Everyday Brand Management

By Mark Ricketts President & Chief Operating Officer, McNeill Hotels | December 03, 2017

In its purest sense, a brand is a promise to consumers; an expectation of performance and an overall experience. When we ship a package with FedEx or UPS, we expect a competitive, fair rate; on-time transit; accurate tracking that is accessible online; courteous, properly trained employees and a package delivered without damage.

Should we select a luxury vehicle like Audi or Mercedes-Benz, we expect outstanding performance and the best of “fit and finish.” This means coming up to brand standard in everything from design, engineering, manufacturing tolerances or available amenities to the ride experience, safety features or the integrity and knowledge of our salesperson and dealership.

Choose a Toyota Corolla or Ford F-150 and our expectations will change relative to our bank account and intended uses, but the principle of establishing a brand identity for consumers by conscious brand management remains the same. This brand management—and the achieved performance—is the result of a complex, properly executed matrix of people and systems.

In fact, of contemporary service industries, hospitality is one that is deeply influenced by brand concepts. The name is right up there on the building, front and center in big, bold letters. Brand image and specific brand names help attract guests to a given hotel in any locale through a maze of alternative properties, marketing pitches and modes of access in making a reservation. Brand standards guide the look of properties, the size and furnishings of rooms and, to a large extent, the delivery of services.

However, it takes more than a logo or an employee manual to establish a brand, as our everyday behaviors and the personal choices we make become an important element of real-world brand expression.

As leaders of organizations responsible for the property management and asset management of hospitality portfolios, how can we complement or merge the “employee manual with everyday vision, ” reinforcing and strengthening what we represent as a business. This is especially challenging, as many hospitality organizations managing a property must combine adroitly the guidance from a formal brand with their own standards and operating philosophies.

In addition, hospitality organizations are today responsible for a broad array of brand relationships; not just with guests, but, also, with vendors and suppliers, strategic partners, industry organizations and community groups. There are many daily pushes and pulls to which we are subject and the brand must emerge unscathed, stronger than ever.

Brand guidance and standards. Of the more than 52, 000 properties in the United States comprising about 5 million hotel rooms, STR estimates that about 70 percent of these properties belong to chain-affiliated franchise brands. Those ownership groups and management companies that choose to focus on branded properties have several objectives or advantages in mind. In selecting an affiliation, key factors in finding that “best in class” brand include name recognition, the quality of the reservation system and other sales and marketing support, guest preference and the ability to deliver strong returns on investment, as well as retain investment value.

Within that broad umbrella, hospitality ownership and their property managers will further refine brand selection by certain business factors, i.e. the franchise royalty fee and other contractual issues, as well as location-specific factors. These location-specific factors will include the market’s demographics and demand profile, the numbers and property types of existing competitors, and projected construction or renovations in a given market.

In terms of brand management, the hotel brands provide property managers with the necessary structure and thresholds for acceptable performance in many administrative and operational areas. This guidance may include such areas as hiring, training and personnel policies; housekeeping and provisioning; a threshold for Quality Assurance inspections; and what is acceptable in terms of Guest Satisfactions surveys and scores.

This last area is one of the most interesting and important developments in contemporary brand management. For we are constantly being “graded” in ways unimaginable not too many years ago. In addition to official Guest Satisfaction surveys, we are also being rated on social media sites and online booking and review sites like Booking.com, TripAdvisor or Yelp. Much as we do internally, the national brands pay great attention to the results of these evaluations and any trends positive or negative that they reveal. Even J. D. Power & Associates has gotten in the act with its North America Hotel Guest Satisfaction Index Study.

Our competition and prospective staff are also scouting us out on these travel and hotel reservation web sites, as well as employment focused ones like Glassdoor, Indeed or hospitalityonline.

What property and asset managers can bring to brand management. Similar brand considerations to what has just been discussed apply to independent hotel properties and portfolios through the guidance provided by ownership, as well as the assigned property managers and asset managers.

Regardless, how do we transform a property’s physical elements and guidance from the franchisor into an authentic brand experience? This is the role of the property and asset manager, as they, in addition, execute their “own” brand.

There are several aspects to this brand management. They include formal administrative and operational systems, behind which there are always value judgments and “philosophy” if we look for them closely, and the leadership and people styles with which we inspire our organizations.

It starts with extensive and exhaustive recruiting and training, which means identifying the best candidate for any position at a specific hotel. These candidates must meet all the formal requirements (experience, education, background check, etc.). They must also possess the intrinsic qualities of being able to work well in a team and enjoy serving guests in the broadest sense, which should come through during the interview process. Here begins our essential mission of team building and instilling in our people a shared corporate culture.

Internal management training will further confirm that the person selected is the right person for the position and a final ‘hire” is then made. Once that individual is selected, the training commitment must be continuous and ongoing. It can take many forms: from the franchise brand; from the hospitality management organization; and from third parties. Examples of the latter would be specialized training in areas like revenue management, information technology or sales.

Training should be supported with an Associate’s Handbook that covers nearly every aspect of the daily operation of the property.

Moreover, it is the responsibility of hospitality organizations to make sure that this training is consistent with overall brand messages and identity. Each associate should have a vision of how to create a memorable experience for guests, guided by the framework provided by training, the Associate’s Handbook and continuing education.

Many hospitality organizations also find it valuable to provide emotional and spiritual support for team members. Supervisors should have an open-door policy and be good listeners. However, there are times when it is better if an associate can talk about something personal with a counselor or chaplain, individuals that are always on call and qualified to assist with a multitude of issues.

Putting that “Brand” to Work

Next come the intangibles that build mutual respect and genuine esprit de corps within a hospitality organization.This process starts with objective, reliable periodic evaluation systems (scoring) that honestly let staff know how they are doing. This helps builds trust within an organization; results in less unpleasant surprises at promotion time; and, hopefully, transforms uncertainty or potential “grudges” into motivation and productivity. All organizations do better when everyone knows where they stand and there are no hidden agendas.

The brand also prospers when leadership has a strong commitment to recognition of those individuals who perform to the organization’s expectation. This positive re-enforcement can take many forms, including a Monthly Newsletter, handwritten notes from corporate personnel, bonus programs or incentive contests.

Cultivating unspoken leadership is just as important. How we treat others on a daily basis impacts the silent “attitude” we all carry within ourselves, which is then given expression when we take on an assignment from a colleague or respond to a guest’s request for service.

The real test of a brand is how we respond when things don’t go as well as planned. What happens when a colleague reports in sick and we must take on extra work? What happens when a supplier makes a mistake in an order and we must scramble to come up with needed housekeeping supplies or food and beverage items for breakfast service or the property’s restaurant?

How do we respond when a group that has reserved a large block of rooms with us changes its plans and calls on short notice to say that they everyone needs to arrive two days earlier? How do we respond to a harsh critique on a travel booking web site or when an unsatisfied guest threatens to pound fists at the front desk?

These are the times when brand management is the product of our training, the operational systems we have in place, the confidence and trust we have in our colleagues and strategic partners, and the belief we have in our mission as a hospitality organization.

Great brands are not made, as much as earned.

Mark Ricketts serves as President and COO of McNeill Hotels. Prior to joining McNeill Hotel Company, he spent seven years as Vice President of Hotel Asset Management in the Realty Management Division for Goldman Sachs in Irving, TX. He provided hotel asset management oversight for over 300 properties, spanning 10 brands and 27 flags while working with nearly twenty management companies. Mr. Ricketts has 35 years of experience in the hotel industry, starting as a Hotel General Manager when he was 23. He previously worked as Vice President of Asset Management for Equity Inns, Inc., a publicly traded Hotel REIT based in Germantown, TN. can be contacted at 901-322-4806 or mricketts@mcneillhotels.com Please visit http://www.mcneillhotels.com for more information. Extended Bio...

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