A Q&A With Barak Hirschowitz

The founder of the International Luxury Hotel Association (ILHA) and one of the hospitality industry’s most influential figures, Barak Hirschowitz has accumulated a wealth of knowledge about hotel management over his career. He tells us why he started the ILHA, what the word “grand” means to him, and the lessons he’s learned throughout his career.

Q: You started your hospitality career as a chef in restaurants. What sparked your transition to hotels?

I had the opportunity to work as a chef/manager for a small luxury hotel. We all wore many hats at this property, which gave me the opportunity to work closely with our hotel guests. I enjoyed this very much, and once you step out of the kitchen, it’s hard to go back.

Q: What skills and knowledge did you bring from one to the other?

A Food and Beverage background is always helpful in hotel management, but culinary is one area where hotels can struggle to stay consistent. A chef that knows how to run a profitable kitchen, lead a dynamic team, and deliver great cuisine has valuable experience that he or she can draw on when needed.

Q: What motivated you to found the ILHA?

The ILHA started organically. In 2006, I helped bring together a group of more than 50 hoteliers working in the luxury hospitality industry around the world. We formed Luxury Hoteliers as a forum where we could share ideas, insight, and strategies. People were attracted to the idea of having a transparent community where colleagues — and even competitors — could help each other out by crowdsourcing answers to their questions. The group grew quickly, and we saw a spike from 50 members to 5,000, then 50,000, and so on.

After we saw how much interest the forum had gathered, we realized we needed an organization and polled about 1,000 hoteliers on what they thought we should do next. The feedback was overwhelmingly similar from everyone interviewed; they all thought we needed to start an association to help managers stay competitive in the quickly-changing world of luxury hospitality. Each country has its own hospitality organization, but they tend to focus on the mid and economy hotels because that’s where the volume of consumers is. But luxury hotel managers need to know about trends and strategy for design, décor, food, spa, wine, tech, training, concierge services, and many other key factors that may not be as important for hotels that don’t cater to the luxury community.

Q: One of the goals of the ILHA, according to the website, is “to provide hoteliers with the resources they need to grow their business, improve standards and advance their careers.” What are a few things hoteliers can do to make their properties stand out in the market?

The best place to start is with your existing guests. Today’s global luxury traveler seeks unique, personalized experiences. The goal should be to make every guest feel like they’re the most important person in the hotel. If you can do that, then you’ll succeed in growing your business. I believe good communication with guests before their trip is a key factor in accomplishing this. It allows you to customize their stay and ensure their needs will be met.

Q: New technology has caused the hospitality industry to change rapidly over the past few years. Can you tell us a bit about some notable innovations you’ve seen in this space?

It was only a few years ago that hotels did not have an IT department, and now it’s one of the most important parts of the hotel. Think about what is connected through a hotel’s network: internet, room access, energy management, reservations, TV, digital concierge, and much more. All this data now provides an opportunity for hotels to get a clear understanding of what is happening at their property, and this is very valuable.

Q: Would you say that technology is now a crucial part of providing an exceptional guest experience? Why or why not?

Technology has made everything that happens in your hotel much more transparent. I think this is a good thing. It’s no longer about which hotels have the biggest marketing budget, but rather which hotels are keeping their guests happy.

Q: Some would say inefficient technology is just as bad as, if not worse than, no technology at all. What are some steps hotels can take to make sure guests have a seamless experience with their technology?

Today’s luxury travelers expect technology in hotels to, at the very least, match the level they have at home and at work. Hotels need to ensure they are regularly investing in new technology to stay up-to-date with what their guests come to expect. It’s also important that they ensure their technology helps create a seamless guest experience and is intuitive to use.

Q: At luxury hotels, guests generally expect flawless service. What are your best tips for hoteliers looking to take their service to the next level?

Don’t be afraid of technology. I spoke to a GM recently of a very classic New York luxury hotel which has an older, more conservative guest profile. One of the answers to a question on a recent survey surprised them. They asked if guests would prefer a check-in kiosk in the lobby over a traditional receptionist. Most people preferred a kiosk because it saved them time checking in. Technology, if used right, can improve fine service. A good balance of high tech versus high touch is key.

Q: During your time in the luxury hotel business, what are some of the lessons you’ve learned?

I have many, but I will go back to the first I learned. I was in my first week of an internship at Disney’s newly opened flagship, The Grand Floridian Hotel. They handed us a card to carry around in our pockets at all times. On it was the word “GRAND.” Next to each letter, it spelled out “Guests’ Requests Are Never Denied.” I still have this card and it’s one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned to this day. Thanks, Mickey!

Q: What’s in store for the hospitality industry in the coming year(s)? Do you have any predictions?

It’s an exciting time for the luxury hospitality industry. We have an opportunity to play a bigger role in our guests’ visits, since they look to us to help guide and plan their overall stay. I think technology will continue to push this trend, and hotels that keep up with it will see their business continue to grow.

Q: Any final thoughts?

If any reader has other questions, I encourage them to join our LinkedIn group, where they can find plenty of insight not only from myself and the organization, but from the great community we’ve formed.

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