Faisal Sublaban, president and CEO of Las Vegas-based Bonotel Exclusive Travel, joined the company in June 2011 as Vice President of Business Development and Contracting. He was tapped to be President and CEO just about four years ago, in February 2014*. Since then, he has become widely regarded as a tour and travel industry innovator, especially as one who understands and gets the most out of the potential of digital marketing tools and applications. We recently interviewed Sublaban in order get his thoughts and perspectives on his company and how it grown and expanded its global footprint in the tour and travel industry and what the company’s plans are for the future. Following are excerpts from the interview.
INBOUND: Thank you for taking the time to talk with us today. We would like to start by asking you how Bonotel Exclusive Travel has changed since you took over as president and CEO?
Sublaban: Basically we’ve evolved a company that was a successful small family business into a truly professionalized business with infrastructure and an executive team—repositioning the organization to be scalable for the future, with a significant investment in IT, and human capital.
INBOUND: By how much has business turnover increased during this time?
Sublaban: I’d say it’s probably 100 percent.
INBOUND: So, what’s new for Bonotel in 2018?
Sublaban: We have a huge focus on our value proposition to both our hotel partners and our international and domestic partners that we sell and distribute to. And so, for me, when everyone is kind of sitting back and looking at all the M&A that’s going on—all the mergers and acquisitions—and the emergence of more and more technology disrupting the way of working, what often gets forgotten, and especially as an intermediary, is the need to keep constantly innovating around your value proposition to both sides of the spectrum. That’s really kind of core for 2018 as to what Bonotel is going to be focused on: How do we provide more value and create more “stickiness” with our hotel partners, and really focusing on those who’ve been engaged with Bonotel, and also doing the same for our customers, predominantly internationally. The key for Bonotel is helping our customers innovate in a way that continues to help them differentiate from the OTAs and their value proposition to the end consumer.
INBOUND: What do you regard as Bonotel’s market niche?
Sublaban: Bonotel is still primarily focuses within the luxury segment, although, as we move into secondary and tertiary destinations, in which there maybe isn’t a Four Seasons available there, you have to expand your product portfolio and as our distribution base is expanded, it necessitates having a wider array of product; not everybody fits within the luxury label. That being said, we still focus on luxury—all things underpin luxury … such as quality customer service 24/7, curating our product by only working with the best partners, providing end-to-end solutions from touch down to take off.
INBOUND: From the Bonotel perspective, what regions of North America do you see emerging?
Sublaban: Over the past few years we have already seen an explosion into Canada, and secondary destinations—as far as a product standpoint for Bonotel—and you’ll continue to see us expand into Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Cuba.
INBOUND: Any surprises in this regard?
Sublaban: Not really surprises. We’re actually still seeing growth out of the Middle East, although that market has been contracting this year to the US. I think that’s just from a penetration standpoint. We’re stealing share; and then when you look at China and Asia, we’re starting to make some real traction within that market. And one of the newer markets for us is domestic—selling to domestic travelers. What we see is a lot of Americans traveling into secondary and tertiary cities—the new hot markets, such as New Orleans and Nashville and Seattle. I think that there’s a constant evolution and shift toward experiences … and not just going to New York and staying in a hotel but actually experiencing the soul of a destination.
INBOUND: Does this mean that the hotel itself should be an experience, or part of the experience?
Sublaban: Yes, in a lot of ways the hotel room has been somewhat commoditized. So, it’s kind of: What offering does the hotel, or unique experience of the hotel and/or city provide? Because people are looking more than just a place to sleep. They want more out of a destination and are therefore traveling to new unique destinations with unique experiences, and this is illustrated by what’s happening with the international traveler coming to the U.S. and going to new secondary destinations. Just follow the airlift: You’re seeing new service into New Orleans, new service into Seattle, new service into Boston, new service into Nashville, and into Texas from Australia and the UK. All of those things are driven by demand. Most of the airlines are very calculated with their service expansion—they’re not hoping and praying. Part of the success and expansion into these new destinations in the U.S. can also be attributed to the marketing done by Brand USA.
Getting back to hotels I believe that oftentimes, you’ll see hoteliers trying to be everything to everyone, including trying to be hotel distributors and marketers. They’re trying to message and create their own branding. And often, what sometimes become secondary, or third or fourth on the list, is remembering to be a hotelier. And, so, whether you look at the Millennial generation on the way up, the one thing that doesn’t go away, irrespective of any technology that’s coming through and disrupting a space is, it’s still the hospitality industry. And people come and want to have a good experience—on property or when they arrive within a city, and that’s that emotional connection that people make, whether that’s with the décor in the room or the lobby that they have, the interaction with the front desk clerk, the history or story behind a property … or even internationally, when you first touch down in the U.S.—how seamless is that process when you’re going through customs, and those sorts of things. This is another area where the U.S. has made significant headway over the last couple of years—in order to simplify the process of coming into the U.S. (Everyone has to go through customs; that’s just a necessary evil when you travel around the world ) but making it as painless as possible.
INBOUND: How is Bonotel—
Sublaban: I think that one thing I glossed over, as far as another point of differentiation is and one of the ways that we are expanding, and this will dovetail with your question: We acquired a company out of Las Vegas at the beginning of this year, 2017, and re-launched and re-branded it as “Beyond.” Beyond is kind of thinking beyond just your hotel room. It’s anything outside of just looking at a show ticket or a leisure room. What that’s enabled us to do now is building out unique experiences and then tying in the Bonotel sports program, in which we have access through another strong partner to Super Bowl tickets, Super Bowl experiences, the Masters golf tournament, the Kentucky Derby or that sort of stuff—and some unique experiences in Vegas, providing not just helicopters, but luxury helicopters for the Grand Canyon, with private tours, champagne … or if you wish, even pushing the button at the Bellagio fountains at the Hyde night club … the list goes on and on and on. These are things that differentiate us and are another pivot that Bonotel has made. Additionally, we have also expanded into corporate meetings and incentive groups, and we’re glad to have brought on such big customers such as Yahoo and Google and Facebook, and putting together unique events around the U.S.
INBOUND: What I hear coming through in your comments is that, in addition to digital applications, the personal touch, personal relationships are still a part of the process in this industry.
Sublaban: Oh yes, relationships are always going to be relevant, especially in the hospitality industry. But, what happens when you have technology and disruption, is there’s a higher level of transparency, and so, people are aware and want more constant feedback, and are constantly able to track what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. The efficacy of your campaign or what your company is doing on behalf of a hotelier’s brand becomes a major focal point outside of just distribution. And so, what I think is happening for us is that it’s forcing us to innovate again, which is exciting because I think that there’s a lot of complacency that’s gone on within our industry—not across the board, but you see what Expedia and Priceline and some of the others are doing as far as innovating over the psat 10-15 years. But when you look within the B2B space, we’ve kind of been: “Yes, we have to evolve, we have to invest in technology, but we have been slow to move and there’s not a ton of innovation that has gone on there.
And for us, one of the critical things is being able to put our money where our mouth is, and doing so in a manner that’s valuable to our hoteliers and our customers. So, what does that mean? The big focus, going into 2018, it’s going to be building out our media and content strategy in which we can unlock additional value within the industry for our partners: Take the stature of Bonotel’s being kind of the luxury authority and hospitality expert, and being able to disseminate the message that the hotel is trying to get across into the market and doing so in a manner that leverages the platforms where all the attention seems to be sitting—and that’s predominantly within the social media area: Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Podcasts and those sorts of places.
So, you’re going to see a big push from us, leveraging the relationships that we have—that are still critical—but also being able to come up with some unique content around those relationships that will truly be differentiated because we’re now taking the assets that Bonotel has at a very high level, all the way up within the hotels, the hotel management companies and ownership groups, in order to penetrate a little deeper and give a unique insight that, maybe, others don’t have traditional access to. What does that do? When you look at luxury hotels, gone are the days where people resonate with a photo with, say, a beautiful woman wearing her pearls, and wearing a black dress with a martini in her hand … that doesn’t jump off the page; people don’t resonate with that.
Conversely, you see a bunch of content coming out by hoteliers in which (the photo) is not authentic. It seems very canned and forced upon the viewer. So, people are shying away from that. However, when you have real yet aspirational content asking the hotelier “What’s the best drink in this hotel?” … “Have you ever seen a celebrity get kicked out.” … “What’s the craziest story of what’s happened here?” … Or “Why don’t you tell us the story of your iconic hotel and what has gone on here?” There are so many landmark hotels with so much rich history that people just don’t know about, that are actually really cool, that actually transcend into much of the experience that Millennials and up are now looking for.
It’s not as if the template is not there; it’s just that the platform for execution and dissemination of that information kind of gets lost in translation. And what’s happened in the BSB space, specifically, is that nobody has taken the time to unpack that and figure out how to articulate it, package it and disseminate it in a way that people can interact with, and actually jump on to it, resonate with it. So, when you think about experience and those sorts of things, it’s not as if we’re turning the hotel industry on its head. We’re actually taking a lot of what’s there—but it’s been largely ignored—in order to repurpose it in a manner that actually reaches people and touches them emotionally, and draws them into something different.
INBOUND: That was a very thorough answer—almost five minutes long. Is there anything else that you want to address, anything that we haven’t touched on?Sublaban: Since our inception Bonotel has always sat in its own unique niche. We’re not trying to be an OTA, and we’re not trying to be a bedbank. We’re doing something different. I think that you are going to see in the industry a lot of innovation coming forward and Bonotel aspires to be apart of that in our own way. There is something special about Bonotel that people want to gravitate toward and work with. We’re going to do so in a manner in which it’s exciting, fun and one that you can’t get anywhere else.
INBOUND: Thank you. And thank you again for taking the time to talk with us today.