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BirdsEye View

what hotels and banks have in common Andre Balazs is a successful, cutting edge hotelier. He started with the famed Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles and then redefined style in New York City with the Mercer and the Standard, its bar, the Boom Boom room (an unfortunate name), is very popular among 20-somethings, I hear from my son Paul). Balazs excels in creating the "next thing" rather than being a close follower.

This is why I was especially surprised when I read a recent interview with Balazs. The pioneer is going back to the future. Here are some of his key comments:

"Hotels pioneered everything ... from air conditioning, plumbing and central heating ... (to) ... aesthetic elements".

"The hotel restaurant is going local. Once mere lunch rooms for guests, hotel restaurants ... became focused on their unique locations".

"Uniqueness will reign. A higher level of discernment is creeping into every arena; todays' consumer's interest in artisanal beer and food will be echoed in artisanal hospitality".

"Hotels will become site-specific ... becoming bespoke of their surroundings and community".

"Customer service will go old school. The more technologically focused the world becomes, the less people want to check in via iPad and have their pillow preference stored in a computer. Instead, wouldn't it be great if you could arrive at a hotel and have someone greet you by name?"

The theme I discern in these comments is simple: technology is an enabler, and a critical one, in the success of any business. So is innovation and trend-setting. At the same time, technology is not a replacement for world-class service and localness. Consumers expect a certain level of techno-savvy operations in the companies they deal with, but the real differentiators are uniqueness, local approach and community knowledge. It is the personal service and the intimate customer knowledge that create differentiation and customer loyalty.

We are not in the hospitality business, but our product is similar. A bed is a bed, a dollar bill is a dollar bill. And yet, in reality, customers do not perceive these to be perfect substitutes. They are willing to pay more for the same bed in a more friendly surroundings, and, we all know (but deny it too often), for the same dollar in a higher service bank.

The lesson from Balazs is crisp and simple: Don't lose your identity and uniqueness in your quest to become a technologically savvy organization. Use your roots, culture and history to create a special experience for your customers, and enable the experience with up-to-date technology. Taking the technology concept to its extreme will only result in the futile attempt to compete head-on with Wells Fargo, Bank of America and other giants. So, don't put your head in the sand and expect the past to carry you forward; but, at the same time, make sure you don't lose your identity in the drive for maximizing database management and direct mail capabilities, technology deployment and other efficiencies. At the end of the day, people are what community banks are all about, and that will not change in our planning time horizon.