• Ryan Haynes

Exciting hospitality for great experiences

Updated: Aug 31

In this episode we look at the important factors of hospitality today; the aspects that generate excitement and the role of digital services in delivering the ultimate experience.

We’re joined by Don Bunnell, founder of the Swank Guide - a new travel curation/review platform across social media channels. They curate unusual, independent, and sustainable boutique hotel experiences. Don has spent half his life overseas and has traveled to over 60 countries, He’s lived in Europe, China, and Australia – and is always looking for that perfect hotel. He’s also taken start-ups through both Y Combinator and TechStars, the world’s two most selective start-up accelerators.


We cover:


- The key factors of hospitality

- The aspects of a property that really excite

- The importance of digital services


Program Notes


Ryan Haynes:

Hello and Welcome to Travel Market Life. I'm your host, Ryan Haynes. And in this episode, we'll be looking at the important factors of hospitality today. The aspects that generate excitement and the role of digital services in delivering the ultimate experience we're joined by Don Bonnell, founder of the Swank Guide, a new travel curation review platform across social media channels. They curate unusual, independent and sustainable boutique hotel experiences. Don has spent half his life overseas and has travelled to over 60 countries. He's lived in Europe, China, and Australia, and is always looking for that perfect hotel. He's also taken startups through both Y Combinator and textiles, the world S two most selective start-up accelerators


Ryan Haynes:

Hey Don, thanks ever so much for joining us. So tell us about the Swank guide and why is this platform really important at this point in time.


Don Bunnell:

Hey Ryan, thanks for having me on, you know, the white guide was born out of a frustration that I had for years. So I've been thinking about this problem for 20 years and the problem was, I like really nice hotels. I like really high-end, but you know, it doesn't have to be fancy, but something that's unique. That's got a lot of really great design and I used resources like travel books and travel curation websites. And I think I was happy 70% of the time, but the other 30% of the time I'd show up at a resort and it wasn't as advertised. It wasn't as described or something really major was missing from the description or the pictures on the website.


Don Bunnell:

And I was disappointed and I've thought for myself, thought to myself for years, that why aren't travel guides and hotel reviews and hotel suggestion sites. Why isn't that in a video format? So people can really see what a hotel is before they fly halfway around the world and pay for it. Right? So I'm just trying to solve that problem to help people find the right place. So curation is a big part of what we do just, you know, I did Tulum recently, so I think I stayed at 14 or 15 hotels after doing a lot of research. And then we, but we said, we could only recommend 10 cuz five were a pretty big disappointment, but you gotta go and you gotta stay.


Don Bunnell:

And you gotta have that experience before you can make a think a legitimate recommendation to folks. And then part two is taking that experience in a video and showing people what it is truly like, because there is no one size fits all for hotels. You know, it's in tum there's not a great place for families, but there is one good family hotel, but most place, most hotels in tum I wouldn't take my family, you know, and conversely, if you're a couple, the place for families, this isn't that great for you. So, you know, with the videos, we really try to show people what the hotel is really like. So they can make an informed choice about where they want to go, what place they wanna stay.


Ryan Haynes:

I mean, there's been such an expulsion in, in, in a way that, you know, hotels are reviewed nowadays. We've gone from the trip advisors to the influencers and the way that social media really plays a big factor in that at the same time. But it often it comes down to, you know, who's actually reviewing it. And is that representative of, of, of me as, as someone who is going away and, and do they reflect my particular interests or, or preferences when you're travelling and


Don Bunnell:

That's real quick. Cause I mean, that triggered two things with me. And, and one is like the trip advisor, which is a really great resource. I look at it sometimes, but the problem with Tripadvisor is you get everybody's opinion, which is like, you know, some people only care about costs. Some people only care about the food, right? So I think you, there's just too much information there. And then the other side is with influencers. Most of the videos about them, or they've only stayed in one hotel, the information's pretty limited. And by the way, they've been, you know, they've gotten a free stay, so they're not giving you an objective view. So we Don don't take sponsorship from, from hotels. We really try to be like really upfront about why we're recommending a place.


Don Bunnell:

And, you know, I think trust is a big problem in the travel industry. I think there is so much gamifying going on and like hidden agendas and things like that. So one of the things we're trying to do with, you know, our website and with our YouTube channel is really kind of create, create trust. Cause I think that's, that's a really big missing thing in the travel industry. It's hard to find obviously it exists, but I think it's hard to find,


Ryan Haynes:

Well, that's been a big focus over the last couple of years. The pandemic really drew that to attention. You know, how much can you trust the suppliers? You know, what, what, what security is there around the booking and the expectations of the experience when you arrive and that's particularly interesting that you don't take payments. So do the hotels expect you on arrival to be actually doing these reviews? Or is it more like a secret


Don Bunnell:

Shopper approach? Yeah, I mean, I it's, you know, it's probably most akin to the Michelin guide. They don't show up announced, so they show up in pretty incognito. Right. And so it's the same kind of approach will that evolve over time? Yeah. Maybe, but that's kind of the approach I'm taking right now because I think if you give them too much of a heads up, how, how honest and objective of review can it be?


Ryan Haynes:

Oh, absolutely. And if they've got all the data and insights in you, they're gonna deliver you that ultimate experience. But as you say, it is all about being able to respond to the individual as you arrive without any preferential treatment. So when it comes to The key factors of hospitality, what is particularly important,


Don Bunnell:

You know, I think, and this is going back kind of my, to my trip advisor comment, what we're, what we're doing at the Swank guide is we're not trying to appeal to everybody. We're trying to. Our niche is that 5% of the travelling public who cares about unique experiences who want to go to interesting design hotels who want something that's a little bit unusual. So if you're into the Hilton or the Sheraton, there's nothing wrong with those brands, but you know what you're gonna get when you, when you go to those places, that's not what we do. We're kind of looking for those hidden gems. Things are a little bit off the radar. So we're trying to appeal to, you know, maybe that small slice of the pop population who cares about more sustainable, more interesting, more experiential travel.


Ryan Haynes:

I was gonna say, I mean, you know, there are so many aspects to different properties, but in particular, what sort of things really excite you or some of the new attributes may be that properties have been adding to their properties that are adding to the additionalflavourr when you're staying?


Don Bunnell:

Yeah. I mean, for me, it's I come, I, you know, I think I come from a very kind of design centric focus. I did study architecture a little bit. I'm not an architect. So, you know, I think the lens I look at it through is what is good design, which is obviously a very subjective thing, but I'm looking for really well designed places. And that sounds like that's not a very specific answer. I really It's very subjective, but I mean, first and foremost, that's what I'm looking for. Obviously like great cuisine. The service is important, you know, and it's like, I was talking about like a restaurant experience I had recently and I think I was in the tum and this is a little bit of an aside, but I had three of the best meals I've had in 10 years in tum.


Don Bunnell:

It was like, I went to tum to check out the hotels and who knew it was like an incredible foodie scene. But for me, when I think about like a great meal, it's not just about the food, it's about the design. It's about the service. It's how they present the food. Right. So I think I am looking kind of for that full package, like service that's attentive, but like not in your face.


Ryan Haynes:

Oh, I can see. Yeah. Cause I guess you can walk into a place that look from initial inspection, just sort of incredible, but then once you're in there, if you don't have that sense, that same feeling when you are walking through and, and, and you're staying there. Yeah. Then that investment that they've made in the design is kind of lost,


Don Bunnell:

Right? Yeah. No, it reminds me of this time when I was in Cambodia and staying in this beautiful design hotel and they'd done everything right. Except for the fact that it was right above a quarry. And so Monday to Friday during business hours, it was not a very pleasant place to be. I was like, and for some reason, those pictures did not make it onto the website they got lost.


Ryan Haynes:

And I guess that's a factor, isn't it? It's all about advertising and marketing today. And how truthful is that marketing and you know, that any business is gonna show always their best side. Yeah. And, and we get to see it from a guest perspective when it is from a, when it is a review. And, but it's not just, I guess that as you say, that what it looks like or necessarily the, the, the ambiance and, and the people who are actually staying at the hotel hospitality now is, is so much broader when it comes to perhaps digital services. What do you expect from hotels to be delivering on that side, from the moment that you're looking to book to the moment that you return home


Don Bunnell:

In terms of booking? I mean, I always try to book directly with the hotel just because I think some of, the fees that some of the internet booking sites take are pretty egregious. And so since I'm, I, you know, I really wanna support more independent, more interesting boutique type hotel. So I'd rather they get as much as my money as possible. You know, I think like, you know, let's talk about check in for a second and there are lots of different ways to do it. Right. You can, you can check in and be in the line and they can like, you know, it's like checking in for a flight. It's like, what is this person doing? It's like, how can this take 20 minutes? And how much can they type? But you have check in experiences where you're like, okay, this, this took a long time, all the way to completely contactless check in.


Don Bunnell:

You know, I was staying at the auto camp in, Sonoma valley and, you know, they just send you a code and tell you how to come into the gate and show and tell you where your Airstream is and you don't have to talk to anybody. So I guess I don't mind that I really don't mind. So I guess I would lean towards the contact list, kind of make it easy to get into your hotel room, especially if you've been travelling and there's everything in between. And, you know, and it's like, it can even be like regional. So when I was in St Lucia earlier in the year, I didn't see a lot of like digital services in St. Lucia, but there was something about being in tum that like everybody was dealing with you from WhatsApp.


Don Bunnell:

So even before you showed up to your hotel, they were messaging you on WhatsApp here, you know, for a couple of the hotels, you didn't, you could just use WhatsApp to check in, but even after you checked in, that was their means of communication. But I haven't seen that anywhere else, but it's, it's interesting like how everybody in Tulum, all the hotels in Tulum were using WhatsApp to communicate with you before and during your stay, you could order room service through WhatsApp. So I thought that was an interesting way to do it. And then if you do have to check and like the thing that comes to mind when I think about like a seamless check-in is the Conrad in Hong Kong. So I was in China for 17 years and I used to go to Hong Kong all the time.


Don Bunnell:

So the Conrad in Hong Kong was my go-to hotel. One of the things I loved about the Conrad is I'd walk in, they'd swipe my credit card and gimme my key. And I'd be in, you know, into the front desk, out of the front desk within 30 seconds. So I think hotels do need to keep in mind the people who have been travelling often for a long time to get there, and you should make it super simple and easy for them to get into the rooms.


Ryan Haynes:

I mean, that's an interesting point. You say about that experience with WhatsApp. Let's look it from, from the non-digital side, you know, with, with all those WhatsApp messages that you were dealing with and, you know, it was on the fly, it was live, you know, they, they, I guess they, they understood a bit about you. What was the, what was the face-to-face experience like were they able to deliver and meet your expectations from a hospitality perspective?


Don Bunnell:

Yeah, for sure. I mean, I don't think the technology got in the way of that at all. I mean, it was one of the hotels. It was, it was, it was it's called, beum had a concierge service. So I had a concierge and, and the same with Noma. Toum, there's a concierge service as part of that. So you do get that personal touch, but they, even the concierge was using WhatsApp to communicate with you. So I don't think it necessarily detracts. I think it's some people just ignore it. I think it's just an extra tool. Right? Some people are like, maybe some people show up with a cell phone. Right. So it may, hopefully, some people gotta disconnect and aren't on their phones.


Don Bunnell:

So there's another thing to think about, but it's just an extra service for people who want to use it. But yeah, I mean, I found, I found it to be like a really kind of easy way to communicate with folks.


Ryan Haynes:

So at the beginning, when we first started talking, you just returned from a trip, you fitted what, 15 odd. And you only put about 10 reviews when you're coming to select the properties before you stay at them. What are you specifically looking at? What, what, what do you get recommended or are you doing a search or do you have a specific profile of property that you are looking to stay at? And, and then you just do to find out where they are and, and, and then book, book a night.


Don Bunnell:

Yeah. So I mean, the process, I mean, we try to do for each location at least to kind of budget. So maybe I said this, but you know, I think a hotel doesn't have to be expensive to be great. So we're always trying to look for those hidden gems of like really cool places that maybe are a hundred, 200 bucks a night. They exist. There are not tons of 'em, but they're out there. So we always try to include two kind of budget options, a couple midrange, and definitely the high end stuff too. Cuz you know, it's like we're on YouTube and people wanna see kind of the blingy beach. Right. So that's part of it. But my process is I've got about 10 websites that I think are pretty good at curation.


Don Bunnell:

So I start to kind of triangulate between all the recommendations that are out there, get a short list. At first I was booking a lot of these hotels going and staying 'em and then being disappointed. Like my recent trip to LA was like, okay, I booked about half of them, but the other half I was like, I don't know. So I spent a day driving around, looking at all these hotels before I booked them. So yeah, I'm looking for kinda stuff that's not on the website. That's stuff, that's not in the reviews trying to spread it out geographically. So if you're going to a certain region, you have hotels in different parts of the city or different options. So it's like trying to spread it out among kind of different budget ranges geographically.


Don Bunnell:

But I definitely lean towards kind of modern minimalist kind of clean design. But with that said, you know, sometimes I throw in that quirky, there's a place in LA that's like built in 1920 and it's very charming. It feels English it's, it's not my typical thing, but it was a charming, great place. And it was just another hidden gem that I want people to know about.


Ryan Haynes:

Excellent. I mean, I guess once people start to explore the Swank guide, get a really good idea is a sort of personality that you are and therefore the types of properties that you really represent and, and, and excite you, I'd like to come to now your, your startup experience. Because as I said at the beginning, you've taken startups through both the Y Combinator and TechStars. What, what would you say are the, you know, three key principles for really identifying a product fit for the market and then starting initiating that momentum for a,


Don Bunnell:

Oh gosh, that's a tough question. I'm a zero to one guy. So, so I love to start things from like just concept and take 'em to maybe a team of 20 and then I'd love to hand it off. So that's kind of where my speciality is. Like, you don't want me running a big company, it's a not gonna end well, but trying to think like, you know, in entrepreneurship, the way I've approached it is I always wanted to kind of change the industry or do something disruptive. So my first startup was around technology for converting coal into hydrogen and co for clean energy production. Just like, how do we change the way we use coal?


Don Bunnell:

And instead of it being dirty, is there a clean way that you use it? My second startup was around housing. How do we do, how do we build housing in a very different way? The biggest problem we have in the US. And I don't know what it's like in Europe, but I Don don't think it's that different is we don't have enough trained people. So how do you make building a lot simpler? So you can have things that kind of click snap together and are, you know, it's not that simple, but how do you take somebody who can, instead of just havingan electrician and having one person who can basically build the whole thing, maybe a team of five or 10 people, but you don't need special teacher age for everything. So trying to change the way housing was done. And then, you know, I think what I'm trying to do with the Swank guide is I think things that have traditionally been in the written form, travel books and, you know, blogs and things like that.


Don Bunnell:

How do you move that into a video format? Because I think that's the way people want to consume these things. So definitely kind of my DNA in terms of thinking about startups and what I want to do is around kind of changing the way things have been done. Traditionally, I think a big ingredient in entrepreneurship is being naive. And I find every time that I try to do one of these things, it's so much harder than I initially thought we were chatting about that before we came on, but it's never as easy as it looks. So I think being a little bit naive is helpful. And then I think perseverance is probably the most important thing.


Don Bunnell:

I mean the hardest thing in entrepreneurship is it's, it's a tough slog and it's never as easy as you think. So you've gotta have the grit to kind of just keep working on it.


Ryan Haynes:

Wonderful. Well, thanks for those tips, Don, and thanks for sharing the Insight into the Swank guide. And if anybody's interested in discovering that, check out the description with the link in the podcast, or just visit Swank guide.com as simple as that, right? Don


Don Bunnell:

It is swankguide.com. Or if you go to YouTube, just type Swank guide, we'll come right up.


Ryan Haynes:

That's excellent. Don, thank you ever so much for joining us. I really appreciate all those insights today.


Don Bunnell:

Thank you, Ryan. It's a pleasure.


Ryan Haynes:

So that was Don Bunnell, the Swank guy talking to us about his hospitality experiences and particularly why he has looked at curating that Insight into independent and sustainable boutique hotel experiences. Check out more of our episodes on Travel Market Life through either haynesmarcoms.agency or through any of the podcast channels. I'm your host, Ryan Haynes. Thanks listening. Ciao for now


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