Are you after comfort and warmth or renewal? Or are you just a flirt? Which brand suits your personality best? Yeoh Siew Hoon takes a dip into Starwood's new buffet spread of up to seven "branded experiences". Image: Oliver Bonke: A St Regis kind of man.
Oliver Bonke's been around the block a few times – he's actually a marathon runner. He's also been in the company for more years than he cares to remember.
But this, he says, is one of the "key inflexion points that will make a fundamental difference in our company and the travel industry".
The vice president-sales and marketing, Starwood Hotels & Resorts Asia/Pacific, is referring to the company's new branding strategy just rolled out. "We are finally getting out of the hardware copy game and entering new ground.
"This is the first time that a major company such as Starwood is taking its hotel brands beyond hardware – marble in the lobby, beds, thread count, global distribution – into the human experience."
The big idea behind Starwood's branding strategy is to create "branded experiences" around each of its brands.
While "branded experiences" is certainly not a new development in business – think Starbucks, Nike or Harley Davidson – it certainly has not been adopted in a big way by the hotel industry which has tended to promote features and facilities over the whole experience and certainly not by a major player on the scale of Starwood which has set out to define and differentiate its seven brands.
Each brand is now defined by these associated words. Sheraton:
Warm, comforting, connections Westin:
Personal, renewal, instinctive W:
Flirty, insider, escape Four Points by Sheraton:
Honest, uncomplicated, comfort Le Meridien:
Chic, cultured, discoveryLuxury Collection:
Exceptional, indigenous, unique, experience St.Regis:
Uncompromising, bespoke, seductive, address aloft, sassy, refreshing, oasis
Finding these key words has taken the better part of 18 months.
Said Bonke, "When we first embarked on this journey, we thought it would be tough. But it was surprising how easy it was – the essence was already slumbering in all the brands and it was just a question of unlocking them.
He added, "People are prepared to pay a premium for branded experiences as has been shown by Starbucks. In each case, there is an interaction with the employee that is predictable and identifiable. People don't go for the coffee but for an experience which is reliable and authentic."
"This gets us away from hardware and for God's sake, is your hotel 5 or 6-star?"
With the new strategy, Starwood is revisiting every piece of communication. "Everything has to communicate and so everything is up in the air," said Bonke. This covers all websites as well as its Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) programme and how that is communicated including SPG TV and its website, thelobby.com.
"Starwood still works in the B2B environment and is our one-stop shop. The beauty of SPG is that it cuts across all brands and is the single depository of ‘how I collect my points'. You can't buy a Starwood experience but you can buy a branded experience within that."
Sheraton's new positioning – At Sheraton you don't just stay here, you belong – is being brought to life at every stage of the guest experience, from new television advertising, new collateral and a new signature "warm welcome".
The group debuted its Yahoo! Link @ Sheraton, a lobby hub where guests can hop on the Internet, explore the Yahoo! -designed, locally tailored website, grab a coffee, work, chat, read, watch TV or play a game.
Sheraton has also launched a new website, which embraces social media and features user-generated content. It invites customers to share travel stories, photos and tips and win prizes.
With Four Points' promise of ‘honest, uncomplicated, comfort', Bonke said, "Everything we do with it must represent that – from the website which will no be no-frills and straight price points to food."
Asked if the apple scent chosen for Four Points was perhaps too American, Bonke said, "We chose ‘apple' because apple pie is a staple in the US and I don't know anyone who hates apple pies. The idea is comfort food."
However he said there was "freedom within the franchise" for local applications.
For example, with Westin's core element of renewal, the brand has introduced an Unwind Hour in every hotel "to provide the bridge from day to night".
At Westin Shanghai, the hour will take the form of a Chinese tea ceremony while in Fiji, it will be a Fijian fire dance. "The idea is to create an unwinding, social experience for customers."
The Westin branded experience also revolves around a sensory welcome that includes white tea scent, signature music and lighting.
This strategy also opens up a whole new world of partnerships, allowing it to find brand match-ups thus giving it access to new communication channels, new customers and ultimately, new revenue channels.
Having distilled the brands into key words, the challenge is now to create the customer experience that customers start to identify with.
Said Bonke, "It's about training, training, training. We have hired five fulltime trainers to train 180,000 associates around the world. It's not just about great service but it's about training each person to deliver a branded experience."
The key words will also serve as an invaluable guide to recruitment. "It will help HR identify the right person for the right brand. On the frontline, at least, the person has to fit the brand."
Asked to fit himself with one of his brands, Bonke chose St Regis "because I am extremely particular, I like things in a certain manner".
"However there is a formality about St Regis that does not sit well with me so there could be a disconnect and this is where something else comes in – travel personalities.
"We recognise we all have different travel personalities, depending on who we are travelling with and to where. So a St Regis person on business could be a W customer if he's looking for an escape."
Which is why Bonke believes the very idea of marketing by demographics is dead. "We have to market now by interests and values."
As for my interests and values and which brand suits me best, Bonke picks W. So now you know.The SHY Report
A regular column on news, trends and issues in the hospitality industry by one of Asia's most respected travel editors and commentators, Yeoh Siew Hoon. Siew Hoon, who has covered the tourism industry in Asia/Pacific for the past 20 years, runs SHY Ventures Pte Ltd. Her company's mission is "Content, Communication, Connection". She is a writer, speaker, facilitator, trainer and events producer. She is also an author, having published "Around Asia In 1 Hr: Tales of Condoms, Chillies & Curries". Her motto is ‘free to do, and be'.
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Yeoh Siew Hoon's other writings can be found at www.thetransitcafe.com. Get your weekly cuppa of news, gossip, humour and opinion at Travel's Busiest Junction.