Hot Seat – Laura Graziano

Laura has overseen 19 of the top 28 markets in North America at some point during her seven years with Expedia Group – all she has left is Florida & Southern California (that’s a particularly sore subject during the winter months, as she currently resides in the greater Boston area). Currently a Director of Hotel Account Management for Hotwire, Laura manages the North Region and represents account management across all core markets. When she’s not trying to convince DORMs to try a new revenue management strategy, you can usually find her hanging with her golden retriever Tammy Lynn and laughing at memes on @RevPARblems on Instagram.

How did you get into the hospitality world?

My brother is a hotel general manager and had a great relationship with his Expedia Market Manager at the time. He mentioned the role to me and honestly I wasn’t sure – I was working behind the scenes programming property management systems at the time and it seemed like a big leap. I went for the interview, loved the culture, got the job and seven great years later, I’m still here!

What keeps you here?

I love the people. Everyone comes from all walks of life with different cultures, backgrounds, and histories but we are connected by the craziness of the hospitality industry. We’ve got an amazing collection of stories. We’ve all experienced the highs of doing a great job, and the lows where you want to bang your head against the wall. It’s a great group of people to hang out with and work with. I’ve made more friends out of colleagues and hotel partners than I could have ever imagined.

What makes you want to bang your head against the wall in this industry?

Change is constant and we’ve come a long way, but there are still people and strategies that haven’t adapted and refuse to do so. I wish everyone was as open-minded as many of our partners are. Let’s embrace change and optimize for customers and ourselves.

How do you help people be less stagnant in their mindset?

The mindset around CPOR can be very rigid, like ‘if I don’t sell each room for $85 or more, then the entire day is ruined and I won’t make budget this month’. There are so many other segments and flexible revenue streams and ideas you can get creative with and benefit from. Maybe you have to fill a couple rooms at $60 – but your CPOR is covered by the rest of your segments and your RevPAR is that much better thanks to the increased occupancy. You’re going to make budget. It’s just a matter of being more open-minded and trying new things to get you to your end goal.

How has your role and perspective shifted since you were at the market/hotel level?

My first role at Expedia was onboarding properties with 50 rooms or less – the big cities and big box hotels were alluring. I’ve found that market size doesn’t matter much. The concerns or hurdles are similar whether you’re a 50-room property or 2,000-room property. Everyone’s doing their best to fill empty rooms and work around connectivity challenges. Balancing data and going with your gut to forecast is a tough one for all partners. AI and automation are cool but concerning – what do you do when the computer wants to tell you how to do your job but you know it’s not accurate? It doesn’t matter how small or big your property is. You’re still going through the same stuff and need to rely on intuition and your knowledge of your market to make it better. It’s fascinating to watch how creative people get now to maintain growth in a competitive marketplace.

How do your strategies with Canadian markets shift?

Canadian markets have high labor costs to consider, as do union-heavy markets that have additional challenges others don’t have to think about. Hotwire has so many incremental travelers in the U.S. market, and when you go to Canada, you basically get 25% off (depending on the exchange rate). It’s a great draw of Hotwire, plus Canadians are amazing. No matter the country or market though, need is need. It’s just a matter of how creative you’re willing to get to fill that need, no matter when it is.

What are your thoughts on AirBNB – are they competition for hotels?

It comes down to the experience the customers want. The leisure segment definitely seems to enjoy AirBnB for things like marathons or concerts. The hotel industry has done a great job of providing experiential “AirBnB” community-type elements, so there are more options now for people who seek experiences but also love daily housekeeping. In terms of compression, that true city sellout where you literally can’t get a room anywhere in 30 miles from downtown – it just doesn’t happen much anymore. That’s the biggest impact I’ve seen. Business travel will turn to it when needed. Otherwise, the biggest impact is on leisure – which is where Hotwire thrives! Call us!

How have you seen hotels take steps to create an experience and market it?

Rooftop bars! Hotels are creating experiences with rooftops and other F&B-related outlets – it’s awesome. The Freehand brand does a great job of adding the social aspects to the privacy many customers expect in a stay. They can push you into fully experiencing their concept by adding an F&B credit in the rate. So, instead of grabbing takeout and calling it a night, it encourages you to go explore and rack up that incremental spend. By the way – Hotwire guests are known to spend an additional average of $63 at hotels! These experiences provide the opportunity to have a memorable stay rather than just a place with four walls that you slept in.

Ok – where’s the best rooftop bar you’ve been to?

Chicago has awesome ones. The Godfrey has a great winter experience that’s both indoors/outdoors. LondonHouse is fun, Hotel Lincoln has a cool one. Chicago Athletic Association has one overlooking the park – they’re all just beautiful. They all really nail the concept.

Are there any other ‘hot topics’ you find interesting?

Oh there’s always something being pushed from owners… The booking direct vs. OTAs is just the latest thing. It’s hard to drive incremental business from agnostic customers, and OTAs do that very well. OTAs handle the Google-type presence for you. It’s just the latest of hot topics that people are just trying to talk about to prove their relevancy. I get that. But when the economy starts to slip, you’re going to take customers from wherever you can get them and that’s the point of our partnership: we’re here for you when you can’t get guests. We totally understand when you can get bookings directly and we’re not trying to take them from you. Get the customer however you can get the customer! Once you get them, keep them loyal to you. That’s something Hotwire does well. Many of our customers decide to book direct in the future and join your loyalty programs.

Any surprises for you so far in 2019?

Q1 has shown us so many people willing to publicly discount. The lack of brand and price integrity is a little bit frightening. It sets a bad tone for the rest of the year. Public discounting in the short-term window is something we’re seeing now more than ever and I hope that hotels are able to rebound comfortably on the transient side.

What one thing would you have all hotel partners understand?

Try us. Just try us. Add a hurdle, do an inventory cap, whatever you want to feel more comfortable, but just try using Hotwire. The industry is not the same that it was five or ten years ago, it’s not the same as it was last year. It’s constantly changing. Since we get to work with a lot of hotels, we see these trends and notice them quicker than others who might be at the property-level. Just try whatever you can and understand the opportunities in your systems and strategies because that will set you ahead. In terms of revenue growth, if you ain’t first, you’re last (laughs). So be first.

How do you advise partners balance gut versus technology?

Be brave enough to go with your gut and when you make a gut call that worked well – file it away. When the day comes that it’s harder to override the hurdles, or system settings, you want to have back-up and the results to show for it. Nothing can compare to your market experience and what you know about your hotel.

The Grateful Dead tour in Chicago – it was 4th of July weekend, 2015 and everyone was selling at crazy high rates – like $699 which for 4th of July weekend is just unheard of. There were a few people that really went against the grain and built in a still strong ADR in Hotwire for a few hundred bucks and kept us open – adding rooms little by little. By the time that the week came up, there was so much wash, it was insane. People were wide-open on these days they thought they’d be full on – a city sellout for four nights in a row. So go with your gut. Have a strategic fallback. Keep your results and ensure you have your references ready to explain why for certain instances it doesn’t make sense to just go along with the recommendation from the new tech.

Is there anything that’s stood out to you in your career or this industry as a female leader?

Women might try to fit a mold or assimilate into a perceived expectation that they believe will get them ahead. We’re moving into product personalization and customization with everything – unique is valuable. Your ideas and experience will make you successful and bring value to your company. The hospitality industry has embraced personalization in different ways. We all have things we’re known for and my advice would be find your thing. Find what fires you up and ride that all the way out. Women will find so much more confidence if they go with what they’re good at instead of pigeon-holing themselves into what they believe they should be good at.

Anything to communicate to hotel revenue managers?

Hotwire’s here and we’ve got your back. Whatever your vision is, revenue, occupancy, career, or understanding more about the industry – we’ve got people’s backs more than anyone might realize. Whatever you’re looking for, we can probably see that for you or help get you there. We’re there for the partnership as much as we are for the revenue. If you haven’t experienced that first-hand, I can name a ton of Hotel Account Managers who would be excited to give you that experience. Reach out and let us know how we can be stronger because our goal is to help you succeed. We’re here for you, whenever you need us.