Shawn Weems of Hyatt: "Change is a lot harder than we think. It can take a while to see progress; it’s a crawl sometimes, rather than a run or even a walk."
Interview

Shawn Weems: Creating Digital Experiences for the Hospitality Industry

14 minute read
Sharon Florentine avatar
Shawn Weems of Hyatt discusses personalizing digital strategies, rethinking priorities in the hotel industry in the wake of the pandemic and more.

Shawn Weems had a choice to make. Two great opportunities brought to him by a trusted recruiter: work with Ulta Beauty as a Buyer for their hair accessories segment or work with Redbox Automated Retail as Senior Merchant for Video Games.

The choice was easy.

“My son was 14-years-old at the time, and when I talked with my family about my options, well, it was a no-brainer,” Weems said. His career path leads through a litany of household names: OfficeMax, Groupon, Redbox, McDonald’s, TGI Fridays and most recently, Hyatt Hotels Corporation.

“I like to take opportunities as they come and these have all come up sort of organically. I always kept myself fluid and that’s why I’ve been able to take advantage,” Weems said. “When I left OfficeMax, I really wanted to get into Groupon, so I took almost a year of effort to make the connections and get in front of the right people to be sure I got in there. And I got in right before they went public. The recruiter I worked with at Redbox ended up going to McDonald's, and when the opportunity came up there, they asked me to come help launch their digital strategy.”

After successfully building and executing on McDonald’s mobile app, digital menu, kiosks and associated digital strategy, he moved to Dallas to take a business optimization and ecommerce role at TGI Fridays before returning to Chicago as Director of Global Digital Content, Merchandising and Localization for Hyatt Hotels. Now Vice President and Head of Global Digital Content, Merchandising, Localization and Assets for Hyatt, Weems says his “secret sauce” is relationships.

“I seek out people who embrace change and who really want to look for new ways to do things. I make it a point to cultivate relationships with people who have a different mindset so I can find these new opportunities,” Weems said. “At OfficeMax it was very established, and their business model was very much locked in the traditional mindset. That’s fine, of course, but — and I see this a lot with companies that have been around for a while — it’s hard for those brick and mortar companies to make the shift to digital. Older companies — they lean on ‘we’ve always done it this way,’ and that bothers me. It always has. Any time there’s no one who’s questioning whether or not they should be doing anything differently — I think that’s a bad sign,” he said.

Weems is a speaker at CMSWire’s DXSummit 2020, taking place online on Oct. 21. We spoke with Weems about personalizing digital strategies, getting buy-in from stakeholders, and the challenges and opportunities for digital in the hotel and hospitality industry in the wake of the pandemic.

Forget Driving Change, Sometimes it’s a Crawl

CMSWire: How has your approach to developing, creating and implementing digital strategies evolved over the years? What lessons have you learned?

Weems: Some of my biggest lessons came from my time at McDonald’s. A colleague who’d been in the Navy on aircraft carriers told me how his commanders used to warn him, 'If you fall off, it takes us two miles to turn this ship around. So you better be able to tread water for that long!' So, for me, the lesson is twofold. One, that for so many of these big, established companies, it’s really difficult to turn the ship around and go in another direction. And two, that change is a lot harder than we think. It can take a while to see progress; it’s a crawl sometimes, rather than a run or even a walk.

Being at a startup, like at Redbox, everything was all fast, all the time. Move fast, learn fast, try new things fast, fail fast, learn more things and apply them. But sometimes, with bigger organizations, there’s not as big an appetite for learning and failing fast; bigger companies always move slower and are less nimble.

That just means you have to aim for the wins you can get — go for the low-hanging fruit so you can establish credibility to drive incremental gains and leverage that to strive for bigger things. Many of the bigger, older, established companies aren’t keen on new people coming in and telling them how to do business differently.

At McDonald’s, I came in there fresh from a startup, and tried to use that same approach. But that wasn’t gonna work! I had to listen and learn what was important to them and their leadership, and how they’re measuring success. Is it revenue? Brand awareness? Brand penetration? Operational efficiencies? Once I knew that, then I can tailor the strategy conversation to appeal to those leaders. At McDonald’s, it wasn’t as important for them to move the cash register transaction to a digital app. We needed to drive incremental behavior changes, and we needed that to lead to customer information acquisition and shopping behavior, and that can then influence branding and marketing decisions.

CMSWire: Now you’re at Hyatt — how do you approach digital experience in a business and industry that’s built on in-person physical experiences like hotels/hospitality? What are the challenges there? What are the opportunities?

Weems: The hotel industry is very unique, and from a digital perspective we’re one of the few industries where, nowadays, you do most of your experience online and digital, but for the actual, physical experience, you have to go to a brick-and-mortar location.

Here, we have 22 brands, and so your experience is going to be somewhat the same, but also different depending on the brand. At its most basic, we have to tell the story, digitally, of what you’re experiencing when you get on the property, physically. But it’s not quite that simple; we’re not telling a story of 'We have hotels and you’re going to stay there.' We have to tell a story that highlights each brand: what will you experience if you stay at Miraval versus a Hyatt Regency versus Andaz? So there’s that segmentation, but also, digging deeper and more granular, even within those brands, we have to differentiate between, quite literally, a thousand different properties across those brands.

Now, we do have some standardization, but for the most part, we have to work closely with the field folks and the boots on the ground to make that individual experience at each property come to life online. What’s unique about each location, and their surrounding cities and towns: the culture, the food, the people, all the things that differentiate?

And add in that we’re looking for technology and solutions that are purpose-built for this industry to drive that digital transformation and experience, and they don’t exist. We have great technology partners, but sometimes their solutions aren’t really built for this industry or for the scale that we are! So that means we have to have to build proprietary, customized solutions for the industry on top of those. That’s really cool, building something that no one else has, of course, but it also comes with its own set of challenges.

Accelerating Digital Transformation

CMSWire: The COVID-19 pandemic has hit your industry hard. How do you see digital experience evolving in light of the pandemic? What does this accelerate for you? What does it hinder?

Weems: It accelerates a lot of things, as far as our need to speed things up through checkout, to enable how you engage virtually with room service, cleaning service, any amenities. So we have to capitalize on that direct one-to-one communication with customers depending on that customer’s preferences.

Loyalty happens because of the evolution of the digital experience. So, we’ve evolved our mobile app and again, COVID-19 has accelerated our efforts in that area. Enabling contactless, touchless or low-contact, low-touch digital experiences while still making sure there’s that personalization and high-touch feeling. It’s about getting the balance just right.

There used to be a niche set of customers who wanted zero contact or interaction from booking to arrival and check-in through their stay and on through to check-out. And now, that’s the entire customer base.

Where it has hindered — the industry as a whole has taken such a hard hit, and we’ve had to make a lot of hard personnel decisions and overcome challenges because of staffing. From the workers on the ground on-property all the way up to the technologists and back-office. We’ve had to offset the loss of revenue from bookings and the fact that people aren’t traveling, aren’t able to leave home with staffing cuts, not just on the front-lines with our on-property personnel, but all the way up to the back end.

We have to completely reprioritize certain things, not just because of where customers’ needs and behaviors are changing, but because of our own staff cuts. You can’t drive forward with this scale of digital transformation initiative without the expertise and knowledge and skills of the people who are trying to code and build and develop the technology. For instance, we had an initiative that was focused on resorts and properties in Latin America and the Caribbean, and trying determine peak booking and vacation times to coincide with travel season and push that forward — it won’t happen this year.

Learning Opportunities

We were thinking thinking about one set of priorities at the beginning of the year, but now we’ve shifted priorities to focus on the contactless experience via our mobile app, whereas the original focus doesn’t get prioritized. So that’s a little of both; the customer experience as well as our own internal initiative. So, yeah, it shuffled a lot of things around and put an emphasis on what’s most important now to more customers. We are continuing to develop and build that foundation and have it in place so when the business does come back, we’re ready.

The Digital Experience and Emerging Technologies

CMSWire: How will technologies like AI, AR, VR, IoT, machine learning impact the digital customer experience as they become more widespread? How do you see them being leveraged in your area?

Weems: The biggest challenge about AI for us right now isn’t necessarily what you think. People understand, generally, that it takes in a lot of data, and then uses that over time to identify patterns and to make predictions. The challenge is in taking an infrastructure that’s been based on simply taking in customer data and adapting it to feed into an AI.

For Hyatt Hotels, as an example, sure, you’ve been able for a while to go online and book a room as a guest. But that’s not enough to influence the AI; there’s a lot of other data points it needs to know before it can be valuable. You have to know how long it’s been since you’ve been to a property. What’s your average stay? How often do you use a credit card? What amenities and facilities you use? All of that kind of stuff. And hotel systems just aren’t built for that kind of thing, so overhauling the underlying infrastructure to ask the right questions, store the data, and then be able to push it to the AI systems — that’s what we’re tackling.

At McDonald’s, we knew 70 million people came into the restaurants. But we couldn’t tell you anything else. What’s that data worth, then? Almost nothing! But we launched the mobile app to fill in those gaps. Download the app and get a free sandwich — after you give us all these additional data points that we need to know to make the experience better for you. After we had that, we were finally able to update out systems and figure out who you are and what you’re doing and how you’re behaving. Mobile ordering adds a layer that on top — you’re getting more info through addresses, for instance.

We’re lucky with our mobile app. In this industry, we have very limited information from even the loyalty customers, because they’re a very limited subset. Another challenge is that, for us, the on-propery booking system is different from how you do it online. And those systems are not connected. And the infrastructure is totally different. Right now, the app is going to be the common thread for linking all the information and different subsets. Someone has to connect all those threads so they all intersect, and that’s what we’re drawing on for our foundation for the rest of the year so we can get some good data, and start to work on a more targeted approach to digital experience.

CMSWire: What advice do you have for organizations who want to overhaul their digital experience as part of a digital transformation initiative, but aren’t sure where to begin? How should they measure progress/success?

Weems: The most important thing I would say is: Be patient. It takes longer than you think and you have to not only understand how it will eventually help the business, but be able to explain how it will impact various stakeholders in both the short- and long-term. It often gets caught up in how it’s going to make things easier, but neglects some of the issues it will raise along the way. It’s also not going to solve every problem; it will introduce new ones, too, that you didn’t have before.

So many organizations just think, 'Oh, it’s easier to have ecommerce than have a brick and mortar!' I mean, sometimes, and in some ways, yes. But honestly it depends, like at McDonald’s, we were focused on the incremental opportunities that the digital strategy brought. So, for instance, having the digital signs and the kiosks, that was great, and it was supposed to free up people behind the counter, but it also took away the ability to upsell if the face-to-face connection was eliminated.

It’s also about having to understand motivations and what needs specific stakeholders had, and aim at that. It’s hard to tell someone in operations that the point of an initiative was going to drive incremental revenue when they’re measured on — and therefore focused on — operational efficiency. Their mantra is 'two twenty two through the drive-through' — 2 minutes and 22 seconds to get someone through. That’s what they’re aiming for. So we would have to go in with a different angle on what we needed, versus going in and saying something that meant nothing to them.

Similarly, you can’t just go in and say, 'We’re here for digital transformation,' and have it be a directive. Instead, it was like, OK, we need support from everyone to make this thing work, and here’s your area of expertise, so here’s what we know you can help us do best. You can tell us what the traffic patterns are, and where the power outlets should go, and how much space the kiosks should take up and all that. You have to understand their needs and metrics for success and then speak their language.

CMSWire: What have you been reading lately that’s impacted you, personally or professionally?

Weems: Recently I picked up Bob Iger’s leadership book — he’s the CEO of Disney. I found that really fascinating, because that company is managing three completely different businesses and doing it successfully, so seeing how he’s approached each one and knowing what works for each is really fascinating.

And then I also picked up this MasterClass subscription. It’s about $100 a year for these online courses in everything you can think of. And experts in their fields go in and they tell you about their areas, and teach you how to do it. So, for instance, one I recently watched was Robin Roberts teaching effective and authentic communication and public speaking. It’s so great!

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