It's Good Experience

If hotel company executives like Steve Heyer had their way, the hotels of tomorrow wouldn't even have guestrooms. Instead, they would be a series of very large living rooms in which guests sat in comfy couches, listening to soothing music while they sip designer coffee drinks. The lighting would be low and the scents sensual. In short, the hotel of the future would be less a place to spend the night and more another venue in which to socialize, meet friends and strangers and perhaps even conduct some business.

This scenario is an exaggeration, to be sure, but it illustrates the fourth-wave thinking that's happening in CEO offices and boardrooms at many major global hotel companies. Everyone is jumping on the experiential bandwagon; that is, creating hotel products and services that speak directly to the lifestyles of various groups of guests.

Part of this movement grew out of the ongoing industry response to the changing demographics of travelers (i.e., Gen Xers will soon overtake Baby Boomers as the largest class of hotel customers). Beyond that important sea change, however, is the drive by many brand executives to shed the commodity mindset rampant for decades in the hotel business. This old thinking emphasized location and cost over physical product and the psychic needs of guests. The mantra was “a bed is a bed; it's the property's location that guides consumer choices.” Development under this philosophy mandated strict consistency, iron-clad standards and lowest-possible-cost design and construction.

Back to Heyer. At last month's first-ever Starwood Media Summit, Starwood CEO Heyer and his band of brand leaders turned their Armani-clad backs to this notion. Instead, they spoke only about the power of brands and how Starwood can enhance that power through products that create experiences guests need and want when they travel.

It may sound a little zen to you, but the hotel business seems to be on the cusp of a significant breakthrough in the ways it views its product, its customers and its ways to reach those customers. Like some, but not all lodging leaders, Heyer has a background in consumer product marketing, rather than hotels. Heyer came from Coke, Steve Rudnitsky of Cendant got his training at Kraft, Nabisco and Pepsi and Andrew Cosslett of InterContinental is a veteran of Cadbury Schweppes' European operations.

One tenet of consumer goods marketing is the need to create a story for the brand, usually through a loveable icon (the Pillsbury Doughboy), a ubiquitous character (Ronald McDonald) or a sympathetic symbol (Juan Valdez). During their media presentations last month, each Starwood executive devoted significant time to explaining their individual brand's mission, value and iconic story.

One I found especially interesting was on Four Points, Starwood's upscale brand that's always lacked a clear-cut identity, either among guests or in the development community. Under brand leader Hoyt Harper, Starwood aims to position the brand as one that appeals to uncomplicated, self-sufficient travelers who want a hotel that gets the basics right.

The reimaging program includes a new logo, new bedding, beefed-up service training, lobby brew pubs and a new menu loaded with comfort foods. The brand icon is simple, direct and appealing to all: the pie. Each hotel will offer four kinds of fresh-baked pies as a symbol of its desire to meet the needs of its core guests, travelers who want the basics done simply and efficiently.

These and other new kinds of branding attempts will probably have mixed results, with as many misses as hits. But, it's key that the industry adopt this strategy. We've all been worried for years about commoditization, and branding and experiential lodging are the logical antidotes to that poison.

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