Marketing took center stage when Carlson Hotels Worldwide held its annual business conference in Las Vegas in early spring. The executive level of the global collection of brands recently shifted, so top officials had little experience to recount. That left the limelight to marketers like Kevin Freiberg, a business pundit Carlson has deployed as a motivational speaker, and Lalia Rach, the New York University associate dean who is one of the lodging industry's most astute commentators.

A record 1,500 owners and franchisees attended the March 26-30 Carlson conference at the Bellagio, one of the more dramatic hotels in that most theatrical of cities. The key addresses took place on March 27, when Carlson Hotels/The Americas President Yvonne La Penotiere and marketing specialist Martha Rogers discussed consumer trends, and on March 28, when Rach explored the volatile field of demographics.

Because the conference theme was “customers first,” the focus was on service. Freiberg and La Penotiere set the tone by name-checking brands such as Apple, Target, Nordstrom, Netflix and Wegman's, a Mid-Atlantic supermarket chain that stresses so-called “family values” like Carlson. In a separate interview, La Penotiere said lodging isn't “customer-led” enough; rather, it's product-driven. So in the past few years, Carlson has attempted to differentiate its flags through programs such as the Sleep Number bed introduced at last year's conference, and Voice of Customer, an accelerated guest feedback program.

Also addressing the conference: Nancy Johnson, recently named executive vice president of Carlson's full-service hotels; Steve Mogck, succeeding Johnson as EVP, select service; and Fredrik Korallus, Carlson's first EVP of revenue generation. Bjorn Gullaksen, recently promoted to EVP of managed hotels and resorts from Nancy Johnson's old job, made a brief appearance early on, and Jay Witzel, president and CEO, chose to stay largely behind the scenes because, he said, the organization was the star of this get-together.

All the executives suggested that Carlson has done a good job of defining its brands and upgrading its quality. In the last year, for example, Radisson has “purified” itself, in Freiberg's term, by shedding about 100 under-performing properties. At the same time, Regent has been redefined as a pure luxury brand.

Lalia Rach painted a broad, volatile and promising economic picture. She noted that business spending is back, which bodes well for lodging. But she also noted that “the price of gas gives you gas,” there are 11 credit cards per U.S. household, the nation is rapidly changing color and ethnicity, women represent 59 percent of the workforce, and the needs of the single traveler must be addressed.

“One is not the loneliest number,” she said. “It's an opportunity.”

Another way of putting the social shifts of the last 40 years is this, in Rach's pithy words: “Ozzie and Harriet have been replaced by Ozzy and Sharon.”

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