Not a week appears to go by without the opening of a luxury hotel somewhere in the world. Just take a look at consumer travel magazines and you’ll see all sorts of new hotel branding concepts and offerings flooding the market. Until about 15 years ago, the differentiation between luxury hotel brands was clear. Guests knew who was who and what was what.
Today, the market is saturated with many different hotels, brands and offerings. If you factor in the disruption of new entrants due to technology, it is not surprising that customers are confused.
As client demands are also changing, is it any wonder then that many luxury hotels are struggling to maintain their competitive edge? Faced with so much choice, how can consumers decide what is right for them? And how can hotel businesses distinguish their offering to attract clients?
Business case studies across the years have proven that focusing solely on product – room type, facilities, etc. – is not sufficient. They do not leave a lasting imprint in consumer’s minds. Experience is everything – and that is why branding is back on the table for luxury hotels.
Hotel or brand?
Based on a series of interviews with 18 international hotel managers, my research into the topic has aimed to obtain first-hand insights into the challenges hoteliers are currently facing and the strategies they are adopting to attract clients and maintain a competitive advantage.
But when I asked about their hotel branding differentiator, many of them talked in the context of a hotel operation or its service offering, yet only a few managers were able to explain their differentiation.
The more I probed, the more it became clear that the hotel itself was unsure about its brand branding and positioning.
If the hotel manager is unable to articulate the differentiator – or worse, does not even see it on his or her radar – how can we expect customers to be clear about the offer?
The question is - are you a hotel or a brand?
Many large, medium and small hotels offer very similar product offerings. Often there is not a great deal of individual personality either. When customer choice depends solely on products that are instantly comparable in terms of price and features, it leaves hotels vulnerable. But a brand has longevity. A brand can weather market storms. What makes a true brand that will stay with the consumer forever?
Service or hospitality?
In essence, creating a strong hotel branding and brand personality is about defining your offering. Of course there is the tangible offering - the quality of the rooms, the spa, the dining rooms, for example. These have to be first class. And of course, there is quality of service and how it is perceived by your guests, and that is why hotel managers spend so long drilling its importance into their staff. But the best hotels, those that are succeeding, stretch their definition beyond these two elements to incorporate the concept of hospitality. Luxury hotels are in the business of taking care of people. This goes beyond service.
In a Tedx Talk on hospitality, restaurateur Bobby Stuckey describes the visit he and his wife made to a three-star Michelin restaurant in Paris. The experience was impeccable – the food, the service, the dining room. A perfect evening. Yet, he says, something was missing. Two days later, he and his wife visited another three-star Michelin star restaurant in Italy. Here, the experience was equally impeccable. But in this restaurant, the chef came out of the kitchen into the dining room and engaged in conversation with the diners. Later, the staff recommended where he and his wife might go for coffee in the town the next morning.
As Stuckey describes it, ‘the staff changed our evening and changed our trip.’ He explains how he took that emotion all the way back home to California and continues to cherish his experience by sharing it with others.
This story sums up luxury hospitality – it needs to be a transformative experience. It should change something in each person. It should create cherished memories, enrich their experience and become part of their life story.
One brand which has succeeded in creating the transformative experience is The Peninsula. The General Manager of The Peninsula Paris, and soon to be GM of The Peninsula Beijing, Vincent Pimont, explained his concept of hospitality: anticipating the needs of his guests.
Guests arrive from all around the world. It is vital to go beyond cultural difference by not judging the difference, but to deliver the care even before the guests know they are in need. Hospitality in Asia is different than in the west. It is about care, I mean really caring. Our brand originates from China and we respect our brand’s origins. We train our staff to embrace and manifest our cultural difference.
Service is action-orientated. Care is universal.
As Bobby Stuckey defines it, service is ‘what you do to someone’, hospitality is ‘how you make someone feel’. When care is offered, it provokes a feeling. The feeling transmits between people. True care changes the emotion. And the impact spreads. This is hospitality. True luxury hotel brands develop and nurture hospitality and integrate it into a brand DNA.
What is your story?
Luxury, as we know, is about selling a dream. That is why the truly successful luxury brands also focus on the story. The narrative, a magical fairy tale, creates the desire. What is your hotel’s story? It may be based on the location or on the founder, for example. But it must be authentic – based in truth – and then built upon to create the dream and aspiration upon which luxury brands are built.
A striking example is the Jumeirah Group. Judy Hou, Managing Director of the Emirates Academy of Hospitality Management explains how the hotel chain differentiates itself from its competitors, through what she calls amenity and design, plus the brand story.
Here we offer a very different style of luxury. For those from non-Arabic cultures, it may even seem too much. But in this part of the world, the fairy tale shines with gold. It is opulent, dramatic and magical. We provide the dream through the design together with our warm, caring service so that our guests can truly feel like a king or queen, a prince or princess during their stay. It is all about making the fairy tale come true.
In addition, the local culture adapts well to the concept of hospitality. The local culture understands how to take care of someone, how to make someone feel welcome, and very importantly, understands how to anticipate the needs of the guests. This cultural alignment makes the job of training staff in hospitality much easier.
Telling a strong story has also been essential to Novotel hotels in China. Although Novotel is not a luxury brand, it is a good example of brand differentiation.
General Manager Thierry Douet of the Novotel Beijing Peace Hotel says:
We are not a luxury hotel, nor are we an economy hotel. So we focus our story on family and business. Twenty years ago, when we first arrived in China, the concept of traveling with children was not very common. Also, mid-scale hotels for pleasure or business did not really exist here. Our story was very foreign to the Chinese, but we took advantage of our French origins and built upon this. We were able to differentiate ourselves by offering a family place of leisure, where you can also conduct business meetings and events. We focused on the needs of the family and have continued to tell the story based on family.
We can see that the concept of hospitality takes many shapes and forms depending on the grade of the hotel. Yet it is rooted in care, passion, the anticipation of guests’ needs and a pleasure from making people happy. The story provides the dream. So how do you then turn that story into business?
The role of emotional intelligence
You offer hospitality and you have a compelling and memorable brand story. How do you now make the seemingly intangible elements into a tangible business transaction?
One way is through emotional intelligence. Psychologist Daniel Goleman defined this as ‘understanding one’s own feelings, empathy for the feelings of others and the regulation of emotion in the way that enhances living’. In his book ‘Emotional Intelligence and Social Intelligence’ (2007), he explains the importance of emotional intelligence for the future of corporations.
The link between emotional intelligence and hospitality is evident – caring for someone and anticipating their needs requires sensitivity to their emotions and the ability to react to them, as well as an awareness and management of your own emotions. If you can harness the emotional intelligence of your staff and channel this into the brand, you will make your brand unique – your brand becomes irreplaceable and ensures clients will keep coming back for more.
Putting this into practice for hotels, however, is challenging. Very few luxury hotels invest in true emotional intelligence. Those that do, look beyond a client’s stay in the hotel itself. If the hotels work on identifying and anticipating the guests’ needs before they arrive, make an emotional connection with them during their stay, and continue the relationships with the guests after they leave the hotel, such as following up on whether they reached their next destination or arrived home safely. The intangible becomes tangible – client loyalty that translates into repeat business and long-term revenue.
Hotels should consider applying Goleman’s attributes of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and social skills into their training programs. In so doing, they can monitor and measure these elements, so that staff focus on this self-awareness and the process starts to flow naturally.
But what about when a staff member is having a ‘bad day’?
Disney Resorts take an interesting approach to hospitality. They train their staff to be actors – once you are at work, you are effectively performing ‘on stage’. Ideally, hospitality comes from the heart but, realistically, different people have different levels of emotional intelligence.
By giving measurable methods to track performance, you can identify specifically when you were able truly to connect with your guest and if you were able to adapt your emotions and your response accordingly. The execution of the intangible can become embedded into daily business practice with a measurable impact on the bottom line.
Ultimately, leading hoteliers in luxury hospitality need to treat emotional intelligence as a brand asset. They need to invest in the development of soft skills, social skills and emotional management skills. Monitoring, measuring and researching these elements can create tangible data on the impact for business success, which in turn can provide essential information for training and marketing.
With this level of information brands can focus on what really matters, for example adapting loyalty programs to be relevant, personalized and of value. The goal is not to teach hospitality but to promote it from a personal and emotional perspective.
A hotel branding that is based on hospitality is unique, authentic and resilient. For the client, that brand becomes the basis of their choice, thus reducing the hotel’s exposure to market vagaries and fleeting trends. The brand enables the business to become sustainable throughout market trends and technology disruption. If longevity is the game in an ever-changing world, the emotional connection in hospitality provides the staying power.