Believe It Or Not, Hotels Can Learn From Playboy’s Big Move

Playboy threw us all a curveball this quarter when they announced that they would be ceasing to publish full nude photography in their magazines. The rationale makes sense: these days free pornography is just a mouse click away and Playboy doesn’t stand a chance at competing. Instead, the company is pivoting to focus on more urbane content and thought leadership to drive worldwide merchandising sales.

In retrospect, this move makes perfect sense. Free pornography has been the scourge of the internet for well over a decade, and undoubtedly the Playboy top brass has been wrestling with this problem ever since it started encroaching on magazine and subscription sales. The rabbit ears logo is, however, one of the most recognizable brand images on the planet, and the company is now poised to leverage its iconography as a means of transforming an ancillary revenue stream into its bread and butter.

A desperate act, but also brilliant. Twenty years ago, one of Playboy’s key demographics was teenage boys who would ogle the smutty pages in the confines of their bedrooms, ever vigilant for patrolling parents. Twenty years from now, Playboy’s intended audience will be comprised of erudite yuppies who read the publication openly in hotel lobbies from their super-tablets while sipping macchiatos. And when you question their choice in literature based upon its lewd history, these future readers will reply, “And doctors used to proscribe heroin as cough medication. What’s your point?”

Everything is obvious through the lens of hindsight. In reality, this sweeping change in strategy was likely the toughest decision the company has ever had to make.

A Universal Truth
Playboy was founded on its racy and controversial material, with boisterous interviews and piercing exposés mixed in for good measure. This was the niche that propelled it to the limelight in the 1960s and 1970s, with the suave, smoke-jacket-laden Hugh Hefner at the forefront of the so-called ‘Playboy Image’ – a style and aspiration for all gentlemen to follow. Nowadays, nudity is far from the heights of taboo it was in the mid-20th century, while the ‘Playboy Image’ is a clear example of old-fashioned misogyny at its finest. And the octogenarian Hefner who still dates twenty-something blondes is viewed by the younger generations less as a Casanova and more as an outright pedophile. Oh, how times change.

Even with the writing on the wall, the notion of extricating pornographic images from the publication is an assault on the company’s raison d’être, and it undoubtedly met heavy resistance at every juncture of the corporate ladder. In essence, the executives shepherding this transformation were purposing that their company which makes porno mags for a living stop making porno mags. Good luck pitching that to the shareholders.

But enough about Playboy; what’s the ever-so-titillating lesson for hotels? To be as blunt as I can (and pardon my language), the takeaway is this:

Sometimes the universe just doesn’t give a s–t.

If it did care all the time, then we’d all still be in loincloths running from dinosaurs. As we extrapolate the Darwinist ‘survival of the fittest’ principle beyond the field of biology, it becomes increasingly evident that even the biggest or strongest in a given environment can be hung out to dry by unforeseen and unstoppable forces. Yes, the universe has nurtured us and facilitated all human activities on our little blue dot, but it doesn’t blink for a nanosecond at the bankruptcy of a billion dollar company or the loss of thousands of jobs. The universe only worries about the long, long term. Either you adapt to your surroundings or you are replaced by a more suitable organism.

In a business sense, this is what we call disruptive innovation, and it has plagued the hospitality industry and every industry since, well, the invention of industry itself! At the present, we are facing the repercussions of the sharing economy in its most salient form of Airbnb along with OTA brand dilution and the primacy in spending power of the seemingly apathetic millennials. Yet, these latest three follow in a long chain of inventions or rising trends that have forced us to alter the ways in which we conduct our methods of commercial exchange.

Getting back to the Playboy story, suppose you were to travel back in time to 1985 and visit Hefner at his corporate head office. In all your prophetic wisdom, you proudly declare that in 30 years time this thing called the internet (currently in its budding phase) will be everywhere, it will be dominated by free pornography and it will completely annihilate the current business paradigm. You’d probably be laughed out of the room with security called as Sir Hugh lights a Monte Cristo and ushers in the next fresh-off-the-bus young model for an ‘audition’.

Everything on the Table
The internet is an unstoppable force. Free pornography is one of its unforeseen consequences. As it concerns hospitality, Airbnb and the OTAs are two glaring outcomes of the World Wide Web, and no could have predicted even a decade ago that they would affect our industry as much as they do today. No matter what god you pray to, clearly they aren’t picking up the phone.

Just as Playboy made the radical shift away from its reason of being – distribution of its pornography magazines – so too must hotel organizations exhibit similar boldness if they are to survive. This may be particularly tough to swallow for an industry that prides itself on its traditions and its timelessness. Even those seemingly fanatical ideas can no longer be immediately dismissed; they should at least be given some pause before they are sidelined.

Keep your traditions and use them as branding or marketing tools, but first acknowledge that the universe is constantly chugging forward and the past only exists through rose-colored glasses. Sometimes the world throws you a curveball and the only restorative action is to scrutinize every single aspect of your operations from a purely objective perspective. With Airbnb and the OTAs changing the ways that consumers think about travel, you cannot rely on a traditional sensibility, lest you succumb to the same fate as Hefner – outdated and irrelevant to a new generation with a fundamentally different philosophy.

Leaving everything on the table is the only way to navigate an organization through disruptive innovation. See what’s working and what’s not, no matter its legacy. And remember that innovation does not have to strictly apply to technology. When I say ‘everything’ is up for grabs, I mean every single thing, front of house and back of house. And if you have to tear the whole house down in order to build a newer and sturdier one, then so be it.

For specific examples of this, you may look to the hotels which, seeing declining sales from their target market, decide to convert to extended stay residences rather than try new tactics at maintaining the status quo. Instead of relying on legislation against Airbnb that is coming in at a glacial pace, you may instead choose to radically shift from a rooms-centric business model to one entirely focused on impeccable service and personalized amenities.

Challenging existing practices is a painful exercise because there will always be an ingrained fear of change. But if you think in terms of how much the universe cares about your specific plight, then it may just light a fire to help move your organization forward. Just as Playboy made the daring decision to abandon what was once its core revenue stream, so must you be open to any and all changes as this will ensure that you evolve at the same pace as your environment.

(Logo copyright of Playboy Enterprises. Article by Larry Mogelonsky, Published in Hotel News Now on January 7, 2016.)