Chain Leadership Awards

It's a heady time in the U.S. lodging industry. As sales and profits rise, so do innovation and creativity, especially among the brand companies. Smart hoteliers — branded and independent alike — are looking for the silver bullet that will shoot them past the competition.

Each year, Lodging Hospitality salutes innovation in all forms among hotel chains. We received nearly 100 nominations in nine categories, a record in the four-year history of the awards program. Here are the 10 winners:


Marriott has raised the bar when it comes to “big hotel company” guestroom design. Say good-bye to clunky armoires and stiff floral print bedspreads. The new full-service guestrooms unveiled last year will be installed in newly developed hotels and replace current room décor and bedding in existing properties as renovations are scheduled.

“These rooms have a whole new look and feel,” said J.W. Marriott, Jr., chairman and CEO of Marriott International, addressing more than 800 of the company's general managers and executives last spring. “We heard our guests say they wanted more luxury, comfort and a stylish space they can tailor to work, relax, play, dine and refresh. We pulled elements from some of our best hotels around the world and took the room designs to a whole new level.”

The new Marriott Hotels & Resorts guestroom was inspired by the Park Lane Marriott in London, which was designed by Richmond International. The style aims to convey timeless sophistication that is warm and inviting with ample use of rich cherry wood and yellow and red tones. The look is clean and crisp with simple forms, straight lines and uncluttered surfaces. Upscale touches are created with stone, glass and chrome finishes.

A key component of the room is new bedding, which features a feathered mattress topper, 300-thread-count sheets, a white sheeted duvet freshly laundered for each new guest, euro shams, decorative bed scarf and more pillows. The rich wooden headboard extends from night table to night table and offers built-in reading lights.

Bathrooms feature two cherry entry doors, warm brown cherry millwork and granite countertops.

The room incorporates state-of-the-art technology and entertainment elements that include a 32-inch flat-panel LCD television, digital music and data ports. A custom-designed pivoting desk and high-back ergonomic chair provides comfort for business travelers, and high-speed Internet access keeps guests connected.

Guest research and testing showed strong preference for the new room, and 95 percent of the participants said they “loved” or “liked” the room so much they would dramatically increase their stays with Marriott.


Vantage Hospitality Group chose a bold strategy to launch its new Lexington Collection membership group for upscale properties. In formulating the concept for the new brand, the company asked prospective members for their input, not a radical concept for most businesses but nearly unheard of in the world of hotel licensing.

“It was a very simple decision for us,” says Vantage President & CEO Roger Bloss. “Our philosophy — and it's the same one we follow at Americas Best Value Inn — is that entrepreneurs who have their life savings wrapped up in their properties know a lot better about how a brand should work than do those of us in corporate headquarters. We try to educate, not mandate.”

At the ABVI annual convention in December, Vantage convened a no-holds-barred meeting (even the press was invited) so Lexington members and potential members could discuss the concept and strategies for the new brand.

The new Lexington brand has a number of facets unique to hotel franchising and membership. For one, its Freestyle Brand Membership Model allows members to choose one of four brand niches as well as a fee schedule and array of amenities that best fit each property and its target markets. Members select between a two-percent of rooms revenue fee and a set fee based on the number of rooms. Additionally, owners get to choose among a menu of 25-plus amenities, of which they need to adopt at least two-thirds.

Another plus: As part of the free structure and at no additional cost, member properties receive a PMS from IQWare.

Continuing the theme of member participation, Vantage is offering a seat of the brand's board of advisors for all property owners who join the brand during the first two quarters of 2006.

Response to the new product has been swift and positive. Five Lexingtons are open, and two new-build properties will soon break ground. In all, the chain has 14 signed agreements. One of the next to open will be a condo-hotel project being developed in downtown Orlando by Vantage partner Barry Greer. The property opens in late April.

One new high-profile member is Busch Series NASCAR driver Larry Hollenbeck, who last month signed an agreement to affiliate with Lexington a new hotel and waterpark he's developing. In turn, Vantage and ABVI have become sponsors of Hollenbeck's Busch Series car.

Bloss says the company has so far rejected nine prospective members because the properties didn't match Lexington's level of quality.


Helping franchisees make more money is the ultimate goal of the Positive Revenue Experience, or +RX, coupled with the Quality Assurance Initiative, or +GX, says Tony Berger, chief operating officer of the Cendant Hotel Group. +RX was a four-month initiative designed to capitalize on a rebounding economy; +GX aims to put guest and hotel on the same page by giving franchisees and managers access to guest satisfaction survey scores and customized, digital-quality assurance evaluation and improvement plans.

“The context in which we look at these is they're part of our strategic approach to business,” Berger says. “We believe that they're related most specifically in that the better the product and the higher the quality, the better the financial return for the franchisee. At the end of the day, it's really about driving franchisee performance — property performance — with a positive guest experience.”

The +RX initiative had three objectives: helping franchisees simplify pricing strategies; increasing franchisee room inventory allocation; and boosting franchisee participating in Cendant Hotel Group and brand programs. During the initiative, a Director of Business Development visited each hotel in the Cendant system, working with owners and managers to improve their yield management and cement their commitment to providing the best possible customer service.

So far, results have been highly positive. Improved rate management has yielded stronger RevPAR, positioning on third-party websites is higher, and franchisees are participating more in brand programs such as the TripRewards loyalty program.

Partially based on Medallia, customer feedback software Cendant adopted in late 2004, +GX has enabled franchisees to implement improvements to their properties and so enhance their profits, Berger suggests. “Our RevPAR growth has exceeded all of our industry benchmarks, and we're growing faster than our competitors,” he says. “We believe that's the result of two primary things: We're providing a better guest experience and we' re helping our franchisees maximize their revenue through +RX.”


Last year, Holiday Inn Express gave all of its U.S. and Canadian hotel rooms a $20-million-plus bathroom makeover. The Simply Smart shower program was developed in response to guest feedback concerning inconsistent water pressure, quality of towels and clinging shower curtains. The program aimed to provide a major point of differentiation from its competition, offering exclusive, proprietary products consistently across every hotel in the North American system. The company rolled out the program to the 1,300 properties and marketed it in a fun and interactive, yet informative manner.

To support the launch of the bath program, Holiday Inn Express created a “virtual shower experience.” The experience was added to the brand's web homepage last March, and afforded visitors a surprise-filled environment with which to learn about the new enhancements and tangible benefits they provide. For example, the Stay Smart showerhead by Kohler, manufactured exclusively for Holiday Inn Express, is sleek-looking and features a variety of spray settings. It also features a pressure-compensating flow regulator that is designed to provide strong and steady water pressure.

To help guests get a better idea of the showerhead, visitors to the site could see a 360-degree view, or click to turn on the water and change the spray settings. They could also take a humorous quiz to help them determine what kind of spray setting best suits their personality, view the shower campaign TV spots, or even buy the program elements online.

Holiday Inn Express spent about $10 million advertising the shower. For television, the creative challenge was to communicate the new shower message in a way that clearly links to the brand's Stay Smart campaign. To achieve this, advertising agency Fallon Minneapolis came up with concept of an everyday Joe who, as a result of his morning shower at Holiday Inn Express is suddenly infused with brilliance and so eager to implement his ideas that he dashes out of the shower and leaves the hotel with only a towel wrapped around his waist. After demonstrating several feats of awe-inspiring genius (such as finding ‘Big Foot’ or inventing an invisible plane) our hero is surprised when people ask if he is an expert. He laughingly delivers the now famous punch line, “…No, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night.”

The primary visual for the billboard creative was the Stay Smart showerhead by Kohler set against dripping-wet (Holiday Inn Express) blue tile. To maximize recognition, this graphic was integrated throughout the various media vehicles used in the campaign. The headline, “Extended Forecast. Heavy Showers,” hints at key benefits of the exclusive new Stay Smart showerhead by Kohler — delivering strong and steady water pressure. Because the showerhead was a clear winner in consumer testing, the company included “#1 Guest-Rated Shower” in the messaging.


It's all about providing choice in today's cutthroat hospitality market: guests demand it and savvy hoteliers are looking for new and innovative ways to offer it. Case in point — Radisson Hotels & Resorts and its Express Yourself online check-in service. Express Yourself enables guests to check in to Radisson properties via at their convenience, up to seven days in advance of their arrival, providing an expedited check-in and enabling more control of their hotel experience. Upon arrival, guests need only identify themselves at the front desk, before promptly receiving a key packet and hotel information. They can use Express Yourself up until 6 p.m. on the day of arrival and at least two hours prior to check- in. Guest-selected preferences are delivered automatically, every time they stay at a participating Radisson location. Guests are also given the choice of having either USA Today or the Wall Street Journal delivered to their hotel room weekday mornings during their stay.

Service preferences that guests can note on their profile include such options as estimated time of arrival, room preferences, an automated wake-up call time; and an opportunity to note other special requests. Some additional preferences can be noted based on a hotel's location and services.

Since its introduction last year, the service has grown to over 100,000 users and has been expanded to the company's Radisson Edwardian properties in the United Kingdom.

For further convenience, it added two bonus point award programs to the service, both designed to build awareness and drive further trial with both business and leisure travelers. Program Director Kris Lambrecht says the two new bonus point award programs targeted travel agents and first-time users of the service. “For travel agents who booked business travelers into our Radisson hotels everyday, we offered a Look to Book bonus point program,” says Lambrecht. The bonus program was available until the end of last year.

Express Yourself is just one facet of a five-year plan to bring the new Radisson branding strategy and identity to life. The new strategy, which company leaders call a “new way forward” to building a stronger and more distinct brand in an increasingly commodity-like industry, is focused on providing guests with more control over their travel experience by offering them the freedom to choose among relevant options.


Singling out just one hotel company for helping in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma seems unfair, so we've cited Starwood Hotels & Resorts, Accor North America and Best Western International for their humanitarian efforts.

Starwood put its money where its mouth is via a hurricane relief phone-a-thon for Starwood associates only, raising $750,000 in two days. The company matched those funds for a combined kitty of $1.5 million. An online auction immediately following the phone-a-thon raised another $550,000 from the public, along with Starwood's vendors, suppliers and development partners.

Yet another $350,000 was raised through the sale of $5 wristbands. Sales people included associates, the corporate office and Starwood's hotels around the world.

On an even more tangible front, Starwood hotels in Dallas provided Starwood associates displaced from hurricane-ravaged hotels with free housing, food, social services and family-related events. In addition, Southeast Regional Vice President Kevin Regan testified to Congress on best practices in an effort to keep the mistakes of 2005 from repeating during the upcoming hurricane season. Starwood was the only hotel company solicited for such testimony.

At Accor North America, the general managers of Red Roof Inn, Motel 6 and Studio 6 opened their hotel doors to 18,000 hurricane evacuees, providing free housing, three meals a day, and spiritual and emotional help. The company also opened Accor's Katrina Relief Fund at Bank of America as well as a separate, intra-employee fund to help displaced Accor workers.

Accor also coordinated with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, providing updates to guests via flyers and posters. The chain also worked with non-profit relief agencies like the Houston Area Urban League, hosting a housing fair at a Red Roof Inn in a densely populated evacuee area.

Best Western International, too, raised well over $1 million for hurricane relief, opened its doors to American Red Cross relief workers and hurricane victims, and held an auction.

NASCAR fans from around the country bid on a chance to receive a Domino's Pizza party for 25 delivered by two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip in the Best Western #99 Busch Series Street Car. The package also included a photo and autograph session with Waltrip, one free Domino's pizza per month for a year, and other NASCAR memorabilia. The winning $4,605.55 bid was the highest of the auction, which raised nearly $50,000 for American Red Cross Hurricane Katrina relief efforts.


Always on the technological tip, Canadian luxury hotel company Fairmont Hotels & Resorts is pushing the envelope again with the self-service kiosks it plans to roll out to all 44 of its North American hotels. The aim of the kiosks is not only to meet but also anticipate the ever-evolving and growing expectations of today's traveler, Fairmont says. Besides the usual check-in/-out capabilities, these new kiosks, which made their debut at the Fairmont Royal York in Toronto, allow guests to customize their guestroom selection through a proprietary graphical map.

“It's a very similar concept to seat selection on an airplane kiosk,” says Mike Rodger, Fairmont's director of application development. “Through that graphical map, guests can pick their own room and see the variety of features offered by that room.” Features of choice include bed type, view, proximity to staircases, elevators and ice machines, and floor preference.

To further streamline the travel experience, Fairmont is working on integrating its kiosks with the airlines so a guest can check in or out and book a flight at the same time. So far, Air Canada has been integrated, but Fairmont is exploring tie-ins to other carriers, says Rodger. The kiosks are made by IBM. Fairmont and IBM collaborated on software that ties the kiosk to the hotel's property management system.

As “point person” for kiosk development, Rodger wanted to develop “an avenue for our guests to check themselves in and out of the hotel. It's really a self-service function,” he says. And it's service to Fairmont: Besides enabling guests to check in and out, book a flight and get their room key, the kiosks allow them to instantly enroll in the Fairmont President's Club guest loyalty program.


Timeshare is a highly competitive business in which resort companies vie not only for customers but for the best employees, especially those in the sales and marketing fields. For the past two years, Marriott Vacation Club International has been working to better recruit, develop and retain its associates. The result is MVCI's new Talent Relationship Management strategy that combines a number of measurement, analytical and remedial tools.

“We've always valued human capital above all, but we've struggled at times to analyze our associates and their efficiencies,” says Ed Kinney, vice president of corporate affairs and brand awareness. “With TRM, we believe we have a tool to help us develop peak performances from associates while improving their satisfaction, which reduces turnover.”

Developed under the leadership of Executive VP-Sales & Marketing and Chief Customer Officer Pete Watzka and Vice President-TRM Allen Cervasio, TRM uses survey techniques to help associates assess their strengths and then receive coaching to further develop their talents. P3 is another facet of the program that trains managers in the fundamentals of reaching their peak personal performance. The tools embedded in TRM also help the company recruit talent.

“Because of the tremendous growth in our industry, the competition for associates, especially front-line sales people, has been intense,” says Kinney. “TRM enables us to evaluate and attract people from other businesses or from other talent pools who can become good sales people.”

Kinney says the company continues to refine its TRM strategy. In the future, for example, technology will play a bigger role in the process, particularly in measuring associates' skills and strengths.

“We also intend to work harder to ensure total participation in the survey aspects of the program,” he says. “And, we're also looking at different measurements to gauge associates in various work roles, such as operations versus marketing versus sales, etc.”

Kinney says TRM has been a major success. “It's a huge investment, but it has returned tenfold to the company,” he says. The company has received several honors it traces to its human resources strategies. For the past two years, for example, Selling Power magazine has named MVCI as the top company in the nation to sell for in the service category. And from a bottom-line point of view, MVCI is an unqualified success, racking up nine consecutive years of 20-percent-plus revenue growth. Last year, the company had $1.46 billion in sales.

Visit www.LHonline for more information and related articles.


The Best of the Best

From nearly 100 nominations in nine categories, the editors of Lodging Hospitality selected 10 chains for its fourth annual Chain Leadership Awards. The winners:

  • Design & Décor — Marriott International for the new look and feel of guestrooms in its full-service Marriott brand.

  • Development — Vantage Hospitality for the member-centered roll-out of its new upscale Lexington Collection product.

  • Franchise Relations — Cendant Hotel Group for its revenue generation and quality initiatives for franchisees.

  • Marketing — Holiday Inn Express for its clever, memorable and effective ad campaign promoting its Simply Smart Shower initiative.

  • Overall Innovation — Radisson Hotels & Resorts for its Express Yourself online check-in system.

  • Public Service — Accor North America, Best Western and Starwood Hotels & Resorts for their exemplary and passionate response to the Hurricanes Katrina and Rita tragedies on the Gulf Coast.

  • Technology — Fairmont Hotels & Resorts for its self-service lobby kiosks.

  • Timeshare — Marriott Vacation Club International for its Talent Relationship Management strategy.

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