Ethical Issues Have More Power to Topple Hotel Brands

July 17, 2019


The hospitality industry is one of the oldest in the world, and in principle, hasn’t really changed. As a basic premise, hotels, inns etc have for thousands of years continued to offer a safe place for the weary traveller to lay their head and house their horse, donkey or car. Restaurants too have offered places where goods or money could be exchanged for food and drink in the company of others. It is part of our social DNA to congregate with others and share our experiences.


Since the first inn began to operate however, changes have occurred. Buildings became safer, more soundproof and warmer, beds moved from stone to straw to mattresses and staff have moved from gruff hosts to service experience experts. Over the the last hundred years or so, this change has begun to move faster and faster with technology becoming the catalyst for massive changes in bookings and referrals.  Since the advent of the Internet, online activity has become the major driver for change. Discussion forums and chatrooms have proliferated, allowing people to share information about destinations and hotels. Online travel agents and aggregators have burst onto the scene, empowering travellers to research countless destinations on a single web site. The evolution of mainstream social media – namely Facebook, Twitter and Instagram – began to redefine the parameters of online engagement with guests.


Today, hotels exist in a world where words and actions carry unprecedented weight. Guest reviews are a strong example of this. A single negative review can be seen by tens of thousands of people, and can have real effects on booking decisions. A pattern of reviews that identify specific problems, such as poor standards of housekeeping or negative interactions with hotel staff, can seriously impact a hotel’s long-term chances at survival. Likewise, a pattern of positive reviews can strengthen bookings and give the property more opportunities to demonstrate value to its guests.


Guest reviews are a juggernaut of modern hotel management, and there is ample social proof to back it up (take a look at this list of statistics concerning online reviews). This is one of the reasons why so many hotel chains now hire CIOs and Directors of Social Strategy to keep a watchful eye on cyberspace. The public response to a hotel product serves as a listening post for managers and employees. It shows us what we’re getting right, where we need to improve, and how to maintain relevance in a competitive market. And, whilst we shouldn’t necessarily panic just because of one bad review, good operators ensure that any online disturbance in the force (eg via Twitter or Facebook) is picked up immediately with action taken whilst the guest is still in house.


Reviews aren’t the only force that has been re-shaping the rules of hotel operation, however. An organisation’s corporate ethos and community engagement are playing an increasingly big role.


One example is the recent call to boycott hotels owned by The Brunei Investment Group (including The Beverly Hills Hotel in Southern California, the Dorchester in London, Le Meurice in Paris, and The Royal on The Park in Brisbane) due to changes in human rights in the sultanate. Within a short time, there was universal online outrage, including by George Clooney and Elton John who both encouraged people to give these properties a miss. This backlash prompted a moratorium on the death penalty and clearly demonstrates how powerful people-power can be.


Then there is the sexual misconduct scandal involving Steve Wynn, founder and former CEO of Wynn Resorts which prompted a major change in leadership. Aside from Wynn, two other board members departed the organisation. The subsequent appointment of four women to the company’s Board of Directors, in addition to a new CEO, marked a significant shift in power and a fresh commitment to strong ethical values.


There is also the growing awareness of the safety of hotel staff – particularly in the housekeeping department. After numerous individual cases of misconduct perpetrated by guests, the CEOs of five big hotel brands (Marriott, Wyndham, Hilton, Hyatt, and InterContinental Hotels Group) announced a collective commitment to staff safety, including the implementation of panic devices.


Environmental ethos, which manifests in everything from water conservation efforts to plant-based toiletries – is another big example of hotel operation being impacted by rising public awareness.


A proactive stance


The relationship between professional hospitality and changing social realities is nuanced, and it is up to the leadership of each hotel to decide when and how to engage on social issues. That said, it’s impossible to deny that cultural rules have changed (for the better), and that a proactive stance is preferable to a reactive one. Even at a boutique hotel, a single incident or individual can be devastating for the entire operation if not identified and addressed.


As hoteliers, our mandate has always been to deliver an outstanding guest experience to whoever walks through the door – but in the modern age, it has become increasingly clear that hotel brands can only be enhanced by the meaningful embodiment of ethical behaviour.


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