1 June 2017

Lettuce Get to the Truth! The Waldorf Salad and its Impact on the Experience Economy

By Bernard Ellis - Chief Executive Officer at GEMtouch Guest Experience Management Solutions
  • Lettuce Get to the Truth! The Waldorf Salad and its Impact on the Experience Economy | By Bernard EllisLettuce Get to the Truth! The Waldorf Salad and its Impact on the Experience Economy | By Bernard Ellis

The Waldorf=Astoria shut its doors last week, and though it will reopen in two years with fewer rooms and more condos, its team was disbanded, and along with it went what must be volumes of institutional knowledge. In a recent article on the Experience Economy, I cited the Waldorf as an example of a hotel that not only knew how to connect its guests with authentic, local experiences in its destination, in its case New York City, but also offered a local experience in its own rite. Both guests and non-guests alike would go there to "meet under the clock."

Dressed Down

Me and my big mouth, err, keyboard, I made a passing mention of the notion that it's a myth that the Waldorf Salad was invented or even served there. My initial source of the information seemed as credible as could be: she was a veteran banquet cold pantry sous chef my hotel school class encountered at the Waldorf during a back-of-the-house tour we got on a class trip in the late eighties. Clearly fatigued from being asked by students a few too many times where the Waldorf salads were made, she said "Hon, there are plenty of fruits and nuts around this place, and I'm one of 'em! But you won't find them in any salad here at the Waldorf=Astoria." Her colleagues behind the cold line nodded "no" in such violent, indignant agreement that their stovepipe chefs' hats nearly twirled off. Talk about an authentic, local experience for my classmates and me, one whose power is demonstrated by the fact that I'm here talking about the encounter almost thirty years later.

Fake News! Mea Culpa

But, in reality, how authentic was it? In several of the press pieces paying tribute to the hotel's storied past last week, not only are departing hotel employees not denying the hotel's role in the salad's origins, they appear to be owning it with such sentimental ferocity that the new Chinese owners may have to ask their government to add it to their list of territorial disputes! The ultimate truth may well have walked out the door Friday, leaving behind this powder keg of salad bowl controversy for later generations to diffuse. But for my part, and on behalf of GEMtouch, if we have played any part in adding to the growing body of fake news and alternative facts that are polluting our social media, we are mortified and sincerely apologize!

But this does raise an important question not covered in the first article: in purchasing those "authentic local experiences" directly from purveyors online, or perhaps from intermediaries whose "cubicle curators" are likely to be hundreds of miles away, and in so doing, bypassing any endorsement or guidance that would have leveraged their host hotel staff's institutional and deep local knowledge, how will travelers be able to know how authentic these experiences really are? If we accept that the Experience Economy will play an ever greater role in forming the very fiber of our society, then it stands to reason that there needs to be someone who fact-checks the authenticity of local experiences being offered in the digital marketplace. Why won't it be self-policing by customer reviews, you may ask? Local tour operators will indeed do everything they can to get those positive reviews. They really have no choice, since they unfortunately can't rely too much on repeat business. After all, the "Experience Economy" is driven by people wanting new experiences, not the same ones over and over again. Those stellar reviews may accurately represent many measures of quality, but don't count on authenticity being one of them. That's because the reviewers may not have had any way of knowing any better either, and people don't usually spend their holidays taking multiple tours of the same attraction to make sure the information was consistent, certainly not during the same trip. That would be like reading multiple newspapers every day, and while there are certainly intellectual types who do that, they probably don't do it when they are on vacation.

How about high end guidebooks? Can we trust them to know what's authentic? Well, the most reputable tour and activity guidebooks usually got so reputable because they apply a standard method of what to measure and how to measure it. To achieve that consistency, they primarily rely on research done by internal teams who have been trained on those methods. Those people are undoubtedly well educated, love to travel, and love their craft. But those people are just as undoubtedly not given a lot of time, not left with a lot of energy, and most importantly, are not locals--ironically not even in their home towns after a while, since they are on the road so much.

Who else then? Airlines? Hotel or Alternative Lodging Brands? Online Travel Agents? They all want you to have good experiences that make you loyal to their brands, but not necessarily to any one destination--that actually threatens the relevance of a national or global brand. The same is true of those guidebooks we were just discussing. Some locals may buy each year's new edition, but given that 73 percent of local consumers think a review is no longer relevant after three months*, that business can't exactly be booming. Otherwise, Guidebooks really don't expect to sell anyone more than one copy for one destination, so don't expect much from them in guaranteeing authenticity either.

No, the guarantor of experience authenticity, the guest's true local host, needs to be their hotel's staff, as it was in days past. How can I even say this, you might wonder? When it's looking like a few hotel employees working in cahoots may have caused me to live most of a lifetime with everything I know--everything I hope and believe--about the origin of the Waldorf Salad, to be based on nothing but lies? And especially when hotels have their own activities to sell, how can they be trusted to be objective, when they clearly have a dog in the fight? Well here's what's different: when you think about it, local hotel staff are really the only ones who have a vested interest in getting you to return to that property in that destination.

As stated earlier, most independent activity operators "from acupuncture to ziplines" as we like to say at GEMtouch, probably won't expect to have your business twice in one lifetime, let alone twice in one trip. The same may well be true at hotels and resorts for any given activity, but they are much more likely to offer multiple activity types, and resorts by nature either provide or locate themselves near the types of activities people actually do want to do over and over on the same trip, like visit the theme park, play golf, hang out in a beach cabana, or hit the ski slopes—after all, that's why people want to stay close to them in the first place. They obviously don't want to have to find a new place to sleep every night, or face a long commute after a full day of enjoying their activity of choice. They also weren't really there for the food, and their main goal was just not to be gauged.

To address that risk factor, the all-inclusive resort was invented. Ok, so the all-inclusive resort may not be the first destination that comes to mind when thinking of where to find authentic experiences. The concept doesn't seem like one that can survive the Experience Economy and the growing dominance of the tech-savvy, wandering-eyed, spontaneous, adventure-seeking participants who have defined it.

But maybe that's exactly why it will, more than a la carte hotel segments. That topic deserves its own article, but for now I'll just summarize that, between getting guests' dining arrangements sorted out, and pushing them to on-site tour desks who are actively encouraged to woo them off property and away from the all-included resources, it's in these resorts' DNA to be sure guests are always having a full experience with plenty to do. To get their share of the Experience Economy and retain ownership of the guest relationship, regular hotels need to find a way to do this too.

So, just as the venerable Waldorf=Astoria goes dark and stops being a source of authentic experiences, in some cases for two years, in other cases perhaps forever, many new hotels that had been in stealth planning for years are now opening in New York City. So many, they are learning, that they are expected to outpace demand for the foreseeable future. As the opening teams recast their projections, and they tighten resources just at the time when they should be investing in their brand and forming long lasting relationships, will these new hotels find a way to fill the void and take a more active role in ensuring their guests have access to truly authentic local experiences?

Fake News Now Fake Travel?

"Stop being so melodramatic," some might say. "We're not talking about curing cancer; we're just talking about people's vacations and 'bleisure' trips, usually Millennials at that!" And if the reaction is, "and anyway, who cares if it's not totally authentic, if the reviews show lots of people still seem happy with the experience, what's the harm?" While it would be easy to just write off that reaction as an homage to places like Epcot, Bush Gardens, Paris Las Vegas, i.e., places with inauthentic experiences that people love so much, that they have become authentic in their inauthenticity, there's a more chilling interpretation: that essentially the "Fake News" industry will have been joined by a "Fake Travel" industry, which for a while will be just as lucrative. But soon enough, helped by the likes of Siri, Alexa, or Cortana, along with whatever the dominant virtual reality technology of the day is, people will realize they can essentially "travel" as much as they want, and a lot more cheaply, without ever leaving their homes. So please, let's make sure our industry has the tools, the people, and most importantly, the desire to actively prevent that outcome. I don't know about you, but that kind of an Experience Economy is not an economy I want to experience!

Bernard Ellis

Bernard Ellis, CHTP, CRME, is the CEO of GEMtouch Guest Experience Management Solutions, who are helping hotels and resorts to capture their share of the Experience Economy. He is a 25-year hospitality technology industry veteran who came to GEMtouch from Infor, where he served as VP Industry Strategy - Hospitality. Having held early-stage executive positions at IDeaS a SAS Company, SynXis, now part of Sabre Hospitality, Fidelio Software, and Micros, now Oracle Hospitality, Bernard has a track record of stewarding hospitality technology initiatives from industry startup to industry standard. His broad domain expertise runs especially deep in the fields of revenue management, electronic distribution, and software as a service.

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Property TechnologyTravel technologyGuest ExperienceGlobal

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