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Insider Perspectives: Michelle Mu, Director of Revenue at Refinery Hotel
Welcome to “Insider Perspectives”, a new series in which we interview travel industry insiders and veterans to hear their insights and stories, drawing upon their unique and impressive backgrounds.
Previously, we spoke to Travel Tripper leaders including Nate Lane, Senior Director of Digital Platforms and Joan Evelyn Lee, Vice President of Operations, to learn the latest hotel marketing and revenue management trends.
This week, we invited our client, Michelle Mu, Director of Revenue at Refinery Hotel, to share the hotelier’s perspective and get a glimpse into her personal and professional experiences.
What’s your role at Refinery Hotel and what’s the most interesting, exciting, and enjoyable part of your job?
As Director of Revenue Management here at Refinery Hotel, I’m responsible for driving top-line revenue growth as well as overseeing the e-commerce and digital marketing channels.
I really enjoy my job here at Refinery. I’ve always wanted to lead an independent hotel and Refinery has this unique personality that’s a perfect fit for me. I joined the team back in 2017 and it’s been a very fun journey. The hotel is a stabilized asset with solid performance, so my goal is to hold the momentum and bring it to the next level. In the past two years, we are able to achieve great topline growth as well as being the rate leader in the area. I’m also able to pilot test with some very interesting tech partners and capitalize on hidden opportunities to explore and drive demand.
Tell us a little bit about your hotel. In your opinion, what makes this hotel unique?
Our hotel has 197 keys and is part of the small luxury hotel collection. We’re centrally located in Midtown’s Garment District, only two blocks away from the Bryant Park, providing easy access to a lot of New York City. We have one of the best rooftops in town which offers the up close and personal view of the Empire State building.
Interestingly, this hotel used to be a very famous millinery back in the 1920s and we still keep the hatbox in the lobby. In our Winnie’s Lounge, we play live jazz music every night. A lot of our guests go there to enjoy a more intimate atmosphere.
Ultimately, what makes this hotel unique is our people. We really pride ourselves on delivering the sophisticated, tailored, and unique experience to our guests from the time of booking, to staying and becoming loyal.
What does it take to be competitive in a market like NYC? What are your biggest goals as a Director of Revenue Management?
I think to stay competitive, you need to have a very good understanding of market intelligence, as well as the knowledge of your competitors—sometimes even more so than knowing yourself. It’s important to be a leader than a follower. So in terms of revenue management, we always want to be the one who is setting up not just a price point, but to be innovative in the kind of product that we sell and the kind of a service that we provide.
The Refinery has just celebrated our five-year anniversary. As a Director of Revenue, some of the biggest challenges that I face are figuring out how to keep the hotel competitive and relevant while staying on top of what’s happening in New York City. It’s important to always keep our momentum so that we can outperform the city and our competitors.
When it comes to revenue management, what are the common challenges you face as an independent hotelier?
One of the challenges that we’re constantly talking about nowadays is: how do you keep a healthy relationship with OTAs? When it comes to e-commerce and online marketing, the major OTAs enjoy the advantage of having deep funding to invest in creating their own tools and integrating artificial intelligence. They’re creating a one-stop shop to the customers with great varieties to choose from.
Because of the amount of market data that they’re able to capture and their ability to utilize that data, it’s a big challenge for us to utilize our resources as an individual hotel to compete. Right now on the property level, most hotels are not as advanced or forward thinking as most of the OTAs, which are equipped with more advanced technologies.
Given that OTAs have a much deeper pocket and are constantly bidding on the keywords not just for one hotel, but basically for everyone’s, it’s important for us to be intelligent and accurate to bid on the right keywords. With the support from Travel Tripper’s digital marketing team, we managed to spend money wisely into bidding on the right keywords and identifying events ahead of time to make sure that we’re only spending the right amount of money into the right events for this hotel to get the best return on investment.
What are the biggest opportunities for growth for both you and the hotel?
Right now, everyone is talking about artificial intelligence, machine learning, and big data. I think one of the most exciting things for me here on the property level as the Director of Revenue is to always stay relevant, to always be curious, and then to always ask these questions, “How can we do better? How do we keep our momentum?”
We keep talking about how, between this year and the next year, around 10,000 keys will be added to the entire New York market. So we need to figure out how to keep ourselves relevant and competitive with all these new people coming in town. We also need to preserve our unique personality so that we can keep our loyal customer while attracting new customers with everyone’s help.
In terms of revenue management, I’m always looking for a healthier mix of sales, meaning that I always want to drive volume from our lower-rated segmentation to the higher-rated segmentation.
As you mentioned, there will soon be a steep increase in supply in NYC, which means that prices will drop. But if demand doesn’t increase accordingly, that can be troublesome for hotels. As a revenue manager, how would you potentially handle a downturn in a market like that?
The surge of supply will inevitably impact our ability to drive rate, and most of the time, hotels struggle to maintain occupancy level with minimum sacrifice on the rate drop. WSJ recently reported that NYC hotels recorded the highest occupancy rates since 2000, citing data from STR. This city does not have a demand issue—in fact, I agree with the saying that “if you build it, they will come.” My goal is to set the right rate and get the right people in the door. Know the game, know yourself — but most importantly, know your competitors. Be a leader, not a follower!
A lot of us who work in this industry are passionate about traveling. So what’s on your bucket list for travel?
What’s your most memorable travel experience?
I lived in Singapore for a year and was able to travel every other weekend and did island hopping in Southeast Asia. I took a solo trip to Cambodia and saw the most beautiful sunset at Angkor Wat—nothing has topped that yet.
How do you plan and prepare for your leisure trips?
We plan our leisure trips by browsing Instagram to check out places to go and where to eat. I think that social media marketing and hashtag management have totally taken over the traditional channels in a very exciting way!
Besides traveling, what are your hobbies/side hustle/passion projects?
We are working on a very exciting tool to yield inventory in the food and beverage sector. I can share with you more on our next interview!
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