In this opinion piece, brand veteran Darren Paul explores how the hotel brand balances digitized and analog customer experiences to exceed guests’ expectations

Authenticity is real. It cannot be manufactured, or fabricated, or solved for through a marketing brief, or an influencer campaign. Authenticity, or being authentic, starts from the beginning, and carries through the inside and outside of a being, human, business, or otherwise.

In a lengthy conversation on an uncharacteristically sunny winter day, Brad Wilson, President of Ace Hotel Group, huddled in his cozy office inside the Ace NYC to talk about the brand and how it thinks about technology, design, creativity and the customer. 

The result of Brad and his team's hard work has yielded a business spanning the globe, with Ace Hotel in ten growing cities, and two new brands, Sister City and Maison de la Luz, launched in the past two years addressing specific customer needs.

Depicted: Ace Hotel NYC. Stephen Johnson. Courtesy of Ace Hotel

Every leading company is obsessed with its customer. But what became clear quickly is just how focused Brad is on striking the proper balance between analog and digital to meet the unique needs of the Ace traveler. 

The result of this approach, which is based on restraint and rigor when it comes to digitizing the customer experience, rather than wholesale automation, leads to big and meaningful breakthroughs, yielding entirely new paradigms to consider. 

As Brad describes it, Ace is about human connection, because it makes people happy, and Sister City, which opened in 2019, is about convenience and lack of interaction, which makes a different customer set happy, for different reasons.

Depicted: Sister City. Adrian Gault.

“Ace is analog. Sister City is digital. We look at these customers under two different lenses.” 

Darren Paul: Ace is clearly a company that thinks deeply about the customer. How do you strike a balance between analog and digital in serving their wants and needs? 

Brad Wilson: We’re an analog brand and don’t do a ton of technology at Ace. Our focus on technology is primarily empowering the guests content and technology. What we really try to do is encourage interaction and human connection. We believe human connection is what makes us happy, and so that is what we focus on at Ace. 

As a smaller hotel chain, what types of advantages do you have against the bigger players when it comes to testing and piloting new technologies? 

We’re a creative collaboration. We’re not an operations company. All that what we do is rooted in creative collaboration. 

How much of a challenge is your existing technology stack in relation to deployment of innovation? 

A lot of the industry systems are difficult. We’ve done our best to build our own solutions, and leverage APIs and open-source when possible. We build a lot of our own technology as well, where we can do it better. 

How do you see the balance between your owned channels versus aggregators, and is pushing customer interaction to Ace Hotel Group's owned channel/s a priority in coming years? 

Absolutely. Anything we can to leverage our owned channels, we're going to do. It's one of the places where we can deepen the relationship with our customer, and make their experiences better. 

There are lots of trends that come and go with technology, especially in the hospitality space. How do you as a company decide which to pursue? 

A lot of hotels were putting iPads in guest rooms, and fancy automated key entry systems. We don't believe guests of Ace want to learn new things, so we keep it simple. We aim to empower our guests technology. We're focussed on giving them the best wifi, and the easiest log-in we can give. It needs to be easy to access and consistent. 

Sister City is offering a self-service check-in, and other automated guest experiences. How did those innovations take shape, and how is it going? 

It's going well. We developed pretty big APIs, and a guest request system so you can get an extra pillow, and developed the layer of the membership club. So those customers can get better than travel agent rates and a simple self-serve check-in process. The approach is something we call “distilled service”—this idea that tech facilitates and enables a customer so they don’t have to wait in line. Like in the airline industry, it's this concept that you can choose your own seats and see what's available. We feel that side of technology is critical. The Sister City brand is about understanding a customer. The technology comes from the insight of delving into the modern urban traveler and fulfilling their needs.

Depicted Sister City. Adrian Gaut

The Ace Hotel point of view is that engagement with people is what makes us happy. With Sister City, it’s the opposite. We view it through two different lenses. 

Ace doesn't have an app, because we don't think people want an Ace app. For Starbucks, sure, you go there every day. But for Ace, maybe you stay with us four times a year. Does that really warrant cluttering your phone? Do you want an Ace app? 

Well, yes, because in addition to guests staying over in from out of town, Ace is also a place locals visit to eat, meet, work and play. People are going to Ace Hotel, and not staying over. Ace has built this community inside the markets you open in. So I think so. 

You just gave me an idea! Thanks. 

Darren Paul is Head of Growth at technology consultancy Fuzz. Fuzz does not have any commercial connection with Ace Hotels: Darren just digs the brand. 

Lead image: Depicted: Ace Hotel NYC. Stephen Johnson. Courtesy of Ace Hotel