Not many are more qualified to speak about hotel operations than Neil James.
Neil has held a wide range of roles at hotel companies, and today oversees operations for ReviewPro, a Shiji Group company that 60,000+ hotels trust to provide guidance on guest experience measurement and management.
I had the pleasure to work with Neil at ReviewPro for several years, and he and I spoke recently about what he’s learned on his journey and the opportunities he sees today.
In this story, we will cover:
Building a career in hospitality
“I started to become interested in customer service and hospitality in general while working at a bar while I was in college,” Neil told me.
Neil was studying tourism management in South Wales at the time, and his school offered him the chance to take a year out of the program for real-world work experience. “Only 10% took the opportunity and I was one of those.” The only thing was these students had to find a job themselves. “I sent out lots of letters and received a response from Forte Hotels in the UK. They had a property with 909 rooms, and I went through an extensive interview process with them that lasted all day before ending up getting the job.”
This first job at a hotel provided invaluable experience because it gave him exposure across the property in the twelve months he was there, starting in housekeeping cleaning rooms, then working as a housekeeping coordinator, then reservations, then reception. Each of these roles built on each other, which is something Neil found useful during his time there.
“When I ended up working in reservations I knew so much about our rooms from cleaning them that I could describe them well to prospective guests. And then when I moved to reception I knew where all the good rooms were, which was helpful in my role there and it meant that I could help my colleagues in reception also.”
But it was working at the hotel’s front desk where Neil says he really started to learn hotel operations. “Learning things like the audit process and how to balance the business were foundational for my career.”
Neil says hospitality provides jobs where you can do everything in the business. “Working in operations means you are customer service, you are HR, you are food and beverage. Sometimes you are security, first aid, and the fire department!”
The gap year in his studies proved valuable to Neil because when he returned he had real-world experience to draw from.
“Theory is good and you can put part of it into practice, but when you’re working in hotels no day is the same. Every guest has different needs, cultures, and expectations. It’s an eye-opening dynamic. That’s what makes it exciting.”
Neil finished his studies and decided to go back to South Wales by transferring within the company to a hotel in Cardiff (South Wales). “It was a big transition going from a 909-room hotel to a 155-room hotel.” Within two weeks of being there, he was promoted to Font Office Manager. “I had never managed anything in my life,” he said with a laugh. This is where his real-world work experience was useful – as leadership thought if he had worked at a 900+ room hotel in London he would be fine at the smaller property as a manager.
The role was a big learning experience for him. “I think back now on my naivety when I was taking that role and some of the things I did to try to resolve conflicts and manage the team. I look back and feel so lucky because nobody teaches you how to do those things – you just have to learn by doing. When you’re managing in a live environment like hospitality where issues are coming up in real time you just need to figure out a solution.”
Eventually, Neil scaled back his role to part-time to finish his final year of studies. During this time he wanted to return to big-city life and called an old colleague which led to an interview and then a position as a front-of-house training manager. “This was a really cool role because I had the chance to recruit people, train them, and then shadow them at the front desk to make sure they could continue to learn on the job. When they passed that process, they would start their full-time work and I would begin with the next batch of recruits.” But that was in 2001, and when 9/11 happened it had a massive impact on demand in the London Heathrow market.
“I was in meetings where we were stripping out all of the costs of the hotels to the point of taking flowers off the reception desk. I realized my role was a nice-to-have role within the hotel and decided to speak with the HR manager to see if I could get a transfer to another hotel within the group. The hotel I was working at at the time hotel was one of three Holiday Inns in the London Heathrow Market which had a vacancy for a front-of-house manager, which I took.” Neil was quickly promoted to rooms division manager and then to operations manager, which was second in command to the general manager.
“That was one of the roles that really defined my career. The general manager there was tough and difficult. We always ended up on opposite ends of the scale on personality tests. It taught me that if you have a number one and number two person within a company, their skill sets need to be complementary. Having two people with the same skill sets is not the most optimal.”
This general manager believed strongly in the value of constantly learning and often recommended books to Neil. “He got me into books like The 1 Minute Manager and Who Moved My Cheese. Reading books like this really helped me coach people then, and shaped how I manage people even today.”
Transitioning to a career in hotel technology
Neil’s widely varied experiences using technology while running hotel operations led to him eventually taking a role at TravelClick, a Barcelona-based travel technology provider.
“This role gave me the chance to interact with lots of hotel brands, implementing technology and supporting their use of it. From there I was promoted to lead a support team, and after that promoted to lead channel management products as Product Manager, which I did for three years.”
A key learning from Neil’s time in technology product management was the importance of staying close to customers and their needs – and building product offerings that addressed real pain points.
Why Neil joined ReviewPro
After Neil had been working at TravelClick for a number of years, he met ReviewPro co-founder and then CEO RJ Friedlander at ITB Berlin.
“I remember being fascinated by the company but feeling like the open roles at the time weren’t quite right for my experience. But I kept in touch with RJ as I saw them continuing to win awards at Phocuswright and receive various other accolades. Every time I saw them win something I reached out to RJ and congratulated him to keep the conversation going. When I knew my time at TravelClick was at a close, I reached out to him and fortunately, there was the right position available.”
Neil met with the other ReviewPro co-founders and became more and more excited the more he learned about the product. “I knew nothing about online reputation at the time because I had focused my career so far in hotel technology on distribution. But I saw the opportunity from my experience leading operations at hotels to better understand guests and act on their feedback in a way that was never before possible in hospitality.”
“I remember speaking with [co-founder and head of product Tim Towle] about an idea and then speaking with him two weeks later and him telling me that the feedback I had mentioned in passing was already part of the product. That speed of development and agility was compelling to me.”
Neil’s journey at ReviewPro
Neil ended up joining ReviewPro as Director of Engagement in June of 2012 when 3,500 hotels were using the platform.
Today, there are more than 60,000+ hotels using ReviewPro’s products and the product suite has expanded from online reputation management to guest surveys to case management, messaging, and AI-driven chatbots. Scaling global growth so significantly has required learning and growing and doing things like building distributed teams.
“As part of a growth journey like this, you hit some kinks along the way and then figure them out and move forward. I remember quite a few times there were big challenges we faced but figuring this out as a team and working through it was exciting and is a great learning experience for everyone involved.”
Expanding the definition of “reputation management”
When Neil started in his role, he used to ask hoteliers what online reputation management was and they would tell him it was responding to reviews.
“But responding is just part of reputation management,” he believes. “It’s actually more about how you look at guest feedback data and make decisions on designing your product and service based on that data.”
The advantage of “omnichannel listening”
Some hotel managers think just listening to one form of guest feedback may be sufficient, but in Neil’s experience, it’s important to listen across every channel: online feedback, surveys, and chat.
“A guest review usually comes at the end of the stay once that guest has left. But reviews are also used by the guest before their stay begins because it’s what they’re reading before they make the decision to stay at your property.”
Guest surveys provide more detail that can be more actionable, Neil has found. “Online reviews are typically based on the top 3-4 things that are top of mind for me from my stay. Guest surveys, on the other hand, provide an ability for you as a hotelier to define your guest lifecycle on the property and then get detailed information on the key touchpoints within your hotel. This is important because it provides data on the pieces of the stay that most impact guest satisfaction.”
Collecting feedback from guests while they are still on property
ReviewPro’s in-stay surveys are both an example of collaborative product development and omnichannel listening.
“The in-stay survey was something that was revolutionary when our product lead and [ReviewPro co-founder] Tim Towle discussed it with a few clients because we were always talking about reviews and survey data being actioned after the guests had left the establishment. But we discussed there must be a way to fix issues while the guest was on the property.”
“We started to think about what would it look like to do an in-stay survey where if a guest wasn’t happy we could figure that out and then fix issues while they were still on the property.”
The ReviewPro team created that and implemented that with pilot customers and started getting a huge amount of data which showed if they did an in-stay survey and found dissatisfied guests and turned that around those guests became more satisfied and loyal than guests who didn’t have issues. The opportunity to turn dissatisfied guests into promoters was huge.
The questions they asked were “how do you rate your stay so far” and “how do you rate your check-in experience.” Some would go further and ask if there was an issue and how they would want to be contacted – by coming to the room, Whatsapp, or another method.
“It was interesting how different guests from different regions would engage. In Thailand we had managers state that the in-stay survey was huge for them because they would have guests from Northern Europe who would say everything about their stay was great when asked face to face – they would never give any negative feedback. But when they checked out, all the negative feedback would come in through the review sites. By collecting feedback digitally while they were on-site – and offering the ability to not be contacted about it – alerted the staff to an issue that needed to be addressed in some way.”
Career learnings (and creating your own luck)
In our conversation, Neil frequently talked about making your own luck and I heard many examples of that as we were talking about the various roles he has held. Now leading operations for a global business with 60,000+ hotels, I wanted to ask what he meant by this and how he thought about that throughout his career.
“First, you need to understand your own capabilities and how uncomfortable you’re willing to be in a new role. When you get promoted to a new position you have to go out of your comfort zone and be willing to challenge yourself. If I think back to the opportunities I’ve had, it involved speaking to the right people to demonstrate my interest and then working really hard to show that I can achieve results and that I’m trustworthy.”
In Neil’s experience, it’s all about building strong working relationships. “At the end of the day, the only reason I got to the positions I did was because I had strong teams around me. Being able to build a career based on people that you believe are right for the organization and that you can coach and train and lead them to the point where they can take the next step.”
“You can only take the next step if there is a good successor waiting for you to take your position. If not, it becomes really difficult. For me, it’s been all about identifying potential leaders, top performers, and then coaching and training them to advance in their own careers.”
Neil used to work for a GM that always used to tell him the sign of a good leader was that everything runs perfectly when that leader is not around. “One of the key things I took with me throughout my career is to build teams that are set up in a way that if you’re on vacation or sick or whatever the rest of the organization can still run. If you do that, it means you have a team that can continue to thrive if you move on to other areas.”
With those basics in place, creating opportunities for yourselves does come down to ambition, Neil has learned. “It’s about thinking about what your next move might be, and how you can help yourself get there by enabling other people to grow and succeed themselves.”
The role of customer success in SaaS today
Hotels that buy “software-as-a-service” (SaaS) technology today benefit from a unique dynamic of that business model which aligns incentives between the company and the buyer of the technology. Many companies have “Customer Success” teams whose sole mission is to help customers succeed with the platform, knowing that if they don’t, their subscription will likely end.
“Customer success is a super important part of technology today,” Neil says. “Obviously it helps if people in organizations have had hospitality experience themselves because then they can speak from experience in using the same language as the people they are serving. I noticed I could draw from my own experience to guide implementations for our clients, and this has informed how we built systems and processes that our global teams can now use to scale.”
“The purpose of customer success is driving engagement and ensuring our customers get value from our tools and offerings. If we do that, they’ll want to renew and maybe buy more stuff from us. At the end of the day, it’s all about communication and listening to the needs of our customers.”
Investing in hoteliers’ success
Neil told me about how he and his team have invested in helping hoteliers succeed.
“We use a lot of technology to keep our customers up to speed with what are the new features, and the various best practices other hoteliers are using.”
This comes back to the network effect that hoteliers can benefit from when collaborating with their technology partners. “We look for a lot of use cases that our customers are using with the products, so we can then share them with other customers and show them how to implement it.”
Creating products informed by hotel customer input and feedback
I asked Neil about what he thinks about new product development and gathering feedback from his customers worldwide to inform that.
A common challenge is many hoteliers view technology providers as just vendors in the most commoditized way. What I heard from Neil is that while he was a hotel manager, and then while he worked at technology companies, he took a very collaborative approach.
“This is a hallmark I’ve seen of the brands that do best: they lean into the partnership in the collaboration instead of just saying ‘this is a vendor.’ There are a lot of smart people at technology companies and smart hoteliers benefit from interacting with them. It’s good for their careers, their companies, and the product development of the software and services they use.”
“If you’re building custom projects for different clients you can never scale in a way that we scaled to 60,000+ hotels. We found you need to have good conversations with clients and take feedback based on what they would do to really understand where there’s demand – but you also need to work through that opportunity with other hotels.”
The key thing is figuring out the objective you’re trying to reach, Neil found. “For example, do you need this feature just for reporting that perhaps an API connection would support instead? Or is it something that aligns with the roadmap we see for the evolution of our products? Whenever we evaluate new product opportunities we think about the network effect. What is the value to our client base as a whole of implementing some feature request?”
The role of customer advisory boards
One way to formalize the role of customer engagement has been through the formation of customer advisory boards.
“Over the past year we’ve put together customer advisory boards with some of our key clients and they join our CEO, our chief product officer, our Director of Product Engagement and myself to talk about our products, where we want to take them, and what we’d like to provide them with.”
Neil says this allows them to get candid feedback on if these plans make sense, and what resonates with them. “We ask for their input on what we can change to be more valuable to them. It helps us validate that the direction we’re taking is the right direction.” This is very much a work in progress that we’re looking to expand next year.
The win/win nature of hotel technology collaboration
“If you are a hotelier who is willing to collaborate with technology providers, then you’re going to get technology that more closely fits your needs,” Neil observed.
“If, as a technology partner you’re willing to develop products alongside your customers, then you’re going to develop technology that is right for the industry, and be more confident your products will meet real needs and pain points.”
Common mistakes during technology implementation for hotels
“Start with the end in mind,” Neil advises hoteliers considering a technology implementation.
He learned this from a partner software company he works with now in his role at ReviewPro. “They asked us at the start what our objectives were in buying their software. Then, six months later, they would come back and reiterate to us what we told them our objectives were. They showed us what they had seen us do with the technology, and asked about the areas it didn’t look like we achieved. They asked if those areas were still a priority or if priorities had shifted.”
The lesson for anyone looking to implement software is to be clear on the objectives, the priorities around those objectives, and the timescale for achieving that. “Is reputation more important than the surveys initially or not? Is in-stay feedback collection more important? Is a chatbot going to reduce the amount of traffic at reception and therefore that’s where I need to put my effort?”
“In the past we used to set the project plan, saying ‘we recommend that you do this, then you do this, then you do this which worked, and it helped, and it got us to the process. But I think these days because of the staff shortages, et cetera I think, you know, you need to have it very clear what the objectives are, how those objectives are set, and understand exactly how are you going to apply resources to that.”
The importance of having an internal technology manager
If Neil were leading operations within a hotel group today, one of the first roles he would hire is a systems owner.
“So often I see someone sign a contract to buy technology, and then just hand the project off to a receptionist to implement or someone who hasn’t been part of the process and doesn’t know what the business objectives are behind the purchase.”
The lack of a clear owner who has been involved from the start makes a successful implementation difficult. “You need to have clear roles and some incentive to make sure everything is documented. Too often when people leave a company, all the knowledge about how a system works leaves with them. Hoteliers today need to make sure when people leave there are still owners for their key systems so the technology can continue to deliver what it needs to, whether that’s for payments or some other part of the guest journey.”
Resourcing technology initiatives by understanding business objectives
Investing in resources to support tech initiatives is vital in Neil’s experience. “You can’t just sign a contract for technology and everything happens automatically.”
“If your organization is not achieving baseline standards, and you roll out a product without applying any additional resources against it, then you are likely to fail because nobody is going to be able to put the time and effort into it. But if you realize that by putting that additional resourcing for a period of time, then the improvement that you’re going to get on guest experience, reputation, and ultimately revenue s at the other end of that is going to be significant.”
Resourcing comes back to the objectives behind the project and how important those objectives are.
“It’s all about what are the areas that we’ve identified where we have real pain or an important result we’re trying to achieve. Am I implementing the solution to be able to get data to put a plan in place for CapEx next year? That’s a specific objective. Or is it that I have lots of customers that are leaving my property dissatisfied and so I want to put an in-stay survey in to try and get in front of the reasons why this is happening? If you’re going to put that in-stay survey in place, is your organization set up to be able to respond to those? Because those people that respond to an in-stay survey expect instant feedback. There’s no point in sending out an in-stay survey asking them if they’re happy. If they say they have a problem in that survey and then go to the reception desk on checkout and somebody says, ‘how was your stay?’ that’s going to be a really bad experience for the guest.”
Advice to other operations leaders on shopping for technology today
For global brands, ensuring the technology company offers true global support is key, Neil advises. “You need support across the region to operate in and across multiple languages. Ideally, you find someone that has some history behind them and has a good reputation within the industry.
You also want to work with an organization that has a track record of building products based on customer feedback and helping their customers succeed with those products as mentioned earlier in this article.
Finally, you need to make sure expectations are clear all around. “At ReviewPro, we involve product specialists in our sales process to make sure hotels have a clear understanding of what products can and cannot do so expectations are set appropriately on functionality, values, and benefits – and the commitment that will be needed from that hotel organization to use it successfully.”
Advice on leading change management
Neil had some advice for those who would like to innovate with technology and manage change as effectively as possible.
“Your approach to change management will depend on your situation, whether you’re upgrading your solution or implementing a product from a fresh start.”
Neil has seen that successful implementations address pain points across the whole organization. In his work on guest feedback management, he encourages clients to think about getting as many people involved across departments with a technology implementation as possible.
“While some think a project with us is just about reviews, it is usually really about better understanding guests and then thinking how those insights can be used – whether it’s a maintenance team thinking about water pressure or a housekeeping team thinking about a way of cleaning rooms to HR professionals thinking about designing training and incentive programs.”
By tying it to each of their needs the initiative can become an organizational priority and people understand the relevance to their areas of responsibility.
“One of the key things is making sure that you get buy-in across the organization. The other thing is encouraging our customers to speak with other customers and understand how they are implementing that technology. If you’re shopping for technology make sure the provider you speak with can provide use cases that show specific examples of organizations like yours and what they achieved.”
“We have hotel chains now that have asked us to help them set up their Global Review Index key performance indicators for their properties each year because it’s part of the bonuses for the hotel teams. Embedding a solution into your organization around KPIs generated from the tool makes the rollout much easier.”
Advice for his 20-year-old self
In closing, I asked Neil what advice he would give his 20-year-old self on how he would prepare himself for a career in operations and growth in a constantly-changing environment.
“Be patient, as there are going to be challenges,” he said.
“I remember a few times I’ve come home to my wife and said I’m not going to get past this particular challenge. That the situation I was facing was going to lead to me needing to change roles or leave my role. And then a few weeks later we found that working together as a team we sailed through it and there wasn’t a problem, but there were learnings.”
“I advise others today to have patience. Find a good mentor. Don’t take things too personally because that makes things more challenging. Especially working with guests!”