A pioneering online marketer, successful entrepreneur, travel tech consultant and educator with decades of hospitality experience – where to begin with the career of Master’s guest lecturer, Max Starkov. In the first of three guest lecturer interviews, we caught up with Max at his holiday home in New York State to discuss digital transformation and the need for a new set of leadership skills.
Thanks for taking the time to speak to us, Max. Before we talk about the purpose of the new Master’s, tell us about your background.
40 years in hospitality, that’s my background. I studied undergraduate hospitality and international tourism, as well as a Master’s degree in hospitality and tourism from Sofia state university in Bulgaria. While I was a student I worked for British tour operators, and after graduation I worked as Manager, International Events at the Bulgarian Ministry of Tourism.
I organized international conventions including the UNESCO General Assembly and the annual General Assembly of the World Tourism Organisation. By the age of 24 I was managing a team of 50 people.
Going online, way before Google
In 1989 I was sent to New York City as the Director of the Bulgarian Government Tourist Office for North America, with a multi-million dollar budget, 10 people working for me and a diplomatic passport. After four years, I left to start my hotel representation company, offering Europe vacations to United States travelers. When the internet came in 1994 I set up a one page website and introduced guaranteed departure tours with a pseudo booking engine, where you could select a day, enter how many people, your name and credit card – and there was no SSL website security at the time!
“I thought, something is happening here”
We marketed the service in North America, but we started seeing reservations from Americans in Saudi Arabia, Japan, Brazil and Argentina. People in places we’d never advertised were booking tours on our simple website, and I thought, something is happening here. Then an old lady that travelled with us all the time found a single room supplement cheaper on the hotel website than the price we had charged. That was really the eureka moment for me, travellers were now able to find holidays themselves, online.
That’s when I sold the company and founded my first internet start-up, travelbreak.com which was an online travel marketplace. We were number two in the world after Priceline and won a bunch of awards, but one thing that I noticed during our travelbreak years is that many hotels were not bookable online, all they had was gift certificates. So, I founded WhaleMedia Technologies, which was an online booking engine technology vendor for the hospitality industry. We were the pioneers of this, we won the Microsoft global award for innovative technology for our smart CRS (central reservation software) for hotels.
Fast forward 20 years and I’ve taught undergraduate and postgraduate hospitality technology at New York University, been a guest lecturer at Lausanne, Cornell, Las Vegas School of Hospitality and Boston School of Hospitality. I sold my last business, Next Guest Technologies, in 2018. Now I teach, consult and travel.
Why is it important for hospitality professionals to know about digitalisation?
Hospitality is a tech industry now, and most hotels and hospitality professionals have the wrong mindset – they’re still thinking like real estate businesses. The digital transformation is changing hospitality and professionals are largely unprepared. Most hoteliers would prioritize changing the carpet in the lobby over installing IoT devices in guest rooms.
This is in sharp contrast to the modern customer. Guests today are super technology savvy, they expect the same technology advancements when they go to a hotel as they have at home, and unfortunately they’re not getting it. Tech is the best enabling tool for any marketer, and tech strategy needs to flow through every department of a hospitality business.
The purpose of this Master’s is to prepare future leaders for a technology empowered future. Students will gain:
- The perspective of digitally-savvy customers that they’ll be dealing with
- The bigger-picture impact of hospitality technology and digital marketing
- The ability to lead the digital direction of a company
- The skills to assess and identify issues in the industry and what solutions are needed
“Every hotel should see the digital customer journey as the inspiration for how they structure Investments and operations.”
This program will give students a different perspective on the customer journey. Nowadays the digital customer journey consists of five phases: dreaming, planning, booking, experiencing and sharing after you leave the property. Every hotel should see the customer journey as the inspiration for how they structure Investments and operations.
How you as a hotelier can engage people in the dreaming and planning phases? How can you make them convert and book your property? How can you make your booking pre-arrival, stay and post-period experience the best possible? And how can you keep customers engaged so you can retain them in the future? This new Master’s in Hospitality Strategy and Digital Transformation equips professionals with the knowledge to answer these questions for their employers, or in their own business.
Why is Les Roches well-positioned to deliver a digital transformation Master’s program?
Les Roches is known as a very innovative institution with forward-thinking hospitality programs, they like to experiment and keep academia fully integrated with reality. It’s a less conservative institution, they instil best practices and provoke critical thinking and go above and beyond to open the minds of the students.
“If you want to become a digital marketer, a technologist in hospitality technology, a start-up founder that resolves issues in the hospitality industry, then Les Roches is the best place to study”
It’s in the institution’s DNA to be inquisitive, to challenge everything, to solve issues and inefficiency, and to launch start-ups. If you want to become a digital marketer, a technologist in hospitality technology, a start-up founder that resolves issues in the hospitality industry, then Les Roches is the best place to study.
What it takes to be a modern entrepreneur in hospitality
To be a good hospitality entrepreneur today, you need to understand the industry, understand the existing issues and develop critical thinking and analytical capabilities in order to identify what the solutions are to these problems. In this sense, Les Roches is the perfect place for such a Master’s program.
Looking to the near future, how do you see tech transforming hospitality?
Automation and robotization of the industry will be the norm. As a hotel, you won’t need half the people you do now, and the savings will mean the automation will pay for itself in as little as three months. IoT devices will continue to be implemented to support scheduling labour, improving communications and delivering the level of customer service that guests now expect.
“If you’re a hotelier and you have no idea about all of this… your peers who adopt technology will always perform better than you”
Soon, all customer service will be handled efficiently with super-high levels of customer satisfaction by AI-powered applications, that’s where we’re headed. And if you’re a hotelier and you have no idea about all of this, and you don’t see the business applications of technology, you will still insist on old methodologies that will see your efficiencies and bottom line suffer and your peers who adopt technology will always perform better than you.
Finally, bringing the focus back to the current and unprecedented COVID-19 situation, how can hospitality professionals use tech to help their business survive a crisis and support recovery?
First of all, by knowing technology and implementing technology you can operate more efficiently, which means you’re saving money. You’ll also be able to create deeper relationships with customers, your marketing will be more effective, and your revenue management will be more productive, giving you more revenue from the same number of guests.
In a crisis like this, if you have the right technology, even if your hotel is shut down, you can continue communicating with your customers about the situation of the property and about how you’ve taken care of your employees. You’ll be able to share offers that are adapted to, in this case, post-virus traveler behaviour, which will be short haul and driving holidays.
At the same time you can have your revenue management team develop different types of algorithms for post-crisis recovery, again taking into consideration the sentiment of the traveling public. Using AI as the main engine, you can come up with pricing solutions, packages and specials that are far more acceptable to your audience than those of your competitors.
Having technology, and the knowledge of how to use it, empowers you to weather the storm in much better shape than your competitors who ignore technology and do not embrace innovation.
Learn more about the Master’s in Hospitality Strategy and Digital Transformation
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