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Independent - how to be competitive? Making investment count

Updated: Nov 29, 2023

Miguel Velez, CEO & Founder, Unlock Boutique Hotels is joining the ACE Hotel Tech Summit where he will address the challenges of independent hotels and how investors can be confident of market success. Unlock Boutique Hotels represents a curated selection of 19 Small Independent Boutique Hotels across Portugal in 11 locations. In our conversation we address the topic: David vs Goliath, Independent or integrated in a chain - how to be competitive.

  • Challenges of being a true independently run hotel today

  • How investors and owners optimise bookings and revenue

  • Why management and operations is important for the guest experience

  • Role of technology for independent hotels and how to define the right tech stack

  • Gaining greater purchasing power


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Programme Notes


This episode has been automatically transcribed by AI, please excuse any typos or grammatical errors


Ryan Haynes:

Hello and welcome back to Travel Market Life. I'm your host, Ryan Haynes. And in this episode as part of the ACE Hotel Tech Summit, we are going to be speaking to Miguel Les, CEO and Founder of Unlock Boutique Hotels. Unlock Boutique Hotels represents a curated selection of 19 Small independent boutique hotels across Portugal in our conversation today, we're going to be covering the topic of his presentation at ACE Hotel Tech, Summit David versus Goliath Independent, or integrated in a chain how to be competitive. We'll explore the challenges of being a truly independent hotel, how investors and owners can optimize bookings and revenue, why management and operations are so important for the guest experience, the role of technology, and defining the right tech stack, and how independent hotels have greater purchasing power.


Ryan Haynes:

Joining me on the line now is Miguel Velez, CEO and Founder of Unlock Boutique Hotels. Miguel, thank you ever so much for joining us. Tell us please a bit more about Unlock Boutique Hotels.


Miguel Velez:

So, Unlock is a soft brand. Shane focused exclusively on Boutique hotels. In Portugal, we do the full management of the hotels on behalf of the owners. The owners basically are national or international investors, family offices or economic groups that want to diversify to the sector of Hospitality. Like any other big auto chain, we provide services in the areas of marketing, purchasing, logistics, yield management, and controlling finance, all the areas that a hotel needs. And like you said, we are presented in 11 top premium locations with 19 hotels, I created Unlock six years ago, and I believe that we were the Hospitality group that grew most in the last years in Port.


Ryan Haynes:

Charles. That's absolutely fantastic, particularly during a very difficult time over the last three years. But I guess that's given you an opportunity to really define your position and brand within the market. But tell us what are the challenges of being a true independently run hotel today?


Miguel Velez:

Yeah, we are an independent hotel chain that runs independent hotels. So, we are independent twice. So basically, I would say that when we compare to any big auto chain, the challenges are multiplied by 10. They are the same challenge but multiplied by 10. So, when you are an independent hotel, for example, in the purchasing area, you don't have the scale and the power to ne to negotiate better with some providers or even to have access to some exclusive products in the sales.


Miguel Velez:

When you are fully independent, you don't have the capacity most of the time to recruit an excellent sales or marketing director. So for that reason, you cannot find the most talented people in the market or you can find them and you cannot recruit them when, for example, when you, another example in marketing, when you are independent, it's very, very difficult that, that you can afford to go to the best fares and best exhibitions and, and to negotiate the best conditions in most of the sales channels. So, all of this is and much more at the challenge of independent hotels when you want to find the right operators or when you want to have the right P&I and the right control and the right finance or go to the bank or even to find them the correct developer for your hotel.


Miguel Velez:

So that's what we bring to the industry and to the small Boutique hotels, it's the capacity to be compared with big guys being an independent hotel and an independent chain of hotels.


Ryan Haynes:

And Miguel. I'm just wondering over the last few years, if has it become quite tough for the independent hotel sector to really get a grasp on the market and be able to react to the changes in the market, both from pressures of being short-staffed and as a result you're seeing a greater interest from independent Hoteliers to get that additional support?


Miguel Velez:

Yeah, exactly. Most of the challenges that you said, apply to the big or to the small hotels, to the big chains or to the independent hotels. The question here is when you create a group of people that think the same way and believe in the same principles and rules, it's much easier to find staff, for example, in your hotels. and that's what we do. It, we, we work like a real family most of the time. We are more, more than 400 staff members, let's say this way, our workers and, but everybody's thinking and working in the same way because the leaders of each hotel every week we, we meet all of them and every week we, we do status with all of them, and we share what we are doing.


Miguel Velez:

So, it's like a community and that's what we create. And this is a competitive advantage that has.


Ryan Haynes:

Actually, working collectively, I guess, you know, as, as you say, just, just delivers that additional power that you need and resources to deliver. Yeah. So how can investors and owners optimize bookings and revenue in the right way?


Miguel Velez:

So there, there are actually, I would say different ways to reach more revenue and to be more profitable. And the first one I would say it's the promotion. And when we are, you are integrated in the chain of independent hotels compared with, with a big chain because each hotel is different. So, you have so many stories to tell, you have so many things to say. And most of the hotels, represent the culture of the place they represent what is different in Hospitality when we receive a guest.


Miguel Velez:

So, promotion and to promote what you, the hotels have a difference to offer to their guests, I would say it's, it's a first thing to create and, and to generate more revenue. The second one is the correct deal management. They are small hotels, so this means they when the market is hot, the hotels can be very fast, and fully booked. So, you need to manage the price in a completely different way than in a big hotel. And you need to be very careful because if you don't do the right, the right strategy easily, you can, you, you can, you cannot reach the budget for that reason.


Miguel Velez:

You need to have very professional and very talented and skilled people to do that. The other one is actually to have the correct sales channels and to use them in the correct way. So, we work with guests from all over the world, Europe, America, and Asia. So, we need to have access to the correct sales channels according to the segments that we have in our hotels. and basically, it's a top, top segment of guests. We need to have access to these correct channels and to have the right conditions.


Miguel Velez:

So, these, I would say that this the third thing, and, and, and by the end, all this is true, but if you don't offer a great experience, the guests will never come back and they will not share with, with their friends the experience that they had. So that's, I would say that's the four points more important in my deal to generate and to create more revenue.


Ryan Haynes:

You really touched on the guest experience there and the importance of that today. And we've seen a greater focus on it from the, you know, the beginning, from the point of search and book right through to post-day. So, looking at the actual management and operations, how independent hotels, I, I guess you know, it's a matter that you need to deliver that unique experience and service is so central to that. How do you ensure that you maintain that consistency e every day for an independent hotel?


Miguel Velez:

Well, the truth is we work to reach this, be every day, every hour, every minute. But we all know that is almost an impossible mission. So basically, what we try is to have the correct guidelines and, and, and to act according to the standards that we have defined for all hotels. So basically, I would say the first thing is to have skills and talented people working in the hotels. It's, it's essential to have the right, the right professionals. If not, they will not be in love with the property and the guests.


Miguel Velez:

So, I would say that the third thing is to find the and to recruit the correct, the correct, the correct staff. The second one is to define it, to be very clear the rules mean the standards and the standards are the rules, operational rules, and this will be the basis, but on top of this, each hotel, each leader will bring some something on top of that. That's what will make the difference. Because if not, it's only, hi, good morning, Mr. or Mrs. something. And then you just do the things check-in or checkout or the service in the spa or at the restaurant.


Miguel Velez:

So, what you want is actually that the staff bring something on top of the rules. So, this will be the third thing. So, the third thing is to motivate and to create at the same time the space that each leader can bring in his hotel, the difference and bring to the hotel the culture of the place and, and, and the culture of the hotel. Because sometimes we are in policies, other times we are in wine hotels, other times we are in a wellness resort. So, all of these need to be brought inside the hotel in a way that the client can feel the authenticity of the experience and in the end, I would say to correctly compensate the professionals, we need to find what really motivates them.


Miguel Velez:

Each one of them has different ways to be motivated. And if we are able to find, and we are not able to find to everybody always, but if our, if we are able to find for most of them it's, it's already a victory. And then to compensate the way that each one prefers, because some have families are alone, some of some, some leaders or professional want to have more vocations. We need to find the correct balance to have the staff motivated and to do the three things I said before.


Ryan Haynes:

Have you had to concentrate on that a little bit more in recent years, that aspect of reward to have retention from your talented staff?


Miguel Velez:

Could you repeat the answer, please?


Ryan Haynes:

Sure. Have you had to focus much more on that reward for staff in order to retain the talented staff,


Miguel Velez:

Staff, staff? Well, the answer is yes and no. What I mean is since the beginning, when I created Unlock, I was always since the first moment very worried about finding the correct balance and how to create the right package for each employee. In the beginning, it was easier because we were few and we know better each one of them. So, it was easier to find this, this, this balance. But what happened is each time that we have one more hotel or more, or we are recruiting more professionals, it's getting more difficult because we are not able to know all of them as well as we would like.


Miguel Velez:

And this is the parts of, no, it's not different. The part of, yes, in the last years we have been doing different things, not because the market is so difficult to recruit, so difficult to find the correct people because we have been doing these since the beginning. But because we are growing and we have more, more people working with us, we need to find the mechanism to be able to implement this culture. At the same time, what is difficult, and it's a challenge today is to implement this, logic to find, to define the correct package and to motivate the staff.


Miguel Velez:

At the same time, the professionals, and the staff, need to be very oriented by themself to the performance and to do the right work and to do it properly. And as we know, sometimes some people arrive at hospitality with one idea completely different than what is the work that needs to be done. I said most of the time it's very easy to be served, but it's much more difficult to serve and we need to find these, the correct people. So, sometimes we also are not able to recruit the ones who want to serve, but sometimes the professionals want to be served.


Miguel Velez:

And this is a challenge. So, in the last year, it has become more complicated to find the correct, the correct professionals. And because we have more people, it's more complicated to define the correct package.


Ryan Haynes:

Thank you. Now, when we talk about that experience and the operations to be effective today and you know, the digitalisation, what is the role of technology, particularly in independent hotels and how have you gone about defining that right tech stack?


Miguel Velez:

Well, the impact is, is so big that the way that we could define is when we created Unlock, we brought one of the technologies companies in the sector to Portugal to have access to different, different technologies and different things to different ways to do the same things. And, and the reason is because we are, we run small hotels. The, the, the guest is very near us, so it's, he's just there. Anything we do, we can see the idiot results of the implementation sometimes is better than the other times.


Miguel Velez:

Of course, sometimes things that we believe will work perfectly, that doesn't work so well. And other times things that we don't expect to have such good results, we are able to reach a fantastic result near the guests. But because we are small hotels or because we rent small hotels and because we, we, we don't have so many guests and because the guests are focused on having different experiences, they are very open also to new things. So, the technology that we start, the technology inside our house in the back of the house or in the housekeeping, we use the word that you used before when we start our conversation and then we use all the, the technology all around the guest experience until after he left the hotel.


Miguel Velez:

and what we do is we try new technology, new platforms, some when they work, we keep them, when they don't work, we, we change to, to, to something else different because of course there are so many things new in the world that that that that we what we need to do and we, nobody knows what will be successful or not. So, what we need to do is very flexible, implement new things, and see the result. If the result is good, we stay with them. If not, we change to other technologies. And this is a culture. So, we were always promoting this kind of behaviour.


Ryan Haynes:

Do you find that some tech and systems work in one hotel, but they don't work in other hotels, so you need to have quite a diverse tech stack for the different types of properties you work with?


Miguel Velez:

Yeah, it's, it's an excellent, excellent question. It's the first time that someone said these questions to me, I would say yes, but not in the complete opposite result. So, we don't have a technology that works very well in one hotel and very bad in another hotel. So, the results can be different. Sometimes we are able to reach more sales or a better experience in one hotel than in another. But globally speaking, on average, they are quite similar,


Ryan Haynes:

Right? So, it just allows you then to be able to work with one product across the portfolio of independent hotels rather than having to work across so many different, different tech stacks, different ways that each property's made up of different systems.


Miguel Velez:

It's true. Having said that, in some hotels, we have some techno technology that we don't have in others. So, because of the results, what I was saying is it's not normal to have something that works very well in one place and very bad in another. But if the results are not good enough, we take out of this hotel and just leave the technology in the one that works better.


Ryan Haynes:

So, I mean, as you say, independent hotels sort of, tend to be on their own. You've brought them together as a curated selection here. So how can independent hotels have that greater purchasing power when it comes to suppliers and technology partners?


Miguel Velez:

I think like any other hotel is all about two points. The first one is that I mentioned when you have more hotels, you are, you buy more quantity. And for that reason, you, hey, you can reach better discounts this. So, this is just like any other sector. The other thing is the brands and the producers, they want to work with companies that are referenced in the sector and that's where we, we can bring something different. We are in Portugal referencing the boutique hotels segment. For that reason, even if we are not as big as other big hotel chains with big hotels because we work with small hotels, the quantity will never be the same.


Miguel Velez:

But because we are well known in the markets and our guests are the ones that all the brands want to work with, we are able to reach better conditions and to bring sometimes even unique things to our guests and unique offers because these brands want to reach specifically this kind of guests that we have in our hotels.


Ryan Haynes:

Miguel, thank you very much for all that insight today of, you know, how independent hotels or integrated in a chain, how to be competitive. I look forward to having more conversations with you in due course, but thanks again for all that insight.


Miguel Velez:

Thank you very much, Ryan. It was a pleasure.


Ryan Haynes:

So that was Miguel Velez, CEO and Founder of Unlocked Boutique Hotels, who's presenting at the ACE Hotel Tech Summit in September 2023. For more of the presentations from those who are at that event at the event, check out the podcast channel, Travel, Market Life and look through the list of conversations that I've been having. You can also check out our Hoteliers’ Voice series to hear from Hoteliers and their decision-making around their tech stacks and specific strategies. I'm your host, Ryan Haynes. Thanks for listening. Ciao for now.

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