Thank you for sharing!

Your article was successfully shared with the contacts you provided.

Maria Wood is senior editor of Real Estate Forum, from which this article was excerpted.

At its media summit in New York City in May, Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc.’s CEO Steven Heyer gave what could be considered an unusual speech by the head of a major lodging company. Yes, he mentioned Starwood’s strategic plans for expansion and RevPAR. But he also talked about creating a sensory bond with guests. “A brand,” he said, “is not just a bed and a room, but a unique experience.”

Those themes were further supported by the company’s marketing chief, Javier Benito. “There is more emotional connection between a consumer and a detergent than a hotel room,” he said.

Such comments, however, shouldn’t be all that surprising, considering both executives came to the hotel industry from Coca-Cola. In essence, they want guests to relate to Starwood’s brands in the same way they do other consumer products, like laundry detergent or soft drinks.

Starwood is not alone in this new era of brand marketing. Not too long ago, leading lodging companies competed on price and the comfort of their rooms, leading to “bed wars” among the major flags. Today, those same firms are fighting for customers’ inner consciousness through marketing campaigns that emphasize the emotional experience a traveler can get at their hotels. Exotic scents, new lighting schemes, music and training programs that sensitize hotel staffers to guests’ needs are key components of this new approach.

Part of the reason behind these New Age marketing programs is a recognition by the companies that competing on the physical aspects of a hotel, or even rates, goes only so far in attracting guests. It’s also a way to update their images in an increasingly brand-crowded lodging universe.

“For Westin, it’s a transition from a product-driven strategy to this lifestyle-driven approach,” explains Sue Brush, senior vice president of Westin Hotels & Resorts, part of White Plains-based Starwood’s stable of brands. “In 1999, we introduced the Heavenly Bed and followed up with the Heavenly Bath. And then it was the Westin Workout. At some point, we asked ourselves, how much more product strategy can we really afford? How long is that going to continue to be a differentiator, because if it’s the product, it is easy for someone to replicate. You can’t keep adding things to the guest room and the lobby. How can we truly change that experience?”

Newer brands, in particular, have latched onto this lifestyle approach to marketing. “The select-serve segment, where some of the new names like Aloft and Hyatt Place are focused, is trying to relate to travelers in the 20- to 50-year-old age group who are looking for hotels that not only provide for a quality room but will also give them a level of service or ambiance that go beyond the four walls,” says Michael Fishbin, national director of hospitality advisory services for Ernst & Young LLP in New York City.

But it’s not just the newer brands undertaking these initiatives. Even well-established names are getting into the act. In January, Hilton Hotels kicked off what it terms its “re-ignition” program, a three-year, $1.2-billion campaign. It’s a three-pronged effort, according to Kirk Thompson, vice president of marketing for the Beverly Hills, CA-based chain. The hotels will be refurbished and, similar to Westin, staff members will be trained to anticipate guests’ needs, in order to “make their stay in our hotels more productive, relaxing or indulgent, depending upon their travel occasion,” the VP says. The third part is a marketing strategy based on “forming a contemporary and emotional connection with travelers.”

Spurring this new marketing tactic by Hilton is a recognition that even a venerable name must reach out beyond just its core customers. “We recognize that we need to deliver a great experience for those who are just starting to travel for business as well as an audience of younger people who have always traveled and expect to do so as part of how they enjoy life,” Thompson says. The company is also increasing its attention to other groups, such as women and couples.

Other mature lodging firms are stepping up their marketing efforts and sprucing up their properties and services as well, Fishbin notes. “Some of those more traditional brands are trying to or are successfully updating and refreshing their furnishings and other amenities,” he says. “But there are brands that are becoming a bit more obsolete and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the longer standing ones continue to fade and ultimately, go away.”

Which ones? Fishbin declines to offer up any names, but says, “there are several brands that are more traditional full-service hotels that are at the moment getting a run for their money and need to take more aggressive measures to continue to compete or run the risk of becoming less relevant to the industry.”

There is also the question of whether selling the experience one can get at a hotel, no matter how comforting, has the power to wrench consumers away from the Internet booking sites and simply shopping for the lowest price.

Yet the brand executives say that just as most guests are looking for more than a basic hotel room, they also seek something beyond the cheapest rate. “Over the past several years, the airlines in some cases did allow their experience to become commoditized,” Brush says. “Hotels were watching that very closely. We are not going to become a commodity. That’s why we went for the very visible product innovations and now we are moving to the lifestyle innovations. People will have an affinity for our brands, just like other consumer products. That’s obviously the emotion we’re trying to build with all of this, and it is starting to work.”

Fishbin maintains that many consumers are looking for value, not simply to spend the least amount of cash. He points to the boutique hotel phenomenon as evidence of that. “Through branding, there is an anticipation of what the product will offer and how it relates to the individual and his or her lifestyle,” he says.

Staying relevant with consumers is one thing. But staying relevant with developers and owners is just as important. They are, after all, the ones who are footing the bill, in whole or part, for these upgrades and new marketing programs.

The executives say, so far, the response has been favorable from current owners and prospective developers. “I’ve been with Westin for many years, and the most hotels I can ever remember us opening is six in one year,” says Brush. “This year, we are either opening or converting 20 properties and next year, 23. There are 94 in the pipeline behind that. That is an incredible mandate by owners and developers that there is great interest in the Westin brand.”

Interestingly, Fishbin suggests that one reason behind the emergence of these experiential marketing efforts is the popularity of mixed-use projects. In other words, developers want the hotel brand to complement and give a certain cache to the other components of the project, be it residential or retail.

The brand marketing executives concede that the effort to lure in guests with the promise of a relaxing, fruitful hotel stay is not a process that produces quick results. It will take a while to break into the consciousness of consumers. “It’s fundamentally about bringing what has always been an important icon in the industry, the Hilton brand, into the contemporary world of mixed-purpose travel across all ages and all experiences,” Thompson says. “And as such, it’s a long-term strategy.”

Want to continue reading?
Become a Free ALM Digital Reader.

Once you are an ALM digital member, you’ll receive:

  • Unlimited access to GlobeSt and other free ALM publications
  • Access to 15 years of GlobeSt archives
  • Your choice of GlobeSt digital newsletters and over 70 others from popular sister publications
  • 1 free article* every 30 days across the ALM subscription network
  • Exclusive discounts on ALM events and publications

*May exclude premium content
Already have an account?



Join GlobeSt

Don't miss crucial news and insights you need to make informed commercial real estate decisions. Join GlobeSt.com now!

  • Free unlimited access to GlobeSt.com's trusted and independent team of experts who provide commercial real estate owners, investors, developers, brokers and finance professionals with comprehensive coverage, analysis and best practices necessary to innovate and build business.
  • Exclusive discounts on ALM and GlobeSt events.
  • Access to other award-winning ALM websites including ThinkAdvisor.com and Law.com.

Already have an account? Sign In Now
Join GlobeSt
Live Chat

Copyright © 2021 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All Rights Reserved.