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The Entrepreneurial Pursuit of Innovation (INTERVIEW)

Alex Cabanas, CEO Benchmark Resorts & Hotels
Gil Haddi
December 18th, 2013
When speaking to Alex Cabañas, it becomes immediately clear that this is a man with his priorities in order. "The most important thing to me," he said as we began the interview, "is my family." He went on to discuss how he grew up in Texas in a family that has always been involved with the hospitality industry. This upbringing sparked within Alex a love for serving other people at an early age. After working as a consultant at the Boston Consulting Group, he naturally made his way back to hospitality, becoming the President in charge of business development and finance, overseeing growth strategy at Benchmark Hospitality International and the company's three brands, Benchmark Resorts & Hotels, Personal Luxury Resorts & Hotels and Benchmark Conference Centers. About to become the CEO of Benchmark in 2014, Alex spoke to me about the ways in which the company is unique in its entrepreneurial spirit due to its independent nature and the desire to "pursue innovation and never settle for good enough."

Four questions with Alex Cabañas:

1. How does your team come up with innovative ideas?

We try to do a lot of things we've never done before and we go about compartmentalizing that into two different streams. The first is a philosophical and cultural approach; we hire thinkers, people who want to think in a new and different way about the business who will attempt something different in order for us to be better in everything we do. Culturally we have a cadence and a behavior about us that has been built into the fabric of the company since the time it started, giving us an entrepreneurial and unique edge. The second is a more formal approach where we are constantly evaluating everything in our company. There is a tremendous amount of encouragement to think uniquely every year with regards to budgeting, marketing processes and programs. As a company we are very much engaged in supporting our staff and executing new ideas. A good metaphor for the way we try out different ideas at different hotels and different locations is like having arrows in a quiver; we pick out arrows that work and shoot them at the right target because not every arrow is meant for every target.

Each of our general managers lead their teams differently to be creative. We make sure to give them the tools and resources and encouragement they need, but at the end of the day, the general managers are the driving force for creativity and entrepreneurship because it's not something we can mandate. Benchmark is 33 years old now and we are already looking at what the next 30 years will look like because we can't just keep doing what was successful in the past. We want to honor and respect what we've been doing well for so long, yet we want to stimulate progress and provide the tools, resources and technology necessary to manage change in all aspects of our business over the next five years and beyond.

2. How do you spot consumer insights?

We spend a lot of time focused on customer feedback to determine how we adapt on a smaller level based on what the customer sees every day. There are plenty of publications that discuss the consumer perspective but I don't find that they create a tremendous amount of insight because they can be fairly obvious. Where we spend a lot of time is understanding how the ownership side and the consumer side of our business adapt to differences in the market. Because our industry isn't evolving from a product standpoint but rather from an experience standpoint, we are evolving in terms of e-commerce, sustainability, technology programming, and creating a culturally and locally unique experience.

We have to go above and beyond what other good hotels do. We connect to customers emotionally through story-telling, which has become the lifeblood of the way employees connect with their training and their job as it solidifies in their minds what our purpose of 'Be the Difference' -- the essence of our company culture -- is all about.

3. Do other industries every influence or inspire you?

The airline business, based on its distribution and pricing strategy can be inspiring, but not based on services in most cases. I personally find Chick-fil-A to be revolutionizing the fast food industry from a customer service perspective. The quality of presentation, cleanliness, care and concern, it's all the simple things that make a huge difference to the consumer’s experience. I'm often looking for analogous companies that tend to dominate their industry, usually small and unique concepts that have become popular because they are focused on the customer and don’t have as much bureaucracy to deal with as many big corporations do.

4. Looking to the future, how will Benchmark continue to be a leader in innovation?

Our job as a hospitality provider is to make a difference and leave guests with a memory; we don't sell a specific physical product that they can touch, we're more about memories and experiences, with 'Be the Difference' being the three most important words in the organization. As the founding champion of this motto, I was personally very involved in launching it throughout all our hotels a few years ago. All employees go through 'Be the Difference' training and it is a theme engaged in every single one of our leadership meetings and team sessions.

We will continue fostering this culture. In the last year, at each of our conferences, the presentation I gave was titled 'Protect this House' – my way of saying to the team, you are all a part of protecting this culture. This company has been founded on the belief that nothing is impossible, that everything can be done and that the need to be different and innovative is part of the fabric of who we are. You can't rely solely on a visionary CEO demanding you to be innovative, it has to be about the people we hire who thrive in that kind of environment and are in tune with innovation. We need to continue to be deliberate with the people we hire and can never get lazy. The industry is evolving too fast, we can no longer brag about what we did in the past anymore, we have to keep being nimble and responsive in order to succeed in the future.