When the head of a successful multimillion-dollar boutique hotel company starts offering business advice, people tend to pay attention. That’s exactly what happened when Chip Conley, the founder and CEO of Joie de Vivre Hotels, delivered the keynote speech at the Santa Barbara Conference and Visitors Bureau (SBCVB) and Film Commission’s annual public meeting last Thursday.
Conley commanded the attention of more than 200 guests in the ballroom of the Bacara Resort and Spa as he told stories and shared his work philosophy. Attendees ate it up, along with chilled tomato gazpacho with lump crab meat, grilled chicken chopped salad, and a lemon torte.
The sunny weather permitted for pleasant mingling on the terrace as area officials, hoteliers, restaurant owners, and others with a stake in Santa Barbara’s tourism industry began to arrive a little before noon. A few came rather dressed up for the occasion, including a man in a giraffe costume representing the Zoo and the Mad Hatter on behalf of the Summer Solstice Celebration. They, along with others, would later make an appearance during a presentation celebrating “Santa Barbara’s Tourism All-Stars.” After sipping on strawberry lemonade and cucumber water, guests were ushered into the ballroom where Kathy Janega-Dykes, president and CEO of the Visitor’s Bureau, opened the general meeting.
“In the past year, the bureau began a new era,” she said, observing that the area hospitality industry had shifted from a “survivor mode” to a more “aspirational mode” following the economic downturn in 2008. Board Chair Ed Galsterer also commended Santa Barbara’s hospitality community, describing the 2011-2012 fiscal year as “one of transition and growth.”
“Yes, South Coast tourism is recovering nicely,” he said.
But the high point was definitely Conley’s presentation, which spoke to this year’s theme of “Maximizing Your Travel Mojo.” And he certainly had some travel mojo wisdom to bestow, having at the age of 26 turned a seedy San Francisco “no-tell motel” into the famous rocker-hub Phoenix Hotel. By 2000, the company had expanded to 20 properties in the area. Today, Joie De Vivre Hotels is one of the largest boutique hotel companies in the United States.
Conley took on an almost nurturing tone as he described the practices that led him to success and encouraged SBCVB members to apply his strategy to their work or industry. His business strategy was not driven by investing wisely or decreasing costs, but by knowing what people want.
“Understanding humans is what it means to be a great leader,” said Conley. He came to a PowerPoint slide in his presentation with a pyramid depicting different levels of fulfillment that people experience at work. At the peak of the pyramid was an image of a very happy woman leaping in the air. “How do we create organizations that help people jump for joy?” Conley asked. “We’re gonna talk about that today.”
Apparently, what people want — even more than money — is to find meaning in their work. The hotelier explained that great leaders of organizations create meaning for their employees and anticipate how they will be affected by major decisions. “We want employees to feel like they have a calling in their work,” Conley said. He mentioned that the most successful hospitals in the country were considered successful because of their nurses — nurses who viewed themselves as “patient advocates” as opposed to thinking of their work as a series of tasks.
Conley said his human-centered business model was inspired by Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a psychological theory — often taking the shape of a pyramid — that places basic, physiological needs at the bottom and self-actualization at the top. Conley explained self-actualization as “where peak experiences occur.”
“If humans aspire to self-actualization, why can’t companies?” Conley inquired. Along with knowing employees, he advised Santa Barbara hospitality providers to learn about both the demographics and psychographics of their customers in order to serve them better.