Professor of Hospitality & Tourism Management at the Pamplin College of Business at Virginia Tech & Former SVP, Revenue Strategy & Solutions at Marriott
Dave Roberts is a Professor of Hospitality & Tourism Management at the Pamplin College of Business at Virginia Tech. He currently teaches Finance in the Graduate School. Dave retired from Marriott in March of 2019, after 23 years with the company. Most recently, he was the Senior Vice President of Revenue Strategy & Solutions. In this role, he led three departments: A) Revenue Management: strategy, systems, and execution for ~7,000 hotels worldwide; B) Revenue Analytics: topline analysis for the company, as well as impact assessment of Marriott’s sales & marketing activities; C) Sales Systems: strategy, development, and deployment of technology to drive and manage meeting & event business at all hotels worldwide.
Prior to this role, in addition to leading Revenue Management, he also led the Consumer Insights department, providing consumer research and analytics for regional leadership, brand teams, and other disciplines such as marketing and digital. Dave has also been Regional Vice President of Market Strategy for Marriott’s Eastern Region, and Vice President of Global Pricing, in addition to several other roles in the company. Prior to Marriott, Dave was a manager in the Finance Department at American Airlines, working on airplane purchases and route economics. He also worked for three years for the Pentagon as a technical consultant on missile defense, as part of the ‘Star Wars’ initiative.
He has a B.S. and an M.S. in Operations Research from Cornell, and an MBA with a major in Finance from Northwestern’s Kellogg School. He holds a U.S. Patent on a software product (a data matching algorithm) and has published several academic papers on such topics as forecasting, options pricing, and customer choice modeling. Dave was on IBM’s Business Analytics Advisory Board for 6 years, and on Cornell’s Center for Hospitality Research Advisory Board for 5 years. In his spare time, he enjoys martial arts and astronomy.
I just retired from Marriott, and I’m now immersed in academia. I have the great fortune to work at Virginia Tech! (aside: Va Tech has a wonderful Hospitality & Tourism program – I say that with no bias, as neither I nor anyone in my family went there). My aspirations are to make a meaningful and lasting impact on the program, and on the students that I have the privilege of teaching. I plan to do some consulting and some writing as well, but my focus is on teaching and mentoring.
Believe in people, and act on that belief. This was the final line of my retirement speech at Marriott. I feel very strongly about this. If you look for the good in people, the talent, the exceptional work, the creativity, the new perspectives, . . . you are very likely to find it. And if people believe in you, and act on that, you will surely be highly motivated, and deliver outstanding results.
I’ve had such an abundance of role models in my life. On a personal note, my mother was an A+ of a human being in every way, and I learned so much from her about how to conduct one’s life. She had such wisdom! At work, I’ve had so many stellar bosses, colleagues, teams, and stakeholders, and have learned something different from every one of them. I like to think I’ve learned from many, many people over the years. I believe that every single person you encounter in the course of your life has something to teach you, and the lessons are cumulative!
My favorite hotel in the world is the JW Marriott Camelback Inn, in Scottsdale, AZ. The most beautiful place I’ve ever seen is Lake Louise in Canada – just stunning. The Fairmont hotel there is fabulous, but my loyalty to Marriott precludes me from naming that as my favorite . .
I’m not really a ‘brand’ guy, but I do have some favorites . . I love SAS software. My Pixel2 phone is wonderful. My favorite drink is Monster Energy – Khaos is my favorite flavor, but they are all fabulous. My favorite app (after Marriott’s Bonvoy app of course) is Evernote. I basically run my entire life with that one app.
How did you get into the industry?
I was an engineer, working on missile defense. When I decided I wanted to try out the corporate world, I realized that ‘rocket science’ doesn’t translate too well to business, so I went back to school. At Kellogg Business School, I got hooked on the travel business, and went into the airline industry, and then hospitality. So I got into this wonderful industry by dumb luck .
Any industry opportunities or challenges?
I’ll narrow this to my specific areas of focus, which are Revenue Management and Analytics. In Revenue Management, the science will continue to evolve. For example, we will continue to get better at demand forecasting, which will result in better decision making on pricing and inventory management. Some companies, including Marriott, are using Machine Learning as a part of the forecast process. This will expand greatly in the coming years and will become an expectation. As an industry discipline of RM, we need to continually reduce forecast error of course, but also measure it and pay attention to it. I don’t see Machine Learning having much impact on inventory management, at least not in the near future, as this is ‘just’ an optimization problem (one caveat here is that pricing can be used for inventory controls – topic for another day). Pricing may lend itself to a Machine Learning approach, at least in certain circumstances (for example, highly volatile retail pricing). The science of pricing will continue to expand too, and will cover more segments, member and promotional rates, packages, and more. This will take some work, as existing models tend not to be applicable to new segments (we learned this at Marriott – the models for the retail, premium, and group segments are all quite different, for example). On the human side, continuous learning will be the norm, much more so than it is now. This is true for every discipline, but especially so for RM. Our Revenue Leaders are asked to do (and understand) much more each year, and I only see this trend accelerating. As a discipline, we will need to revisit ‘time spent’ models – what is the most productive use of time for our revenue leaders in the field? I know that Marriott has truly exceptional revenue leaders in the field – we need to ensure that they spend their time in the most impactful way possible.
In Analytics, we have a long way to go in this industry. We are slowly moving towards a true analytics culture, but much work lies ahead. There are still so many things that we do that are not tracked or analyzed. Some other industries, and some other players in our industry, are pushing the envelope here, and we will be wise to pay attention. In our industry, it is easy to say ‘analytics’ then we really mean ‘reporting’; both are critical, but they are not interchangeable. To quote my former boss Dave Grissen, “don’t just report on the score of the game – impact the score of the game”.
How do you motivate others?
Believe in people (see motto, below). I believe (and hope) that I think more highly of most people than they think of themselves (some exceptions of course, haha). This may be especially true for newer associates. Most people that I know, professionally and personally, need a shot of confidence. Many people (myself included) are just brutal on themselves. It is so easy to dwell in self-doubt. With social and cultural influences of today, it is easy to assume that everyone else has their act together, and I uniquely am confused or unsettled. Of course this isn’t true, but it is very believable. I’ve read some research by Dr. Kristin Neff (Professor at UT Austin) on a concept she calls self-compassion – it is outstanding, and eye-opening. Instead of being so hard on yourself, talk to yourself like your best friend would talk to you.
Career advice to those in your industry?
At the risk of offering up a platitude, find what you love! If you work in a discipline (and/or an industry, company, . .) that you love, you’ll bring your A game every day. It really is that simple. Actually finding what you love may take some trial and error – don’t shy away from this. For me, it has always been ‘math & science’, even from a young age (I was a Math Team guy in school). I loved my engineering studies, and my engineering work (missile defense). In hospitality, I’ve always been in Revenue Management & Analytics. Some of the projects I’ve worked on are so fun that I can’t believe I got paid for it! Of course not every day is like that . One way to think of your current career path is this: if you get a random email from outside of your company with a link to some article on your current area of work, do you open it and read it in detail? If yes, then you are likely to be inherently interested in your area of work. If no, you may want to consider changing fields.