My fiction class professor wisely counseled, "Write what you know." He apparently found the creative efforts of his 20-year-old American students to produce, say, a drama set in a Martian hobo camp, or a love story between a sumo wrestler and a Swiss milkmaid, to be unconvincing.
There is perhaps a corollary to "write what you know" for the global travel industry: Should companies focus primarily on markets they understand intimately? And if so, what if the projected returns within their comfort zone look anemic, especially when compared with an exotic foreign market poised for sustained double-digit growth?
There is enormous pressure on companies today, especially large public companies in the West, to look farther and farther afield for opportunities. Most European and North American hotel brands feel obliged to put a stake in the ground in one or more BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) countries and report to shareholders how it intends to reap rewards from these upwardly mobile populations.
CEOs of privately held companies might not feel quite so compelled. They can build companies that reflect a highly personal understanding of familiar markets. They can continue to "write what they know."
The latter point came home to me last week in a conversation with Sir Rocco Forte, head of the eponymous luxury hotel chain.
Forte comes from a hotel family with a history of growth and expansion. Like the Marriotts in the U.S., the Fortes in the U.K. started with roadside eateries 70-plus years ago and ultimately built a hospitality empire. But the Fortes lost control of their group (Travelodge, Posthouse, Forte Grand and Crest) in the mid-1990s, and Sir Rocco started again from scratch this past decade with the Rocco Forte Collection.
His current focus is to expand his presence in his geographic base in Europe and the Middle East. While many of his competitors are rushing farther east, he keeps his eyes open for an opportunity to move his brand west, to New York.
"If you feel uncomfortable somewhere, you shouldn't be there; it will show," he told me. "If I come to New York, I know where in the city I want my hotel to be. If I go to Beijing or Shanghai or Singapore, I don't know. You can get advice, but it's not the same."
Comfort is relative. It should be noted he's growing most quickly in a region that gives the boldest CEO pause: the Middle East.
Many of his hotels are located, or are being readied, in cities and countries where brickbats have recently flown and newspaper datelines written.
"The crisis in Marrakech created a temporary funding problem [for a property there], but that's all in place now," he said.
He's about to reopen the Luxor Hotel in Egypt and is in discussions for a Beirut property ("That's likely to happen"). Damascus is now on hold. ("I expect that will pick up again.")
Forte feels comfortable in this environment because "I've been going there since I was 28. I opened an airport hotel in Dubai when there was nothing much else there. I have a certain affinity for the region."
He's philosophical about his heavy investment in a region that many consider to be a global hotspot. "You can't plan for volatility, but you can live with it," he said, noting that when there's tension in Israel, his property in Amman suffers.
Forte is noncommittal about whether in his view the "Arab Spring" is a stabilizing development. "It's a bit ridiculous to think they'll have a democracy like we have in just five minutes. Look at the painful situation in Iraq," he pointed out.
Nor does he see other parts of the world as inherently safer. "How stable is China, really?" he asked. "There's been trouble in India. How do you ever know?"
Ultimately, for Forte it's not simply about staying with the familiar: There is a strong strategic linkage within his portfolio. "The Arab market is [an important inbound] market for the U.K.," he said, noting a positive correlation between Middle Eastern cities where he has properties and the nationalities of guests at his British properties.
"Write what you know," it turns out, is an elastic concept. It's not as much about remaining fixed in geography as being conscious of the connection between what you know and where you grow.
Should you stray into unfamiliar territory and become uncomfortable, however, to quote Forte, "You shouldn't be there."
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.