Dr. McGuire

Revenue Management

Telling a Story with Data

By Kelly McGuire, Executive Director, Hospitality and Travel Global Practice, SAS Institute, Inc

As analytics become more accepted, more visible and more desired across hospitality organizations, analysts and IT departments are challenged to deliver data to a wider range of personas. In this information-hungry atmosphere, the key to gaining support and inspiring action across the organization is the ability to "tell a story" with the data. It's not just about presenting rows and rows of data, or charts of results, but rather, using that data to support the story you want to tell – in a highly visual and accessible format.

Revenue managers have always been challenged with interpreting their data to the “layperson” outside revenue management. By focusing first on the action, then the story, then on the supporting points, revenue managers, or any hotelier, will find their presentations becoming more compelling, and their requests granted more often! It is very tempting to present slide after slide of charts and graphs, but often a single visualization that drives home a key point and results in a desired action is much more powerful. You know you’ll be able to produce the backup information if it’s needed, but you’ll provide a memorable takeaway, and most importantly, make it really easy for your audience to repeat your story to their key constituents, adding to the power and reach of your message.

Focus On the Audience and the Action

It may sound obvious, but be sure before you put together any presentation that you know who the audience is and understand their expectations. Your material must be tuned to the audience from the content, to the language you use, to the takeaways you develop. Secondly, you need to think about the format that you are presenting in. Will this be in a room or via conference call? How big is the screen? Do you expect questions or discussion? There is nothing worse than watching a presentation with complicated and wordy slides on a teeny-tiny screen from the back of the room (frankly, in my opinion, there is no excuse for giving a presentation that has such complicated visuals, if they have to be that complex, it’s not a presentation, it’s a report – more on that later). Being prepared on these basics will make you look much more professional.

The most effective presentations are those that inspire an action from the audience. Whether it’s approving a request, giving the go-ahead to move forward, adopting a new business practice or simply gaining an understanding of a current status, every presentation should end with your audience clear on their next steps, and inspired to take the action you recommend. Revenue managers are frequently called upon to present analytically-driven material from performance updates to the results of special projects. The required/expected action for some presentations may be much clearer than others. A status update or hotel performance review, for example, may not seem like a presentation that’s supposed to inspire action – but it is. Do you want your audience to be able to update their stakeholders after they hear your presentation? Do you want them to start or stop selling rooms during a specific time period? Do you want them to simply be better informed about how the hotel is performing? The goals you set for the outcome of the presentation will dictate the script of the story you want to tell, and facilitate the structure of the material you are delivering.

Knowing your audience means that you can tune the content and the action you want to take, to something that will benefit the audience personally. Make sure the benefit to the audience is clear in your mind, and right up front in your presentation. “I’m Kelly, the revenue manager, I’m here today to help you understand the forecast for the next three months, so you can make sure you have hired and trained enough housekeepers”. Or, even better, “so you can take credit for our excellent performance in your next departmental meeting”.

Telling the Story

Once you have firmly set the action you’d like your audience to take, the next step is to define the key points of the presentation that support and inspire the action you desire. This is the framework for your story. You are intimately familiar with the nuances of your data and analytics, but what does it tell the outsider? What’s going to be important for your audience to understand to support the action you’d like them to take?

Everyone talks about the rules of three in communication, and for good reason. Three key points, following the “tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them again, remind them what you told them” methodology are easy to communicate, and easy for your audience to remember. This structure will make your presentations very powerful.

So for my forecasting presentation I might say:

  1. Current forecasts indicate we’ll be up 10% over last year
  2. This is driven by increased bookings in the transient sector
  3. Weekends, in particular, will be very strong

Supporting Your Story

After you have defined the action and surfaced your key points, then think about the data that would support the points you are trying to make. This is the easiest place to turn off an audience, so you have to be careful about what you include and how you explain it. I cannot stress enough that you will look much smarter/more confident if you can explain a complex analytic result clearly to an outsider than if you use a lot of big words, jargon and mathematical proof points. This is another place where understanding your audience is crucial. You will need to know at what level of detail (and insider language) they expect. I still caution, thought, to err on the side of simplicity and clear language, even if you are confident that your audience is relatively advanced. People can always ask more detailed questions, but they will appreciate that you’ve made your presentation easier for them to listen to, easier for them to retain and communicate to others.

They say pictures are worth a thousand words and in this case it’s particularly true. Supporting data and analytics should be presented as graphically as possible, avoiding charts containing rows of data at all costs. A big hole in the middle of a graph is much more powerful than digging through a row of data to find negative percentage growth. Reports are more effective when sent via email, or discussed in an one on one meeting (although I would still argue that even in an email, a visual with description will do a better job of guiding the recipient to the information you want them to consume). It is tempting to clutter up a graph with lines and bar charts representing all of the key metrics you track. Only include information on the graph that is relevant to the point you are trying to make. It will make it much easier for you to explain what you want the audience to get out of the graph and for them to understand it. Consider circles, colors or highlighting to draw attention to the parts of the graph that are most important to your point.

Describe your graph in simple but descriptive language. Color coding definitely makes this easier, as do the relative size or position of your lines and bars. I cannot tell you how many times I have given presentations where my interpretation of the graph basically amounted to “Red bar - bad, blue bar - good. Blue bar is higher here, so good! Blue bar is lower here, so bad”. This was, of course, followed by an appropriate conclusion like “Transient business is up on weekends, but down during the week”. I always include a little bit more information on the graph than I speak about (including labeling key data points with numeric values, clear data series labels, indications of statistical significance if appropriate etc.). Not too much more, but just enough to allows those in the audience that are interested (and comfortable) to draw their own deeper conclusions. I know details like how the data was collected and analyzed, what the limitations of the analysis were, but don’t bring it up unless I’m asked. I find that the simpler I make my interpretation, the more the audience trusts me. It turns out that an audience knows that it’s only when you truly understand your material, and are confident in the interpretation, that you can boil it down to the most basic elements that tell the right story. More often than not, they care more about the conclusions you draw and the actions that they should take than the numbers that justify them.

Other Forms of Communication

All of the tips above are useful in any form of communication, from written reports, to emails, to the daily or weekly reports that you create for your peers across the organization. In fact, many organizations today are moving away from static emailed reports with rows and rows of data and metrics towards a more visual and interactive form of data presentation. Rather than forcing them to comb through piles of metrics and do the investigative work themselves, these programs draw the viewers’ attention to required actions through dashboards, alerts and workflows. Users can look at trends over time as opposed to one point in time. There are many tools available today that facilitate data access and exploration at this level, and I am seeing more and more hospitality companies investing in this area. My only caution is that the more powerful the visualization tool, the more tempted we are to cram more and more information into the interfaces, creating unhelpful clutter. If your organization moves in this direction, make an effort to keep things simple, surfacing only the key metrics that facilitate decision making, while allowing users to drill deeper if they need to.

A Word of Caution

Mark Twain popularized the phrase, “There’s three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics”, and there have even been books written on the subject (How to Lie with Statistics, by Darrell Huff being my favorite). Avoid trying to bolster a weak argument with flashy visualizations or misleading statistics. Remember, your credibility is at stake, and even the most anti-numeric of your co-workers will eventually see through weak arguments. Instead, build your reputation as an insightful thinker, who can see the forest for the trees, and is able to help others to do the same.

Dr. McGuire leads SAS’s Services Industry Global Practice, a team of domain experts in hospitality, gaming, travel, transportation, communications, media, entertainment and the mid-market. She is an analytics evangelist, helping SAS’s hospitality and gaming clients realize the value from big data and advanced analytics initiatives, to build a culture of fact based decision making. Dr. McGuire can be contacted at 607-216-5800 or Kelly.McGuire@sas.com Extended Bio...

HotelExecutive.com retains the copyright to the articles published in the Hotel Business Review. Articles cannot be republished without prior written consent by HotelExecutive.com.

Receive our daily newsletter with the latest breaking news and hotel management best practices.
Hotel Business Review on Facebook
General Search:

NOVEMBER: Hotel Architecture and Design: Unique, Timeless and Memorable Design

Samuel J. Cicero Sr.

No matter how glamorous, there comes a time when every hotel requires renovation. Years of wear and tear, new fashion trends, and shifts in technology can prematurely age a property, leading to customer complaints and the need to lower room rates to remain competitive. Also, in this age of social media and online reviews, an aging property means lost revenue as travelers increasingly turn to the Internet for advice and not the hotel’s website. READ MORE

Patricia  Lopez

Guestrooms are getting smaller. With trendy micro and capsule hotels on the rise, brands everywhere are working with designers to shave off square footage and conceptualize new and improved layouts that use space more efficiently. But designing a versatile room is only functional to a point. If you want to create a space that responds to your guests’ needs without compromising the elements that turn a simple hotel stay into a luxury, then you have to strike a balance between tradition and innovation. And it all comes back to the art of crafting an experience. READ MORE

Pat McBride

The designs of the most renowned hotels and resorts give careful consideration to every aspect of a guest’s experience. This is no small task – the design team leads the way to ensuring a property has everything it needs to offer a memorable, comfortable and relaxing stay for customers, which ultimately determines the success of a property. Complicating matters is the fact that designers very rarely need to consider just one type of customer – there are honeymooners, young families, empty nesters, groups of friends and wedding parties to consider in the design process. The task of designing for still another subset of customers – business travelers – presents an interesting but surmountable design challenge. This is a group growing more and more accustomed to mixing business with leisure. Designing a property that appeals to business travelers, a critical source of revenue for many properties today, requires its own set of considerations that must be weaved seamlessly throughout the design of the property, from meeting and conference spaces to restaurants and guestrooms and beyond. READ MORE

Patrick Burke

Encompassing over 3.5 million square feet with a price tag of $4.4 billion, Resorts World Sentosa is one of the world's largest multi-recreational luxury parks. A city-within-a-city, the resort features six hotels, offering a total of 1,840 rooms; a large casino; a convention center, including a 7,000-square-meter ballroom, conference and meeting facilities; a multitude of theaters and entertainment facilities; a maritime museum, a large marine animal park and water park; a world-class spa and extensive retail stores and restaurants. Anchored by Universal Studios Singapore, the project required a design approach that would celebrate the unique site in a very special way. READ MORE

Coming Up In The December Online Hotel Business Review

Feature Focus
Hotel Law: Legal Issues Looming Large in 2015
In an industry where people are on-property 24/7/365, the possibilities are endless for legal issues to arise stemming from hotel guest concerns. And given the sheer enormity of the international hotel industry, issues pertaining to business, franchise, investment and real estate law are equally immense. Finally, given the huge numbers of diverse people who are employed in the hospitality industry, whether in hotel operations or food and beverage, legal issues pertaining to labor, union, immigration and employment law are also significant and substantial. The expertise of all kinds of specialists and practitioners is required to administer the legal issues within the hotel industry, and though the subject areas are vast and varied, there are numerous issues which will be in the forefront in 2015 and beyond. One issue that is gaining traction is how hotels are dealing with the use of marijuana by employees, given its ever-changing legal status. The use of marijuana is now legal in 21 states and the District of Columbia for certain medical conditions. Two other states, Colorado and Washington, have legalized recreational marijuana use for individuals who are 21 years old or older, and Alaska and Oregon currently have similar legislation pending. Most state laws legalizing marijuana do not address the employment issues implicated by these statutes. Therefore, it is incumbent on all hotel operators to be aware of the laws in their states and to adjust their employment policies accordingly regarding marijuana use by their employees. Other issues that are currently looming large pertain to guest identity theft by hotel employees and the legal liabilities which ensue; issues of property surveillance versus a guest’s right to privacy; and immigration reform could also be a major compliance issue. The December issue of Hotel Business Review will examine some of the more critical issues involving hotel law and how some managers are addressing them in their operations.