Hot Seat – Elizabeth LaKemper

Elizabeth recently celebrated her third anniversary with Expedia Group, Inc. and is currently managing the Houston, San Antonio, and Austin markets for Hotwire. She has worked in Chicago covering a span of 14 markets from Detroit, Michigan to Charlotte, North Carolina for Hotwire’s National Team. Previous to her time with Hotwire, Elizabeth worked in Resort Sales at Walt Disney World contracting corporate and association conventions at Walt Disney World’s theme parks and five convention hotels. Whether for business or pleasure, Elizabeth’s passion is travel. Her most recent trips include Colombia, the Australian Outback, and her alma mater, the University of Alabama for a football game.

What brought you into the industry?

I started out in the travel industry working for one of the most recognized brands in the world, Walt Disney World. My path to Hotwire started with a passion for travel and wanting other people to experience travel as well. Travel has deeply impacted and formed the person that I am today and I believe everyone, no matter economic status, should be able to experience some form of travel. It really is my passion to try to allow as many people to travel whether it’s within their city or outside the country. It’s all about experiencing something new.

What’s your travel style?

I love all travel. Sometimes I want a cultural trip where I’m experiencing that city for the first time, going to all the tourist spots but also finding the cool little niche local spots. Then there are the times that I want to go to a beach and be on the sand with a drink in my hand watching the waves. I travel at least once a month either for work or personal, and my goal is to travel to at least one new country each year.

What do you like/dislike about the industry most?

They tie together – my favorite thing is that the travel industry is always changing, adapting and developing. Just when you think you have a beat on it, the industry does a 180 turn around and goes in a different direction…never a dull moment. It’s always exciting in the hospitality world; You are always on your toes and learning something new every day. It’s exciting for my partners when they get promoted, but I miss the relationship, the trust and the friendship which we had established. But then I get an opportunity to meet and develop a professional relationship with a new person. I’ve managed a lot of markets for Hotwire (all the way north of Milwaukee and Detroit, North Carolina, and now Texas) and it’s amazing how many times I have worked with partners in multiple markets. When we part ways I always tell partners, “I’ll talk to you soon” because I’m sure our paths will cross again in the hospitality world.

Outside of travel, what is your vice?

Anyone who knows me, knows my great love is college football, Alabama football to be specific. Roll Tide! I love going to games and tailgating with friends. It’s fun to see the stadiums and campuses of other schools and it ties in my biggest hobby, traveling. Destin, Florida is one of my go-to vacation spots. It has been a family favorite vacation spot all of my life. Growing up, it was a small little beach village that not a lot of people knew about, but now the secret is out! Destin will always have a special place in my heart.

Favorite hotel not in your market?

My favorite hotel has to be the St. Ermin’s Hotel in London, which I visited for a family vacation Christmas 2017. Location was ideal, a short walk to Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, and Big Ben. The staff made us feel like royalty, addressing us by name, asking about our daily plans and giving us much needed advice on seeing London.  It was so nice to see a friendly face at the end of a long day. Through conversation, the doorman became aware I had a nephew and even gave me a children’s book of the hotel as a gift for my nephew. I work in the hotel industry – and I have never had that level of personal touch and commitment. It was amazing.

A big conversation is around tech advances in such a people-oriented industry – this story is a great example of something technology can’t do…yet anyways

Exactly – that human contact and connection is what really sets hotels apart. At a certain point a hotel staffer becomes more than just a someone who works at the hotel, but a person sharing personal tidbits about their life and vice versa. It feels like more than a hotel at that point. You feel part of a bigger picture, part of a family.

Is there anything you’ve observed in 2019 so far that stands out?

Overall everyone is really concerned about how they’re getting customers. Whether that’s through brand.com or different OTAs: how will they continue to grab the guests’ attention? Especially in Houston we’ve seen declining RevPARs YOY and occupancies have dropped to 40% some days for the market which is really tough to see. Also, January is a tough month for most markets – many don’t have conventions and group because everyone’s just getting back from the holidays and transient guests are waiting to decide when to take another trip.

What do you recommend for partners in markets like these where Q1 is super soft?

Obviously utilize OTAs is one of my go-to pieces of advice as a Hotwire Account Manager, but seriously a hotel should be using every resource they can. I encourage them to layer in multiple OTAs to build base business. It’s not just one OTA; Hotwire won’t bring you ALL the room night production just like Expedia won’t bring you ALL the room night production. You have to use both and be strategic about securing incremental customers. When combined, we do bring in a huge incremental group.

Any industry topics you’re keeping a pulse on?

Definitely brand vs. OTA. That’s a huge conversation right now. I’m also keeping an eye on AirBNB. Especially for big transient cities like San Antonio and Austin, it’s good to remind revenue managers of that additional factor not calculated in the STR report. Many people in the industry share the sentiment that AirBNB isn’t that big of a competitor, but I would say it is bigger competitor than we may realize. Especially when you’re looking at millennial booking trends, and those guests who are looking for more of an experience for their trip. If it’s an experience that’s pulling customers in to AirBNB, hotels can still offer relevancy and differentiation.

With International Women’s Day coming up – do you have thoughts as a woman in the travel industry?

Right now, it’s a very exciting time to

  1. Be a woman and
  2. Be a woman in the hospitality world

In previous decades, it’s been a very male-driven industry. Less than 10% of females are in leadership roles in the hospitality industry. Today, we’re seeing more women in hospitality step up, and more organizations elevating women. There’s a strong movement to promote women, especially in tech, in the hospitality world. Interestingly, when you’re looking at the demographics of customers booking travel, more times than not, it’s females who are making the travel decisions. So why is there such a large disconnect between this and women leading the industry? From an opportunity standpoint, it’s exciting to see where this will go in the next several years and beyond.

How can hotels stand out especially with all the consolidation we saw in 2018?

At the end of the day it’s all about the customer experience. I’ve literally visited hundreds of hotels and it comes down to that. Personal connection and attention really help hotels stand out. The hospitality industry is so competitive; You look at the top hotels where everyone has valet, doormen, additional amenities, a wow-factor lobby…but what really makes a hotel stand out is that connection and that feeling you get. That feeling when you walk away determines if you’ll return.

Regardless of star rating, can all hotels deliver that personalized experience?

Absolutely, 100%. There are some brands that don’t have all the amenities of a luxury property. I stayed at a Holiday Inn in Austin during a high compression period (awesome deal on Hotwire!) and I was pleasantly surprised by my experience at this particular hotel. When I came in each day, the front desk smiled and asked how my day was going, and would try to start conversation. Even when I was walking to the elevator, the bartender saw me and called out across the hotel ‘hey if you have some time, come visit me later.’ I went down later to have a drink – I probably wouldn’t have if that interaction didn’t occur, and the bar was packed! You could tell the bartender was making friends and great conversations to connect with each person. It doesn’t matter what star level you are – that attention to detail and personal touch can go a long way. Do it for your customers and do it for your F&B. *wink*

How can hotels encourage their staff to best make that connection with guests?

I truly think this comes from the top. If the staff feels empowered and valued as an employee, they will reflect that respect in their customer service and interactions. Regardless of industry, if you love where you work, you’re going to put even more effort into your work environment and making your job even better. When people feel comfortable where they work, they are more likely to surface creative ideas and that’s how great things happen.

When meeting a partner, how do you determine if Hotwire is a good fit for their strategy?

If it’s a new partner, I always start with “We’re in this together, I want to know what your goals are for the property”. The thing about Hotwire is it can be a great fit no matter what their goals are. If they want to improve occupancy, we can definitely build strategies to do so. If they want to push RevPAR we can help with that. If they want to improve their customer guest experience and overall customer score – we can help there too. It’s all about being open and honest in the partnership, so together we can execute a strategy– whatever your goals are at the hotel, they’re now my goals. Let’s see what we can do to accomplish that this month or quarter or year.

What do you like most about Hotwire?

I tell people I love working for Hotwire because it’s the best of both worlds. We get the perks and knowledge from being part of a large company (Expedia Group, Inc.) – and yet we get to act a bit like a start-up. Not in the way that we’re new to the industry – we’ve been in the game for over 18 years – but more in the way that our ideas and voices are heard throughout the company. It’s constantly evolving and each individual in Hotwire has influence. We can adapt and be what our partners and customers truly need.

You mentioned using multiple OTAs to capture all incremental customers. What sets Hotwire apart from other OTAs?

We truly have the best deals. We’re giving quality hotels the ability to sell their unused rooms and it’s a model that other OTAs don’t have as much flexibility on like pricing. Also, the energy at Hotwire is different. I have heard from many of my partners that the connection between the Hotwire Account Managers and partners is unlike any other OTA. If I had a dollar for every time I heard “You guys are the fun ones” – I could pay for my last trip to Colombia. It’s expected of us. When we host events or vendor forums with Expedia, attend HSMAI events, or really anything, we bring the Hotwire presence and energy. It doesn’t stop with our partners either. You can see on our site – when you book, you get confetti! We have a lot of fun. We’re always looking for ways to spread that feeling to all of our customers and partners.