Last month we had the opportunity to speak with Bunny Grossinger – a longtime Tisch Center supporter and donor, and advisory board member since 1995. Bunny has long been recognized for her early identification of the importance of tourism for the economic, social, and cultural development of society, and has been credited with leading the opening of U.S. travel markets abroad.
Tell us a little about your experience in hotels.
When I started to work in the hospitality industry, it was at a time when hotels usually passed through generations of a family; independent hotels were very common and popular. The first hotel that I fell in love with was the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island (http://www.grandhotel.com) in Michigan, which was built in 1887. It was, and still is, a magnificent hotel, and earned historical landmark status in 1989. My passion for hotels grew stronger when I married Paul, and we lived together at the famed Grossinger’s Catskill resort, which was owned by his family.
[For those interested in learning about Grossinger’s, the late Joel Siegel profiled the resort in a 4-part series that aired on ABC in 1992: part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4]
It has been interesting to watch how the industry has changed from primarily independent hotels to a majority of chain and branded hotels. Now, instead of falling love with a specific property, people fall in love with brands. This makes sense, as the number of hotels has exploded around the country and the world, that consumers would gravitate to brands that exude a consistent personality and type of experience.
There are a lot of interesting mergers and acquisitions in the hotel industry today, for example, the Marriott and Starwood deal, what are your thoughts about this consolidation?
The merger between Starwood and Marriott will create one of the biggest hotel brands in the world. It will be exciting to watch how they approach their global sales strategy – will they integrate processes? For which brands? They will have to be innovative, in some respects, to fill all of this new supply. And speaking of supply, there is so much development, and so many new brands, competition is increasing. How many brands is the average consumer aware of? I am also very interested in trying to understand the extent to which the culture of brands may change after being acquired. For example, when the Waldorf was acquired by the Chinese, they stopped serving tea, which was a hallmark of their service for many years. Research should be done to examine the effects of these changes, and whether they positively or negatively influence consumers or the bottom line.
In your opinion, what is the biggest challenge faced by the industry today?
The threat of terrorism, from unknown entities is certainly a challenge for marketers in hotels and broadly across the tourism industry. Tragedies have a profound effect on the psychology of travelers, who in many cases will change their plans if there are security concerns. Research should focus on how a destination can maintain its tourism in times of distress, because the prevalence of such events will, unfortunately, increase in the coming years.
In the past few years, sharing economy startups such as Airbnb and OneFineStay have increased competition for the traditional hotel companies. Are these companies a threat or a benefit to hotels?
Airbnb would be wonderful if it is used correctly by hotels. I say this, because I once worked at a company called Encore which was itself a disruptor, and precursor to many of the companies that have developed into alternate distribution channels. Encore offered hotels a way to sell their excess inventory to its members, which numbered about 1 million people. The business model was simple, Encore charged a membership fee, and hotels would be given access to those members, by offering room nights, with some kind of promotion – 2nd night free, or a 25% discount, etc. Viewed in a similar lens to Encore, hotels can use a service like Airbnb as just another tool in their toolbox, to broaden their ability to target new segments of the market.
What advice would you give students currently studying sales and marketing?
As we have discussed, every day there is a new development, whether a merger or acquisition, new technology, or innovative business model. I really envy students – there is so much to learn and analyze in the field of sales and marketing. I am so very passionate about the hospitality industry, and I hope that students share the same excitement that I do, in learning about our constantly changing industry.
On the topic of continuous learning, how do you stay on top of industry news?
I read the New York Times, and attend the wonderful lectures that the Tisch Center provides for its students – they are such a rich source of information. I also spend time, when I can, at the annual Hospitality Industry Investment Conference – chaired by Jonathan Tisch, who, with his entire family, has done so much for our program, our school, and NYU as a whole.
This past April, Jonathan Tisch was interviewed by Dean Lamoureux at the Tisch Center’s distinguished lecture series named in your honor. How important is the Tisch family to New York City tourism?
The impact that Preston Robert Tisch and Lewis Rudin had on New York City’s Hospitality and Tourism industry is so impressive. They did an enormous amount of work to bring together people from all aspects of the tourism industry, and made the public realize that it is a total product, and not just hotels – from marketing a destination, to actually bringing people to the city through adequate transportation – they really pushed the idea of looking at the entire experience a visitor can have.
In additional to their individual work, they each were instrumental in founding organizations that helped build a positive view of NYC as a leading destination and the most famous city in the world. It is important to recognize that their combined vision helped develop our city, and we have a lot to be thankful for, both in NYC and at NYU.