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Insider Perspectives: Jennifer Wong and James Nannos at Stay Wanderful
Welcome to “Insider Perspectives”, an interview series featuring travel industry insiders and veterans to uncover interesting stories and insights from their unique backgrounds.
Last time, we dived into a great David-vs-Goliath story shared by Renier Milan, Vice President of TOBO Investments, and Halei Young, Digital Marketing and Community Manager at Beach Terrace Inn. They transformed a 48-room hotel into a market leader by innovating their marketing and services to deliver an unparalleled guest experience.
This week, we learned how Stay Wanderful helps hotels increase direct bookings by speaking to the company’s CEO Jennifer Wong, and its Director of Hotel Sales & Partnerships James Nannos.
What inspired you to start/join the company?
Jennifer: With the consolidation in the market after Expedia’s acquisition of Orbitz, the online travel industry has turned into a duopoly dominated by Expedia and Booking.com. To help hoteliers tackle the problem of high commission fees commanded by these powerful OTAs, I was inspired to find a solution to drive more direct revenue on hotel websites.
James: I’ve been following Stay Wanderful for about 2 years and admire its accomplishments in reinventing the traditional booking journey, which is so heavily weighted towards OTAs. It’s a David-vs-Goliath battle for independent properties to manage their booking channels, so I wanted to join Stay Wanderful’s mission of helping independents drive more direct revenue.
Tell us a little bit about your product. In your opinion, what makes it unique? What’s your secret sauce?
Jennifer: We’re excited about our smart engine technology: we have a machine-learning recommendation engine that personalizes the optimal mix of rewards to incentivize a direct booking. Our solution provides travelers with everything from flight credit from their favorite airline to VIP access and complimentary cocktails at their favorite restaurants in town. Our personalized algorithm has proven to be tremendously successful in increasing the conversion of direct bookings.
What are some new products or feature launches that you’d like to share with our readers?
James: Our smart-serving technology is second-to-none. It empowers hoteliers to accurately display the most compelling guest rewards to drive direct bookings on their websites. The results for our partner hotels speak for themselves. We’re also making huge waves by disrupting traditional points-based loyalty programs, more to follow there : )
What’s the most interesting, exciting, and enjoyable part of your job?
Jennifer: As the CEO, I have to wear many hats — and I enjoy it. From discussing the future of loyalty with the executive team of a hotel group to meeting with the CFO of a high-end restaurant group to recruiting rock star candidates to join us, my activities change from day to day. How I spend my time today can be very different from what I will do tomorrow.
James: I’m excited about connecting with the interesting people who run those beautiful, one-of-a-kind boutique hotels. Revenue management takes on a whole new meaning when it’s one property against the world with no flag/distribution backing it up.
What are the common challenges you face in your role and how are you tackling these challenges?
Jennifer: I have to constantly balance different priorities and juggle many moving pieces. While it’s tempting to agree to all new strategic initiatives, I have had to table certain opportunities. It’s always hard to say no to potential revenue, but I realized that I need to stay focused on the most important things.
James: Because hoteliers (especially those at independent hotels) have to accomplish a lot with limited resources in a short time frame, it’s challenging to convince them to adopt Stay Wanderful amongst all other priorities. While hotels have a negative stigma of being “laggards” for technology adoption, I leverage this opportunity to show them how our technology can increase their revenues and productivity while enhancing the guest experience. When I frame the conversation this way, it’s much easier to get them to look at us as strategic partners instead of just vendors.
What are the biggest opportunities for growth for your company?
Jennifer: We’ve figured out how to incentivize conversion. Next, we’re going to incentivize retention and loyalty. Traditional point-based loyalty is broken; today’s consumers no longer value points and want immediate benefits and personalized experiences. We’re excited to be at the forefront of Next-Gen-Loyalty and we are partnering with a number of hotel groups to power loyalty via instant gratification and AI.
What are your goals for 2019?
Jennifer: At Stay Wanderful, we are continuing to establish strategic partnerships with companies in the hospitality space that are aligned with our mission to increase direct bookings for hotels. We are also gearing up to enter the European market this year. Our product has evolved to be the future of loyalty and we will share more about that soon!
James: We don’t yet have the brand recognition of the big players, so for us winning the #1 Direct Booking Tool on HotelTechReport was a huge accolade. I want to continue to grow our brand across the U.S., Mexico, Canada, and Europe by helping hotels increase web-direct bookings and simultaneously delighting their guests.
A lot of us who work in this industry are passionate about traveling. So what’s on your bucket list for travel?
Jennifer: Tibet, Brazil, and Russia
James: Everywhere! I was recently bitten by the wanderlust bug, so I want to experience as much of the world as possible.
How do you plan and prepare for your leisure trips?
James: Spontaneously! My euro-trip was booked on a Monday and I flew out on Wednesday with no itinerary, just an outbound/return flight. I was able to enjoy each city to the fullest before moving on without having the anxiety of “did I see everything.”
Jennifer: I’m the total opposite of James — I spend the time to do extensive research and map out the where/what/when of itineraries before I travel.
What’s your most memorable travel experience?
Jennifer: I recently traveled to Chongqing and Chengdu. It’s incredible to see how China has advanced since I last visited over 10 years ago. I was amazed by how grand their historical sites are.
James: I did a short 3-week backpacking trip across Paris, Bordeaux, Barcelona, and London. It was truly eye-opening the different cultures I was exposed to, and I can’t wait to take a similar trip again!
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