IN light of the unprecedented circumstances of the past year, brands have been focused on building trust and clearly defining their value proposition – for both guests and operators.
During Best Western Hotels & Resorts’ (BWHR) virtual conference in 2020, president & CEO, David Kong, highlighted the importance of brands using their marketing to connect with customers on an emotional level. “It’s been said, when you turn off the lights all [hotel] rooms look the same. The product experience is really not a big differentiator,” he explained. “So, how can Best Western stand apart in this crowded space? Our mission to lead the industry in superior customer care is more than a corporate slogan, it’s who we are. Being kind and caring has always been in our DNA [and] ‘Because We Care’ should be the starting point of everything we do. In this COVID-19 environment, this purpose is even more important.”
In this environment, safety, comfort, familiarity and flexibility have all become key elements of the brand identities being communicated to consumers. “After a year without travel, people are excited to get moving, but they are out of practice. Many will be seeking out ‘comfort travel,’ with a return to familiar places and brands,” says Matt Schuyler, Chief Brand Officer, Hilton.
For Toronto-based Silver Hotel Group, these unique conditions required a shift in how it positioned its hotel portfolio. “Our messaging right across the board is quite simple, it’s various ways of saying ‘exchange your four walls for our four walls,” explains the company’s vice-president, Shivani Ruparell. These messages revolve around the idea of escaping the mundane daily routine. ìYour audience right now is so local…[so] it’s definitely a very different message than it would normally be, coming into this time of year when you’re [usually] looking to attract an international market.”
According to the Traveler Sentiment & Influences report by Expedia Group Media Solutions, which was released in March, eight in 10 travellers expect to make accommodation decisions based on implemented pandemic measures. The report suggests that spotlighting cleaning and disinfecting protocols can help re-assure those considering travel soon or post pandemic – especially given that its research revealed approximately half of travellers reported avoiding the use of chain hotels, boutique hotels and resorts during the pandemic due to cleanliness concerns.
For this reason, branded safety and cleanliness programs have been a key element of brand messaging throughout the pandemic. “Some of the brands have partnered up with major cleaning brands; that definitely has helped, from a marketing perspective, to instill greater confidence,” says Geraldine Guichardo, Global Head of Research for JLL’s Hotels & Hospitality Group and Head of Americas Hotels Research. “The marketing campaigns and the amount of investment that these big brands are making in upgrading and having heightened sanitation standards is working.”
And, in light of the challenges hotels continue to face, some independent operators may be seeing the appeal of being part of a larger organization. As Irwin Prince, president and COO of Realstar Hospitality, told Hotelier in December, “What we may have demonstrated to hotels that are not presently affiliated with any brand is that there is some solid merit in having a brand affiliation, because you do get the weight of global brands to come to the table to create policies and procedures in a fast, efficient manner. So, if you’re an independent operator, the information that you have to take in and then assemble to create a consistent program would be quite a burden.”
Guichardo agrees that the current business environment is likely creating some additional challenges for independent operators. “With independent hotels, if it’s a standalone product, that type of owner will probably face more challenges because they have to provide their own marketing dollars, their own marketing campaigns [and] find their own partnerships to be able to provide a higher [level of] cleaning,” she says. Guichardo also points to investment in new technology to facilitate contactless stays as another area that could be more challenging for this type of property.
For this reason, the combination of support, resources and brand recognition provided by these companies may be seen as holding greater value these days, and it does appear that this is driving interest in soft brands and conversions. Hilton reports its collection brands LXR Hotels & Resorts, Curio Collection and Tapestry Collection have seen sustained interest and growth through conversions. And, in 2020, the company reports conversion signings saw a year-over-year increase of more than 30 per cent.
“Conversions are particularly relevant given the recent business environment, as they allow our hotels to benefit from the strength of Hilton’s network effect,” says Gary Steffen, category head, Full-Service Brands, Hilton. “We also continue to see [our Collection Brands] as an attractive opportunity for owners who are accustomed to operating as an independent. Recent signings have reflected the demand for a balance between flexibility and Hilton’s established brand awareness.”
Silver Hotel Group recognized soft branding as an opportunity to help accelerate The Anndore House’s recovery from the pandemic, having the hotel join the JdV by Hyatt brand in April. Ruparell notes the brand was a strong fit for the boutique Toronto hotel. “It allows us to keep our independent brand and voice that we’ve created, but still be a part of a bigger brand that offers loyalty and can help drive bookings and awareness.”
And, as Guichardo notes, the pandemic has made the major brands more flexible and strengthened relationships with their hotel owners, which serves to further strengthen their appeal. “You could say that the pandemic has made the hotel-owner and parent-brand relationship evolve in a way that all parties will benefit more than in the past.”
Looking ahead, Guichardo expects to see “hotel brands and owners work even more closely together.” She predicts objectives will be more closely aligned and the relationship will provide greater flexibility for owners, which will allow them “to improvise, as needed, to adapt operations quickly to meet the changing needs and expectations of the local consumer and demand base.”
Ultimately, Guichardo says, the relationship between brands and owners will continue to evolve, especially given the emergence of new concepts, including models like Panama-based Selina’s ‘CoLive’ platform, which offers subscription-like packages targeted at digital nomads. “Brands will have to re-examine their product and continuously adapt it to meet the changing needs of the consumer, in the post-COVID world.”