By Kaitlin Dunn, Writer, Hospitality Sales & Marketing Association International (HSMAI)
There aren’t many budding rocket scientists who transition into the hospitality world, but that’s exactly what Stuart Butler, CHDM, COO of Fuel, did, pivoting his senior year of college onto a new career path. Recently, Butler sat down with HSMAI (virtually, of course) to share more about his unconventional start in the business, how things have changed for him since the pandemic, and why having his CHDM (Certified Hospitality Digital Marketer) certification is important.
Tell me a bit about your career path.
I took a very unconventional route to get here. My undergraduate degree was in physics with space science — basically, I was studying rocket science. My final year I did a project where I programed a robot arm and I fell in love with computer programming. I went from working in space to working on the internet. This was the first time I saw the internet, and I realized I wanted to figure out how it worked and contribute to it.
I graduated with my degree in physics and then got a graduate degree in computer science. I moved to the U.S. from England to work as a developer for a small internet company, which eventually became Fuel. One of the first projects I worked on was an online booking engine in 2001. That was my first experience with the hospitality industry. I fell in love with the psychology of it, how to present things to a potential guest so that they can make best decision for their families.
At the time, the company didn’t have a marketing team, but I realized that even if our clients had great websites and booking engines, customers needed to be able to find them. I went from being a programmer and project manager to building and managing a marketing team, working with several industries, but I found that my passion was hospitality.
I like to help others and make people happy, and a lot of people in the industry share that passion, so it has always felt like home. We went through an ownership change at Fuel five years ago and went exclusively into the hospitality industry. We were running like a startup, because we had the chance to rethink everything we knew and reorganize and rebrand our products..
My focus since the switch has been on positioning Fuel as an industry thought leader. My path hasn’t been linear, but it’s always been interesting. I’ve been here through four ownership changes and rebrands, and I’ve worn almost every hat in the company.
What do you usually do on a day-to-day basis?
I oversee all the client activity within sales and marketing and help with strategy and driving bookings. I also oversee the business development team, focusing on ensuring our products are where they need to be and promoting them.
The third part of my job, and the part that I enjoy most, is giving back to the industry and building relationships, writing blogs and podcasts and volunteering with organizations like HSMAI, where I’m on the Marketing Advisory Board. I’m also the chair of the Marketing Council for the Myrtle Beach Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. Over the years, more of my time has been spent contributing to the communities that have helped me in my career and developing partnerships with them.
How have things changed for you since the pandemic began?
We’re really fortunate because we acted fast. In the beginning of March, we realized it might be a big problem, so we started running some budget stress testing, knowing our clients would be struggling with reduced demand very quickly. We shared the burden with clients, so even if they can’t pay us, we still are helping them and making sure they stay in business.
In addition to helping my clients, a lot of my time has been spent on figuring out how to help the industry. Since we have our podcast, we decided it was our responsibility to leverage that platform. We knew we had a lot of good thinkers in our organization, and we reached out to competitors to collaborate with them as well. We were also one of the first out there to create a COVID-19 resource center, an aggregated list of useful articles. In addition, we have been conducting an extensive consumer sentiment study every fourteen days to more than 10,000 leisure travel consumers during the pandemic and are proud that we have one of the largest sample sizes of any study that’s being performed.
What’s been keeping you sane?
Sanity is relative at this point, but I’ve found that it’s really important to take a break. A good friend of mine caught me on a bad day early in the crisis, when I had been working 18- to 20-hour days and obsessing over the situation. He told me to switch off and relax before I burnt out, which was the kick in the pants I needed. It helped me get some perspective.
Since then I’ve tried to focus on eating healthy, exercising, and getting sleep. This has been a challenging period, but the long climb is just starting and we’re all going to need a lot of stamina. Taking care of bodies and minds is very important. I also try to take short breaks to practice mindfulness meditation and make sure I designate times I’m off the clock, so I’m not working at midnight. It’s about balance.
When and why did you get your CHDM? What was your experience like?
I joined HSMAI’s Marketing Advisory Board this year, and I figured I needed to “walk the walk,” so I took the test right before the Marketing Strategy Conference in January. The overview was really intimidating, because it covered so much stuff. There were areas that I had gaps in, such as public relations, because I’m not working in that day-to-day. But there was also a lot of good reinforcement for things I knew or had forgotten. It was a very well-rounded curriculum and covered all the bases, very relevant and up-to-date.
I didn’t know how I would do on the test, but I passed on the first try. I had to study and prepare for it. You can’t just take it and pass; you really have to know your stuff. Because it’s so comprehensive, it really gives a lot of credibility to an individual that has the certification.
What’s your best advice to someone starting out in the field?
Be yourself, be genuine, and be generous. This is an industry based on relationships. Everyone knows everyone, so whatever your reputation is will determine how well you’ll do. Go find ways to help others or contribute whatever skillset you can give to others, which can give you a leg up and get you connected to folks who will repay you.
To be successful, you have to genuinely care about other people. You have to have a hospitality spirit, whether you’re at a hotel or on the supplier side. We provide software to hotels, but if we don’t have consumers’ best interests in mind, we won’t do well. If you want to be in this business, you should be here for the right reasons, and if you are, you will have a lot of fun along the way and meet a lot of really interesting people.
Learn more about HSMAI’s CHDM certification.
For additional information, insights, and tools, visit HSMAI’s Global Coronavirus Resources page.