In an industry with dizzying occupancy-rate surges and drop-offs, it is tempting to take shortcuts when building a hotel brand. Chasing travel fads and cutting room rates may help business in the short term, but a successful hotel brand takes a long time to establish effectively.
A good brand means more in today’s market. Globally, branded hotels are growing at three times the rate of non-branded hotels. In a time of tighter credit, lenders prefer dealing with bigger hotel brands, as they believe there is more security in a solid long-term return on investment. Even as we began to see the beginnings of a global economic downturn in the first half of this year, we still had more signings than in the first half of 2007.
Despite a global slowdown and a temporary overcapacity in some Chinese cities, luxury is here to stay, in good times and in bad. Certain groups of travelers will always expect the standards and experiences they are used to and will always look for top-end hotels when they travel.
To consistently attract this market segment – especially in the darker days of the market – luxury hotels need much more than fleeting advertising campaigns and competitive room rates. Luxury hotel brands are built upon their reputations and having a consistent, high level of service is the best way to garner a quality reputation.
Service with a smile
Staff training and service development are two of the most vital components of building and maintaining a luxury hotel brand.
Hotels must encourage their staff to use their local knowledge to help guests get more from their travel destinations and have authentic and enriching experiences. While many brands simply promote their positioning and service culture via their advertising, hotels need to invest time, money and resources in their people.
Our research shows that, in addition to expecting great service from hotels, high-end travelers worldwide often go out of their way to make new discoveries. They a greater interest in experiencing local life than the mass market. Luxury travelers now demand much more than the usual tourist sites. Whether it is bicycle tours through Beijing’s hutongs or dim sum cooking classes in Hong Kong, hotels must have an array of services to match the demand. Local culture must be effectively combined with a hotels’ global brand.
Here, hotels’ concierge services must be prepared. For instance, InterContinental offers consumers an "insider" look at destinations prior to arrival through a series of short online films featuring the local concierge. Hotel websites should develop strong destination-specific concierge websites, available exclusively to guests with confirmed reservations. Local information, interactive maps and insider tips and suggestions need to be made available. These sites do the job of giving guests answers to basic questions, so that concierges’ time is freed up to handle the more unique and complicated requests that add more value to guests’ experience.
Power to choose
At the luxury level, guests want the ability to choose both how much or how little a hotel will serve them. For example, upon arrival at hotels, some guests may prefer to carry their own bags to their rooms. Even in this kind of minor situation, employees need to be trained to give these guests their own space without insisting on carrying their bags if that is a service guests prefer not to have.
In other words, luxury needs to remain practical. Guests at the higher end are increasingly conscious of their environmental impact. Hotels must take on new initiatives to prove themselves sufficiently "green." Though the US and Europe are still in the push for progressive energy-efficiency standards for hotels, China is catching up. In the run-up to the Olympics, Beijing ordered hotels in the capital to reduce energy usage and conserve water.
InterContinental launched an enrivonmental initiative in the US last year to replace over 250,000 incandescent light bulbs. The program is expected to result in an annual reduction of almost 50 million pounds of carbon dioxide emissions. For hotels operating in China, such brand-boosting campaigns are not far away, and hotels need to begin preparing themselves.