Alex Shashou, Co-Founder & President of ALICE, founded the tech company in 2013. Since, it has been one of the fastest growing start-ups in the hospitality tech space. Alex spoke at our INDIE Cultivate event in 2019, sharing his story as a Founder. We recently caught up with Alex to talk about leveraging technology and data, the future of ALICE, and the acquisition of GoConcierge.
You have a background in hospitality – can you talk a bit about that?
My father built hotels, and I was always fascinated by them. He built boutique hotels in the UK, city and countryside under the brands Malmaison and Hotel Du Vin. I had the honor of interning for them and I have always been drawn to the diversity and uniqueness of their workforce, their staff. A hotelier is a bizarre, honorable, hard working and hard playing person. We - because I see myself as one - are unlike any other profession. We find solace and purpose in serving others, even to our own detriment. Hoteliers are straitlaced, as military officers in public, and in private they are tragic poets, dramatic musicians, diverse characters with the best stories. Go ahead and try to shock a veteran hotelier, I believe it can’t be done.
Tell us a bit about what led up to the creation of ALICE? What was the need you saw in the market you wanted to meet?
Frankly, while I love hotels to death, very often the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. One of the big problems with hotels is that they’re not run as one organization or one entity. They are comprised of many departments, each with their own management and internal culture. This is a problem because from a guest experience, it’s supposed to be one experience, and yet it’s a very siloed structure.
From this problem, we created a solution: ALICE. Most hotels today are running outdated legacy systems, which are disconnected from one another. The string we’ve come up with is a radio - yet radio’s don't account for accents, foreign languages, staff already busy with a job when hearing about the next one and any reporting or workflow structure at all. Without ALICE, operations do something that is almost criminal to our expectant guest… we leave room for error.
It also prevents hotels from understanding how they are failing guest expectations. In today’s social media and review-driven economy, that is a risk. Customer reviews are everywhere, social media is directly impacting guest expectations and future bookings. The last thing any hotelier wants is a negative review.
We built ALICE to address all this by having a single platform where everyone in the hotel is able to work together, aligned, with ease, serving the guest experience. Quite frankly, we are only a fraction of the way there. With the launch of housekeeping last year, there is so much more to come.
At ILC we often acknowledge that the hotel industry is lagging in terms of integrating and utilizing technology that’s available. Why do you think that is?
For so many years, the hotel industry didn’t necessarily need a technology upgrade. But now, in the face of an existential threat - with a glut of worldwide inventory, with home sharing platforms taking over the market, with online marketplaces (OTAs) commoditizing pricing, with hiring becoming an almost impossible and unending function and with a new set of expectations, hotels and the whole industry have to take a step forward or else they’ll be left behind.
Ten years ago, when you ran into a technology resistant hotelier, it wasn’t that big of a deal, but now technology can’t be avoided. In fact, guests AND staff expect it.
A recent, and somewhat valid argument is that there are so many systems in this space, and they don’t always talk to each other. For many years there was a lack of standardization with how products were built, and it was intimidating to find products that talked to each other. Most crucially, the hotel’s main brand - the PMS - was closed. This is changing. With open APIs it’s becoming easier for technology to operate harmoniously, creating seamless experiences for hoteliers. As technology continues to integrate, we’re going to find that it makes a hotelier’s life harder to abstain from technology than to dive in head-first.
How can hotels use the data gathered from their hotel operations to better improve the guest experience?
You cannot manage what you cannot measure. Some other really smart people have said that so I am copying it here.With Operations data, a hotel can develop a big picture perspective on how it is doing and its very core function, delivery of service. More importantly, it can learn what and how it’s guests are doing. An operations platform lets you see any micro-moment of a guest or staff interaction. The information that is gathered about guests allows a hotel to provide better service and personalized experiences -- something that is practically an obligation in today’s hospitality industry. If a hotel continues to see that guests in a particular room are requesting extra blankets, it could be a sign of something else. Maybe the heat is broken. Or the room is drafty - an issue for maintenance. Data that shows how many requests are coming from a particular room, or at a particular time of year, can help illuminate guest needs, behavior and trends that you can proactively manage, instead of reactively manage. Guest profiles, accessible across departments, and knowledge about your loyal guests is also a great asset. If you know that the last 4 times Mrs. Smith was in town, she asked the concierge to book a table at her favorite Italian restaurant, you can book it again in advance of her request. Everyone likes to feel remembered and well taken care of.
ILC has a hospitality, lifestyle and travel start-up pitch event (INDIE Cultivate) coming up in July. You were great enough to join us as a speaker at INDIE Cultivate last year. What bit of advice would you give a young Founder in this space?
Starting a business is exciting. I’ve loved watching ALICE grow, but I encourage founders not to be afraid to change directions, to not have tunnel vision. We started ALICE as a mobile, guest-facing app. As we rolled it out in our early years, we saw that the hotel staff receiving our technology had a whole different interpretation of how impactful it could be for them. It was them who helped us realize that the single best way we could impact the guest experience, was not by giving guests technology but by giving staff the technology they yearned for to help them better look after the guest. So we pivoted and created a really solid set of tools for hoteliers. I’m proud that we were able to act early on and not be afraid to admit that we needed to rethink things.
My second piece of advice is to not just chase the next shiny object. While it’s always great to think of exciting and innovative products, I encourage entrepreneurs who are entering this space to really double-down on improving the aspects of hospitality that already exist, but can only get better. For us, that was improving the efficiency and communication of hotel staff. We didn’t set out to create ALICE and change or disrupt hospitality, but to enable it to be even better - in today’s digital age -- and that’s what we’re still doing.
How can hotels use technology to better improve operations?
So many hoteliers are caught up in day-to-day operations that they miss the impact that seemingly small boosts to efficiency at scale can have on their bottom line. A few minutes here and there might not seem like a big deal but that's exactly what makes these types of invisible inefficiencies so dangerous, silently channeling profit out of your operation. The second and more subtle benefit is then to ask what you might do with those minutes. Not every goal is profit based, use the time to go and make a guest feel welcomed.
Technology that has solid data analytics and provides business intelligence is a great way to get a macro-level view of your operation, and a micro-level view of your hardworking hotel staff. Hotels can use technology to improve operations across the board, within every department. Good hotel technology allows hotel staff to focus on their jobs without all of the noise. That noise can come in the form of siloed communication across departments, the inability to dynamically assign and re-assign rooms to room attendants throughout the day, and the ability to work in one system, without having to switch in out of multiple programs to arrange concierge services.
Front of house and back of house departments can use hotel technology to communicate better, have more accountability (both personal accountability as well as team accountability), and relay messages to the proper departments, all while tracking these requests. At the end of the day, improved operations, with the help of technology help hotels achieve guests’ basic needs: having a clean, safe and comfortable room to spend the night in.
ALICE acquired GoConcierge. How did that change ALICE?
Acquiring GoConcierge was a fantastic development and point of growth for our company. The acquisition gave us a huge opportunity to enhance the concierge component of our platform. GoConcierge was a 17-year old company that was well known in hotels around the world. As we improved and built out our own product, we were able to learn from the best concierges in the world on what a concierge needs to enhance their daily operations. When we sunsetted GoConcierge in 2019, by moving their clients onto the ALICE platform, it was bittersweet, but certainly a step forward for ALICE and the industry. Acquiring GoConcierge meant gaining some incredible employees from their team. Just as ALICE is only as good as its people, so was GoConcierge. We got very lucky in bringing a solid team of managers, developers, thinkers and concierge champions to ALICE. Together, we are better and the bringing together of GoConcierge and ALICE put the combined company into a whole new stratosphere.
Give me three words to describe the company culture at ALICE!
Hospitable, Ambitious, Fun.
What’s next for you all?
We had an incredible 2019 and we’re tackling 2020 head on. Last year we introduced ALICE’s new housekeeping product. The housekeeping department is the most expensive department in a hotel and we’ve built tools that help save money and time -- not to mention are user-friendly, thoughtfully designed and thoroughly tested! It’s been a huge success and to be honest we are getting to a point where we might not be able to keep up with demand for the product. To a point, we will have to start saying no to bringing on new housekeeping customers to be able to focus on supporting the existing ones. This week we’re hosting our quarterly Town Hall in New York, and the energy is very high in the office. We’re looking forward to another exciting and inspiring year!