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[Video] "As Winston Churchill said, when you are walking through hell, you keep walking"

Interview with Dimitris Manikis, President and Managing Director EMEA for Wyndham Hotels & Resorts who shares his experience and vision of the sector in this time of containment. With Vanguélis Panayotis, CEO MKG Consulting.

You almost overlook after everything outside the U.S but I will let you specify that. Of course, the situation is completely unusual. We all got caught by surprise by this virus. Could you share a little bit with us what different feedback did you got from the field?

It's interesting. I lead Europe Middle East Eurasia and Africa for Wyndham Hotels and Resorts. For those who don’t know, it’s one of the largest hospitality group in the world with 9,300 properties, mainly in the franchise business. And to answer your question, it was very interesting to see the black swan. Nobody expected this virus to actually come along and change our lives. It changes our lives, not only from the business perspective. What actually made the difference for me is how it changed our lives personally as well.

I saw regions behaving differently. I saw other people behaving recklessly about how they are going to address the threat and I saw others taking some really hard measures that were not easy to implement. In our society where freedom of speech and movement is important, we have all gained from years of struggle and fight. But somebody came up and said, “you all need to stay inside, and you have got no choice other than to behave”. We saw a lot of different phasing within Europe with some countries opening up, other closing down late, others opening up early and some that didn’t take it very seriously, when others did. The example Spain and in Italy, although it was very sad news coming out of those two countries, actually helped a lot of other countries realize how serious this pandemic is. When I was sitting back at home in Greece, I start seeing the news and the horror stories and I just realized that this is not to play with. That we have to comply, and we all have to be careful with our own safety and the ones around us.

I’m not a politician. I’m not here to judge the governments. I’m here to experience what actually happened and what I experienced is that the countries that have done it properly are the countries that are easing the measures first. They are opening their countries first and at the same time they managed to control the amount of cases and deaths. I think Europe was the first one to take some really hard measures. Obviously, the Middle East too, they immediately made some really tough decisions about their economies and about their people. I think Africa is kind of lagging behind but they implemented some really incredible tough measures as well. That’s when you see the phasing on the reduction of the measures and that’s why you see certain countries opening up earlier than others.

The determination of countries to make sure that they tell their people what it was about and what actually made a lot of difference to me personally and a lot of other industry leaders that I have spoken to is the authenticity, the transparency and the honesty. I was really impressed by people who came out very clearly and were very authentic, transparent and honest. They said: look we have got address this, it’s going to hurt, it’s going to be bad. We all know the consequences but it’s the lives of the people that we are talking about and we have to make sure that it’s our number one priority.

I was watching the doctors and the experts actually being the stars. We never had that. It was always the economists or the politicians. Then suddenly you’ve got doctors and experts telling the truth to the people. To me that was something that really made a difference.

As a leader, it's interesting to see how you have handled the situation with your team because at the time you have to make sure that everyone is safe. How did you achieve it remotely?

It’s very new. Human interaction, it’s everything that we stand for. We are human beings, we like to interact, we like to go out for dinner, we like to go out for a drink, we like to socialize in the office next to the water cooler or at the coffee machine and suddenly that was taken away from us. But I have to tell you I was enormously amazed by the resilient people. All our team members got together. They made a decision of how we can address this, how we are going to work better, how technology is going to help us. We had enormous laughs when we were in a Zoom Call and somebody’s dog started barking or somebody’s five-year-old kid jumped into the call. We had drinking sessions and celebrating birthdays. It’s the first time I think that we manage technology well and it’s changed the way we interact with each other. I’m looking at my 21 years old daughter, she is always on her phone. But the way technology worked for us this past six weeks actually was quite different from what it was before. It was technology that brought us together. It made us feel that we are not alone and that we can share experiences.

For our team members, I’m not going lie, it’s not easy. It’s not easy to be sitting in front of a screen for hours and hours and just talking to people. It’s not easy to be locked at home five or six weeks, you need mental resilient. What we have done with which I think made a huge difference is we put a lot of webinars together. We started to talk about being well in our home. We started giving people clear advice guidance and details of how they can address the fatigue. How they can address the fact that they are not allowed to go out. We actually built a whole support and mechanism for our people to feel comfortable. You can be at the safety of your own home but not everybody has the ability to work from home. We had a lot of consultations. We started with the team in terms of what their particular need were. [...] It was not always about work. It was about fun. It was about just connecting. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Tell people what is going on. Don’t keep with them in the dark. We tell them how bad it is, tell them what we are going to do to fix it. Get them all together because at the end of the day mankind is not going to disappear.

We have got a great future and there have been disasters in the past, but we are going to recover. We are going to be back stronger and wiser than ever before.[...] As Winston Churchill said, when you are walking through hell, you keep walking. And that is what we did, we kept walking, we kept fighting, we kept being together and that was the difference, that actually made the difference.

You mentioned earlier that the biggest part from Wyndham is franchise. It means that you have many partners across your area. How would you qualify the kind of relation you have during this very strange period?

When we started realizing what was going on, we sat down and we said okay, who do we really are? What is our number one priority? Is it our team members? Ourselves? Our loved ones and our families? Our community of people and our franchisees. Without a franchisee, you don’t have franchise business. 10% or 0% is still 0%. The well-being and the support to our franchisees and our customers was a number one priority. We were not making any revenues, but we sat down and we took some really hard measures for our business and we said: forget about us for a second. Forget about the fact we are not making any money. Forget about that. We have 307 hotels that are closed.

We need to support those people but when the time is right, we will be back to business. These guys are going to open their hotels again and our guests are going to walk in there and be treated like never they have never been treated before. So, we have taken financial relief measures. We have taken some really hard measures for the business, to give away or lose brand standards and to go back to the franchisees and say: what else can I do for you? They are the things that we have got in mind but what else can I do for you.

I spoke to a lot of franchisees and clients myself. You know what I found? It was very interesting and kind of overwhelming for me. We actually picked up the phone and spoke to them. You sit back, and you think: oh, I’m going to do all these amazing things for these people and I’m going to give them financial relief and it takes one phone call to say: how are you? How can I be of assistance? How is your family? How do you feel? It takes one phone call and that is what I said to my team. In respective of what days is it, in respective of the time of the day call the people, call the GM’s, stay close with the owners, make sure that you speak to them, make sure that you understand what they are going through. Let them talk, let them vent, let them be angry, let them to be frustrated.

You cannot believe how important it is. I did it with my own family, I vented. I had a couple of clients that they were really frustrated, and you know what? When we put the phone down, they sent me a Whatsapp and said that the conversation actually made them feel better. That’s what human beings are all about. You give them an opportunity to communicate. We give them an opportunity to just to tell them I am not calling for business, I just call you to see how you are doing and how can I help. To me that made a huge difference.

We’re all human after all. That’s really important to keep this in mind.

Absolutely, we are human beings and it doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor, if you are a man or a woman. It doesn’t matter. We are all human beings. We all have the same basic needs and somebody picking up the phone and tell me how I can help, goes a long way.

What are the main points put in place regarding health safety within the new operation that will arrive in the hotels?

There’s been so much discussion about it on social media and everywhere. Big organization are all coming up with protocols. We have a tagline, we have an internal culture in Wyndham and we call it “Count on me”. This is how we count on each other to deliver the job, to deliver what we need to deliver and to make sure that we do the right thing for our team members. We had a brainstorming and we said what should be our tagline for what we are doing for our industry and our franchisees. It was so obvious: it is count on us. We are launching “Count on us” initiative tomorrow actually (19th May). We are going back to our franchisees and our guests and we are saying: you can just count on us. Count on us to be safe, count on us to make sure that we give you all the right guidance, for cleanliness, health, safety and sanitization.

We are not going to reinvent the wheel. The question is the implementation, the indication, the communication. How you put a guest in an environment that they understand what you have done for them. Why? Because a lot of people are going to be surprised the first time they are walking into a room and they see all the sanitized devices. But that’s the new norm.

For me the “Count on us” philosophy is very simple. We are telling the guests, our franchisees and customers and our managed properties: you can count on us to do the right thing and to give you the right guidance, to service not only your team members but every single person that walks through your door. We are partnering with some really great brands like Ecolab for the sanitization and cleanliness. We have got some other great ideas that we are launching soon, but the important thing is that people need to know they can count on us to actually deliver them the right guidance and the right service. We are resilient industry. We are not going to go anywhere. We are here to stay.

We are probably both very confident on the middle and the long term. I’m sure that we are both sensitive to the Greek philosophy. I used to say: Chaos becomes cosmos. How will the cosmos come out from this situation? What will be the different paths?

If I can judge from my own example, one of the things that this lockdown has done is that it made me think about priorities in life. It made me think about my whole positioning in life. It made me think about what is worth and what isn’t. If I am not mistaken, 4 billon people at some point were in lockdown. I’m not saying 4 billion people are going to reassess their lives, but it has gone through a lot people’s mind. It’s important to understand what people are thinking, why this virus and this pandemic is going to change our behavior, and how.

I don’t think its research. I think it is experimenting. It’s about watching, to see, how the first people who travel are going to react, what is going to be their needs and their wants. A lot of people talk about domestic travel versus international travel. I get it. People will travel domestically because it is easier. But what will happen if airlines open? What happen if the borders open? Is it about the amazing spa or is it about going back to basics? A comfortable, clean and safe bed. These are the things that we as a hospitality industry we need to keep on eyes on, to monitor what customers are saying. The mistake I believe is believing that tomorrow morning, we are all going to open the doors and people will behave exactly the same way. I think this is not going to happen. I think people are going to behave differently. They are going to want different things. They are going to be looking at different things and we need to understand what exactly makes them and motivates them to travel.

Once medicine will help us and we’ll find the vaccine and the drugs to actually help, I think you will see a completely different view of the hospitality industry. I’m very bullish. People have been traveling since the make of time. I think that Adam and Eve, if I go back to my school years, they were the first travelers ever or even before them.

But the important thing is that we need to go through the motion. We need to go through the hard decisions that we have all made for our business to survive. We need to watch what is happening out there and we need to make sure that we are not just a spectator. We are actually an active player of the future, not just us but every single industry out there.

We can already make an appointment for the coming 2 or 3 months so we make a regular statement of what happened and see how this industry is getting back on track.

It will, and as long we stay safe, we stay sane and we keep focus on the future. I think we got a bright future despite all the challenges and all the things we had to go through and will be going through the next few months. But we will prevail, I’m sure about that and thank you for giving me the opportunity.

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