“Hospitality is art,” Dianna Balabon, SIXTY Hotels’ SVP of Sales and Marketing, tell us over breakfast at Sessanta, the ground floor restaurant in the newly revamped SIXTY Soho Hotel in New York.“It’s not science.”
And if anyone were to be well versed on the subject of hospitality, it’s Balabon, the native Midwesterner who cut her teeth catering at Boston’s Le Méridien, later moving up the rungs among the best purveyors of hospitality in the business including, The Leading Hotels of the World, The Peninsula New York, André Balazs Properties and more recently, at Rosewood Hotels and Resorts.
But rest assured, having traveled the world over (her first flight was on Concord traveling to London), Balabon keeps it refreshingly real. She has built a career demonstrating how innovation, personality and high-touch hospitality can conquer the ubiquity and groupthink of big box brands. She has a timeless sensibility that continues to reinvent itself with vigor, owing much of her success to respecting key virtues: authenticity, delight and the power of storytelling.
Here, we glean her insights into hospitality, past, present and future, from human desire to Millenial marketing and gain hope that the very best, is yet to come.
Thinking outside the box
I’ve never been in a big box brand. I’ve avoided it. It was a very conscious decision. Everything is already decided for you because it has to follow a formula, and I don’t like formulas because I think they don’t work anymore. Everybody’s taste changes rapidly and quickly, and formulas negate story telling. There’s no spontaneity.
On hospitality’s misstep
Back in the day hospitality was more of a passion play. These were family-run places where owners wanted to accept and greet their friends. That formula changed with Barry Sternlick, who created Starwood and bought the St. Regis in 1999. That’s when boards of directors became the decision makers and when there was a proliferation of brands. Everything had to scale and suddenly, you had to have a hotel in every single city because it was publicly traded and catered to shareholders with short-term investment needs. It changed the formula of hospitality to one that’s delivering returns to an anonymous face.
The benefits of being nimble
When you’re small you can be very, very high touch. You don’t have to prescribe to formulas that normally get driven down by corporate, who are judging you on them. ‘How are your guests profiles, are they 90% filled out?’ That, in turn, also becomes a formula and everything gets missed…it puts math against service, which I don’t think exists. It shouldn’t. You don’t judge your friends that way.
What lifestyle really means
Everybody’s trying to get into the lifestyle space because I think there’s a clear, corporate misunderstanding of what a Millenial wants. I think there’s an age gap and a fear associated with a generation that grew up connected from start to finish, so they feel like they have to connect on every level…they’re launching a lifestyle brand, a sub-lifestyle brand, a three-star lifestyle brand…and then you go in and they’re outfitting bathrooms with sliding barn doors and it’s like, ‘Wow, that’s your lifestyle value proposition?’ Lifestyle came out of a name out of a couple of people like an Ian Schrager or an André Balazs who said, ‘The Mercer is my living room and these are my friends.’ So when you’ve got so many cheap facsimiles of an original concept, it’s hard to stand apart.
On the SIXTY Hotels approach
It’s slow and steady, with the right people, the right word of mouth. There’s a lot of interest across our five properties, from Miami to Beverly Hills, especially for the WeWorks and NeueHouses, those who offer the living-working dynamic. It’s about being part of a neighborhood, a community. What is the value of the hotel guest room anymore? Is size the most important thing in that concept? Or is it the public space, the fireplace, the ping-pong table, a bowling alley in the basement?
On standing out
I’m a true believer that people’s desires have not changed. When innate humanity changes, that’s when everything will change. We’ve changed the way we distribute information, so there’s this cacophony of noise. So how can you not be propelled and become a participant in that noise? How do you stay focused, dedicated, understanding what your voice is, what our point of view is and not get tugged into many different directions? You have to have a lot of security and comfort. The challenge today is that company’s want to be everything to everyone. It puts pressure on their team…that’s why I look for entrepreneurial companies with a voice.