She Shines: Diana Banks, Maven

In She Shines, Dina Soliman of BrandFull talks with some of the great minds and personalities that are shaping the world of hospitality today and in the future. We will zoom in, share their insight and celebrate their success stories. What we promise is that they will all be varied, they will be interesting, inspiring and they will all be women. This time we meet Diana Banks of Maven.

I met Diana a couple of years ago when I had just started my consultancy; We got chatting and I was immediately impressed by her depth of knowledge of the hospitality industry, especially the luxury segment, where she built a career that took her all over the world; from London to Singapore to New Zealand to Dubai. She has a natural ability to connect with people and make any conversation enjoyable and so effortless. We exchanged cards and since then, I have been looking to include her in She Shines. I finally got round to it and via a zoom call, we got talking.

• Diana, you have been exposed to the world and its many cultures from a very young age. Born in Yemen and moving to Ethiopia as a child, how did that come about?

"My life has always been about people, travel and culture. My father was a farmer from Cornwall. My mother, a French linguist born in Egypt, where she met my father during the war. He worked for the United Nations as Chief of Agriculture and constantly moved all over Africa and the Middle East. I was born in Yemen, which was a British Protectorate at the time and my sister in Eretria. As for Ethiopia, it is a really interesting story. My father was sent to Ethiopia by the UN to conduct a feasibility study to see whether or not cotton could be grown there. He concluded that it can, but the UN sadly dropped the project. He was so vested in the idea so he came back to the UK, got funding and went back to Ethiopia to grow cotton. Hence why I spent 17 years of my life in Ethiopia until I came to the UK for boarding school."

• You have a long career in the industry, so tell me about your first job in hotels. It must have been a good experience as you stayed in the sector for your entire career.

"I actually wanted to be a nurse and I did start working in a hospital, but then I came back crying every night seeing children sick and people dying. My mother then suggested to switch to hotels. She said 'There are beds. You can still care for people, but at least they are not dying'. So I started working at Hilton Park Lane in 1974 as the first female receptionist. I stayed with Hilton for seven years. They were based out of New York at the time as they were owned by TWA. A year into the job, on 5th September 1975 Hilton Park Lane was bombed by the IRA and I was working at the reception that day. I remember it vividly, two people died and many were injured. Of course I was scared, but then again, there were so many happy times and I mostly remember those."

• You mainly worked in the sales function. Why did you choose sales in particular, or was it by accident?

"I started in operations and then I went into sales and marketing. Sales was my natural ability because I am a people’s person. I am naturally curious and inquisitive. I like talking to people and extracting information which of course is very useful in sales. My passion later on became Brand as I quickly realised how important it is to the commercial success of hotels, I believe there are few hotels and companies that really understand this and execute it well."

• At BrandFull, we believe that without a strong brand, commercial results are hard to attain, do you share this view?

"That is exactly what I do and why I launched Maven, my own consultancy. I think the connection between sales and marketing is not always strong and things sometimes happen by accident rather than by design. I like to change that and take a more holistic approach to branding. I was fortunate enough when starting Maven to have worked with a couple of clients who understood the game, which has given me the template for success. I had proof that it works and the results were evident. Prior to that, my experience with Raffles having gone through this process gave me the confidence and the desire to do it again."

• So tell us more about Maven, why did you start it and what is behind the name?

"The word Maven means expert or connoisseur. It appealed to me because I believe after a 40-odd year career I would like to think of myself as an expert in what I do. I was with Raffles for eight years based out of Singapore and Dubai, and when Accor bought FRHI and the Raffles brand, I thought it was a good time to go home and start my own business. It was 2017 and I wanted to take the summer off, but within three weeks from being back, I was contacted by a client asking for consultancy. Taking a brand view and linking it to commercial performance is what makes me different to other agencies in hospitality. I am also not a one-time hit, I am very much part of my clients’ organisation, which is why I have never been with a client for less than a year. A brand agency could come in do a brand refresh and go, but what I do adds measurable commercial value. I never advertise, it is all word of mouth and I am grateful that projects just come to me."

• One of our mantras at BrandFull, is “you only shine from within” because we believe that especially in this time of digital empowerment, even the biggest marketing budget in the world cannot build a brand on its own. The people and the organisation behind it has to follow suit. What are your thoughts?

"For me I firmly believe that it is the culture that makes a brand and it is what makes a place. It is the feeling you get, all the subtle cues and details, not the marketing communication. Which is still important by the way, just not enough on its own."

• What is sacred to Maven and where has it evolved since launch?

"I specialise in the luxury segment because I love it and it is what we are best at. And although many of my clients are still hospitality, I also diversified as I worked with luxury jewellery and a high end senior living proposition. Every client has a different mandate and every project is a different challenge, so I find the right subject matter expert depending on the project and what is required and I bring them along with me. I work with brand strategists, independent designers as well as HR consultants, so it a holistic approach not one angled."

• Luxury has evolved and changed over time, can you tell us a bit about that?

"I think there is a natural evolution over a period and there is a moment in time. I find that the last recession in 2008 has changed behaviours and mindsets. People did not want to be seen spending so much money in famous hotels. This accelerated the rise of the independents and boutique hotels which was already gaining ground. There are multiple factors that contributed to the change. Moreover, there is the increase in demand from Russian and Chinese guests. Also people have come to value experiences over materialistic items. One of my clients; The Fife Arms in Scotland has amazing art on their walls, including Picasso. I have another potential project which is all about sculptures. People are looking for something different, for experiences they can take away with them as memories."

• Every career has at least one highlight. With 40 years behind you, can you share your carer highlight?

"That has to be my job as VP for the Raffles Brand based out of Singapore. There I felt I made the most difference and left my mark. When I started the role, my boss told me 'Diana, we need good PR', to which I answered: 'OK, how do we describe ourselves, what do we bring to the world!'. When he said it was great service, I thought, but that could be claimed by many, it’s not a differentiator. We need to say more than that, we need to be more than that. No one was able to articulate it clearly or consistently. This lack of clarity was preventing our strategic growth in closing management contracts, and affecting commercial performance, because we were not known and not understood. The process began. We examined where we had come from, where we were and where we needed to be."

"None of the people we spoke to during our research described the Raffles experience with the physical, it was always about the feeling. The journey began to bottle that magic Raffles feeling into something clear and tangible. Once we did, we were able to stretch beyond our iconic Raffles Hotel, Singapore and bring the brand to more locations consistently where it all made sense. It took about two years to implement and infuse this across the organisation. It gave clarity and purpose to Raffles as a brand, and once we figured out who we are and what made us different, all the KPIs improved; our average rate, our leisure market, our website business and even our PR was phenomenal. Raffles was expanding from seven to 13 hotels by the time I left. Every one of the 13 hotels had a different style, and a different personality, but the common thread across them all was strong and recognisable."

• With Covid19 hitting hospitality particularly hard, how has it been for Maven?

"I have had more clients in this period than ever before. Because everyone need to have a clear vision for recovery. If they do not do the planning now, they will find it hard to succeed. The hospitality industry cannot continue to do what they were doing last year, survival will require brave new thinking. I believe business travel will take longer to return, while Leisure will be back as soon as realistically possible. In most jurisdictions the domestic market will be critical, so agile and flexible planning is essential to quicker recovery. My clients are keeping me busy!"

• You travelled the world and lived in many different places. Can you share a story that left its mark on you?

"I will tell you a story that still sends shivers through me. I was in a conference in Toronto, Canada and I was flying to Singapore the next day. I got into a taxi and the driver was speaking on his phone in a strange language. When he finished I asked him if he was speaking Tigrinya, which is an Eritrean dialect. The guy was surprised and asked me how I knew. I explained that our nanny for 25 years sounded similar and that I grew up in Tendaho, where my father’s plantation was in Ethiopia. He stopped the car, turned around with tears in his eyes and asked me if I was the daughter of Mr Congdon, that is my father. Turns out he worked for my father 40 years ago on the plantation in Ethiopia and knew us well. Ever since then we stayed in touch and every time I go to Canada he would pick me up and I even took my sisters to meet him. It was phenomenal. This story and this renewed connection would have never happened had I not talked to him and initiated the conversation. It validated my belief, that for me it is all about people, and that I am fortunate that my work allows me to leverage my skill and interest in human connection."

Dina Soliman-Pedersen is founder and managing director of BrandFull, a brand and marketing consultancy




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