Hotel lessons from Muhammad Ali
Hotel lessons from Muhammad Ali
06 JULY 2016 7:22 AM

Hoteliers can learn much from legendary boxer Muhammad Ali, including how to improve operations and handle the competition. 

In early June, we all watched the news as a titan of professional sports passed away.

Muhammad Ali was one of the most colorful athletes that ever lived—as entertaining in the ring as he was in the press box, and not without his own dose of controversy. Whether it was the “Thrilla in Manila” or a “Rumble in the Jungle,” he was always more than just a boxer, striving to win the hearts and minds of his audience well before facing his opponent.

And as winning hearts and minds is the name of the hotel game, we can all benefit from a careful reflection on Ali’s career and what made him outshine his peers. Here are six for you to consider.

Never level the playing field
So often in business, success comes from not simply eviscerating your competition in a straight head-to-head matchup, but by introducing a touch of unpredictability and distorting the playing field to your advantage. When it came to his fight with George Foreman, everyone initially thought Ali’s strategy would be to ‘dance like a butterfly’ and win on points. That’s what Foreman was prepared for, a pugilist with a substantial size advantage over Ali and enough strength to go through punching bags faster than I go through my morning coffee.

Instead, Ali let the goliath back him into the sides, rolling on the ropes as he absorbed hook after brutal hook in his ribs. This was, in essence, a pawn sacrifice. Undoubtedly, Ali was sore for weeks after the match, but he knew that there was an inverse relationship between size and stamina. After several rounds of this madness, Ali had yet to even crack a real sweat while Foreman was exhausted, lowering his guard just enough for Ali to pounce with a quick combo of full-power stingers to the head. Total knockout.

I'm not suggesting that you let your opponents keep swinging at you without fighting back. Consider, though, how Ali’s subversive approach in Kinshasa applies to, say, advertising and pricing structures. Tire your competitors by running promotions that force them to be more aggressive and by using different revenue plans from those your property has become known to employ in the past.

Psychological warfare
I can’t say for certain if Ali read Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War,” but I’d wager he perused its pages on more than one occasion. Like the Chinese philosopher, he knew the battle is often won long before the two armies meet.

Ali would insult his opponents and say he was going to destroy them in the ring at every available opportunity. And his combined exuberance and eloquence was sure to raise nagging doubts. This wasn’t just showmanship; it was all part of the plan.

I'm certainly not advocating that you directly taunt your competitors, but you should definitely boast that your key products and services are better, or at the very least stick to highlighting only those few features that you know to be winners.

Returning to our Rumble in the Jungle example, Ali not only threw continuous barbs at Foreman while talking to the media, but he also flat-out ignored the heavyweight when the two were practicing in the same gym. While criticisms can demoralize your enemy, oftentimes not even acknowledging that they exist can work even better.

Train your mind
When Cassius Clay first converted to Islam and took on the name by which we all remember him, he didn’t just go through this process because it was a trend among African American youth at the time or as a temporary fix to dodge the Vietnam draft. He took the teaching of the religion to heart, attending mosque, studying the Quran and voraciously reading whatever he could get his hands on.

While he was still the eternally effusive grandstander whenever the camera was trained in his direction, this wasn’t the only side to Ali. Behind the scenes, he was a deeply pensive man, using his wealth of knowledge to both defeat his opponents in unconventional ways and to better entertain the public so that his fight appearances could command a bigger fee.

Technical skills—like jabbing in the case of Ali or analyzing daily reports for hoteliers—only go so far. What distinguishes the truly successful is mental rigor and the ways in which they use their minds to outthink their rivals.

Roll with the punches
Boxing is a sport of offense and defense. You learn how to jab and cross at an early age, but you also learn how to take a punch. If you can’t handle getting hit repeatedly by your opponent, you won’t make it far at all.

To build this kind of fortitude takes time, effort and will. You can't expect to hit the gym once and build a rock-solid body. Similarly, you can't expect to survive a grueling day of work only once a year and have all the gumption you need.

Now consider your property. How can you use the stresses of your environment to thicken your skin? If you have a demanding owner or boss, for example, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Rise to the challenge, because if you can learn to charm a troll with your hard work then the rest will be daisies and unicorns.

View your property as invincible
Ali famously said, "I am the greatest; I said that even before I knew I was." Part of his global renown stemmed from his boastful and somewhat arrogant comments such as this, but it’s also a form of fake-it-until-you-make-it self-persuasion. By repeatedly stating that he was the best, he was mentally training himself to know that winning was already a foregone conclusion.

Becoming invincible is not a mere exercise; it’s a part of who you are. When a member of your comp set doesn’t just think it can win, but knows it down to the bone, then it will make your job frighteningly difficult. Likewise, if you instill a culture of inevitable success, then you, my friend, will become the Ali of hotel properties.

Larry Mogelonsky is the founder of LMA Communications Inc., an award-winning hospitality marketing agency. He’s also a member of Cayuga Hospitality Consultants, G7 Hospitality and Laguna Strategic Advisors. He has published three books including “Are You an Ostrich or a Llama?”, “Llamas Rule” and “Hotel Llama”.

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