Marissa Block, a junior in the School of Hotel Administration, had a chance to sit down with Raj Chandnani ’95, current Vice President of Strategy for WATG. Previously, Raj has worked with CB Richard Ellis Hotels and has taught courses at UCLA, USC, Cornell University, and Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne.
Which course at Cornell that you took had the biggest impact on you?
Hospitality Real estate—it wasn’t just about the real estate demand aspects of the industry, but we spent a lot of time trying to understand the motivations of the buyers and sellers. The second class was marketing communications, [which] gave a comprehensive perspective on branding and marketing and how to position yourself through multiple channels with multiple audiences. And the last one was [when] I was on the board of HEC, which taught me a lot about leadership and group dynamics and how to work together to tackle challenges.
You’ve taught classes at UCLA, USC, Cornell, and Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne. If you could teach a dream course, what would it be?
I would call it The Art of Hospitality and it would celebrate EM Statler’s quote ‘life is service’ and show you how that applies to every aspect of the industry, whether you’re an investment banker or you own a hotel or you’re a line-level employee in a restaurant. [It would teach] how you can live that ethos and how you can stitch the industry together.
What project that you’ve worked on presented the most difficulty and why?
I’m on the board of directors for WATG and following the fiscal crisis of 2008, we were faced with a challenge of a decline in revenues and the need to restructure the organization. That whole process of making decisions on how to sustain the organization and celebrate its legacy but have to let people go [was especially difficult]. It was a very painful process. As board members, we had a obligation to sustain the long-term viability of the organization.
What is your favorite hotel you’ve ever visited and why?
One of my favorite is the Ham Yard hotel in London. It’s a boutique hotel and has a specific point of view aesthetically. It has a balance of whimsy and luxury that makes it so amazing. The other hotel I’ve been very impressed with is the Baccarat hotel in New York. It really took the legacy of the Bacarrat brand and celebrated it, but it wasn’t a literal interpretation. There were references to French culture, and the Bacarrat crystals and the effect and the shape that the crystals have in terms of shadow and design. I was pleasantly surprised and impressed at how thoughtful and innovative they were in redefining luxury.
How do you see the trend of boutique and lifestyle hotels impacting the hotel industry?
There’s dissatisfaction with the homogeneity of the full-service mainstream hotel brand. Back in the 80s, someone had the bright idea that hotels should be cookie cutter from an aesthetic and product standpoint. There’s merit to that because a brand is a promise to the customer and consistency is one way of delivering on that promise. But people now are aware of aesthetics and notice design, so they have a thirst for something that resonates more with the market and with them.
I think that in business, success is when you resonate with a customer and they’re blindly loyal to you; but on the flip side, success is when you alienate a customer because you’re not trying to be everything to everybody, you’re trying to be something special to people.
How have you seen design being affected by the influx of hospitality technology?
I think that one, with the democratization of design, everything has to be intentional and have a purpose. You can’t just buy a lamp off the shelf. The lamp has to fit in with the aesthetic and functional from an ambience level with the lighting and it has to have a purpose.
Two, what you’re seeing is that we’d like to integrate more technology into the guestroom. I think that with artificial intelligence such as Amazon’s Echo or Google Home, a lot more products will have to fit with that technology. So now I have to make sure that I have that I get a lamp or a smart TV that can communicate to the cloud, and I have to have the bandwidth to install to allow that level of communication.
And the last thing is that there’s a tendency for more communal experiences. It used to be that you had to create a space for everything combined in the guestroom, but Millennials and gen X’ers would rather be down in the lobby to have a communal experience. They might not be talking to anyone, but they’re sitting next to people and they’re working so the ability to have those types of spaces available.
Why is it so important for hotels to think about sustainability in the design process, and how can we do that?
Sustainability is important because of our responsibility to fellow mankind. I think that the challenge we face is people always look at it as a decision matrix in terms of cost. Where you lose a lot of ground is when people say that they will build a sustainable hotel or incorporate sustainable materials, but the guest has to pay a premium to stay in the hotel. Or the other argument is that you can’t be truly luxurious if you’re using sustainable products. I would respectfully disagree with both of those. If you take the mindset of building something sustainable—whether it’s reclaimed materials or sourcing local products—you can incorporate sustainability into everything you do.
The biggest impact you can have for sustainability is on your infrastructure, engineering, and technology. A lot of that is not apparent to the guest or to the consumer. If you do [design] right, you’ll save money in the long term.
Universities have been leading the cause with sustainable design. They are handling units with fresh air and plumbing fixtures and they use paint without lead, which increases the air quality in university buildings. Now students are acutely aware of that difference and when they stay in hotels, they’ll notice those subtleties.
What advice do you have for hospitality students interested in design?
I think it’s really important to understand what aspect of design you want to work in. Do you want to manage the design or do you want to be the creative who comes up with the design? If you want to be involved with the creation, I would encourage a post-graduate degree in design [so you get the] design training, but understand the operation and ownership and implications of hotels. If you don’t have that creative spark in you but you perhaps want to manage the design process, your best opportunities to do work are with either an ownership group or a brand in their development team on the construction and design side of the house. You can really organize that process. That’s one of the strengths of Hotelies—they’re really organized and know how to get how to get a project successfully accomplished and across the finish line.
What have you found rewarding about staying involved in the CHS community?
I can’t say enough good things about it. I have an alumni network of friends and colleagues who I celebrate with, but it’s also people that I do business with. Because we’re in the same industry and have this common experience, our friendships and relationships are not limited to who was in our class. My network keeps getting bigger and bigger. I’m able to connect with alums all around the globe and I’m amazed that whenever I’m pursuing a project or personal endeavor, I can always find a Hotelie to give me advice or help me or steer me in the right direction.
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The Cornell Hotel Society Executive Board thanks the Cornell Hotel Society – Collegiate Chapter for initiating and conducting the “Conversations with Alumni” project.