June 24, 2018

4 Key Vacation Rental Learnings from HBO’s Westworld

Picture this: you arrive home on a Friday afternoon after enduring a dreadful commute, and step out of your car into the sweltering June heat. You’re looking forward to a peaceful evening in with the family, only to walk in and find clothes strewn about, packed bags, and the children are nowhere to be found. Just then, your significant other walks into the room, so you ask “What’s going on?” With a look of determination and exasperation, they reply “We need a vacation. The children are staying with my parents. We’re going to Westworld.”

What is Westworld?

Westworld is a theme park that offers an experience that can’t be found anywhere else in the world. It’s like the Wild West, but this time it’s inhabited by androids (called hosts) and you’re the guest. You know this place has nothing but great reviews and, honestly, you need a break; so you quickly say, “ok – let’s go.”

What makes Westworld so great?

Those that created Westworld realized and capitalized on three key things:

1. People want to “escape”.

“Westworld offers a relentless experience; complete immersion.”

Think about your daily life: you wake up; go to work; come home; spend time with family; go to sleep; then you do it all over again. Of course this sequence varies for each of us, but the presence of routine is universal. We’re creatures of habit that easily fall into a rhythm. However, the thought of this rhythm being broken is exciting for most; especially if it entails an experience that few ever encounter.

2. People want unique experiences.

“People like to read about the things that they want the most and experience the least.”

Six Flags, Disney World, Universal Studios, and most other theme park chains are just that – chains. They’re huge brands that everyone has access to at some level. Many think Disney is the best of the best at creating a unique, personalized experience for their guests; but as great as they are, they have nothing on Westworld. Westworld is the Rolls Royce of theme parks. There’s something for everyone. If you’re the hero type, go save a damsel in distress. If you like being in charge, go be a mayor. You’re an adventurer? They’ve got buried treasure. The world is your oyster and the experience is tailored to you at an individual, distinct, and remarkable level.

3. People will spend more to live beyond their daily means.

“Beauty is a lure.”

If you simply go through life day after day trapped in the same mundane routine, you start to feel it. So, what do we do? We splurge every now and then. We get a “special” type of coffee, or we hire a babysitter so that we can go out and spend $50 to watch a movie in a theatre. We switch things up. The typical person is no stranger to forking over extra cash in order to break up the monotony of life; which brings us to Westworld. It isn’t cheap, but if you’re willing to pay, you’ll get exactly what you’re looking for and more. It’s like a video game: the deeper you go, the more you win. You could be someone who goes for two days and leaves with a nice little story for the family, or you could be The Man in Black and spend thirty years in the park; mining it for each and every secret. The choice is yours.

So, what’s the problem?

“They’re looking for the same thing we are: a place to be free; a place with unlimited possibilities.”

This all sounds great, right? I know it does. Westworld has taken the ideal model for everyone in the vacation industry and injected it straight into a main artery. They’ve done their job well; wrangling you and millions of other guests. You’re jacked up and ready to go. But, just as you grab your bags and start walking out the door, you get a phone notification that says your tickets have been refunded from Westworld. What’s going on? You check the news app on your phone to see Westworld “is experiencing complications and will shut down the park as they work out some technical issues”. You’re still curious, so you check Twitter and find that, apparently, something much worse is happening. Rumor has it that people are trapped in the park and the hosts have taken over. It appears a revolution has ruined your vacation.

You may be thinking, “What? Westworld was the company that had it all figured out. They were unique. They gave travelers the experience they wanted. They were making fistfulls of money, and they had great ratings!! How could this have gone so wrong?” The truth is that, just as Westworld was building upon the good things in the vacation industry, they forgot a few things that were imperative to their continued success:

1. Set the proper expectations; both internally and externally.

“When you find a cancer in an organization, you must cut it out before it can spread”

In any endeavor, those involved should be on the same page. For example, if you run a skydiving business, you shouldn’t hire people that are afraid of heights. If you run a basketball team, you shouldn’t draft anyone that doesn’t believe in playing with a team. Or if you run a company in the vacation industry, you shouldn’t hire someone if they don’t believe wholeheartedly that the customer comes first. I’m going to say that again. Maybe if you run a company in the vacation industry, an industry in which people are paying to have a pleasurable experience, your employees should consider whether or not that experience could turn into one of the worst things anyone could have happen to them. Somehow, Westworld forgot this. Some people in the park wanted guests to have a good time, while others were simply waiting for the androids to gain true human consciousness. They weren’t working towards the same goal. They weren’t on the same page.

2. Treat everyone fairly.

“The real world is chaos. An accident. But in here every detail adds up to something.”

The androids becoming more human presented many problems. They were created to entertain the guests and keep them happy at all costs. Therefore, when they started thinking like regular people, they realized how poorly they were being treated and, needless to say, they got angry. Perhaps, if those running Westworld had considered creating a positive work environment for those that were on the front lines; interacting with the guests day-after-day; keeping them entertained and satisfied; things may have turned out differently. In that case, it may not have mattered much that the androids gained human consciousness. They may have found that they were being treated fairly and see how they were an integral piece of the puzzle.

This attention seems to have already been there for the guests as a newcomer’s overall experience is thoroughly evaluated from the moment they enter the park. But, the whole process has to flow together. It can’t be one-sided, or you end up with anarchy. In any experience, the responsibility of cohesion rests on the shoulders of the manager. They’re calling the shots, keeping everything in order, and essentially shepherding the hosts and the guests through the experience.

 3. Personalization is good. Stealing data is not.

“They’re not looking for a story that tells them who they are. They already know who they are. They’re here because they want a glimpse of who they could be.”

This one is pretty easy. Westworld wants to create an experience unique to the individual, which is great. In order to do this, they’re going to have to collect a little data, which is understandable. However, it’s important to remain conscientious about it (even if you don’t fall under the new GDPR regulations). Don’t obtain data from guests without their consent; and quite possibly more important, don’t allow it to be stolen and subsequently used to harm the guests because you didn’t protect the data very well. This is not good business strategy, and I’m sure you probably can see why. It turns out people don’t like pieces of their identity being stolen from them. It tends to cause them to lose trust in that company. Who would’ve guessed?

4. Don’t forego the needs of your guests in order to serve yourself.

“At one point in time, we’re all newcomers.”

Any relationship should benefit everyone involved. The moment you get to the point where you’re making a decision that could harm your guests in order to serve a want/need of your own, you have started down a dark path. Granted, it may not end as badly as Westworld’s path did, but heed the warning all the same. Every employee should should be on the same page. They should be aware of the standard to which they’re going to be held. That standard should include the understanding that customer focus is paramount. Each guest should be treated just as you would want to be treated while on vacation. Everyone can win if you plan accordingly.

Back to the story…

“I don’t wanna be in a story. All I want is to not look forward or back. I just wanna be… in the moment I’m in.”

So, you’re sitting there; phone in hand; shocked that the vacation of a lifetime has been stripped away from you. Though in the long-term view of things going on, that vacation may have resulted in a much shorter lifetime. Still, this could have all been avoided if Westworld had followed the rules. They took “go big or go home” to the extreme, and now they’re having a hard time finding their way back home. It’ll probably end in many lawsuits and a good bit of jail time, but hey, at least the robots are thinking for themselves now, right?

In Conclusion

“Someday sounds a lot like the thing people say when they actually mean never.”

In a very short amount of time, we’ve learned that every piece adds up and ideally leaves the guest feeling satisfied, gracious, and excited to come back again. But it’s not enough to say that you’ll implement the proper strategies “someday”. Now is the time to look forward and start taking a holistic approach to curating a superb guest experience.

As a host, you must remember one thing: You have to deliver on your promise. You have to do your best to make sure your guests have a pleasurable and safe experience. You have to be clear, conscientious, and capable. Companies in the vacation industry are in the business of expanded horizons and blissful memories. You must keep that in mind. If the direction and morals go out of the window, the industry will suffer, guests will be outraged, companies will go under, and chaos will ensue. We can’t let this happen. We’ve got to keep order, because no one wins in the wild, wild west.

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