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April 28, 2022

How to Build a Successful Tech Company in Travel & Hospitality? Make It About the People

Originally published by A Hotel Life.

As borders reopen and we no longer need to turn to movies and photos as a way to “travel” to our favorite destinations, technology seems to have jumped light years ahead. Innovative new companies and products are disrupting the hospitality industry and using future-forward tools to streamline and simplify processes, from the moment you book until the time you check out — and even after your stay.

One project, in particular, that’s championing this evolution is Selfbook, a booking platform hotels can incorporate into their existing reservation systems. Before launching Selfbook in 2021, CEO and co-founder Khalid Meniri built and created apps for big-name sites and brands like Net-a-Porter and Hearst, and launched an award-winning platform called SIX Travel that gave users the possibility of booking a curated crop of hotels right off the app. Now, SIX’s booking functionality has morphed into Selfbook, and sits at the crossroads of fintech and hospitality.

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While tech can revolutionize the way we travel and stay at hotels, Khalid believes that “the technology that really makes a difference is the one we don’t see. Automate the transactions so the human experience can shine.” Selfbook, now valued at $300M and the fastest growing fintech company in the travel space, is appointing a stellar team to roll out its technology and do so in a way that further humanizes the industry. AHL chatted with some of Selfbook’s key drivers about their diverse backgrounds and expertise, how they are pushing hospitality into the future, and, of course, their favorite hotels.

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Elyse Mamiye – Chief of Staff

Before stepping into her role at Selfbook, Elyse was part of the architecture and design teams at The Standard and Ace Hotels, and focused on the design development and maintenance of new and existing properties. One of the things she loves most about working at a fast-growing new technology company? “The urgency,” she says. “I’ve worked on hotel projects that took over ten years to develop, but at Selfbook, everything moves so fast.”

Where was your last hotel stay?
Nobu Hotel London Portman — I was traveling with the Selfbook team! 

If you could choose a hotel to stay in, anywhere in the world, which one would it be?
Taj Lake Palace in Udaipur. I must’ve watched “A Little Princess” 1,000 times as a child, and I always fantasized about visiting India. 

Favorite thing about hotels?
The cinematic fantasy of it all, the suspension of disbelief, and the staff that makes it all possible. 

In your previous roles, have you seen tech playing a part in accentuating the human experience?
During my time at the Standard, the team there developed One Night, a curated Hotel Tonight. Previously, the Standard had launched the One Night Standard app offering reduced rates for guests that booked after 3 p.m. The app was all about maximizing spontaneity, something I think we could all use a little more of in our lives. 

Who do you think are the most progressive or future-forward hotels today?
The ones that haven’t waivered to trends and have stayed true to their essence. I think that is why Selfbook’s seamless integration is so attractive — it allows hotels to stay true to their essence.

Photos: Elyse Mamiye, Selfbook's Chief of Staff, at The Standard (banner image); Before Selfbook, Elyse was part of the architecture and design team at Ace Hotels (above).

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Alex Wall – Head of Hotel Partnerships @alexewall

Before Selfbook, Alex worked at The Standard and One Night, overseeing business development for the app. “I’m obsessed with traveling and boutique hotels, and that’s how I got into this industry and stayed!” she says. “When you truly delve into the hotel’s story of how it came to be, you realize how magical it is and how much work went into creating it.”

Where was your last hotel stay?
For business, PUBLIC Hotel New York City; for leisure, Palo Verde Sustainable Hotel in El Zonte, El Salvador. 

If you could choose a hotel to stay in, anywhere in the world, which one would it be?
Miavana by Time + Tide in Madagascar. 

What are some of the unique ways you are seeing hotels weave technology into their concept, and how is this impacting the overall guest experience?
I’ve seen hotels create chat solutions for guests to text and WhatsApp the staff for any reason, any time of day. Imagine not having to flag a server down poolside or needing to dial Front Desk for room service — simply text and get what you need. This is a huge enhancement to the overall guest experience (especially millennials and under!). Hotels have also been creating in-house apps for their guests, making it much easier to book rooms on the fly, upgrade stays, etc.

Photos: Alex Wall in Montepulciano, Italy; Alex's bucket list hotel, Miavana Resort, located on a private island in Madagascar.

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Rosa Arnone – VP of Partnerships @rspearsby

Rosa started working in marketing early on in her career, but when she went back to school to get a master’s in media technology, she started thinking about commerce and using emerging technology to reach consumers. “Behavioral data of consumers is powerful on so many levels,” she says, “but I think harnessing the data in a thoughtful way to empower hotels to create individualized experiences for people is truly the path forward.”

Where was your last hotel stay?
The Standard, High Line in NYC’s Meatpacking District.

If you could choose a hotel to stay in, anywhere in the world, which one would it be?
That is such a challenging question, but I have been enamored with Abu Dhabi for years and have yet to go. I think when I do, I would like to stay in Emirates Palace.

Favorite thing about hotels?
Sleeping in. Seriously though, my favorite thing about hotels is truly the people. I love talking to the staff and meeting new people who are traveling — the people bring a hotel to life.

What are some ways technology is being used to integrate a people-first mentality into the Selfbook company philosophy?
Selfbook has been amazing at finding other startups that help our team identify resources like doctors within our healthcare network. And for the holidays this past year, we were given a gift on a platform which had tons of options that we could choose from. Selfbook also has leveraged technology to raise money for causes our employees feel strongly about. Our mission is to use technology to empower the human experience, and I think we do that internally and externally with our team and the technology we are building.

Photos: One of Rosa Arnone's recent hotel stays was at The Standard, High Line in NYC's Meatpacking District; Rosa and her husband in Hong Kong.

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David Rayner – VP of Strategy @davidsrayner

After starting his career in hotel operations, David moved to the corporate side, leading CRM for Morgans Hotel Group. Even after 15 years in the business, he constantly gets inspired by new properties and elements of design he hasn’t seen before. “That inspiration stays with me too,” he says. “The Salvador Dalí table at The Clift Royal Sonesta Hotel, the Damien Hirst pieces that hung in the lobby at Gramercy Park Hotel, and the brutalist architecture style of Paradero Todo Santos — those will forever be imprinted in my mind.”

Why is it important to help hotels level the technological playing field with other creative industries?
The hotel industry is tethered to every industry innovating in every space, which makes it imperative that it is not leveling the playing field, but technologically at the forefront.

How can hotels use Selfbook as a tool to bounce back in a post-pandemic reality?
Selfbook is the only booking experience fully optimized to increase website conversion rates, drive direct bookings, and increase average booking values. As OTAs continue to increase spend in 2022, hotels can leverage Selfbook’s ability to convert when driving direct website traffic through digital marketing efforts. For properties with food and beverage venues and spas, Selfbook can be configured to include these venues through our third-party integrations, unifying the guest booking process.

Who do you think are the most progressive or future-forward hotels today?
Hotels like Eaton have been on my radar. I love that Katherine Lo is looking to turn physical and digital spaces into platforms for creativity and social impact. I also am impressed by those taking the idea of best-in-class hospitality and bringing it to unconventional places, like Wolf Cabin in Omega Parc, Quebec, and Wild Planet Resort in Kerala, India. 

How is a fintech company creating meaningful human experiences for its team in a time of widespread remote work?
We actually try to physically connect whether it’s socially or over a meal whenever we can. I have a lot of breakfasts at Soho House. It’s nice to eliminate a screen from our interactions with colleagues when we can.

Photos: David Rayner, Selfbook's VP of Strategy; Wolf Cabins in Omega Parc, Quebec.

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Gautier Colin  – VP of Distribution @gautierco

Gautier worked for luxury and lifestyle hotels brands like The West Hollywood EDITION and Waldorf Astoria before coming to Selfbook a little over a year ago. As VP of Distribution, he focuses on expanding the brand’s reach and footprint within the hospitality industry. “Now that most restrictions have been lifted, everybody wants to hit the road again, and the hotel demand skyrocketed,” he says. “The beauty of Selfbook is that it allows hotels to offer their guests the best booking and payment experience in the industry so they can focus on what matters most — which is taking care of the experience of the guests who are on property.” 

Where was your last hotel stay?
Ace Hotel Brooklyn for business and Conrad Punta de Mita for leisure (or ‘bleisure’). 

If you could choose a hotel to stay in, anywhere in the world, which one would it be?
So many to choose from and an ever-changing answer, but Eden Rock – St Barths is such a special place and very high on my list. 

Favorite thing about hotels?
A vibrant — but intimate — lobby bar with a well-curated playlist and great cocktail menu.

What’s your biggest piece of advice to independent hotels as they begin to welcome guests again?
To be open to doing things differently. Independent hotels have the power to change and adapt much quicker than larger hotel chains. It allows them to get ahead of the competition and strengthen their value proposition almost instantly, while it could take years for other brands to implement. 

What is the best thing about working at a groundbreaking, fast-growing new technology company?
Taking the time to look back and see how much we have achieved and grown over the past 14 months. We have built an incredible team of people with all different backgrounds, and we all work tirelessly to set new standards in the hospitality industry. It’s a constant feeling of pride and excitement to wake up every day with endless opportunities in front of us to help the industry move forward.

Photos: Gautier Colin at Paradero in Baja California Sur, Mexico; Eden Rock – St Barths is a hotel high on Gautier's list of must-stays.

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Aaron Serrato – VP of Sales

Aaron first met Khalid in 2019 while he was at Expedia. They reconnected in early 2021 and he fell in love with Selfbook’s mission, vision, and product. “We should be focusing on technology that removes friction for our guests from booking to checkout, and technology that helps reduce operating costs,” he says. This is the advantage of working with future-forward tech like Selfbook that offers these resources — and new ones as they develop — at hotels’ disposals.

Where was your last hotel stay?
Hotel Escondido by Grupo Habita, in Oaxaca, Mexico. 

If you could choose a hotel to stay in, anywhere in the world, which one would it be?
Tierra Patagonia in Chile — amazing architecture, and bucket list hotel and destination.

Why is it important to help hotels level the technological playing field with other creative industries?
Consumer behavior and expectations have evolved, and now, meeting these expectations is the bare minimum. I look forward to a day when the hotel industry is innovating and not playing catch-up.

Photos: Aaron Serrato, Selfbook's VP of Sales; Hotel Escondido by Grupo Habita in Oaxaca, Mexico, is one of the last hotels where Aaron stayed.

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Heather Shimokawa – VP of Brand and Communications @hyshimokawa

Heather comes from a varied background directing content, marketing, and communications strategies across publishing, luxury brands, and multi-brand retail. While working in fashion, she met Khalid and was “always struck by his design-led approach to technology,” she says. “When he started Selfbook, I got excited by the prospect of working on a solution to a real-world problem.”

If you could choose a hotel to stay in, anywhere in the world, which one would it be?
The list is long!  But after these last two years, I have been thinking of places I have missed, and I can’t wait to go back to GoldenEye in Jamaica. It’s unassuming but still truly luxurious and the staff treat you like family.  

Favorite thing about hotels?
I love that every night during a hotel stay, whether for business or leisure, is treated like an indulgence.

Coming from fashion, where digital and online shopping has played a large role, especially in the pandemic, what are some of the lessons or ideas the hospitality industry can learn from?
The greatest lesson we all learned from this pandemic is that anything is possible. The pandemic forced fashion and retail brands to make a seismic shift in the way they operated their business — beyond just pivoting to ecommerce. They had to rethink buying and merchandising strategies, the selling ceremony, the way they spoke to customers, and, ultimately, how to meet the customer where he or she was. It didn’t matter if it wasn’t ‘quite the right time’ or ‘in the budget for this year’ — it was a matter of survival. 

How is a fintech company creating meaningful human experiences for its team in a time of widespread remote work?
Any company that is formed in a remote-work atmosphere has an opportunity to rethink how companies approach community and culture development. Selfbook is not only rethinking the way we show up to work, but also considering the way we collaborate and how to best build upon our diversity. 

Photos: Goldeneye in Jamaica, photo courtesy of Island Outpost; Nobu Hotel London Portman Square, photo courtesy of Jack Hardy.

By Lane Nieset, edited by Tansy Kaschak.

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