Luxury Hospitality Innovation: Uncreate and Unlearn

“Look at a child. They learn and create naturally, automatically. We’ve built in wonderful creativity mechanisms.” Branding expert Piers Schmidt on innovation and the art of learning and UN-learning.

Few would have the nerve to start a speech with two to three minutes of silence. Piers Schmidt though makes a point of taking an unconventional approach. The sound of silence – or at least quiet – may, he argues, lead to a thought worth listening to or an idea worth implementing.

Piers-Schmidt-luxury-branding“This talk is about uncreating. Actually it’s about unlearning,” he told the audience of EHL students during his recent lecture in the school’s Distinguished Speaker Series. “It’s easy to create. It’s as easy to create as it is to learn.” While some might take issue with that deceptively-simple statement, especially those working in creative roles, Schmidt does have a point. “Look at a child. They learn and create naturally, automatically. We’ve built in wonderful creativity mechanisms.”

“How good are we at uncreating what we’ve created?” he asks rhetorically. “How good are we at unlearning what we’ve learnt?”


Piers Schmidt - Image credits Luxury Branding


Schmidt, who has developed concepts and brands in the hotel industry, for companies such as Dorchester Collection, One&Only Resorts, and Armani Hotels, does have a track record to support his perspective.

I’ve been trying to unlearn what I thought I knew about innovation, trying to uncreate what I thought I knew about developing hospitality concepts.


With echoes of former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumseld’s famous remarks about known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns, Schmidt said that whatever ideas he’s had, have always been preceded by a feeling of not knowing. “As time has gone on, one thing that has helped my creativity is to tolerate the not knowing, the feeling of uncertainty that comes with not knowing.”

Over the past 20 years, he said, there had been “an explosion of new hospitality concepts” led by W Hotels in 1998. Since then, “almost every hotel group, from disruptive startups to the legacy corporate giants, have been desperately seeking competitive edge and brand differentiation.”


This seems to have been a space race to create the most innovative hospitality concept. As a result, locating the white space for innovation from inside a conventional hospitality mindset has become incredibly difficult.

Hotel companies have either relied on incrementalism – making marginal gains through a series of small adjustments (“I did this before and it worked, so I’ll do it again but make a few minor adjustments”) – or  what he termed ‘step change’, a bigger shift in direction, citing the likes of Airbnb and Uber. Both approaches had reached their limits though and were more or less “mined out.”

The time has come for a new group of intrepid upstart pioneers to throw away the rule book to boldly go and seek what lies beyond.


“It’s time to regroup, take stock, and fundamentally re-frame our thinking. Ask and it shall be given to you. Seek and ye shall find,” he said, exhorting the EHL students to find “the next rich seam” as in the Yukon Gold Rush in Canada at the end of the 19th century.

“You are actually so lucky not to be encumbered by conventional wisdom. You have no legacies to protect, you’re young and free. Potentially your greatest value to the (hospitality) industry … is your relative lack of knowledge, your intuitive not-knowing. My sincere advice to you is to treasure that state and invest it well. Honestly, those of us currently doing battle in this field are actually pretty much making things up as we go along.”

Ultimately, building trust in your own ability to face down uncertainty, solve problems, and come up with new ideas and concepts will become one of the main prerequisites for your future success.


Think beyond the hotel – or even luxury – to move beyond “the largely stagnant era of innovation within the industry” and produce a breakthrough, he said. “Seize this opportunity, relish the chance to wholly embrace the value of unknowing and, above all, embrace fully the power of not knowing.” 


Piers Schmidt, the founder of Luxury Branding, gave the talk entitled ‘What Lies Beyond? Concepting Hospitality at the Bleeding Edge of Innovation’ as part of the EHL Distinguished Speaker Series on October 29th, 2018.

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Stuart Pallister
About the author

After working as a television journalist in Asia and Europe for nearly 20 years, mainly at CNBC, Stuart switched to digital content development at INSEAD business school and the National University of Singapore.