The Wyndham Whirlwind

Want to see lodging flex its muscles? Visit Ramadas and Days Inns in Europe and the Middle East. Brands that seem all-American at home are different there — more ambitious, perhaps. Their diversity and vibrancy suggest that the key to growth, even for such legacy flags, is international.

Ramada and Days are in the vanguard of Wyndham Hotel Group's multi-national drive to establish a worldwide presence. That effort began in 2004, when Wyndham predecessor Cendant Corp. acquired Ramada International from Marriott International. In 2005, Cendant acquired the Wyndham Hotel brand, throwing into high relief its designs on the upscale market. And in 2006, Wyndham furthered that push in an agreement with Maltese luxury hotel firm Corinthia Hotel Group to jointly manage hotels under the Wyndham and Ramada brands in Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA). That deal calls for rebranding 15 Corinthia-owned EMEA hotels as Ramada Plazas and Wyndhams; several Corinthia-branded properties will be affiliated with a new tier, the Wyndham Grand Collection.

I gained insight into Wyndham's grand design over 11 days in November, when I stayed in and/or visited a dozen hotels in London, Dublin, Berlin, Budapest, San Gorg (in Malta) and Dubai.

I spent three days in London, a day each in Dublin, Berlin and Budapest, two days in Malta and two in Dubai. The airports ranged from the dazzling (Dubai, Munich and Budapest) to the drab (Berlin's Tegel).

All I lacked was time. I can't wait to revisit elegant Budapest, historically resonant Berlin, and Dubai, the new capitalist poster boy. London and Dublin are always favorites, and Malta is gorgeous, exotic and warm. Midway between Sicily and Libya, it's a unique mix of the European and the Arabic.

This stimulating, enlightening trip attested to the newfound strength of Wyndham, a hotel giant that until three years ago was best known for franchising its economy and midmarket offerings. With its assimilation of Wyndham hotels and its recent alliance with Corinthia, Wyndham is spreading its wings around the world — and across new segments. Its comfort with that range and flexibility came clear in Malta, where some 300 EMEA owners and operators of Wyndham Hotel Group International met Nov. 9 and 10.

A key executive at that get-together, held in Corinthia flagship the San Gorg (pronounced “George”), was Reas Kondraschow, senior vice president and managing director, Wyndham Hotel Group International. He joined Wyndham (Cendant at the time) at the end of 2004, when Marriott sold Ramada International. That deal was the beginning of a paradigm shift.

“With that, I think we restructured the whole strategy to grow internationally,” Kondraschow says. “We took it from the perspective of ‘yes, we have international’ to ‘we have to drive international’ because that's where the biggest growth opportunity is outside of North America.

“There are defined international strategies for Wyndham, Ramada, Days and Super 8. Wyndham we see growing internationally keyed to capital cities, gateway cities, airport locations and resort destinations.”

The focus for Ramada is secondary cities and peripheral locations outside of key cities. Days and Super 8 will be Wyndham Hotel Group's bread-and-butter. “Anywhere, everywhere we can find suitable markets for those hotels, we'll put them up and franchise them,” he says.

With all the brands, emphasis will be on management. “We certainly will look at slivers of equity to facilitate getting management contracts,” he says, “but property ownership is not our strategy.”

In 2005, Wyndham opened 5,900 rooms internationally; in 2006, it opened another 16,200. Ambitious? “No, successful,” Kondraschow says. “Ambitious would be if I told you we'd do 50,000 next year.”

THE POWER OF PARTNERSHIP

Jim Murphy is managing director of The Prem Group, a Dublin-based firm with 22 hotels in Ireland, England and Belgium. “We represent Wyndham in Ireland. We have to promote the brand and deliver the business in the Irish market to our hotels.” he says. “We also operate. We source and sell franchises on behalf of Wyndham.”

Prem also works with the powerful franchisor Choice, but Murphy says there's no conflict: “Quality Hotels in Ireland are a family hotel, a leisure product, and the Wyndham product doesn't compete,” he says. “Days is a quality room product, (with) a tight ground floor with an open plan, whereas in a Quality you have a separate club, a separate restaurant — and a different client base.”

Days “is creating its own little patch within the Irish market,” Murphy says. “Our cost base is much less than (that of) a traditional full-service hotel. The barman also serves dinner. A manager can stand in the lobby, and there's more efficient use of the ground floor. I call it a four-star bedroom at a three-star price or less. And with costs going up, that's a very attractive proposition — especially for owners.”

In Germany, Ramada is the ticket, suggests Lieuwe de Jong, vice president of operations for Hospitality Alliance Deutschland, which manages 63 hotels in Germany and Switzerland. Ramada has a high, legacy profile in Europe, he says; Andreas Wiebezieck, VP of sales and marketing for the alliance, says average occupancy throughout the system is 53 percent, and the Ramada International shift from Marriott to Wyndham is finally working smoothly.

“We have seen a lot of progress in the last one-and-a-half years,” Wiezebieck says. Following “a very professional analysis of what we could do internationally with a very American brand,” Wyndham beefed up its international sales force, which helped.

De Jong indicates the transition was problematic at first, but with the strengthening of international sales and the cutover of Wyndham's central reservation system, “there has been a huge increase in bookings — and now there's a change with Wyndham relaunched.”

What they want from Wyndham are standards and systems; leave sales and marketing to the locals. “We are willing to do everything,” says Wiezebieck. “Just give us the guidelines.”

He and de Jong worked together at “Ramada Marriott,” Wiezebieck says, “and we always had a great impression and a comfortable feeling. The system cutover from Marriott's CRS to Wyndham's was smooth, and now we can finally see the growing process, which I think is in a timely fashion.”

A STEP BACK AND INSIDE

A few words about the properties themselves are in order. Accompanied on this kinetic trip by photographer-wordsmith extraordinaire Rich Roberts, vice president of communications for Wyndham Hotel Group, and Rohan Karunaratne, the inimitably cosmopolitan and wonderfully warm director of business development for Wyndham EMEA, I slept in six different hotels and toured another six.

The ones I stayed in spanned the Ramada Jarvis in London (the weariest); the Ramada Plaza Berlin (the most comfortable and discreetly swank); the Corinthia Grand Royal Hotel in Budapest (the most beautiful); and the Ramada Hotel Dubai (perhaps the busiest).

Notable ones I saw included the Days Hotel Dublin Park West (a nicely appointed property with a full-service feel and excellent restaurant); the Ramada Encore London West (a modernist clue to several new midmarket directions, like “flexible” walls and a decidedly open, multi-functional approach); the Corinthia Aquincum Hotel in Budapest (which proves in its incorporation of local art and style that business hotels can have personality), and the Ramada Continental Dubai (a midtown, midmarket property with a fabulous restaurant and well-used meeting space).

Some facts and impressions:

The Encore, a strikingly contemporary new-build, is off the beaten track in the Gypsy Corners section of London. Ewan Campbell, managing director of Ramcore Hotels, told me in Malta that that Encore, which Ramcore manages, targets Gen X, along with “a high concentration of premium solo travelers” who want something fresh, comfortable and safe.

“It's not boutique,” Campbell says. “At the moment, we're calling it select service with a touch of lifestyle because it has some of those sexy elements, like flat-screen TVs and Wi-Fi.” It also boasts the Hub, essentially the ground floor public space: Depending on time of day, the Hub contains a breakfast area, a lunch area and, in the evening, a full-service restaurant. It also sports curving, cutout ceilings and flexible walls: cabinets and shelving on wheels open to multiple configurations so as to accommodate various needs. Both it and the more conventional Days Inn Dublin Park West had occupancies of more than 90 percent in the four months prior to November.

At that Dublin property, which cost 25 million Euros to build, coffee is served in mugs rather than the more common demitasse because “there was no expense spared,” according to Andrea Wallace, the general manager. The corporate rate for “work zones,” or suites with workrooms, is 120 Euros a night; corporate rate for a regular room is 89 Euros.

I loved the 184-unit Ramada Plaza Berlin, near Berlin's shopping area, the Kurfuerstendamm. Not only was it friendly, it featured a fabulous, full-service restaurant, and Kaestner, a convivial, relaxing bar where Cenk, the generous Turkish bartender, poured marvelous Scotch. Orderly and disciplined, the hotel is also “green”: Walk the corridor to your room and each section lights up at your approach. Internet was expensive, however, at two Euros for every 15 minutes. Thirty to 40 percent of the rooms are non-smoking, and to make up a king bed, two doubles are aligned side-by-side. The Plaza Suites feature a full kitchen and a balcony and, at 139 Euros, cost 20 Euros more than a regular room.

Among celebrities who have stayed at the Corinthia Grand Royal in downtown Buda (the more contemporary Aquincum is across the Danube in Pest) are Josephine Baker, Richard Dreyfuss and Isabella Rossellini. No wonder; you feel like royalty ascending the grand staircase. I spent the night (unfortunately, just one) in the Zoltan Kodaly suite, and it was not only huge, it was posh. With three atriums and apartments in the rear, the hotel feels like a city unto itself, a very sophisticated one at that.

THE NEW FRONTIER

If the European cities and the dense, heavily trafficked northeastern coast metroplex of Malta attest to the vibrancy of the European market, Dubai takes that vitality up a notch. Consider these figures from the Dubai Department of Commerce and Marketing: Hotels and hotel apartments in this showcase of the United Arab Emirates hosted nearly 1.65 million guests during July and September. Hotel room occupancy increased by 2.3 percent to 85 percent, and total hotel beds available grew by 5.7 percent to more than 50,000.

Dubai's population is expected to reach 1.4 million by 2010, remarkable considering that 70 years ago, it was about 200,000; much of its growth, spurred by the start of oil production there in the late '60s, has taken place in the past two decades. It has a large Indian population and boasts the tallest hotel in the world in the storied Burj Al Arab. Sheikh Zayed Road, its malls and high-rises constituting a veritable canyon of conspicuous consumption, is eight lanes wide — and flanked by skyscrapers as tall and far as the eye can see.

Meanwhile, even as traffic crawls, the sound of prayer to Allah is heard throughout the day. This is a Muslim country, a sheikdom far less comfortable with dissent than with commerce. It's an intoxicating mix of the traditional and the futuristic, the puritan and the libertine. The densest and most secular of the seven emirates, its contrasts are dramatic: Muslim chant, not the boom box (or the iPod), is the sound of the city. The men's toilet stalls feature shower heads mounted low on the wall so the faithful can cleanse themselves according to Koran stricture. Meanwhile, discos serve liquor and crawl with prostitutes of all stripes and nationalities, and the duty-free malls are out of this world (the Mall of the Emirates contains a miniature ski resort; it was five degrees Fahrenheit in there while outside the mall, it was over 80).

All those skyscrapers — there are cranes all over, business buildings and apartment towers in all stages of construction — have been built with low-paid, imported labor. This is by no means a classless society.

We toured two Ramadas there. Both were in older parts of the city, apparently built in the late '70s. Both were business hotels featuring sophisticated f&b (the older one had four restaurants; the newer had numerous meeting rooms and was hosting a convention of Iranian cosmetologists). Neither was showy, unlike the Burj Al Arab, the fabled Jumeirah Group property where championship tennis is played on the heliport. (The lowest room rate at the Burj in mid-November was 6,500 dhiram, or nearly $1,800 a night — before a 20-percent tax surcharge; occupancy was full.)

Dubai — where the government is building specialized, tax-friendly urban zones with such names as Silicon Oasis, Logistics City and Internet City, where the World Islands are surfacing next to the Palm Islands — — feels like the future. What's also striking is that Dubai's prosperity isn't based on oil so much as finance, trade and what the government calls “repairing service.” Dubai is the country as corporation.

THE WYNDHAM OPENING

Reas Kondraschow, that key figure in Wyndham's international growth, says a recent study shows that Wyndham hotels represent only 2.7 percent of all global guestrooms. Meanwhile, that United Nations World Trade Organization study also says that over the past 30 years, worldwide hotel occupancy has been between 52 percent and 55 percent even as supply has increased. What's particularly opportune for Wyndham is that 66 percent of global hotel rooms are not affiliated with the top 300 hotel companies or brands like Wyndham, InterContinental or Marriott. “International is a land of opportunity, but you've got to tailor it to the customer,” Kondraschow says. “Early on, domestic brands thought the same box that works in America works here, and even today, some competitors are not adapting to international needs.”

What of the American box doesn't translate? “It ranges from f&b offerings to design of the room to the amount of facilities like restaurants and lounges,” Kondraschow says. “In the international sector, there's less acceptance of uniformity and more interest in individuality, like having a French or Italian flavor in the guest experience. In many German midmarket hotels, the expectation is a fairly simple carpet with little padding, whereas the American standard would be higher-pile carpeting with more padding. At the midmarket level, the European traveler doesn't demand air conditioning, though that's changing. Most Europeans, when they come to the States, say you guys are freezing in your offices.”

Europe and Asia are ahead of the U.S. in design — and in presenting hospitality as a career, he says.

“Whether you're a housekeeper, maintenance or front desk, it's viewed as a career,” he says. “In America, those transient jobs are constantly turning over. Internationally, there's still a very strong belief that if you start as a housekeeper you could become an assistant general manager or even a general manager.”

“What's relevant is the need to understand the nuances of how to adapt a brand in a market for it to be successful and to make absolutely certain that you still achieve global brand identity and drive the overall equity of that brand,” says Steven A. Rudnitsky, president and chief executive officer, Wyndham Hotel Group.

“We're bringing value across a variety of competencies, in sales and marketing and loyalty programs and website management and brand standards and processes, that are valuable to an owner whether that owner is in London or Wuhan, China.”

THE BIG IDEAS

Spread standards and systems worldwide. But leave sales and marketing to the locals.

Emphasize local flavor and individuality. In Europe and the Middle East, one size does not fit all.

Nurture hospitality as a career. In Europe and the Middle East, hospitality is a field to aspire to. The U.S. would do well to nurture that approach domestically.

For more information and related articles, go to www.LHonline.com.

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