Filling the gap

More well-known as the founder of kulula.com, Gidon Novick spent 12 years in the airline industry before leaving to head up Discovery Vitality. Now he’s back in the hospitality space via his Lucid Ventures project, and he was kind enough to treat editor Dylan Rogers to lunch at Home* Suite Hotels Bristol Rosebank, the subject of this particular discussion.

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Well, it’s not just this individual property, but a growing group of hotels, with, in the short-term, two more Home* Suite Hotels properties planned for Johannesburg and one for Cape Town. Those three hotels are due to open in the next 18 months, so, for now, it’s just the Rosebank property in the Home* Suite portfolio. I say “hotel”, and whilst in appearance that’s what we have here, Novick has an interesting take on just where the Home* Suite offering sits.

“Somewhere between Airbnb and what you get from a traditional hotel,” he says.

Let’s unpack that further.

“Airbnb has been a monumental disruptor and influence in the hotel and hospitality industry, and a very positive one,” says Novick. “But there’s many imperfections about what that typical Airbnb has to offer.”

How about fitting into a standard corporate travel policy and dealing with issues such as duty of care, which require a few more checks and balances than Airbnb can accommodate?

For Novick, that means Airbnb doesn’t have it all worked out, just yet, when it comes to corporate travel, but so then don’t the ‘traditional’ hotels and groups, according to him.

“The traditional guys have stayed traditional and some just haven’t moved with the times and invested in the innovation of their product,” he says. “At the same time, their travellers have moved along and are looking for something more personal, warm and less ‘corporate’, with fresher design, beautiful coffee etc.”

For Novick, it’s about getting the little things right, such as not skimping on the quality of beds, training for his baristas to make sure the coffee is top-notch, forsaking traditional check-in and rather just sending a ‘room key’ to a guest’s phone.

That’ll make Home* Suite Hotels attractive to a more tech-savvy audience, which, according to Novick, one mustn’t assume is a younger or ‘millennial’ audience.

“Some of them are middle-aged, like me, but they appreciate the use of technology,” he says. “The other thing we’ve gone for is Google Chromecast, which plugs into the TV and provides easy access to multiple streaming services. We haven’t invented it and it’s available technology, but you’ve just got to implement it.”

What he’s also implemented is the same design philosophy that was behind the popular SLOW Lounge concept, to the extent that Novick is working with the same guys – Tonic Design – on Home* Suite Hotels.

“From a design point of view, it’s really about capturing people’s imagination,” he says.

Beyond that, I’m interested in Novick’s view on the state of theSouth African hotel industry.

Where are we?

“I think Cape Town has done a lot better job of creating memorable, beautiful hotels, whilst Jo’burg has missed that opportunity,” he says. “In the research we did, we asked people which hotel in Jo’burg they aspired to stay at. No-one really had one, other than maybe the Saxon and the Four Seasons Westcliff, which most people can’t afford. So, the conclusion was that a Jo’burg hotel had become a functional thing.

“When corporate travel hotels become distribution-driven businesses, where they’ve secured the distribution through the TMCs, OTAs etc, I think there’s a laziness that sets in, in terms of the actual product and what guests are actually experiencing,” says Novick. “So, I think there’s a gap to do that well.”

Lastly, I’m curious as to how Novick is finding the hotel business, having spent so many years in the aviation industry. How do the two compare?

“I’m finding it more interesting due to the opportunities to differentiate,” he says. “One of the frustrating parts of the airline industry is that you can differentiate on service, brand and distribution, but on actual physical product, it’s hard. In the hospitality space, it’s a lot more intimate and an emotional experience – you’re showering, sleeping, eating and meeting with us. The opportunities to create an experience are a lot greater and there’s more potential to build a brand that people value.”

That’s what Novick’s good at – he’s proved it with kulula.

Looking forward to seeing what else is rolled out, once Home* Suite Hotels really hits its straps.