Why you should care
Who doesn’t want to order up a meal or an extra pillow with just the touch of a button?
For some, a hotel is an indulgence in luxury living, and for others it’s a necessary evil. For Alex Shashou, it was more like a playground. As a child running around in his parents’ boutique hotels in the U.K., he loved the kitchens — for the food, of course, but also for characters like specialist chefs, who often came from other parts of Europe, skirted the law to work there, and hacked around all day as they produced their creations. “They were hysterical,” says Shashou.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that a kid who played in the back of the house — the kitchen, the mail room and the laundry — is leading a technological effort to integrate how hotels manage and deliver services while creating a better experience for hotel guests. She’s called ALICE, and Shashou was busy introducing her at a recent hotel technology exposition in Austin, Texas, after which he told OZY, “I’ve been pitching 25 times a day.” So far, 30 hotel groups have signed up, and the system’s up and running at famous luxury hangouts like the Setai in Miami Beach and Zetta in San Francisco. He’s aiming to be in 100 hotels by year’s end, maybe just enough so that the startup he co-founded and where he serves as president might actually break even.
Shashou will still have to prove it’s the solution the hotel industry needs — and he’s up against some stiff competition.
Like many industries, hotels are being pushed by mobile tech as all sorts of services get revolutionized, from transportation to finance. ALICE, of course, is hardly the first high-tech tool for the hospitality sector. Many chains already offer apps to book trips, dole out rewards or provide concierge offerings. Both the Marriott and Virgin Hotels, which is starting to build its own chain, have launched proprietary apps that allow guests to access services, often well before they even arrive for check-in. But many brands still rely on the ubiquitous hotel radio or several different software systems to run different parts of their operations, and all that tech doesn’t necessarily speak to each other. Which is where Shashou is trying to squeeze into this increasingly crowded space — with a cloud-based, off-the-shelf product that connects all of the back-office functions on a single platform (that costs $8,000 to $15,000 a year for a subscription).
Shashou almost missed checking into this business entirely. The dark-haired 25-year-old, whose round face is unshaven and holds up circular horned-rimmed glasses, explains how he got here while wearing a blue, informal open-necked shirt and speaking in a British English that’s morphed into something Mid-Atlantic. Although he grew up in the U.K., his family is from, well, everywhere: His grandfather was Iraqi, while his father was Brazilian, and his maternal grandparents were Russian and Czech. (“I’m Jewish, and we were kicked out of many countries,” he explains.)
After graduating from Wharton with a business degree, he traveled around the world with his roommate Justin Effron (now ALICE’s co-founder and CEO) but stayed in China two weeks longer. By the time he returned to the U.S., Effron had already founded a hotel tech company following frustrations over waiting to check in everywhere on his travels. But Effron figured ALICE needed a tech whiz, not another business school grad, and Shashou just kept crashing the business meetings until Effron eventually gave in. “I fought my way on,” Shashou says. (Effron tells the same story, adding, “I’m very happy he did crash those meetings!”)
While Shashou has benefited from ALICE’s promising start, he’ll still have to prove it’s the solution the hotel industry needs — and he’s up against some stiff competition. Rival company StayNTouch, which has been operating about one year, helps hotels integrate their back-end operations while letting customers access certain services on their phone through a link in an email. StayNTouch already has 53 hotels that have signed up, including the Fontainebleau on Miami Beach, and its COO and founder, Tim Kinsella, notes there’s a high hurdle for many travelers before they will download and install an app on their phone. “If you look at the stats, it’s grim,” he says.
About a mile-and-a-half down the beach from the Fontainebleau, the Setai’s general manager, Alex Furrer, tells OZY that ALICE has helped his hotel boost customer service — and increase sales in some areas. Even so, just 10 to 15 percent of guests are using the tech, and the hotel has still found it useful to employ some older back-office software and old-fashioned radios in certain service spots. Continuing to sell to hotels is a top priority, along with building the company. Indeed, Shashou is working through the growing pains that many tech startups face: raising money, hiring the right people, setting a strategic vision and just thinking really big, like how to eventually adapt the software to any service-on-demand business with multiple back-office functions, like shared co-working spaces or assisted-living facilities. “It takes time to break through the barriers,” says Shashou.