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Recently I was asked to speak with a group of managers from a large hotel chain about the nature of competition in the changing commercial environment. For the exercise, I assumed the persona of a sales rep from St. Louis staying in a Hartford, Connecticut, property. Each of the hotel managers, by the way, was empowered to run their individual properties as though they owned them.
The challenge for the managers was complex. Within the larger context of the hotel's policy, financial expectations and performance guidelines, they had to "customize" my guest experience and make me think the entire chain revolved around my visit. I told them that, minimally, they should have a comprehensive log of my preferences from past visits (feather pillow, temperature pre-set at 72 degrees, etc.).
Next, the room should remind me as much of St. Louis as possible. A current St. Louis newspaper should be on the desk and/or an up-to-the minute printout of local news, sports scores and business news. St. Louis TV stations should be fed live into my room. And room service should be prepared in the style of top St. Louis restaurants.
While these services might seem arcane and exorbitant, I assured the managers that if they weren't prepared to deliver that level, their chain would fail over time. Why? Because customers have learned to expect this kind of micro-customized media provision from dealing with such companies as OnStar or WorldCom or even Amazon.com.
No, those companies aren't ones hotels typically consider their competitors. But the bottom line of competition today is that your direct competitor isn't just someone selling the same goods or services you sell-it's anyone selling any goods or services to anyone you sell to, or want to sell to in the future. At the very least, these unrecognized competitors can raise the bar (if I can get a book from Amazon overnight, why can't I get everything overnight?), and one day they just may want to steal your customers. If you don't understand this new definition of competition, odds are your business already has one foot in the grave.
It may be helpful to think of competition in biological terms. In the same way physics was the dominant science in the information epoch, biology is becoming the dominant science of the post-information epoch. Biology reveals four types of relationships in an ecosystem: competitive, symbiotic, predatory and parasitic. The same four relationships exist in economies. Today, businesses may even engage in all four simultaneously.
So who's your greatest competitive threat? The guy down the block, or the guy across the planet you've never heard of? I'll bet you know when the guy down the block is coming after you, but it's the attack by the unknown business operating in a totally different field that may pose the biggest threat.
Watts Wacker-lecturer, social critic, best-selling author, political commentator and CEO of FirstMatter-is one of the world's most respected futurists.