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Interview – Sommet Education’s CEO on Hospitality Trends, Challenges and Greek ‘Philoxenia’

“As one of the world’s most beloved travel destinations, Greece is home to a vibrant and competitive hospitality industry,” said Benoit-Etienne Domenget, Chief Executive Officer, Sommet Education, the world’s most extensive network of hospitality management institutions.

Sommet Education encompasses the prestigious Swiss hospitality management schools of Glion Institute of Higher Education and Les Roches Global Hospitality Education with branch campuses in Switzerland, Spain, UK, US, China and Jordan. The network strives to prepare graduates to be immediately effective in their roles in today’s hospitality industry.

A delegation from Sommet Education headed by Domenget recently came to Athens to meet with the industry in order to evaluate current and future talent development needs and opportunities for collaboration.

“Our connection with Greece is very important, as we have many Greek students as well as a strong community of approximately 700 Greek alumni,” Domenget told GTP Headlines.

“At Sommet Education, the only education network with two hospitality institutions ranked among the world’s top three for employer reputation, we have adapted our undergraduate and graduate programmes to best prepare students for today’s fast-paced industry,” he said.

“This includes enhancements to our practical arts curriculum and the development of specializations in fields such as entrepreneurship, offered at Les Roches Global Hospitality Education, and luxury brand management, offered at Glion Institute of Higher Education.”

A graduate of HEC Paris, Domenget is a seasoned hospitality professional and has held positions as Senior Vice-President Development EMEA and Managing Director Switzerland with AccorHotels.

GTP Headlines caught up with Domenget during his recent visit to Athens and talked about hospitality trends, challenges and Greek “philoxenia”.

GTP: What are the trends that are likely to grow this year in hospitality?

Benoît-Etienne Domenget: Travellers continue to seek local connections and experiences, and hospitality businesses are in a unique position to deliver those experiences. We can expect to see more hotels acting as social spaces and community centres, growth in behind-the-scenes gastronomic tourism and increased demand for transformational travel experiences. Technology, including artificial intelligence, virtual reality and voice activation, will also continue to shape the hospitality industry.

GTP Headlines’ pick
“One of the biggest challenges hoteliers face is finding ways to exceed client expectations.” – Benoit-Etienne Domenget on challenges in the hospitality industry

GTP: Improving the guest experience. What are the biggest challenges that hospitality professionals face today?

Benoît-Etienne Domenget: In today’s digital age, guests often feel familiar with a hotel before they even arrive. They can read about the facilities, browse the restaurant’s menu, see photos or even take a virtual tour. So, one of the biggest challenges hoteliers face is finding ways to exceed client expectations. Here, the building of guest relations is crucial. In hospitality, the incorporation of technology cannot become an excuse for laziness. In order for guests to feel connected to the brand, hoteliers must aim to deliver personalised service and maintain that human touch before, during and after a stay.

GTP: Just how important is using technology to improve the guest experience? In your opinion, how much is technology changing the hotel industry?

Benoît-Etienne Domenget: The digital disruption of this millennium, introducing online travel agencies, social media and review sites, has been the first major hospitality revolution since the rise of chain hotels in the 1950s. Today’s tech-savvy travellers expect transparency and embrace innovation. Digital channels offer brands the chance to build closer, smarter relationships with clients, while apps and other tech can provide guests with greater customisation, control and convenience. These new technologies have transformed the hospitality landscape and paved the way for new services and choices for guests. The sharing economy, for example, offers new accommodation experiences — although sometimes of unpredictable quality.

GTP Headlines’ pick
“Meaningful experiences and storytelling are key to the future of hospitality.” – Benoit-Etienne Domenget on Millenials

GTP: What does the future of hospitality look like? Are Millennials – who demand personalized and technologically advanced services – shaping this future?

Benoît-Etienne Domenget: Absolutely. Millennials are already the biggest consumer segment and are reaching their spending prime. To better adapt their products and services, brands must understand the Millennial mindset. While many qualities have been attributed to this generation of digital natives, perhaps the most important is their preference for experiences over products. Meaningful experiences and storytelling are key to the future of hospitality.

GTP: Do innovations play a key role in boosting consumer demand for luxury travel? What is next for the luxury industry?

Benoît-Etienne Domenget: The whole concept of luxury travel is in flux. For example, many travellers today may prefer to spend more on activities than accommodation. Of course, this creates opportunities for new kinds of hotels — and new experiences. Many of the world’s most popular luxury brands are branching into hospitality, opening hotel properties, launching concept stores with F&B operations and hosting events to create customer-centric experiences for a younger generation.

GTP: What is your biggest concern regarding the hospitality industry and what is the best piece of advice you can give to a hospitality professional?

Benoît-Etienne Domenget: The hospitality, service and retail industries have something unique to offer and to cultivate: direct contact with clients. Big data analytics and automated services should not replace communication and personal interaction with guests. Retaining that human touch is vital if brands want to go above and beyond client expectations. Hospitality is a people business, and true innovation depends on human talent.

GTP Headlines’ pick
“Greece has earned an excellent reputation over the last century, which reflects the country’s heritage and culture of hospitality and gastronomy.” – Benoit-Etienne Domenget on Greek “philoxenia”

GTP: Greeks pride themselves for their “philoxenia” (hospitality). How do you see Greek philoxenia? Is there anything that needs to be improved?

Benoît-Etienne Domenget: Greek hospitality is based on a guest-centric tradition that is very relevant today. The values of this heritage — personal connection, making the guest feel at home — resonate with the experience that many travellers now seek. Greece has also earned an excellent reputation over the last century, which reflects the country’s heritage and culture of hospitality and gastronomy. The Greek hospitality industry can further build on this rich culture by inviting travellers to visit lesser-known destinations, extending services to welcome guests outside of peak travel periods and promoting new forms of cultural immersion. In addition, now is a great time for hotel development in Greece, as many investors have recognised the potential of this attractive destination. We are seeing exciting new developments, particularly in the luxury sector. For example, 2018 marks the opening of Euphoria Retreat, a five-star holistic spa resort based on ancient Greek and Chinese philosophies, and the re-opening of Cavo Spada Luxury Sports & Leisure Resort & Spa, a wellness resort on Crete offering immersive cultural experiences, such as wine and olive oil tasting, cooking lessons and concerts.

GTP: How much has social media changed the industry?

Benoît-Etienne Domenget: Social media has transformed the way brands build relationships with guests before and after their stay. It plays a vital role in how Millennials share their experiences, creating the potential for genuine storytelling and powerful content. And while the core product is still essential to succeed in the hospitality industry, it’s the content surrounding the product that can separate the good from the great.

GTP: Airbnb-type rentals. A threat to the hospitality industry or is there room for all in this market?

Benoît-Etienne Domenget: The traditional bricks-and-mortar hotel model has already been disrupted by technology, and the rise of sharing-economy platforms like Airbnb is just one extension of that. Currently, the hospitality landscape offers great opportunities for many different types of businesses. What matters most today is the delivery of unique, guest-centric experiences and the curation of authentic content. That’s how you build a compelling brand.

About the Author
Nikos is Greek-American born in New York, USA, and has lived in Greece for over 30 years. He is the managing editor of Greece's leading monthly travel and tourism guide, the Greek Travel Pages (GTP) since June 2008 and of news site GTP Headlines since its launch in September 2012. Nikos has also served as international press officer for the City of Athens and for the mayor. He has a degree in Mass Media and Communications, specializing in Journalism. Nikos is a native English speaker and speaks Greek fluently.

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