How to Create a Culture of Innovation

By Robert A. Gilbert, CHME, CHBA, President and CEO, Hospitality Sales & Marketing Association International (HSMAI)

How does innovation happen? More often than not, it’s because an organization has taken steps to make it possible. At HSMAI’s Hospitality Marketing ThinkTank, which we presented at the 2018 Phocuswright Conference in Los Angeles last month, I asked our all-star panel — Christopher Donnellon, global vice president of marketing for Marketo; Dorothy Dowling, senior vice president and chief marketing officer for Best Western Hotels & Resorts; Kurien Jacob, principal with Highgate Ventures; Jeff Senior, vice president of marketing for KSL Resorts; and Michael Vermillion, vice president and general manager of travel and hospitality for J.D. Power — about this.

What can hospitality companies do to create a culture of innovation? Here are five components, according to our panel:

1. LEADERSHIP Christopher Donnellon

“Leadership is very important, because there’s a certain risk that comes with innovation. There’s a perspective about profitability, and when you innovate the idea is that it’s future profitability. It takes leadership and it takes vision to understand that there’s going to be a downward trend before you get this upward spike. Organizationally and culturally, there are a lot of leaders out there that just don’t have that vision. They’re very focused on running the current business they have today and that’s very effective, but the ones that wind up being innovative are the ones that say, ‘I need to keep that stuff going and on top of that I need to ensure that we’re doing what we need to do for the future, which means it’s going to cost me money and we’re going to fail at a few things.’ You can’t have a penalty culturally for failure.”

2. VISION — Kurien Jacob

“Culture is paramount, and leadership. If you don’t have the leadership vision, innovation is likely going to fail. You can’t just have an innovation council that meets and doesn’t have teeth. Mine is a classic case. I was chief revenue and marketing officer for Highgate hotels, and I ran that for many, many years. To take my role and say, ‘We’re going to move you into investing in travel-tech companies,’ says a lot, because we felt that this is the time to jump in and identify these companies that will grow in scale and become a big arm of the business. At the same time, some of these companies will help our legacy business grow in scale. That was a testament to totally disrupting what we were doing normally and saying, ‘We need you to run with this and create innovation.’”

3. CURIOSITY — Dorothy Downing

“There was a recent article in Harvard Business Review which I really liked, because it talked about the evolution of talent and how IQ used to be one of the most defining characteristics, which then moved to the empathetic model, which is really emotional intelligence, and now is really being defined by your curiosity quotient, or CQ. That, to me, is about embracing learning. In an organization like Best Western, we’re obviously learning from our hoteliers all the time, but it’s also about listening and learning from the customer.”

4. FAILURE — Michael Vermillion

“A key ingredient in a culture of innovation is the permission to fail. Innovation is about trying new things, but new things are hard. A lot of times new things don’t work and they fail, and if you punish people for trying new things and failing, guess what — you’re not going to have people trying new things. That said, there’s good ways to fail and poor ways to fail. You want to plan to fail, so that you don’t have a bunch of zombie initiatives and projects and products walking around, and you want to set up your organization to learn from that failure.”

5. PROCESS — Jeff Senior

“There needs to be a process to follow to understand, how do I bring my idea to life? How do I build something? How do I put in place so that it can fail fast and I can learn, iterate, and eventually go forward?”

Innovation has been identified as a priority issue for hospitality sales, marketing, and revenue-optimization professionals by HSMAI Organizational Members. Our Marketing ThinkTank is part of our ongoing efforts to address this priority issue with specialized content and other resources.

Categories: Marketing
Insight Type: Articles