ideas aren’t coming from ego or ideology, rather they’re coming from the heritage of the destination surrounding you. A lot of the answers to the questions we’re asking ourselves in those early days laid by kind of stepping back and actually engaging with our local community, learning more about the history of the area. Now look, Belize believes is a very particular and unique destination, but I think why do people travel so often, it is to get a sense of a different destination whether that’s Belize or Berlin. I think these the same kind of things apply.

And I think we’ve seen too often then in hospitality, maybe the time and thought hasn’t gone into projects to help develop those concepts out. Everyone gets very focused on capital budgets, but there really needs to be almost a budget for the amount of time and thought that goes into really kind of digesting the destination itself and then figuring out how to incorporate that into the resort or the hotel. One of the projects we have in the pipeline at the moment is one of the top 100 golf courses in the world, yet they’re struggling with occupancy and residential and that was pre-pandemic. So their offering is world-class, but it’s just too one dimensional.

They haven’t developed beyond their core product. If you look at the resort real estate side of things, you want families to buy. We have to appeal to the spouses and the children and both spouses, not just one. So trying to relook at that and reposition it and figure out, “Okay, what actually makes sense for this destination?” And the truth is in that particular case there’s a world of inspiration right in their doorstep, but they came in with the mentality that this is golf and that’s what we’re going to do. And they went and did that and it just comes off a little bit one dimensional. Whereas another project we worked at recently, Alladale in Scotland, was a beautiful remote retreat but not only it’s a retreat. Has got a really incredible rewilding focus. They’ve planted over a million trees to restore native woodlands in recent years.

So it’s a terrific story and it’s something that really compels people. It resonates with them. They want to come along. They want to support the project. And it goes beyond just a very simple kind of one-dimensional offering to something that now has ramifications on its community. If you’re marketing that property, you have so many reasons to talk about so many things that people will follow you to stay in touch with and hear how progress is going. They reintroduced the red squirrel a couple of years ago. Those kinds of stories are dynamite and you want to support those types of properties. So they’re thinking outside the box.

Ronan Hannan: Yeah. I think when we’re looking at anything from a holistic point of view, obviously even though you want to be genuine and authentic throughout everything that’s created and it takes a vision or an understanding of every single party that’s contributing to the project. So from designers right through to the actual financers or the owners and developers enough in that sense through to the GM and the sales and marketing. From our perspective, because we have to walk in those shoes and every single pair of those shoes along the way, what’s often missing, I think, in the creation of some of these projects is somebody who actually can take that seat at the table and can speak the language of everybody who’s around the table.

Generally, there’s one of those parties that’s actually driving it and you have to understand what the drivers actually are within that in order to push those pedals when needed and make sure that everything is working cohesively together. I think when you have that, then that shines through in what Colin was talking about there as regards your environment, your community, how your staff feel and then therefore how the guests feel and when they come to a property or even when they view a property online, when they’re considering visiting or they’re considering buying the vacation home at that property, it should be very authentic and feel like genuine and that it’s true to its location and where it is.

Dustin Myers: Yeah. Absolutely. I mean truly great properties aren’t just great because of the architecture or the list of amenities. It does take that heavy investment in the creative and the thinking and really creating a concept that brings everything together. I love hearing you guys say that.

I suppose bringing all the real holistic philosophy into how everything is brought together ultimately is where we come from and tying all that together.

Ronan Hannan

Ronan Hannan: Yeah. I think we’ve come from it, like we said, a real estate background an we’re through those boom years. And here in Ireland, it was called the “Celtic Tiger”. But through the early 2000s, everything was growing massively, everybody was spending, and there was just mass production, I suppose. It’s a long time since then, obviously, but really I suppose bringing all the real holistic philosophy into how everything is brought together ultimately is where we come from and tying all that together.

Dustin Myers: Definitely. Have you ever been brought into a project where it was hard to find some of those creative ways to highlight and bring things out and create a unique experience? If so, what are some of your methods of really digging into an area and into a property and finding the unique aspects of it?

Colin Hannan: I think what springs to mind is that it’s been less about the property maybe not having the scope. As long as the owners are supportive, maybe why we speak, I guess, so clearly on it and so we play such importance on it today is maybe at times in the past we’ve assumed that other people think the same way or have the same level of value on that process as we do, when in reality, that’s not the case. This is across all businesses. Everyone is forced to look at results tomorrow. They don’t want to build for next year or even six months down the line. People who prefer to put some money into Google AdWords than build a really good SEO campaign. And it can feel a bit like that if you’re going into a new project. That’s why if it’s a new acquisition and it’s repositioning, there’s usually a little bit of a bandwidth, a bit of scope for playing around and taking the time.

I mean, we mentioned earlier about the time and thought that it takes. I think if you’re told to just do something quickly or expect to do it quickly, you will end up having stick with more of a formula, whereas really unearthing some of the underlying kind of unique character takes a bit of time, but that’s not to say that the answers are always right there in front of you if you take that time. We learned early on. One of the fun sides of hospitality is it can be a little bit fantasy, especially when you get into resort, people are traveling, they want a different type of experience. So not every resort is going to be a very authentic experiential property. I think depending on your destinations, when you do get to those destinations, maybe what you’re asking about that are maybe not quite as layered and historical as some of the ones we’ve been talking about, then I think it leaves more room for quirk and creativity.

So we would certainly try and encourage a blank slate of that, and we spoke earlier that putting good brains around you and making sure that you’re encouraging discussion, encouraging creativity and listening to all avenues and ideas. And that’s a difficult one. You’re also still always on a budget, on a timeline. You have to balance those, delivering on this with also stepping back and kind of brainstorming. But as with so much in hospitality, from our perspective, it is very challenging and it’s really interesting and it can be very, very good fun and very, very fulfilling, but it doesn’t mean it’s easy.

Jeremy Wells: So as you guys have been working on a lot of really cool concepts already, to some of our listeners, some of the projects you guys are already working on are like considered dream projects probably and I know you guys probably love every one you get to work on. But what do you describe like a future aspirational perfect project? What do you kind of ideally look for in the projects that you’re brought into?

Colin Hannan: I mean, it’s a great question. We’d probably give it a different answer every day if we thought about it. But I think we’ve always been, by default, we’ve kind of come from an intersection of real estate and hospitality. And so the lines between them have often been blurred for us. And I think we kind of like blurred lines, I guess, things that are a bit more multi-dimensional. Wellness is something, I think driven by the pandemic, it’s becoming a bigger and bigger team in our thought process. And I think for a lot of people, bringing wellness outside of spa and integrating it into the actual resort operation, that’s something that’s very interesting to us. Ronan mentioned sustainability earlier on, figuring out ways that sustainability can be more than just a kind of a baseline and can actually become a core part of your project. I know I’m talking kind of a high level here, but those kinds of intersections are what really drive us. How do you make the real estate field like part of the resort? And blur those lines. And how do you kind of benefit from intermeshing these different areas without losing the contrast and the differentiation, if that makes sense.

Ronan Hannan: Yeah. We talked a bit about our first relatively small project, I suppose boutique resort in the jungle, and at the same time as that, we obviously had a fund and we had to continue to raise money through the recession and for other projects and we’re trying to stay ahead of the wave of recession at that time. And my point being, we were traveling to Dubai to try to attract investment, to try to stay ahead of that wave of recession. And I think that’s one of the interesting things about traveling is when you get to see these different destinations and how they approach hospitality. And I would say at that time certainly in Dubai that it was sort of, they have created a mini Vegas, they’ve come a long way since then because they’ve embraced their own culture. And because they have so much culture over there in a lot of what they do. But at the time, there were a lot of hotels that were just very bland and didn’t suit their location.

So yeah. When we talk about our perfect project, you learn from your own travel and from the places that you visit along the way. There are so many details that can go into a project. And our last project in Belize was an $80-million project of real estate and resort. But there was so much contrast going on there between beach and jungle and it was sort of coastline and lagoon side mangroves and Mayan ruins and Caribbean beachfront and reef. And then there’s the heritage side of things we had and a small museum involved as well. All those details become all those layers that people can keep discovering along the way. And I think when you have that people keep coming back and otherwise in this day and age, people get bored very quickly. So it’s those layers that really start in and you see that in the best properties, I think, around the globe, certainly.

Jeremy Wells: Definitely. Yeah. You mentioned some words and trends along the way. You mentioned like wellness, sustainability. Earlier you’re talking about rewilding and how that’s become kind of an up and coming trend, I think, too, for the industry. And I’m sure you guys are familiar with like transformational tourism and how that’s playing a part in the sustainable tourism efforts and like helping with over tourism and things like that. Some of them I don’t even know if we’d called trends or labeled as trends, hopefully not, but how many of them do you think will become kind of evergreen or expected in the industry? And how many might be more of a trend that may have an end to it eventually? I mean, how do you account for that in the design choices you make and the choices you make with the concepts defining what’s a trend and what’s going to be something that sticks, I guess?

Colin Hannan: I think it’s an intriguing kind of area to discuss, but my perspective will be that something like sustainability and to an extent wellness as well, I think, are going beyond trend and they’re turning into movements. I think sustainability in particular is here to stay because we’re only going to be seeing more climate issues over coming years. They’re rapidly increasing in pace. And I think a few years back we would have had a commitment sustainability, but it wasn’t something that we knew a huge amount about. We’ve learned a lot more about the trance of it over the last couple of years as of many people and I think we’ve seen a huge increase in awareness.

So that awareness isn’t going to go away because it’s not going to get solved in the next couple of years. You can see it at the highest levels ramping up. So I think, yeah, that’s a long long-term one and that’s a keeper. And I think to some extent wellness is interesting because I think if we were chatting a year ago, we probably wouldn’t be putting it on the radar in the same way. But coming out of a pandemic, I mean the pubs in Ireland and Europe have closed since last March. That’s unprecedented in itself.

People have been deprived of that human connection, which is so ingrained in hospitality and so much of what drives the desire for hospitality. But I remember wearing a mask in the store for the first time and it felt so weird and that was part of day-to-day life for us. So it’s difficult to anticipate what the long term and carry over from all of that is in terms of consumer behavior, but certainly there’s a lot pointing towards wellness being valued a lot more of, the quality of the air we breathe, the quality of the life and also we’ve all had a lot more time for ourselves, a lot more time to think about these things and to recognize how fragile our environment actually is.

So I think it’s more speaking to those consumer kind of the awareness and the drivers are going to be more long-term as opposed to so many of the trends over the years, which tend to be short-term things, if it’s something that’s kind of cool and interesting, but it doesn’t necessarily have a long-term meaningful place at the table.

Jeremy Wells: Good point.

Ronan Hannan: Yeah. And I think and I would hope that certainly because there’s been a reduction in travel and that the people have developed a much bigger appreciation for their locality or their home country or whatever, rather than jumping on planes nonstop all the time, I would hope that that’s something that remains. We didn’t live here in Ireland. I am up to a couple of years ago for 15 years and we lived in the US. And coming back here, you do have a new appreciation for a lot of the culture and history and I think obviously as a result of COVID hopefully that remains and therefore reduces travel a little bit from a climate perspective and sustainability perspective and being real about that.

We definitely have seen, and I think everybody would agree that there’s been a lot of greenwashing in the industry over the years, as Colin pointed out. There’s a lot more awareness about it, what true sustainability is nowadays, and even if you look at any of the lists of the hotels that are opening in 2021. They’re all talking about obviously sustainability. So again, you got to be that little bit ahead of the curve and what are you doing that stop it more because that is normal now. And I think that’s a great thing to be happening in the industry.

Dustin Myers: Yeah, absolutely. So one of the questions we ask all of our guests with the title of the podcast being Future Hospitality, we’ve talked about kind of where the industry is going and some of the things that we think will influence it. What are each of you excited about at a personal level as you look to 2021 and beyond?

Colin Hannan: In the industry or on a personal basis?

Dustin Myers: Personally.

Colin Hannan: I mean, look, the pub hasn’t been opened here since March, like I said. I think that sense of kind of engagement and human connection again, sitting out in a buzzy city square, having had that taken away and it’s another few months before we’ll really get any of that back again, but I think there’s a whole new appreciation for the travel and the human connection. And that doesn’t mean long distance travel necessarily, but we’ve been fortunate where we’ve traveled a lot in our lives and in our careers. It’s been eye-opening to kind of have that taken away to some extent for a period of time. And I don’t think it’s necessarily been a bad thing, but it’s definitely on a personal level given a new perspective and a new appreciation for just how important it is and just how enjoyable it is.

Ronan Hannan: Yeah. I think both personally and professionally from the point of view of the actual flags and brands that the big corporate ones around the globe, but I think we had already started to see a lot of change within them that they weren’t so generic. And over the last couple of years, I’m sure that will be hugely accelerated now as Colin mentioned, as people really crave that human connection again and really crave some authentic, real travel that those brands are evolving further to actually take that much more into account and be a little less worried about their bottom line nonstop, so to speak, but really just rather than being more corporate and bland across every single destination that they take more account of their location and the community, the environment, et cetera. You guys mentioned the holistic attitudes towards wherever you’re located and I think that’s really important. So I look forward to seeing that in a lot more places and that being embraced much more as we move forward.

Dustin Myers: Yeah, absolutely. I think in spite of the challenges, like you said, this has been an opportunity to kind of reset and see what’s really important to you and be able to make some adjustments to your life that maybe you wouldn’t have had the opportunity to without this. So I’m excited for the Irish pubs to be opened, again, for your sake as well. We’ve just really enjoyed having you guys on here. I love what you guys are doing, just hearing the heart behind it and the optimism. If people want to learn more about you, where can they do that?

Colin Hannan: I mean, they can reach out directly to us and check out our website as well, which is proven.partners. They can get to us at colin@proven.partners or ronan@proven.partners. But the website’s right there. If anyone wants to take a look and we’d love to hear from you.

Dustin Myers: Excellent. All right. Well, thank you guys.

Colin Hannan: Thanks so much, guys. It was a lot of fun. Thanks for listening to this round.

Jeremy Wells: Thank you guys.

Ronan Hannan: Thank you so much.