Alexander Shashou is the co-founder and president of ALICE, which, as reported here, this month secured $26 million in series B funding from Expedia and also acquired GoConcierge. Alexander received his BA from the University of Pennsylvania, Wharton Business School. After graduation, he took a position with Goldman Sachs in the Equity Sales division in New York, leaving in 2013 to pursue ALICE full-time. “When ALICE first started, we asked ourselves what we’re really great at,” he says. “We had no product, no team, no money, and no hotels. But one thing we could win at was support.”
Tell us a bit about your career trajectory. What led you to your current role? How long have you been in this position?
Growing up in the hospitality industry with my family building and operating the Malmaison and Hotel Du Vin brands in the UK, I was bred with a passion for hospitality. ALICE is my and my co-founders first startup. We had previously experienced first-hand an industry that was crying out for change. Service delivery has been rapidly evolving with the advancement of cloud and mobile technology in so many industries, and the rise of the shared economy has created a whole new breed of competition. Yet, the hotel and guest experience have not progressed very much.
Inspired by exceptional service improvements of companies like Uber and OpenTable, we set out five years ago to build technology that would provide hotels the tools they need to compete in this modern digital era.
At the beginning, we thought the tool they need was a consumer-facing application that would allow guests to order amenities and services from all the hotels they visited, similar to how one uses Amazon to order goods and Grubhub to order food.
In our journey, what we discovered however, was that guest frustrations rarely originated from the inability to communicate a request. The true problem stemmed from the operational complexity of fulfilling the request. The difference between Ubers and hotels was not the guest access point, but rather the hotels’ inability to leverage technology on the back-end. This led us to build the staff operations platform that ALICE is today.
As co-founder and president of ALICE, what do you do on a day-to-day basis? What do you like most about ALICE as a company?
Part of my role is to help translate the company’s vision to every department in ALICE. I also run our demand generation, branding, and culture. I’ve had the opportunity to speak at industry events all over the world pertaining to innovation and technology in our industry.
A startup is a constantly evolving machine. It is important that everyone aligns their goals and has the right information to proceed. It motivates me to be living in a resource-constrained environment, in which talented individuals are asked to go above and beyond what they have previously experienced.
What I like most about ALICE is our people. Every member on the team has the ability to work on a bold and ambitious vision, and together we experience the sense of accomplishment in solving the need to better the hotel experience for thousands of staff across the world.
How has the hospitality industry changed and evolved, especially in terms of hotel technology and the solution provider landscape, since you began your career however many years ago?
Over the last decade, we’ve seen huge progress in the hotel distribution space. That level of innovation has yet to be realized in the actual operations of hotels and the guest journey after booking.
In the last five years, hotel technology has progressed towards the cloud. This has made it possible for technology providers to collaborate via an open API, and allow hotels to adopt new applications much more quickly and affordably. This has begun to change the mindset of a hotelier from overly risk-averse to experimental when it comes to technology adoption. Innovations like hotel guest messaging and Amazon’s Alexa are now being treated as experiments instead of hefty commitments.
What, in your view, are the biggest obstacles and challenges hotel operators are likely to face over the next few years, especially in terms of technology?
We have seen a new breed of outside disrupters, like on-demand services, outsourced services, and Airbnb. Instead of fighting a losing battle against constantly fluctuating trends, hotel operators should assess and adapt. This involves questioning possibilities like does it make sense to set up in-house room service or partner with local restaurants through technology to deliver different flavors to guests right at their doorstep?
Technology is progressing at such a rapid pace today that it is difficult to keep up, especially in an industry that lacks strong foundations in both technology infrastructure and talent. While data collection is getting increasingly efficient, effective application is still a challenge. As hotels continue to invest more in technology, they are able to gather a larger pool of data to leverage and build a data strategy, which is paramount to success.
Do you think hotel operators are prepared for the challenges that lie ahead? If not, what do they need to do to better prepare themselves – and, hopefully, ensure their ongoing
More hotels are beginning to invest in technology and technology education as we begin to witness hotels leading from the top. But there is still some way to go. Hotels have to hire IT talent. As software trends towards self-service models, those that are able to configure technology to fit their operational makeup will see a lot more progress.
What, in your view, are the biggest opportunities that are now available to hotel operators due to recent advances in technology? How can they best take advantage of these opportunities?
The biggest opportunities lie in automation of operations, communication both internally and with guests, as well as personalization – hotels are now able learn who their guest is by tracking their unique footprint, and should utilize this information to provide a more genuine human experience.
Are most hotel operators making the right decisions in terms of their technology infrastructure? Are their properties generally achieving their potential in terms of revenue performance as well as the quality of the guest experience, or is there a lot of room for improvement?
Hotels are no doubt achieving more of their potential in terms of revenue performance, as they harness the tools available in enhancing the booking experience. However, individuals responsible for revenue are not responsible for the guest experience, and that is an important mistake today. While hotels are concerned with ROI, another important term to analyze is ROE (Return on Experience).
The quality of the typical guest experience hasn’t changed all that much. It is neither mobile, nor integrated from booking through checkout. Very few hotels are successfully personalizing the guest experience to their brand and the local environment, while catering to the foreign guest’s preferences. Boutique hotels that are building a unique name for themselves are ahead of the pack and others should learn quickly from their competition.
As far as technology is concerned, where should hotel operators be focusing their time, energy and IT resources? What technology-enabled business initiatives are likely to provide the biggest payoffs?
As we study the outstanding service companies around us, like Uber and Amazon, we realize that their genius is in digitalizing the service delivery at the backend. Uber connects a network of disparate drivers; Amazon connects a network of disparate retailers. In doing so, they create platforms that are able to deliver better service by providing transparency and granting control to their customers.
Hotels should be looking to do the same to achieve both ROI and ROE. Managements should streamline communication across departments, by investing in platform technologies like ALICE or integrating existing solutions. This would resolve segmentation problems, and offer guests insights to the services that are being performed for them. Automation of operations will also benefit staff by removing mundane routine tasks that hinder interaction with guests and boost overall morale. But as mentioned earlier, the key to success in generating ROI and ROE would be a bottom-up approach – turn all action into insight to build a well-supported strategy using data reporting software.
What problems does ALICE solve? What customer benefits does it deliver? Can these benefits be measured in terms of ROI and financial outcomes?
Hotels are great places, made of incredible people who keep the operations running. ALICE is built to give them the tools needed to be even better and to reach their maximum potential. With every department of the hotel using ALICE, we incorporate transparency, accountability and consistency in the day-to-day operations of a hotel.
Aside from benefitting the guest experience, the ROI measured is the reduction of overall spend on technology. Hotels using ALICE no longer need to have four disparate systems to do what our single platform is capable of performing. This increase in operational efficiency is our way to provide an exceptional staff and guest experience.
Which sizes and/or categories of hotels, resorts and/or other lodging properties are the best fit for ALICE?
ALICE works with all hotels that pride themselves in delivering an excellent guest experience. We typically see our customers being 3 to 5 star properties. This is because our software is only as valuable as the staff using it and the services they are delivering.
What are some of your company’s plans going forward? What will be the primary focus areas over the next year, particularly in terms of enhanced platform capabilities and/or entirely new solutions?
Our mission is to be the industry standard for operations. As we continue to develop the tools that our hotels need to work across their departments, we are targeting efforts on our API, guest messaging tools, preventative maintenance solution, and the user experience.
Congrats on the recent funding round and acquisition of GoConcierge. How do you plan to spend the money? What does it mean for your company and your customers?
Acquiring GoConcierge was a big part of our strategy, as we saw great opportunity in joining forces to cater to the needs of Concierge and Front Desk roles. There is so much excitement in both companies as we continue striving for our shared mission of improving the hospitality experience through customer-driven technology, now as one.
The rest of the funding is going towards hiring the very best talent to further the ALICE mission of being the global operating system for hospitality. That means new faces in the company, and a greater importance in upholding our ALICE culture as we continue to grow in numbers.