Signing On

In 1951, Kemmons Wilson built the first Holiday Inn, a 120-room property, for $330,000. Now it will cost franchisees of Holiday Inn and Holiday Inn Express up to $150,000 just to upgrade their properties with fresh ff&e, including a dramatic new sign. Building a hotel, of course, costs millions today.

Executives of InterContinental Hotels Group, Holiday Inn's parent company, think the time is right for a big change, despite the cost. InterContinental is putting its money where its mouth is, investing $60 million in the relaunch.

The Holiday Inn sign hasn't varied much over the years, but it's about to, big-time. In late October, IHG unveiled new signage for Holiday Inn Hotels & Resorts and Holiday Inn Express. That is the centerpiece of an upgrade they consider one of the biggest events in the brands' history — perhaps, even, in the lodging industry.

They may be right. The Holiday Inn sign, particularly its first iteration, the “great sign,” symbolized the hotel industry in the middle of the last century, telling interstate travelers they were about to pull into a place that felt like home. Today, “hundreds of millions of people…drive by Holiday Inn products,” said Andrew Coslett, IHG chief executive. He called the $1-billion upgrade — the figure includes all the investments required, spanning brand and franchisees — a “significant event in the hotel industry.”

He's right on target. Not only will the upgrade be massive, the relaunch was a veritable extravaganza, culminating in a tour of the “Holiday Inn Experience,” a 50,000-square-foot space designed to persuade the 5,500 conference attendees who circulated through it that investing in the upgrade is worth it. The Experience alone, which featured “scent screens,” wall-sized high-definition television displays, a dance troupe and guides relating highlights of Holiday Inn history, cost IHG some $2 million; it was impressive, high-tech and elaborate, befitting a “family” of brands that together represent approximately 3,200 hotels around the world.

Starting this quarter, IHG executives said, Holiday Inn and Holiday Inn Express franchisees will have to upgrade their properties significantly, including spending on the new signage, modernized public spaces and ff&e including new shower heads and upgraded bedding. The upgrade is mandatory; hoteliers who fail to meet an 84-percent quality threshold risk losing the Holiday Inn flag. IHG will help; it recently beefed up its quality assurance staff, which now numbers 40. What's key is the upgrade will have to be earned.

In their addresses at the annual Americas Investors and Leadership Conference in Dallas, IHG executives were both sobering and hopeful. As Stevan Porter, IHG's president for the Americas, said, the biggest issue with Holiday Inn is quality. Refreshing the brand with the new signage and innards will fix that, he suggested — or else: Franchisees who don't get with the program may find themselves deflagged.

REFRESHING THE BRAND

The theme of Holiday Inn is “accessible comfort,” Mark Snyder, Holiday Inn's senior vice president of brand management, told conference attendees. Sporting custom cowboy boots with the new, vivid brand signage sewn onto the toe, the flamboyant marketing expert said the theme of Holiday Inn Express is “inspired simplicity.” The idea behind the relaunch is to revive both brands by streamlining them.

In an interview in late December, Snyder said that about 160 “franchisee intercepts” of the Holiday Inn Experience were positive. Franchisees who toured the Experience were excited “by the uptake on need for change and the taste for change,” he said, “and the elements that supported the change, particularly the sign, were extremely well-accepted.”

Starting this month, all new Holiday Inn and Express hotels will feature the new signage. It alone will cost each franchisee $70,000 to $100,000, the low end for Express, the high end for a full-service Holiday Inn. Some 25 pilot hotels will feature the upgrade starting late this month, giving InterContinental a chance to “pressure-test the logistics of installation,” including the sign, a new back wall for the reception desk, “and the refreshed bedding and shower experience,” Snyder said. In February and March, IHG will host a series of regional workshops to give franchisees specifics and “ a sense of confidence that we know what it takes to get this stuff installed with a minimum of hassle for both owners and guests.” The rollout should be complete by the end of the first quarter of 2010 in the Americas and by the end of that year worldwide.

At the conference, Snyder presented a capsule history of the sign, showing how he and his team decided to tweak the traditional green of the Holiday Inn sign — he said the color of the current iteration evoked ‘70s shag carpet — to a fresher hue and settle on blue for its Ex- press counterpart. Snyder makes smooth presentations; what he doesn't show is the work that went on behind the scenes.

“Naturally, when you're recommending a magnitude of change like this, you're going to be challenged,” he said in December. “The fact of the matter is that globally, we had over 100 million stays in 2006, so naturally, people would say, wow, 100 million stays, we must be doing something right.

“We are doing a lot of things right, but there are a lot of things we learned that guests told us though both their perceptions and their experience of a stay at Holiday Inn or Express.”

Stevan Porter suggested during the conference that the new imagery will not only refresh the brand, it could be “one of those tides that lifts all boats,” energizing the Holiday Inn siblings and other IHG brands like StayBridge Suites, Hotel Indigo and Candlewood Suites, which are modernizing on a smaller, lower-profile scale. And Peter Gowers, who just left IHG'S top marketing post to oversee its efforts in Asia Pacific (IHG has 43 hotels in the pipeline in China alone), said “beacon brands” like Holiday Inn have to change as consumer tastes change. The critical consumer travel trends, he said, are that travelers want to be self-sufficient; crave well-being in their habits, their purchases and environmental activism; and want brands to “keep it real.”

“We live in a transparent world,” said Gowers, citing such social networking sites as MySpace and YouTube and such consumer sites as TripAdvisor. “Our guests want us to give it to them straight.”

GOING BEYOND THE LOOK

InterContinental, of course, is doing more than a physical upgrade. It has beefed up training, supporting its quality demands with staff that can measure quality and stressing the service guests value so highly.

Taking all these steps is necessary for the new signage to have meaning and impact, says Lalia Rach, divisional dean and HVS International Chair at the Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism, and Sports Management, New York University.

“You can't just put in a new sign,” this veteran trend-spotter says. “You can't just change the font. The analogy would be if you put fresh frosting on a week-old cake. Whether we're talking Holiday Inn or any other brand that is revitalizing itself, the proof is not only in the signage but in the product: in the room, the public spaces and most importantly, in the personnel. Has the culture been re-enthused?”

InterContinental must deliver the same attention to “redefining for the employees what the Holiday Inn brand stands for” as it has to the relaunch, Rach says. “There's nothing wrong if it's going to stand for the core values it originally was developed upon,” says Rach, who adds that she likes the sign. “But you're updating it for the 21st century, for the current consumer…The sign is iconic; the recognition of that is global. The point, though, is that in recognizing that sign, do you recognize a tired brand or a revitalized brand? The only way you know is when you're on the property, when you're calling into the 800 number, when you're on the website.”

For a view from outside the industry, let's turn to Thomas Hine, former design editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer and author of The Great Funk, a recently published book about the style and mores of the ‘70s. With its fresh look, updated script and slant, the signage is an effective update, says Hine, a social critic with a particularly acute eye for aesthetics. But it goes deeper than that. And there are problems new signage can't solve.

“I kind of like the new sign,” says Hine, who also is known for his book Populuxe, an examination of the cultural texture of the mid-'50s through the mid-'60s. “I like the way the H takes on the whole heritage of the brand. It's about an intersection of the interstate: two lanes. It's nice and clear. Holiday Inn will never have a sign as important as its first. That sign didn't just create a brand, it virtually created a whole industry, it was sort of the end of the mom-and-pop hotel; for slightly more money on the highway, you got a reasonable standard of accommodation.”

In addition, because the Holiday Inn sign has until now had space for a message board, it also settled the traveler, effectively bridging local roads and the interstate system that folksy visionary Kemmons Wilson leveraged so well.

“I remember being in Maine and seeing a (Holiday Inn) sign saying, Smelt — all you can eat, and I realized I was really in Maine,” Hine says. “The doubleness about it — being a part of the highway and being a kind of landmark in the local community — was something you could only get away with at the beginning.”

Mark Snyder, who shepherded the new imagery through all IHG executive levels and IAHI, the IHG owners' association, compared the new sign to such icons as the Apple, Nike and Target logos. Hine might well agree.

“I kind of like logos that have a deep reference, the deep DNA of what they represent,” Hine says. “I think this one really does.”

THE BIG IDEAS

Look past the look

New signage can be impressive, but the property and staff must be refreshed, too.

Fire up the troops and the rest will follow

The “Holiday Inn Experience” was a massive promotional effort, befitting a massive image upgrade. Dazzling and deep, it meant to sizzle like the introduction of a new BMW model.

Keep it clean, keep it straight

The new, minimalist and rakish Holiday Inn signage aims to communicate the new, streamlined, uncluttered Holiday Inn and Holiday Inn Express.

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.


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