Chain Leadership Awards

Sometimes it's subtle and even incremental, but innovation is everywhere in the hotel industry. And while a lot of new ideas come from owners and operators, it's generally the chains that have the willpower and financial firepower to bring innovation to the marketplace. To honor creativity among U.S. hotel brands, Lodging Hospitality magazine annually bestows its Chain Leadership Awards on those companies that have exhibited high levels of innovation in the previous year.

This year, we received more than 80 nominations in nine separate categories. From there, the editors of Lodging Hospitality chose winners in eight categories. Here are the best of the best:

DESIGN AND DECOR: CANDLEWOOD SUITES

Count on Candlewood Suites to address the needs of two customer constituencies — their guests and their employees — simultaneously and seamlessly: “Comforts of Home,” a bedding package the extended-stay brand introduced in 2006, aims to make guests feel more at home — and to make housekeeping more comfortable, too. So that housekeepers don't have to lift a heavy mattress when attaching a bed skirt, the new Candlewood bedding package includes an “E-Z Skirt,” which attaches to all four sides of the box spring. Because the skirt is made with a proprietary material that won't wrinkle, it also cuts the need for ironing, saving time and money.

For the guests, the new package features an upgraded mattress and box spring set with mattress topper, 250-thread-count micro-check sateen sheets and a fluffy duvet with a cover that opens on two sides for easy management.

Once employees complete a brief training session that's part of Candlewood's ongoing “Can Do” education program, housekeeping should be much easier — and, with triple sheeting, contemporary cotton estate blankets, and a choice of upgraded pillow types in firm, medium and feather, the guest comfort quotient should be much higher.

DEVELOPMENT: HYATT PLACE

Hyatt Place, which recently debuted outside Chicago in Lombard, IL, strives to accommodate today's traveler through fresh design. It aims to appeal to boomers and Gen Xers, both of whom lead what Hyatt calls “blended lives.” Among its distinctive offerings (besides complimentary Wi-Fi):

  • The Gallery is designed to combine traditional lobby elements with a coffeehouse-like atmosphere. With various seating areas, the Gallery aims to make groups and individuals comfortable working and relaxing by providing an opportunity to be “together alone.” A standalone, open counter rather than the standard front desk enhances the ambiance by enabling associates to easily interact with guests. Adding to the open, casual atmosphere: a bar featuring specialty coffee and a Grab N' Go case offering fresh pastries, salads and sandwiches.

  • Contemporaneity rules in the Hyatt Place guestroom, which features a 42-inch, flat-panel, high-definition television on a swivel base; a Hyatt Plug Panel that easily integrates mobile technology; and living and sleeping areas separated by a semi-opaque panel. The Cozy Corner in the living area includes a sleeper sofa and ottoman; an oversize desk and ergonomic chair; and a refrigerator. Hyatt says there will be 120 Hyatt Places open by the end of this year.

FRANCHISING: ACCOR NORTH AMERICA

Accor North America has taken its franchisee diversity program a step or two further than most other chains. In developing the Ambassador Program, the company gives potential minority licensees (primarily African-Americans and Hispanics) the tools they need to be successful owners and operators.

“Although economy lodging is the simplest kind of hotel to operate, we found initially that some lenders were hesitant to provide funding to people without practical, hands-on experience,” says Dean Savas, senior vice president of franchising for Accor North America. “We knew we had to assist potential owners in the operational area in order to give comfort for lenders.”

Accor's Ambassador Program provides a soup-to-nuts menu of assistance in all aspects of development and operations — from site selection and design to finance and construction. More critically, the program places corporate managers at new minority franchisees' properties where they manage the property alongside the owner for up to five years.

The first participant in the Ambassador Program will break ground on his property in South Carolina in a month or two. Four other candidates for the program are under consideration, and Savas says three to five properties should be open in the next three years.

MARKETING: CAMBRIA SUITES

One of the primary goals of marketing is to get potential customers to try the product, not often an easy task for a hotel chain that has yet to have an operating property. Choice Hotels took that challenge and developed a unique solution that provided travelers passing through the Boise, ID airport with a chance to test-drive its new Cambria Suites lifestyle brand.

“When you develop a new brand, the hardest thing is to educate travelers on what it is all about,” says William Edmundson, vice president, brand management and strategy for Cambria. “The obvious answer was to recreate the product and put it in a place where people can touch it, feel it and even walk through it. If, as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, this must be worth a million.”

An exact replica of a sample suite of the new Cambria product was built in the lobby of the Boise airport. The suite was equipped with the same ff&e and technology that will exist in new Cambrias as they start to open. (The first unit officially opens next month in Boise.) The exterior of the suite resembles the outside of the Cambria building.

Choice hired “brand ambassadors” who gave an average of 400 tours a day, and the promotion got plenty of local and national media coverage. Choice plans to ship the suite to other markets where it has Cambrias under development.

OVERALL INNOVATION: FAIRMONT HOTELS

Green is not a trendy concept for Fairmont Hotels & Resorts; it's a way of doing business every day in every property by every employee. Since 1990, the Canadian-based chain has followed its Fairmont Green Partnership Program as a guide to its corporate and property-level operating principles. The philosophy covers every aspect of the company.

Green programs touch waste management, water and energy conservation, organic menus, purchasing and employee and guest education. One example: the chain uses wind to power the front desk computers at all of its North American properties. The system reduces annual greenhouse gas by more than 100 tons, says the company.

The company is also involved in habitat protection at a number of its properties, particularly those with golf courses. At some hotels, it offers guest interaction and education programs to spread the word of the green movement.

Fairmont is very willing to share its knowledge and expertise with others, including competing hotel brands. Its Green Partnership Guide, now in its third edition, is a comprehensive how-to guide to Fairmont's best green practices.

PUBLIC SERVICE: VANTAGE HOSPITALITY

Some chains like the public relations glow that comes with charity work. But for Vantage Hospitality, public service isn't a ploy; it's part of the corporate DNA. In fact, because the company and its members — both with Americas Best Value Inn and The Lexington Collection — have a collective philosophy of working together for the common good, it's no surprise that the organization has wholeheartedly embraced C.A.R.E. as its common cause. Under the direction of Dr. Barry Boatman, the organization provides a rehabilitative safe haven to children driven to alcohol and drug abuse as a result of destructive family lives.

Starting two years ago, Vantage put the full weight of its organization, including headquarters staff, membership and vendors, to help C.A.R.E. As Vantage CEO & President Roger Bloss says, “Writing a one-time check would have helped these children for a short moment, but by providing support over a long period of time, we will be able to help many more children now and in the future.”

For the past two years, Vantage has hosted a charity golf tournament during its annual conference to raise funds for C.A.R.E. The last event in December in Las Vegas raised more than $30,000, which will be used to help create Vantage Ranch, a C.A.R.E. shelter in a rural California town.

TECHNOLOGY: HOMEWOOD SUITES BY HILTON

Hilton's upscale all-suite brand is breaking technological ground with its Suite Selection tool and mobile training via video iPods. In December, Homewood announced Suite Selection, which it calls the lodging industry's first interactive room selection tool.

Due to launch this quarter, Suite Selection allows Hilton HHonors Gold and Diamond members to view a floor plan at “http://www.homewoodsuites.com/” and then select a suite based on their personal preferences, such as a favored floor or proximity to the elevator. Hilton expects to make Suite Selection available to the whole Hilton HHonors universe by the end of the year.

In a complementary move, Hilton is launching its video iPod mobile training this quarter by installing two or three of the 30-gigabyte Apple devices in each Homewood Suites. According to Hilton, the move aims to “reinforce training content as a culture and allow the brand's thousands of employees to be empowered in their own learning.” The device's portability, flexibility and user-friendliness are expected to facilitate training and updates, and each Homewood Suites will receive belt clips, lanyard, ear buds, power adapters and a conversion kit so iPod content can also be used in large classroom settings.

VACATION OWNERSHIP: ST. REGIS RESIDENCE CLUB

Installing a signature Remede spa with a waterfall is but one of the ways the St. Regis Residence Club in the St. Regis Hotel in downtown Aspen is a standout in the fractional universe. Starwood Hotels and Resorts' entry into the fractional market, the St. Regis Residence Club represents a reconfiguration of 98 hotel rooms into 25 two- and three-bedroom Residences, constituting the entire “B” wing of the hotel.

The change required complete interior demolition and reconstruction, and to meet city requirements that the facade be maintained, special venting was designed for the gas fireplaces and additional metering was installed so the Residence Club utilities could be more accurately measured.

Other Residence niceties include homey details such as built-in seating adjacent to the entry closets for convenient removal of snow gear and bed configurations in the secondary bedrooms that allow for a single or double bed, as needs dictate.

About that waterfall in 15,000-square-foot Remede, the first custom spa for St. Regis: It's part of The Confluence, an enclosed facility that also features still pools and hot and cold plunges. The spa also offers oxygen treatment and pre- and post-treatment rooms with fireplaces.

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

THE BIG IDEAS

The fifth annual Chain Leadership Awards competition drew more than 80 nominations from a score of hotel brand companies. The editors of Lodging Hospitality chose the following winners:

Design & Decor — Candlewood Suites for a new bedding package that pleases guests and eases the burden on housekeepers.

Development — Global Hyatt for the transformation of its AmeriSuites brand into Hyatt Place, a product that appeals to both boomers and Gen Xers.

Franchising — Accor North America for its diversity program that assists minority franchisees in the development and operation of their properties.

Marketing — Choice Hotels for its pop-up suite marketing stunt to promote the new Cambria Suites product.

Overall Innovation — Fairmont Hotels & Resorts for its long-standing and in-depth devotion to sustainability in the development and operations of its properties.

Public Service — Vantage Hospitality for its intense and effective support of C.A.R.E., a program that assists children with alcohol-related problems.

Technology — Homewood Suites by Hilton for its Suite Selection tool and its new video iPod training program.

Vacation Ownership — Starwood Vacation Ownership for the launch of the St. Regis Residence Club in Aspen, the company's first fractional property.

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