Hot SHOWERS

If consistency is the holy grail of hotel brand marketing, then Holiday Inn Express takes the gospel a step further. “In the world of packaged goods, consumers know a product will be consistent no matter where they purchase it,” says Jenifer Zeigler, senior VP of brand marketing for Holiday Inn Express and a former executive with packaged goods giants Procter & Gamble and Coca-Cola. “Unfortunately, because consumers don't have that same confidence in hotels, it's very hard for a brand to build loyalty. The key in the lodging business is to create consistent offerings and experiences that also are different and superior to those of your competitors.”

The brand's latest effort to create a differentiated and consistent brand offering is in the Holiday Inn Express bathroom. Last October, the chain launched a $20-million bathroom makeover program that will take just six months to implement across the massive 1,500-property system. As many chains have done, the bathroom redo involves upgraded towels, a new line of bath amenities, curved shower rod and a white, hookless shower curtain.

The differentiator is a multi-function showerhead that Kohler Corp. developed exclusively for Holiday Inn Express. Zeigler and her team tested 14 different showerheads before making their choice. “Cost wasn't the key concern,” she says, adding that the Kohler head was neither most nor least expensive. “It had to be the best, and it had to be proprietary to our brand.

“We chose the showerhead as the focal point of the bathroom because research showed us that if a guest is unhappy about the shower experience, he or she is more likely to feel bad about the stay at the property,” says Zeigler. “And in talking to guests further, they told us that inadequate shower pressure is their most common complaint.”

As of late February, all rooms in the chain have the new showerheads, curved shower rods and upgraded towels, and they'll all have the new bath amenities by the end of April.

Zeigler says response to the showerheads from franchisees and guests has been “so overwhelming that they all want one for their homes.” The chain recently opened a website to sell them to consumers and more than 100 were sold in the site's first week of business.

ON A ROLL

The genesis of Holiday Inn Express' new bathroom look is found in a cinnamon roll. About four years ago, Zeigler started her quest to find the killer amenity or service that could separate the brand from the competitive pack. During three months in early '03, the brand rolled out its Express Start breakfast bar, a total redo of the signature amenity for most limited-service hotels. The bar has a sleek look and includes a number of items exclusive to Holiday Inn Express, including its Smart Roast gourmet coffee and the now-famous cinnamon rolls.

Zeigler says the Express Start initiative met with some resistance, and not just because of the $2,500 per-property start-up cost. “We never before mandated such a program or was as firm on the consistency of the offering,” she says. “Interestingly, most of the resistance came from our best franchisees, who believed they already were offering a breakfast that was superior to their competition. The difference was that we were able to provide a service that was not only better than the competition but also consistent across the entire chain.”

The doubters quickly turned into believers: Following implementation of the breakfast program, Holiday Inn Express gained two points in market share and realized $20 million in incremental revenues. In the first year, the typical franchisee saw a seven-fold return on investment in the conversion to the new breakfast concept, and, according to Zeigler, even the top 10 percent of properties in the system recorded increases in business.

AT CENDANT

Other limited-service chains — including several in the Cendant Hotel Group — are jumping on the bathroom bandwagon. One of the most ambitious is the SolTerre Shower Experience that Days Inn introduced at its annual conference in January.

The Days program, which the chain says will cost less than $50 per room to implement, includes a six-function showerhead, hookless shower curtain and curved rod. Biggest change is a new line of citrus-scented soaps and shampoos infused with sunflower and grapefruit extracts. Packaging ties to the chain's well-known sunburst logo.

“In the past, some franchisees have asked us why we used logo soaps,” says Days Inn President Joe Kane in explaining the switch. “The new look of the amenities gives the properties a boutique look and raises the brand's overall value proposition.”

Best of all, because the chain is using a drop-ship program to distribute the products, the new amenities will cost franchisees less than the old line: the shampoo, for example, is two cents less per bottle than the previous product.

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