Q&A: David Kaye – Hotel Brands Must Pivot to New Demands

Image: Khoi Nguyen

Q&A: David Kaye – Hotel Brands Must Pivot to New Demands

A conversation with David Kaye, Brand Director at the recently launched Wink Hotels brand in Vietnam.

By Bobby McGill - Apr 6, 2021

Over the past year, the travel and accommodation industries have been among those hardest hit by the pandemic. With most borders closed, international tourism has ground to a halt, and domestic travelers — in most countries — have had little inclination to pack their bags for local destinations for fear of an unwanted booking in a hospital bed.

Even in Vietnam, a country that has done remarkably well at keeping COVID-19 in check, and where domestic travelers enjoy nearly untethered domestic mobility, the occupancy rates have fallen to a mere 10-15% for non-quarantine hotels.

And yet, in the middle of all this market uncertainty, Vietnam-based Wink Hotels stuck with its plans to launch its first hotel. They successfully opened up in Ho Chi Minh City in late March of this year and have plans to open locations in other major cities across Vietnam in the near future.

 
 

Wink Hotels, which describes itself as “A New Kind of Hotel, for a New Breed of Traveler,” has tapped David Kaye, a native of the North of England who’s lived in Vietnam for more than a decade, to manage the brand strategy and bring to life this “new breed” approach to more deeply engage with travelers both here and abroad — both onsite and online.

We recently caught up with David to talk about the Wink Hotels brand, how the travel industry is faring in Vietnam, his career shift into branding, and the approach he and his team are taking to engage with travelers.


Just a casual scroll through the Wink Hotels website and one immediately recognizes it’s not your typical hotel brand. Wink describes itself as “A New Kind of Hotel, for a New Breed of Traveler.” Tell us more about that and how it plays out in the brand’s DNA.

True. And I’m glad that came through from a cursory scan of the website. We really wanted to reimagine every element of building a hotel brand and its operations. Our objective, starting with Wink Hotel Saigon Centre, our first hotel, was to create an experience-driven stay where you’re immersed in your location both through online and offline channels.

 
 

For example, the room directory’s QR codes link to jogging routes and music mixes curated by locals in our magazine. But our FOH team is just as clued-up to help curate your stay. They’re also available online 24/7 to answer your questions.

Someone said after our brand launch in Hanoi that “Wink is a vibe.” I think they were right. We deliberately intended to create that through our images, content, events, programming, food and drinks, music, and even the people we work and partner with.

Wink launched in Vietnam in the midst of a pandemic that has seen the country’s borders closed for just over a year. What strategies have you used to generate brand awareness with international tourists when things eventually open up again?

Simply put, I think we didn’t. Or it wasn’t our immediate focus. Like lots of businesses here, we had to look even more deeply at the local market. Especially challenging — but challenges drive creativity — was how to give an exciting experience-driven stay to someone who probably knows Saigon already or who has friends here who know the town.

Tracking and building relationships with people in F&B has been a passion of mine since I started covering culture here for publications ten years ago.

Wink Hotel Saigon Centre  (Image by Justin Mott)

Actually, I always got a buzz from discovering a new, hidden place back when I was in Hong Kong, and even before that in Japan. Like most happy people I managed to make my loves my life. So we sought to develop our knowledge and ties with those and other communities here which continues with our Life In A Wink! members program and other initiatives.

“The deeper concept of curating these happenings is to make unforgettable moments while creating organic guest-generated Instagrammable content. Everything happens by design. And so our social media channels exploded. As did awareness of the brand.”

Practically, we really want to live and breathe our ethos as a place for the creatives, explorers, lovers and entrepreneurs. So besides elements like an on-site coworking space by Toong and our partnership with experience company Vijebi, our events programming focused on the brand launch in Hanoi I mentioned. Lots of our friends came over, and we carefully curated the artists, Annam, Levi Oi, Monotape and My Anh to reflect this savvy, youthful energy Vietnam has right now that’s respectful of the past while building an exciting present and even more exciting future here.

Pajama Party event – Image via Wink Hotels

Besides our brand launch and grand opening, we hosted a secret pajama party in the Wink Space lobby with some super-cool friends as guests and artists. I really wanted to create a theatrical event, like an immersive art experience. Everyone had to wear pajamas without exception, even the crew and support teams. In fact, to make our guests, some just dressed in robes or even less, feel more comfortable I even dressed our video crew up as dinosaurs so no one felt subject to intrusive attention. Because of that, despite the theme, I’ve been told it was one of the most empowering and safest events our guests have been to.

We also wanted bubbles raining down, Wink banknotes flying through the air and at the end of the night a pillow fight on our bed-stage, all led by our performers from Candi Shop. By midnight the whole lobby was covered in feathers and pillow fights and conga lines were breaking out everywhere…as were smiles.

Image: Khoi Nguyen

The deeper concept of curating these happenings is to make unforgettable moments while creating organic guest-generated Instagrammable content. Everything happens by design. And so our social media channels exploded. As did awareness of the brand. I still remember being at a hotel in Mui Ne which, in its lush garden, had a sign telling guests where to take a photo. No one needs instructing where to take a photo, they’ll decide that themselves. But of course, you can help curate the desire.

Expect to see lots more events from me in the near future that fuse art, music and performance while creating what I hope are more indelible moments and memories. Oh, and even more smiles.

Regarding the travel industry in general, Vietnam is one of the more remarkable pandemic success stories, having done an exceptional job at keeping covid in check. This has allowed an otherwise struggling travel sector to benefit from a largely untethered domestic consumer base. How is the travel and accommodations industry faring overall?

Badly. In Saigon, occupancy rates are hovering between 10-15% for non-quarantine hotels. And there’s the fraught conditions of another potential outbreak here despite the great handling so far. But honestly? I see opportunity. To launch a new brand in a new era of travel with a new way of operating and articulating our message is a massive thrill. Now the hard work begins.

“Like lots of businesses here, we had to look even more deeply at the local market. Especially challenging — but challenges drive creativity — was how to give an exciting experience-driven stay to someone who probably knows Saigon already or who has friends here who know the town.”

With increased competition for a finite number of domestic travelers, how has this played out in terms of creative competition between travel and accommodations brands?

The first challenge was hotel brands pivoting to new demands — especially around hygiene and social distancing, and the necessary associated messaging. We had the concept for a style of hotel that had contactless payment, self-check-in, and self-order food way before the recent challenges. So the pandemic reaffirmed our belief in building a new kind of sleek, chic, and vibrant neighborhood hotel.

While I love staying in hotels and escaping from the city, I think there’s a huge area in which hospitality can embrace social media and technology in non-traditional but startlingly effective ways. I want to continue to explore that space.

Prior to joining Wink Hotels as Brand Director, your career path ranged from Editor In Chief at a local magazine in Ho Chi Minh to publishing and education development. What led you to make the jump to brand management and what were some of the challenges transitioning to the new gig?

I think there’s a fundamental commonality to everything I do. Audience. There’s an audience for the books I’ve published, the magazine articles I’ve produced and the videos and other content I’ve made, even a hotel directory or TV menu screen, and developing a deep understanding of how humans interact with content — whether delivered as a ‘live’ talk to 500 people in Seoul or thousands of people through a Dot Magazine article (two things I’ve had the chance to do) — is the key to success.

Wink Hotels Saigon Centre opening (Image via Wink Hotels)

Media changed during my time in it and I changed with it. AnyArena was mostly sustained through ads-based revenue. With Vietcetera we moved towards partnerships with brands to articulate their stories. That led to a deeper understanding of ‘branding’ and a growing passion for it and I’d met the team behind Wink during my time at that publication, I wanted a change of scene, and so I shifted over to Wink. Strangely, the Wink office is right beside the old Vietcetera office. So I left the former and the very next day had the surreal feeling of walking into the office almost next door and starting an exciting new life.

And to touch on the topic of challenges. In our intense pre-opening period, with colleagues stretched beyond belief, I’d try to calmly remind them that I don’t want an easy life and a nine-to-five desk job and I don’t think they do either. They would inevitably agree.

You’ve lived in Ho Chi Minh for a long while. How has the country’s ongoing transformation and rapid economic growth been from your perspective? How strong a role has branding come to play with marketers managing domestic brands?

Ten years now. I think. I stopped counting. I have a theory time works differently here like we’re in some deranged adaptation of Lost. A single week, even a single day, can be so intense it feels like a month in any other country. I’ve learned to love it. Maybe I even help feed the madness from time to time. The downside is I become easily frustrated if people don’t move at the same pace as me and this city. I think there are reasons for the intensity, like the physical proximity between people. Professionally and socially (and in the place where both meet as it often does) you can do so much in one day.

“I think there’s a fundamental commonality to everything I do. Audience. There’s an audience for the books I’ve published, the magazine articles I’ve produced and the videos and other content I’ve made, even a hotel directory or TV menu screen, and developing a deep understanding of how humans interact with content.”

From a branding a marketing perspective, I’m really interested in the evolution of KOL and influencer marketing, and the adoption of artists into marketing campaigns. It’s changed significantly, and while you still see lots of brands attempting to slot in anyone they think is big enough into their unrelated campaign or branding, I think there are lots of emerging ways to make deep and lasting connections between artists and brands that belong together.

You recently joined Happiness Saigon as the agency’s Chief Influence Officer. Tell us more about the position, what you’ve been tasked with doing and what the market should be on the lookout for.

Because I merged my life and loves I genuinely wake up every day smiling. I’ve also been blessed over the last ten years (or whatever it is) to build a group of friends and a community that inspires me and pushes me every single day. And they make me laugh like hell. Also, about four months ago, leaving an event, we climbed into a friend-of-a-friend’s car.

Shortly after we drove at high speed straight into a concrete divider so hard we swerved across and smashed the high curb at the other side of the two-lane highway. I broke my back in three places. And I figured every day is a bonus. And I treat not just every single day but every single moment with that mindset.

I’ve known Alan (Cerutti Co-Founder and CEO) from Happiness for some time. We catch up regularly, grab a breakfast or lunch. He’s just a super cool, inspiring guy. We also share the same sneaker and streetwear obsession as I discovered when he poked me in the back in the cashier queue at a There VND Then sale, a sadly now defunct Saigon streetwear mega-store.

Read More: Alan Cerutti – ‘Smart Brands Have Shifted to Acts Versus Ads’

We laughed seeing each other with armfuls of clothes. Happiness’ mission aligns with my belief in using commercial projects to enrich people’s lives, or even better, to create lasting social change. And, as often happens, after a year of two of hanging out, we gradually realized we should do something together. Specifically, we’re exploring how to work with cultural pioneers here to do that.

Besides my projects with Happiness, I’ve also partnered up with the irrepressible Vinh Q. Le and Tuan Le’s multi-faceted agency The Lab to launch a new media company called 70000 with a partner music label. We’re focused, not exclusively, on hip hop and music and other cultures. So far I’d describe the pre-launch content we’ve made as like a Jackass rap channel on meth…

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