TORONTO — Unisource’s inaugural Strategic Branding Conference for the lodging sector united industry experts to explore the benefits and challenges of branding, showing how successful branding can help hotels stand out in the market, improve the guest experience and boost revenue.

Tony Pollard, president of the Hotel Association of Canada, laid the foundation for the conference, giving an overview of the association’s Annual Travel Intentions Survey, which shows that mid-market hotels with restaurants are attracting the most leisure travellers. Interestingly, when business travellers are selecting a hotel, the number-1 attribute they look for is friendly service, followed by free Wi-Fi in rooms and a property that’s close to work. There’s also a growing opportunity to market the “greenness” of a property, as it’s becoming a non-negotiable for business travel bookers.

Meanwhile, as Canada’s development pipeline grows by Smith Travel Research’s reported 200 hotels, there’s never been a more important time to maximize brand efficiency. The key is to carve out a niche. “Eighty per cent of CEOs believe their brand is differentiated, but only eight per cent of consumers agree,” warned Dr. Chekitan Dev, associate professor of Strategic Marketing and Brand Management at Cornell University, referring to a Bain & Co. study.  In explaining the 10 challenges to branding, he noted transparency is a challenge, due to the popularity of online review sites and social media. “It’s almost as if you’re operating your hotel with a bubble around it,” he added, urging hotel owners to respond quickly and on-brand to reviews and customer feedback.

The attendees also learned tricks and tips from branding experts, such as Julie Cottineau, CEO of BrandTwist, who examined the popularity of consumer brands, such as Nike and Virgin Atlantic. Successful brands identify a problem (such as long check-in lines), and provide a solution. “When does your brand experience begin and end? It doesn’t start and stop where you think it does,” Cottineau told the crowd, giving an example of Virgin Atlantic airlines, where the branding experience begins in the customer’s home. The customer is picked up by a Virgin Airlines limo and taken to the airport, bypassing the long airport lines with a streamlined check-in process. Attendees learned that incorporating customer feedback into branding is paramount, and, later, they formed groups to identify areas of improvement in hotels. By recreating hotel experiences, they found ways to add value for their guests by rewarding loyal customers, identifying partnerships and endorsements and creating new products.

Later in the afternoon, Cottineau noted that hotel brands are becoming complacent in certain procedures and should break free from that mould to attract business. She offered standard check-in times, as an example. “Hoteliers don’t want to change the way they’ve always done it because of inventory levels, but a company like Zipcar proves a rental doesn’t have to be a 24-hour period — and it works.” Most importantly, execs learned that the most effective brand champions are its frontline workers; empowering front-desk employees and housekeepers to solve problems without escalating issues is a key to success.

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