A Brand Transformed
It's rare that a company has the opportunity or ability to recast a core brand in an entirely new image. That's what Wyndham Worldwide has been able to do with Wyndham Hotels and Resorts, the signature full-service brand it acquired from The Blackstone Group in 2005. While Wyndham Hotels has a long history, good distribution and a core of loyal guests, the brand never struck a deep chord among hotel developers.
Now, a little more than two years after its rebirth, a transformed Wyndham is on the move. Led by its dynamic and affable president, Peter Strebel, the brand has a new, clearer direction, a product built for the times and a marketing plan designed to attract the growing Gen X travel consumer base.
Perhaps more importantly, it has access to the coordinated resources of Wyndham Worldwide and the company's other hospitality brands to create partnerships and marketing schemes that drive business.
A good example is its frequent guest program. Launched in 2000, Wyndham ByRequest is the most distinctive program in the industry in that it rewards loyalty with perks (free telecommunication, welcome snack, room upgrades and more) rather than points. The personalization aspects of the plan have made it one of the most popular in the industry, even surpassing Marriott's vaunted Rewards program in terms of customer satisfaction. Since last fall, the company has been integrating ByRequest into TripRewards, the four-year-old point-based frequency program employed by other hotel brands in the Wyndham family. Soon, the two will merge into a newly named Wyndham Rewards that will combine the best features of both programs. For consumers, the transition should be smooth, since 35 percent of ByRequest members also carry TripRewards cards.
STARTS WITH THE PRODUCT
Wyndham's transformation goes well beyond marketing and frequency programs. At the heart of it are new product and operating philosophies that are the result of Wyndham's (and Cendant's before it) reliance on consumer research to learn what guests want.
When he took over as chairman and CEO of Cendant's Hotel Group (the forerunner to the Wyndham Hotel Group) in 2002, Steve Rudnitsky examined the organization from top to bottom looking for system improvement. His Project Restore was a bold plan to challenge franchisees to either improve their properties or exit the system. Many left, but many more chose to improve their product and service quality and stay under the Cendant (now Wyndham) umbrella.
“If it wouldn't have been for Project Restore, nothing that followed would have been possible,” says Rudnitsky, now president & CEO of the Wyndham Hotel Group. “It was basic blocking and tackling that enabled us to shore up our core platform and then evolve into our international growth, the acquisition of Wyndham and our entry to the management business.”
Again, after extensive consumer research, Wyndham Hotels teamed with pop architect and product designer Michael Graves to craft new guestroom and public-space designs that appeal directly to Gen X travelers, but which also have comforts and functionality appreciated by all guests.
Using a kit-of-parts approach, the Graves team developed design guidelines that allow developers and owners of existing properties looking to convert to tailor the Wyndham concepts and products to their individual hotels and market needs. While prototype designs are available for new-builds, the product enhancements can be adapted to any new Wyndham. And many of the features of the program have been mandated for existing Wyndhams.
The program launched two years ago with the introduction of new guestroom products: the Be Well bedding program; Graves-designed amenities, including a clock radio/MP3 player, one-cup coffeemaker and new lighting; and the True Blue Spa bathcare line from Bath & Body Works.
Graves' signature item for the brand is the Wyndham Smart Chair, a piece of furniture guests can use for working, relaxing or eating. It's wired for Internet access and power and features an arm-mounted mini table.
“Most guests use their rooms to work as well as to relax,” says Strebel. “While most guestrooms in other hotels have no suitable place for multi-tasking, the Wyndham room puts an emphasis on good lighting and seating with our Smart Chair.”
Public spaces, too, got a makeover using the kit-of-parts concept that combines a core design and ff&e with localized details, such as artwork. Check-in pods replace traditional front desks, and lobbies can be configured to include a communal lounge, a more casual “front porch” and power booths with TVs and Internet access. EAT. REFRESH. LIVE. is the brand's combination café, barista and food mart that transforms from breakfast service in the morning to a cocktail bar with casual dining at night. The first unit opened in the Wyndham Sugar Bay Resort in St. Thomas, USVI last fall.
SERVICE & MARKETING
Cendant's acquisition of the Wyndham organization brought with it a management business that wasn't part of the previously all-franchise company. Last August, Kimpton Hotels veteran David Martin joined the brand as senior vice president of operations to instill a service culture that matches Wyndham's product improvements.
“This is a black-and-white business,” says Strebel. “No matter the product or the brand name, if your customer and employee satisfaction scores are low, then you're not performing well. It's important that everyone in the organization buys in so we can change the DNA or instill one if one doesn't exist.”
The brand's One-To-One customer service training program focuses on personalization as a complement to Wyndham's product offerings. Martin says building an effective service culture is a multi-pronged process.
“Of course, it involves well-designed training programs, but you must also be able to articulate the culture to employees,” says Martin. “It's also important to create and be able manage moments of truth that produce emotional connections with guests.”
Service is just as important as product design to Wyndham's Gen X target guest, and the brand's marketing efforts reflect both.
“The Wyndham brand already had a connection with the Gen X market,” says Strebel. “It wasn't through the product offering but through marketing, especially the Women on their Way programs and ByRequest. The brand made it ‘all about you.’
“We're carrying that forward by speaking individually to our guests and by creating innovative products that matter to them,” he says.
Wellness is a major part of the marketing message to the Gen X demographic. “Our Be Well philosophy enables us to position the brand as upscale but not pretentious,” says Kevin Rupert, vice president, marketing and strategy. “Gen X customers gravitate toward innovation and individuality, which is what we provide.”
According to Rupert, different marketing messages resonate with Gen Xers than with Boomers. “Travel is fun and social for Gen Xers and still a new experience for them. You also need to pitch them through the channels that reach them.”
As a result, Wyndham has used less-traditional media, such as taxicab advertising and a billboard in Times Square, as well as the Internet to reach this audience with a message that focuses both on product and the emotional experience offered by the brand.
ALL IN THE FAMILY
Wyndham Worldwide is serious about all of its parts working together. A brand council representing all aspects of the company — limited-service lodging, full-service hotels, vacation ownership — meets regularly to plot areas of cooperation and synergy.
“Ultimately, it's the Wyndham name that makes this company so powerful, so we leverage it in as many ways that make sense across the enterprise,” says Steve Holmes, chairman and CEO of Wyndham Worldwide.
Two recent rebrandings show that commitment. In late 2006, the company rebranded its Fairfield and Trendwest timeshare products as Wyndham. And last year, 40 individual vacation ownership properties adopted the Wyndham name.
Even more significant was the transformation of the Wingate Inn brand to Wingate by Wyndham. The 150-plus-property system of midscale business-oriented hotels has begun to adopt some of the product innovations of the Wyndham brand, and the two flags now share marketing resources.
“The Wingate franchisees were very excited about the alignment with Wyndham,” says Strebel, “and the brand saw an immediate increase in business.”
About 90 percent of Wingates have the new signs and many are adding Wyndham's signature product items.
“There are many reasons why the alignment makes sense,” says Bill Hall, senior VP of the Wingate by Wyndham brand. “It increases the distribution of the Wyndham flag and greatly expands the customer base. It also gives Wyndham a presence in the mid-market.”
Hall says about 20 Wingates will open this year. Targets for future growth of the all-new-construction brand include California, the Northwest and gateway cities such as New York, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles. Canada has three Wingates, and the first in Mexico opened in Chihuahua in February.
A new Wingate prototype is in the works, and the goal, says Strebel, is to increase the brand's growth pattern from 20 a year to 50 a year.
The core Wyndham brand also hopes to expand its presence in many of the same first-tier markets that Wingate is targeting. Nine Wyndhams are under construction, including four in New York City.
Resorts are another strength for the brand. Last year, the 600-room Wyndham Rio Mar in Puerto Rico joined the system, as did a 402-room property in Cozumel, Mexico. In all, the brand has 24 properties in the Caribbean and Mexico. Another one, a 400-room resort on St. Croix, opens in 2010.
In the U.S., the company recently broke ground on a new-construction Wyndham that will be part of an existing Wyndham vacation ownership project adjacent to Walt Disney World in Orlando. The 400-room Wyndham Lake Buena Vista Hotel at Bonnet Creek should open in 2010. The project is the first mixed-use development undertaken by Wyndham Worldwide.
“While center cities are a challenge, resorts definitely play to our strengths,” says Strebel, who believes 15 to 20 additional Wyndhams will join the system this year.
Strebel's five-year plan is equally ambitious. “We plan to have 150 or more properties,” he says. “We want to round out our Caribbean offerings, gain a foothold in Hawaii, get back into the major cities, continue our strong international growth and double the size of Wingate.”
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