First a primer. As I’ve discussed on this blog before, my wife and I used to own a small travel agency. It was a home-based agency that primarily focused on cruise lines. We also occasionally sold all-inclusive resort stays. They were a good solution when one member of a couple wanted to go on a cruise and the other one didn’t. When I say all-inclusives, we really only just repped one brand. Sandals, an adults only all inclusive resort chain located around the Caribbean. We also had it’s family-friendly sister brand, Beaches, but for all intents and purposes, they are the same thing with the latter allowing kids. Naturally, we are very familiar with the company and it’s two brands.
Now, to the present. I had been perusing the interwebs looking for information on all-inclusives beyond sandals because I was targeting alternative areas for trips for a few different family members including myself. I came across a video of from what can be described as an All-Inclusive travel influencer who used to be a fan of Sandals but has since changed her mind and was using her platform to explain why. Apparently she had gotten tons of feedback from an offhand comment she made in a prior video of why she doesn’t like or recommend Sandals anymore. What was most interesting to me wasn’t the negative opinion of the brand, but how she had come to the conclusion.
Yes, she had some personal experiences with the brand over the years, both positive, and negative, but that wasn’t the only deciding factor. The first thing she noted was the shenanigans in the reviews of the brand on Tripadvisor. Most of the Sandals reviews were structured so that it was obvious, to someone who was savvy at identifying such things, that the company had heavily incentivized guests to put in overly positive reviews. In effect the company was very good at manipulating their customers to ‘positive review bomb’ the travel website so that negative reviews were few and far between. The negative reviews were clearly more genuine. The second thing noted was that she also was able to point to the fact that the Sandals brand was forever announcing amazing new facilities, which never materialized and mostly were just forgotten. Finally she had pointed out how the marketing material, specifically the photos, were completely unrealistic as compared to the reality of the properties. Everything always looked perfect and dreamlike and every person in the photos looked like a supermodel. That’s probably the best way to describe it. If you have ever read one of those articles where they show you how a cover model goes from looking like a normal attractive person to something you’d see on the cover of a magazine or website, then you understand the level of staging and touchups the company would put into it’s photography. This is one of those things that has to be compared side by side and then the differences are obvious.
Now, none of this behavior is specifically illegal or evil. I’d call it more in line with ‘sketchy’ or ‘manipulative’. We live in the world where there is a love of the new, the aspirational, and Sandals figured it out. Their marketing, and it’s truly best in class when it comes to managing perceptions, is always on target to offer people what they imagine, what they want, but not necessarily what is an exact representation of reality. They even do it with their agents, which I was able to witness first hand. Sandals occasionally does these massive road shows where they send all their executives on a tour. If you think of it like a Sandals themed wedding crossed with an Apple computer iPhone announcement you’ll kind of get the picture. Big ballroom, great food, flowing drinks, and Sandals themed decor and personnel everywhere. The room has a festive vibe. The presentation by the executives is aspirational to the max highlighting every all-inclusive service and luxury imaginable. They also spend a great deal of time on mind-blowing “Coming Soon!” offerings that never actually materialize, but that doesn’t matter in the moment. As an agent you come out of that thing thinking that nobody on earth could ever offer anything better than what they do and all you want to do is sell Sandals for the rest of your life. Of course, when guests get to the property, they are getting what they paid for, which is a mid-range all-inclusive with occasionally uneven service. Not bad, just not the ultimate paradise promised.
I realized that this influencer was significantly more savvy than I was at picking apart the marketing and hype that Sandals so carefully crafted. I accepted that the all-inclusives were a small part of what we were doing with our business, so my engagement with them was limited or lacking but I feel like I should have been more aware. I could have seen through more of the hype. After reflecting on the whole thing, I started to think about the need to be savvy in other parts of our lives, not just with selling beach trips with unlimited Mojitos.
For clarity’s sake, the technical definition of savvy is:
Shrewd and knowledgeable; having common sense and good judgment.
My definition of savvy is a bit more expressive. To me it’s seeing the thing that others don’t see, it’s also having the experience and discipline to act accordingly. I think the acting part is the most important element. You can see something but knowing how to leverage it is the real key to success in whatever you are involved with.
How can we be more savvy?
There is one way to become savvy almost organically and that’s through time and experience. Buy a couple of new cars at the dealership and by your third car you’ll probably realize that you won’t keep the vehicle long enough to get the questionable benefit of the ‘winterizing and undercoating’ dealer add on. Ditto with the additional warranty that electronics retailers love to sell you. The kind that when you read the fine print it’s apparent that the deductible almost always cancels out the benefit of the insurance coverage making it mostly worthless. This is why those who are older or more seasoned in their careers have a tendency to be more savvy at evaluating inputs and making decisions in how to move forward. They’ve simply experienced more and know what’s most likely going to come.
In the absence of repeat experiences, I think the key to be savvy is to open our minds to alternative viewpoints. This is something that’s extremely lacking in today’s world, so it’s something we are out of practice on in our society as a whole. As an example, for the undercarriage treatment, or the old-fashioned extended warranty It’s kind of hard to have an alternative viewpoint if you’re sitting there in the F&I office and getting pummeled with information about how a car can corrode so easily in the winter when the DOT salts the roads. We have to slow down, take a breath, and not give into our fears or desires. We have to start asking questions. Questions that come to mind include: If I’m buying a brand new car, shouldn’t it be designed to drive in those types of conditions without corroding? Why is the purchase now or never? Am I benefitting as much as the dealership? You could also ask yourself, do I know anybody who’s ever gotten it? Have they ever used it? What’s the alternative look like? In this case, the finance person will always have a logical answer to these questions, and the Savvy individual will wonder why there is such perfect answers at the ready?
Savvy versus Skeptical
The definition of skeptical is:
Not easily convinced; having doubts or reservations.
Being savvy starts with being a little skeptical. I say ‘a little’ because you don’t want to become so skeptical that you see negativity everywhere. My uncle, a drug cop in the early ’80s, always thought everybody who had a Motorola brick style cell phone was a drug dealer. He wasn’t Savvy, he was skeptical of everything that didn’t fit his mold of reality. Automatically coming to that conclusion is different from looking at my twenty two year old cousin and wondering why he had a cell phone at his age in a time when they were extremely expensive and rare. That was definitely out of the ordinary. The savvy individual would have come to the conclusion that, in addition to drug dealers using cell phones so they wouldn’t be traced, the phone companies were probably positioning owning a phone as a status symbol for twenty-somethings, another group with large amounts of disposable income.
So if the first part of being savvy is asking yourself the classic courtroom question: is what I am being told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? The second part is asking: what could it mean?
Being Savvy at work
Being savvy at work is complex. When considering comments from management, one must understand that the things people who have decision making power say is often not what is completely true, but what they have to say. They are a bit like the Sandals example cited earlier. They downplay the bad news and structure anything to be heavier on the aspirational because it’s their job to achieve stated goals and metrics and they need their workforce to be onboard for that. This is why any news of a merger will focus more heavily on a single organization that’s stronger than the previous two and it will dance around the impending layoffs, chaos of integrating different systems, and other realities of the situation.
Being savvy about what an executive is really saying is possible if you have been privy to meetings where decisions are being made. Then, the exercise is really one of translation. If you’ve never been in those meetings, then you have to look at a pattern of what is said, and what really happened overtime. The first time you hear an executive say we are going to restructure the business to be more lean, you may think that will result in less trips to the office supply store. Somebody who’s been through a few business cycles where corporates try to “tighten the belt” will know that it can have any meaning from reductions in health care offerings to mass layoffs and everything in between. Most people will know that ‘tighten the belt’ almost always means things are going to get tougher at work often to the point of becoming untenable for the average employee. The savvy professional will start asking themselves questions about cash flow and corporate positioning. If those are good then what’s the point of making things extra tight at work? Is it all part of an exit strategy for the owners? Is there something on the horizon that will impact the whole industry? Is it time to start reinforcing professional networks and refresh the resume in anticipation of hunting for a new job?
To go back to how to be more savvy in the absence of years of experience, if the first part is using a bit of skepticism to question if you are getting the whole truth, then, as we concluded, the second question is about what it all means. Finally, this all leads into the third part, which is considered action. The person who moved jobs before private equity bought out the company and laid off a huge chunk of the workforce didn’t have to scramble or decimate their savings.
The opportunities to be a savvy decision maker are everywhere. It’s a lot like clearing out clutter from your house. It’s an iterative process that is ongoing. You have to keep asking questions about why things exist the way they do and trying to learn more about what’s going on. The more you know the more informed decisions you can make. The more informed your decisions are, the better they will be. Then when time goes on, and you have made a decision that others wish they would have made, they’ll look to you and say “That was a savvy move!” They may ask you how you knew to make that particular call. If they do you could explain all about your questioning and decision making process. Since the conversation can take some time I recommend doing it while you get a drink with your colleagues after work. That way you can get a Mojito, they are pretty good. I know because I tried one at a Sandals once.