Chain Leadership Awards

Independent hotels are great, and many of them are known for their creativity in operations, marketing and customer service. Yet, it's hard to beat the hotel brand companies for overall and ongoing innovation in all areas of the hotel arts. This month, we honor the industry's most innovative brands with Lodging Hospitality's annual Chain Leadership Awards. We present 10 awards to nine companies (Choice Hotels won two) in eight categories (two awards are presented in the Marketing and Development categories).

DESIGN & DÉCOR: MICROTEL

Microtel Inns & Suites recently introduced a guestroom prototype that's modern, colorful and cost-efficient. What makes it stand out, however, is how the unit was created. The chain of more than 270 budget properties drew on the design talent at the Atlanta campus of the Savannah College of Art & Design to create a fresh new look for the brand.

Microtel sponsored a competition for graduate interior design students at the school in which each competitor was given a $7,000 budget to redesign the room. While some of the ff&e was donated by suppliers, the budget covered everything from paint, carpet and furniture to lighting, appliances, beds and softgoods.

In February, a panel of judges narrowed eight submissions to three final proposals, which were installed as sample rooms at a Microtel in Atlanta. Microtel Design Specialist Bijal Patel (a SCAD grad and one of the finalists), along with input from guests and franchisees, melded the ideas into the brand's new prototype guestroom, which will be installed in all new Microtels and in select units as they renovate.

The new room is available in five color palettes, and chain officials say it only costs $800 more to build than the old suite (but includes an upgrade to a flat-panel TV).

DEVELOPMENT: CHOICE HOTELS

Choice Hotels is serious about finding new sources of franchisees to feed its growth machine. The company's five-person emerging markets development team executed 40 new franchise agreements last year with minority and non-lodging entrepreneurs. That was a 15-percent increase over 2006. The '07 agreements covered all 10 Choice brands in 17 states.

According to Brian Parker, vice president of emerging markets and new business development, the chain seeks a wide range of entrepreneurs to join the Choice system. In addition to minority entrepreneurs who may want to invest in the hotel business, the team goes after business owners who have franchising and/or real estate experience. Targets include owners of restaurants, gas stations, convenience stores and car dealerships.

“These entrepreneurs have enough capital to invest in our business, but the challenge is convincing them to invest in one hotel instead of four or five more restaurants, for example,” says Parker. “Another challenge is to get them to realize they have the skills and related experience to be successful in hotels.”

One effective tool, says Parker, was an ad Choice ran that showed the similarity in skill sets between the hotel and restaurant businesses. The group also maintains a dedicated website to give potential licensees information about the hotel business and Choice.

FRACNHISE RELATIONS: WYNDHAM HOTEL GROUP

A closer affiliation between the Wingate and Wyndham flags makes a lot of sense, as it enables the two brands to leverage marketing, sales and training and to reach an expanded consumer base. Wingate franchisees thought so, too, as they gave the brand leadership a standing ovation when the integration was announced at last May's chain conference.

“As with most of the decisions we make, this one was grounded in strategy and research,” says Steve Rudnitsky, president and CEO of the Wyndham Hotel Group. “The two brands share very similar customer demographics and psychographics. We knew the move would be compatible for both brands and would create a powerful marketing umbrella.”

Since May, about 80 percent of Wingate properties have new signage with the Wingate by Wyndham logo. The hotels are also adding Wyndham's signature Michael Graves collection items, including specially designed coffeemakers and alarm clock radios. Together, the two brands encompass more than 240 properties across the upscale and midscale tiers.

Prospective guests can search for both Wingate and Wyndham on both brand websites. And calls to either reservation number will cross-sell to the other brand if the caller's first choice is not available. According to the company, the marketing tie-in has produced a 10-percent lift in revenues for Wingate.

DEVELOPMENT: AMERICAS BEST VALUE INN

Vantage Hospitality believes in using a variety of tools to lure new members to its Americas Best Value Inn brand. A particularly innovative one, and one that follows the company's mantra of openness, is Sales Presentation Internet News, or SPIN.

SPIN is a weekly (Wednesdays at 1 p.m. EST) webcast hosted by ABVI founder and Vantage President and CEO Roger Bloss that gives prospective members a chance to learn about the group and compare it to other franchise or membership chains. At the events, Bloss presents information about the brand and its advantages, but he also encourages participants to lead the discussion on topics of their choosing.

“SPIN is like taking a test drive without the high-pressure salesman,” says Bloss. “It is a very informal, yet comprehensive way to learn about ABVI's services, resources, programs and fees. I encourage people to ask me tough questions during the presentation. In fact, I tell them to go ahead and kick the tires, sit in the driver's seat and see if our affiliation model is right for them.”

Participants are asked to register for the webcast via the brand's website, but if space permits, anyone — current members, vendors, even competitors — can join the webcast and remain anonymous. Bloss believes the nature of a webcast, which allows spontaneous voice interaction, makes the experience more personal than gathering static information from a website.

The brand launched SPIN last July and says hundreds of prospective members have participated and “a large percentage have either applied and/or converted in the ABVI brand.” And given the international scope of the Internet, SPIN has attracted potential members from outside of the U.S. As a result, several international deals are in the pipeline, including one in Brazil.

OVERALL INNOVATION: CHOICE HOTELS

Choice Hotels was missing out on a lot of business because it had no properties in Hawaii. Likewise, members of its successful and growing Choice Privileges loyalty program weren't able to redeem points for vacations in the state. To solve the problem, Choice teamed up with Outrigger Hotels in a relationship that benefits both organizations.

Under the marketing alliance, six Outrigger-managed and/or affiliated properties will become part of Choice's boutique Clarion Collection brand. More importantly, the hotels will be plugged into the central reservations and other distribution systems of Choice, and Choice Privileges members will be able to earn and redeem points at the Outrigger properties.

“The Outrigger properties in the affiliation agreement are a good demographic match with other hotels in the Clarion Collection,” says Patrick Pacious, Choice's vice president of corporate development strategy. “And like other Collection properties, the Outriggers are in the upscale and midscale segments.”

The Outrigger properties included in the alliance are five hotels on Oahu, ranging from the 1,000-plus-room Ala Moana to the 217-room Outrigger Luana Waikiki, and one property on the island of Hawaii. In the future, the agreement may expand to include other properties in the Outrigger system.

And, says Pacious, the alliance could be a template for alliances in other attractive aspirational destinations in the world where Choice lacks coverage.

ENVIRONMENTAL ACTION: CANDLEWOOD SUITES

Oftentimes, doing the right thing is also the best thing to do for your business. Such was the case for Candlewood Suites, InterContinental Hotels Group's extended-stay brand. Last year, as the chain prepared to roll out its new bedding collection, IHG officials looked for a way to avoid sending the old bedding materials to landfills.

“We wanted to work with our hotels on their renovations in a way that is good for the community, good for the environment and good for the individual hotels,” says Tisha Rosamund, director of brand experience for Candlewood. “We found that opportunity through a partnership with the National Furniture Bank.”

The 55 Candlewoods in communities with access to NFB affiliates coordinated their bedding swap schedules with the charity. Companies hired to install the new bedding sets removed the old mattresses and materials and handed them off to NFB workers who donated them to needy families. In all, nearly 270 tons of discarded materials were diverted from landfills, and more than 4,300 families received useable bedding materials.

The program progressed swiftly and was completed in 100 days. Those Candlewood owners involved in the process collectively saved $100,000 in disposal costs.

Lessons learned from the exercise were integrated into re:serves, a recycling guide that's available to all IHG properties.

“re:serves is now part of IHG's official property improvement plan process for all brands,” says Vicki Gordon, senior vice president of corporate affairs. “When a hotel undergoes a renovation, the guide is presented to our owners urging them to consider using identified resources when remodeling and thus reusing and/or recycling as much as possible rather than discarding anything.”

VACATION OWNERSHIP: STARWOOD RESIDENCE CLUB

Officials at Starwood Vacation Ownership know that many of their customers want more than a vacation; they want an experience. Recognizing those desires, the company's Starwood Residence Club maintains an array of elite travel services that cater to its upscale ownership roster.

Members of the club gathered last year at the St. Regis Resort in Aspen (CO) to learn about the travel services and a new Vineyard Wine Club. Three special escorted tours were offered to the members for 2007, one to Napa Valley, one to Italy and one to Egypt and the Greek Isles.

The Classic Italy Tour started in Tuscany with members staying at the Ferragamo family's private villa in the village of Il Borro. The nine-day visit began with a welcome reception, private tour of the Ferragamo Vineyards, wine tasting and dinner. For the next three days, the club members enjoyed outdoor activities on the property, sampled Tuscan wines on the estate and surrounding vineyards and took a class in Tuscan cooking.

PUBLIC SERVICE: CARLSON HOTELS

Marilyn Carlson Nelson capped her tenure as chairman and CEO of Carlson Worldwide with an announcement that the Curtis L. Carlson Foundation will donate $1 million to the World Childhood Foundation. That may have been the single biggest example of public service for Carlson, but it certainly wasn't the only one.

Carlson continued its focus on diversity through many different initiatives. Several new franchises were added with owners representing women, minorities and the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. Carlson added a position on the corporate advisory board for the Hispanic Hotel Owners Association, in addition to already having board positions with the Asian American Hotel Owners Association and the National Association of Black Hotel Owners, Operators & Developers. Through Achieve!Minneapolis' STEP-UP program last year, Carlson Hotels hired 10 students of color for paid internships at hotels and the company's corporate office.

Carlson earned a perfect score on the 2007 Human Rights Campaign Corporate Equality Index and was recognized as one of the 100 best companies for working mothers.

In addition to the $1-million donation, Carlson also announced it has raised more than $400,000 during the past four years in support of the World Childhood Foundation, Carlson's designated global charity, which is dedicated to protecting children at risk from exploitation and trafficking around the world.

MARKETING: HYATT SUMMERFIELD SUITES

After buying Summerfield Suites in 2006, Hyatt's goal was remaking a brand that would stand out in the competitive upscale, extended-stay segment. Easier said than done, considering the competition all offers similar amenities like full kitchens, guest markets and homey furnishings.

The new Hyatt Summerfield Suites wanted to build brand awareness by offering the comforts of home with a neighborhood spirit. The ‘More Like Home’ program offers travelers an alternative to restaurant dining, which showcases the brand's services and amenities with a distinct personality. The face of the program, domestic guru Katie Brown, is a popular personality known for her easy and inexpensive ideas for cooking, decorating and gardening.

‘More Like Home’ started with the Summer Grilling Social, which replaced the Evening Social every Thursday during the summer. Guests got a new menu of traditional summer favorites created exclusively for Hyatt Summerfield Suites by Brown. The launch came with a public-relations blitz, an invitation to the social from the hotel's GM in every suite, tabletop tent cards in public spaces featuring Brown's photo and the new menu and a redesigned home page highlighting the program and the exclusive recipes.

Brown continued as program spokesperson with new seasonal recipes in the fall and winter.

More than 500 consumers downloaded recipes, the program got more than 30 million media impressions and guests and management embraced the weekly socials.

TECHNOLOGY: HOMEWOOD SUITES BY HILTON

Homewood Suites by Hilton's new web-based sales technology, the Interactive eTour on HomewoodSuites.com, gives guests a personal experience with a guided virtual tour before they step foot on the property.

The innovative idea features a brand representative guiding the viewer through in-depth reviews of available amenities, suites and business and leisure facilities. Homewood Suites by Hilton teamed up with Advanced Method, LCC and utilized the company's eVideo Flash technology to design the customized eTour. Advanced Method incorporated video, music, digital photography and motion graphics into a branded video player, delivering key messages and demonstrating the versatility of the all suite-brand.

Homewood Suites found the audio and visual approach was more compelling than just photos, and guests have responded with strong usage rates and enthusiastic customer feedback.

The eTour also can be used as a sales tool for attracting meeting and corporate travel planners. All Homewood Suites' TV advertisements are included as featured content on the site as well.

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