Sue Brush
                                                              Senior Vice-President,
                           ...
the innovator’s interview                                                                                                 ...
the innovator’s interview                                                                                                 ...
the innovator’s interview                                                                                                 ...
the innovator’s interview                                                                                                 ...
the innovator’s interview                                                                                                 ...
the innovator’s interview                                                                                                 ...
the innovator’s interview                                                                                                 ...
the innovator’s interview                                                                                                 ...
the innovator’s interview                                                                                                 ...
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Innovator Interview: Sue Brush, Westin Hotels & Resorts

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futurethink had the pleasure of speaking with Sue Brush, SVP-Global Brand Management for Westin Hotels & Resorts. A veteran of the industry and the Starwood family for over 20 years, Sue spoke in defense of the ‘quick win’ and why smaller ideas matter, the benefits of being first to market, why employee and partner metrics matter, and how yoga can be essential for letting ideas flourish.

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Innovator Interview: Sue Brush, Westin Hotels & Resorts

  1. 1. Sue Brush Senior Vice-President, Global Brand Management Westin Hotels & Resorts the innovator’s interview The Innovator’s Interview highlights unique innovations from a wide range of industries, and is an opportunity for futurethink and some of today’s leading innovations to share insights and ideas. May 2009 Anticipate. Innovate. | Future Think LLC © 2005–09 Reproduction prohibited | New York NY www.getfuturethink.com
  2. 2. the innovator’s interview 2 Sue Brush the background This Innovator Interview series highlights leading innovators at Fortune 500 companies. In contrast to past interviews, focusing on a single innovation, this series examines the state of innovation at global organizations. We spoke with both innovation leaders and practitioners, within varying business units and organizational structures, across a broad range of industries both for–profit and not–for–profit. The interviews offer a unique insider’s view into the world of innovation—what makes it work, what holds organizations back, and what critical advice new innovators need to know to be more successful with innovation overall. the interview futurethink had the pleasure of speaking with Sue Brush, SVP-Global Brand Management for Westin Hotels & Resorts. A veteran of the industry and the Starwood family for over 20 years, Sue spoke in defense of the ‘quick win’ and why smaller ideas matter, the benefits of being first to market, why employee and partner metrics matter, and how yoga can be essential for letting ideas flourish. What do you think is the single biggest challenge to making innovation happen? For me, it is how people interpret innovation. Typically, our expectations are too high. When people often think of innovation, they’re looking for that next really big idea, which is great. But, at the same time, I think in that process they miss some of the small significant wins. In our case, a big win certainly is Westin’s signature Heavenly Bed®. It’s a great idea; it revolutionized the industry, but was also very complex and very expensive—$1,000 a bed is a pretty expensive proposition in our business. I think sometimes we’ve set the bar too high. You see Fortune Magazine putting out the list of best innovators, and it usually includes organizations based on those big ideas. I think that sometimes we don’t get to some smaller ideas because we think innovation has to be this great, giant earth-changing type of thing. At Westin or at Starwood in general, how do you overcome this “it’s gotta be big!” innovation barrier? It starts from the top. In so many instances, it really takes the CEO to drive that. And Starwood’s been very fortunate that our CEOs have been very focused and committed to innovation. So when you hear from the top that innovation is important and that it’s okay to make mistakes and fail because everything can’t succeed, it creates a climate where people are willing to take more risks and become more risk-takers, and are generally willing to try new things. They feel more comfortable and supported when doing so – and they’re less likely to Anticipate. Innovate. give up. Innovation isn’t easy you know! For instance, somebody at | Future Think LLC © 2005–09 Reproduction prohibited | New York NY www.getfuturethink.com
  3. 3. the innovator’s interview 3 Sue Brush lunch today just told me about an idea, which I can’t share because it could be a big idea, but she went to the first person she thought that would be a sponsor for her idea and was turned down flat. But, she “We think being first said, “You know what? I’m just not going to listen to him because I really think this is a great idea.” And then, she went another route and to market is extremely got somebody else to listen and to be supportive. important. It establishes So I think at Starwood, knowing that there is a general climate you as an innovator. Let’s encouraging innovation – even though there will be some naysayers on certain ideas – it definitely creates that climate and nurtures that idea face it: in our case, being that we are looking for innovations of all kinds. first with an innovation You touched upon just the idea of risk, and having people at all does have a chance to levels of the organization get more comfortable with risk-taking. Do you think that innovation is always attached to some level of risk? revolutionize the industry Well, it depends on how we define risk, I guess. An example for us because there are would be our smoke-free initiative. After we did it, people said, “Oh, that was a no-brainer. Anybody could’ve seen that that was a smart a lot of hotel brands.” thing to do. You’d certainly get more business. You’re first to market.” And I kind of chuckle to myself and I say, “Well, it’s great for them to say that now! “ But, during the process of evaluating that idea, we determined that 4% of our guests smoked in their rooms. And if we lost that 4 percent, that was millions and millions of dollars. So, I said it was a calculated risk when we finally decided to do it. However, if there had been some hugely adverse reactions, that would’ve been a major risk. That’s why you have to set those parameters up and do your homework to determine how much is truly at risk. If the CEO at Starwood were to come to you tomorrow requesting a progress report on innovation at Westin, what three metrics would you report on and why? Well, we already do this. The way we look at our innovations involves 3 things: • Are we first to market? If we can be first to market, then that is huge. • Guest satisfaction – will this improve the guest experience? • Market Share – did we get more business as a result of it? So, going back to number one—we think being first to market is extremely important. It establishes you as an innovator. Let’s face it: in our case, being first with an innovation does have a chance to revolutionize the industry because there are a lot of hotel brands. How can we better stand out? You can influence a lot of those brands, and you can also see how and when your competitors followed your lead. So, in the example of ‘smoke-free’, we were the first to go to market with this concept. About two months after we launched, Marriott followed our lead. But, smoke-free is, to me, an innovation that you actually want your competition to follow because it is just so good for the environment. It’s so good for people if they choose not to smoke. And so, ‘smoke-free’ is a unique innovation in that it’s more health- related versus comfort-related or experience-related, the common focuses of innovation when thinking about the typical hotel stay. Anticipate. Innovate. | Future Think LLC © 2005–09 Reproduction prohibited | New York NY www.getfuturethink.com
  4. 4. the innovator’s interview 4 Sue Brush First to market is huge. It also gives you the advantage in the media that, when a competitor follows, you continue to get mentioned. And that’s what happened for us with ‘smoke-free’. I just love that. We’re still “Metrics are really around experiencing this first-mover effect ten years later with our Heavenly Bed program. Any competitor that comes out with an all-white bed, being first to market, guest which most of them are now doing, the second paragraph always satisfaction and market references, “Well, Westin introduced this in 1999.” And the same is happening with smoke-free and our other innovations. So, being first to share. And then, also we market is very important. want to gauge, over time, our Obviously, guest satisfaction is important, and we actively measure our efforts in this area. Our hotels are held accountable for it. General associate satisfaction and our Managers are evaluated against it. It’s one very important measure we owner satisfaction, as well.” have for knowing how the overall stay was, if a guest is willing to return to Westin, and if they’re willing to recommend us to a friend. There are multiple other measures on satisfaction within certain initiatives, products and services. But it’s important because it is affected by innovation; if you introduce a new product, within 90 days, you’ve got some very substantive data to prove or disprove your innovation’s effectiveness! And how do you go about collecting those satisfaction insights — and other insights — from customers? There’s an online channel and a survey we offer guests to take at the hotel and online, offered to about every 20th guest. We can also tell satisfaction from market share. In our industry, that’s measured in a metric we call RevPAR Index — revenue per available room. All of the hotels participate in a research study that goes on, and while the results don’t share where the other individual chains fall in the results, you know where you fall in the whole scheme of things. As for these indices, we always strive to be above 100. And how do you tie good results to innovation specifically? Well, it’s usually a combination of these metrics. For example, if guest satisfaction is really high for a specific initiative, and your market share is going up, you can make some correlation. Sometimes we’ll also do a very specific survey on an innovation we’ve launched. With ‘smoke-free’, we did a lot of individual surveys for that because we wanted to see how that was going, and if it was making a meaningful difference. And with the ‘smoke-free’ innovation specifically, there were fringe benefits you incurred as far as just reducing the cost and time of cleaning a room, correct? You bet. Several minutes are saved on cleaning time, which then the room attendants can use to really attend to other parts of the room to make sure it’s absolutely spotless. But the benefits didn’t stop there. We save additional time and money on cleaning, painting—and more. Think about it: a room that’s smoked in, you need to change the drapes more often, the bedspreads more often, you have to paint more often, etc. And then there’s just the practicality of booking the room. In the old days, every room had to be listed in the computer system twice — Anticipate. Innovate. listing if it was a smoking or nonsmoking room. And so, we simplified | Future Think LLC © 2005–09 Reproduction prohibited our systems. And so, that’s another big benefit, as well. | New York NY www.getfuturethink.com
  5. 5. the innovator’s interview 5 Sue Brush As far as the metrics go, while guest satisfaction is number one, our associates are very important to us as well. We survey them once a year and get their feedback on how we’re doing and how our initiatives are “We had meetings every perceived by them. We also survey hotel owners. We’re primarily a hotel management company and we also have a lot of franchises. So, we own Friday morning at 9:00. very few of our hotels. In that case, we are obviously working very closely [Associates] couldn’t wait to with the owners and managing their assets for them. What does this mean? They’re the ones who are oftentimes writing the check for these get there. It was really fun innovations. And so, obviously, they need to be very much in the loop. because people know at In the case of Westin, we learned a big lesson with the Heavenly Bed. Starwood stepped up to the plate, wrote a check for $30 million to Starwood that if you do your put beds in the hotels that we did own. Then, we were able to build homework and you build a the business case from that. In fact, the initiative started to be driven by the guests! Other owners who hadn’t funded the Bed effort yet strong business case, the were getting complaints from guests who said, “Why doesn’t this hotel have those wonderful Westin Heavenly Beds?” So, the guests put the organization will support you pressure on the owners to comply. and the innovation. And so, Certainly, we can’t keep adding cost to the hotel model, so we ask people want to be part of that ourselves, “What is the guest willing to pay or trade for?” For instance, we used to have fax machines in hotel rooms that cost a lot of money. and everybody wants to be Well, we’ve eliminated those, and we put in dual-headed showers instead. So, there are things that you can trade—the tradeoffs are part of what’s new and fresh definitely in the guests’ and the owners’ favor. and different.” So, metrics are really around being first to market, guest satisfaction and market share. And then, also we want to gauge, over time, our associate satisfaction and our owner satisfaction, as well. What would you say is the number one indicator of a healthy innovation program? More business. If you get more business as a result of the innovation, you’re obviously doing something right, and all of your metrics should go up. The long-term indicator is loyalty because if we can create loyalty beyond reason with our customers, they will seek out a Westin whenever they travel and, in some cases, will go out of their way to stay at a Westin even if it’s not the most convenient option for them. Do you look at how engaged your associates and other employees are in your innovation efforts? Absolutely. Employee engagement and satisfaction are big. ‘Smoke-free’ is a great example. We put a taskforce together of people and said this is what we’re trying to evaluate. We had meetings every Friday morning at 9:00. They couldn’t wait to get there. It was really fun because people know at Starwood that if you do your homework and you build a strong business case, the organization will support you and the innovation. And so, people want to be part of that and everybody wants to be part of what’s new and fresh and different. Anticipate. Innovate. | Future Think LLC © 2005–09 Reproduction prohibited | New York NY www.getfuturethink.com
  6. 6. the innovator’s interview 6 Sue Brush Are these metrics measured by business unit, or do you have a specific group or team that’s kind of in charge of innovation? It’s really encouraged from the top. Each business unit has their own “I think [the innovation focus on it. We don’t have a separate innovation department, and for team’s] responsibility a reason because we think that would defeat the purpose. We feel that if we had a formal innovation team, other employees would think should be to create this ‘well, innovation isn’t my job – it’s theirs’. We really try to say that in our business everybody is a brand champion for all of the Starwood brands, environment where ideas and everybody is responsible for innovation. can flourish. Once we went So, what are the main criteria you use when choosing new ideas to to a yoga studio to have a move forward with? brainstorming session. We For us, the number one is – does it support our brand positioning? We have nine hotel brands. Each of them has a different positioning. invited everybody to come Westin is about the idea of preserving wellness in travel. Therefore, anything we come up with has to support that positioning. For instance, in their workout clothes. We having the best night’s sleep you can possibly have certainly helps started with some stretching. to preserve your wellness in travel. Our Heavenly Shower, our Westin Workout, our Super Foods Breakfast Menu, all of these things support We had a nice healthy our positioning. ‘Smoke-free’ definitely supported it as well—clean, fresh air is something that our guests told us was very important to their breakfast. And we would do a idea of wellness. 45-minute brainstorming.” Second, good news or bad news, we say it must be PR-able. If we can’t get the media’s attention over this idea, and we can’t create buzz, which would then help create the demand and the acceptance and the demand for the product, then it probably isn’t that innovative. Third thing we ask is: are we first to market? If others are already doing it, how can you say it’s that innovative? Fourth, is it something our guests have demanded or asked for, so is there a guest need or demand for it? And fifth, does it have an ability to increase occupancy, RevPAR or our average daily rate? So, what’s the business case around it? Let’s talk about idea sharing. Are there ideas that come up in Westin that might apply to say, W or aloft or to Sheraton, and vice versa? Absolutely, we do it all the time. It really helps because when you know your brand, you know what the positioning is, and an idea comes across and you go, “No, that doesn’t work for me, but it would be great for Sheraton.” It enriches our innovation pipeline, if you will, and directs the ideas to the group that it makes the most sense for, and then they can go ahead and develop it. What do you think the role of an innovation team or innovation office should be? I think their responsibility should be to create this environment where ideas can flourish. Once we went to a yoga studio to have a brainstorming session. We invited everybody to come in their workout clothes. We started with some stretching. We had a nice healthy Anticipate. Innovate. breakfast. And we would do a 45-minute brainstorming, and then | Future Think LLC © 2005–09 Reproduction prohibited | New York NY www.getfuturethink.com
  7. 7. the innovator’s interview 7 Sue Brush we’d do another yoga activity, then we’d do another 45 minutes, and then we’d have lunch, then we’d do another 45 minutes. We got some “I think recognition is so really good ideas out of that, but the goal was to create an environment important. But, what we’ve where ideas can flourish. Just telling everybody to put “next Thursday at 3:00 on their calendars so we can think big thoughts” is not going to also learned is there is no work. You cannot schedule meetings to be creative and come up with innovations. The idea isn’t going to come up in a meeting. The idea formula for recognition. We is going to come up in the shower or when you’re out for a run or in a have each of our associates yoga studio. fill out a form and, if you will, So, how do you measure value in ideas, and how do you make the take a little test. It includes decision to move forward with certain ideas? To evaluate ideas, we have a Global Steering Committee of colleagues everything from, “Tell me from around the world that we have a conference call with once a what your favorite color is,” to month, and we run ideas past them. And then, we do a couple of tests. In the yoga studio, we came up with the idea of replacing the cities your favorite TV show to your where our associates are from on their nametags with their hobbies and interests, to facilitate conversations between our associates and movie, to “What kind of music our guests. The Global Steering Committee liked it, so we chose a do you like?” It just gives couple of hotels and had them do it, and it just worked—I mean, it was pretty simple that you could tell right away that the associates you a personal background liked it. What’s also interesting is the associates liked it because they said, “My employer really cares about me as a person not just where on the person so that when I’m from.” And some of the hotels even had what we called passion something special happens or forums. They took their ballroom, they set it up, and had a little cooking corner, they had a sports corner, and they had different hobbies and they come up with an original things. The idea was to help the associates open their mind to what truly does excite you and what truly is your passion outside of your work idea, we can reward them in environment. The associate satisfaction we got from that was great, as an original way.” well, because they realized that somebody really wants to know about them as a person. Should you reward for innovation? Or just recognize someone when they participate in it? I think recognition is so important. But, what we’ve also learned is there is no formula for recognition. We have each of our associates fill out a form and, if you will, take a little test. It includes everything from, “Tell me what your favorite color is,” to your favorite TV show to your movie, to “What kind of music do you like?” It just gives you a personal background on the person so that when something special happens or they come up with an original idea, we can reward them in an original way. Some of them are really pretty silly, but if somebody has a birthday and they say they’re favorite color is orange, well, we can have a little party and decorate the theme is an orange color, or somebody’s favorite food is cheese, so you have a cheese party. An actual example of that is that somebody put on their nametag that they liked road trips and that, when they grew up, their family took them on road trips. So, now that they were an adult and they had children, they wanted to continue that tradition or that ritual and take their family on road trips. So, the general manager was very perceptive, saw that, and when this Anticipate. Innovate. associate did something particularly noteworthy, the general manager | Future Think LLC © 2005–09 Reproduction prohibited | New York NY www.getfuturethink.com
  8. 8. the innovator’s interview 8 Sue Brush went to the gas station and bought him a gas card and brought that back and gave that to that associate as a form of recognition. This was “Another thing we find out certainly much more meaningful than a pat on the back or handing from our survey is the best him a $5 bill or whatever it might be. way you like to be recognized. Another thing we find out from our survey is the best way you like to be recognized. Do you like to be recognized in a public forum? Some Do you like to be recognized people absolutely thrive on that, but yet others absolutely hate it. They say, “Please don’t recognize me in front of a big group. I would prefer in a public forum? Some that you called me into your office, sat me down and verbally gave people absolutely thrive on me my recognition, one on one.” Somebody else says, “Yeah, that’s okay. I’d rather you write me a personal note.” If we’re talking about that, but yet others absolutely innovation, it needs to go both ways. So, when the ideas come up that are innovative, we need to respond and recognize that, but it also helps hate it. They say, “Please if we do that in somewhat of an innovative way, as well. don’t recognize me in front What are some ‘quick win’ suggestions you’d give to other innovators of a big group. I would who are trying to get momentum around innovation? prefer that you called me I can think of a few things. First, we do idea contests. We have a thing that’s called Dream Westin. It’s about getting people to dream big into your office, sat me down thoughts or dream about the future, what they see for Westin, and how and verbally gave me my to start implementing some of those ideas. Another quick-win idea we’ve used was something called a burden basket. Again, if we’re about recognition, one on one.” preserving wellness and travel, that means reducing your stress level, reducing clutter around you, providing clean, fresh air. The idea was you check into the hotel, you check your burdens and either write them down or just metaphorically put them in their basket, and then they go away. Well, we weren’t able to operationalize that on a global basis, but we were able to operationalize it in our spas. That’s another example of something that ended up in our spas that gave us insights on how to improve the guest experience overall. Other organizations can do something similar to get customers to share their needs in a clever, innovative way that’s not expensive either. What are the top three tactics or initiatives that you implement in order to make sure that Westin, as a whole, is really excited about innovation? First, I’d say, is to make sure that every project has a champion who is energetic, totally passionate and totally committed to its success because if you assign something to somebody and they aren’t excited about it, they’ve got too many other things on their plate, it’s not going to work. Make sure you’ve got somebody who can really drive it. Second, is to create that ever-important climate where it’s okay to try and fail. People have to know that failure is a good thing. You learn that the more no’s you get, you’re eventually going to get to a yes, and that’s okay. The last one is really holding people accountable and making them feel that, this just isn’t playtime here. We should be thinking creatively all the time. Anticipate. Innovate. | Future Think LLC © 2005–09 Reproduction prohibited | New York NY www.getfuturethink.com
  9. 9. the innovator’s interview 9 Sue Brush Along those lines, what do you suppose makes an individual good at innovation?, Do you think that these are skills and abilities that you “Make sure that every project can learn, or are they innate qualities that people either have has a champion who is or do not? The first quality that comes to mind is being open-minded. Then, I’d energetic, totally passionate say they still need to have some technical knowledge of our business and totally committed to its so you can relate your ideas. There needs to be a pragmatic quality, but then I also think it needs to be somebody who’s totally optimistic, success because if you assign high energy and enthusiastic. something to somebody and So, those are my six traits: Open-minded, Technical knowledge of the business, Pragmatic, Optimistic, High energy, Enthusiastic. Can those they aren’t excited about it, traits be learned? In some cases, I think so. Anybody can be open- they’ve got too many other minded. People may struggle a little bit with the technical knowledge, but they can access others who have that. Certainly, in being optimistic, things on their plate, it’s not high energy and enthusiastic, I think anybody can do that if they’re really committed to it and want to win. going to work. Make sure you’ve got somebody who What advice would you have for another organization that’s trying to build an innovation effort and get things moving, especially given our can really drive it.” current economic environment? My advice would be to think big because sometimes we try to be too pragmatic. An example for us is ‘smoke-free’. We did all this research and all of our homework, and we said, “If we could go smoke-free in the United States and Canada and be the first global hotel brand to do that, this would be extraordinary.” Well, here we are two years later, and we are now smoke-free in 60% of our hotels and 70% of our guest rooms around the world. So, we didn’t think big enough. We never thought global, and what a mistake that was. The other advice I would have is that in addition to thinking big, you also have to stay committed. This isn’t a seasonal thing. This is part of Starwood’s DNA. We are known as being an innovative company. People come to work here because of that. Therefore, leaders have to have a responsibility to perpetuate that spirit of innovation by staying committed and recognizing and rewarding those who do step up with good ideas. Finally, watch out for copy-cat competitors because you can’t rest on your laurels very long. The minute we come out with something, your competitor is going to come out with something similar – and better. Part of being an innovative leader is about always staying ahead. Anticipate. Innovate. | Future Think LLC © 2005–09 Reproduction prohibited | New York NY www.getfuturethink.com
  10. 10. the innovator’s interview 10 Sue Brush What can you learn from Sue Brush and Westin’s approach to innovation? • The First Mover Advantage: Do you embrace growth opportunities before your competition or have a ‘wait and see’ approach with innovation? How can you better get new ideas to market before others in your industry? • Setting innovation metrics: Do you have a set of established metrics for innovation? Do they include participation of both internal and external parties for new ideas? • Make rewards personal: Do you reward people for participating in innovation? Are the rewards generic, or personalized? Who is in charge of making rewards and recognition happen? To learn more about the research, tools and training you need to better anticipate change and move innovation forward, visit us at getfuturethink.com. Anticipate. Innovate. | Future Think LLC © 2005–09 Reproduction prohibited | New York NY www.getfuturethink.com

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