If You've Got It, Flaunt It!

By Bonnie Knutson Professor, The School of Hospitality Business/MSU | May 19, 2010

I say "family vacation" and you say '-----'. I say "low fare airline" and you say '-----'. I say "amusement park" and you say '-----'. If you're like many folks, Disney, Southwest and Six Flags popped into your mind first. That's because each of them "own" that position in the consumer's mind. Each of them has differentiated itself from its competitors. They get it. They know that waging a marketing battle based on having better quality, better service or better value won't win the marketing war because the competition is saying the same thing. The problem is that there is just too darned much choice out there. Consider the hotel industry alone. In the beginning there was a Marriott. Now you can choose from Marriott Hotels, Resorts, and Suites, Renaissance Hotels, Courtyard, Residence Inn, Fairfield Inn, TownePlace Suites, Springhill Suites, Conference Centers, and Marriott Vacation Club. In the beginning there was also a Hilton. Today, the Hilton flag flies over Conrad Hotels, Doubletree, Embassy Suites, Hampton Hotels, Hilton Garden Inn, Homewood Suites, and Hilton Hotel.

Whew! All I want is a room.Make no mistake about it, markets are driven by choice. Choice proliferation has not only overtaken the hotel industry and every other segment in the hospitality business, but also it has taken over just about every industry in the United States. As marketing guru Jack Trout quipped, "Like an amoeba dividing in a Petri dish, the marketing arena can be viewed as an ever-expanding sea of categories." So whether your hotel is a limited service, a full service, or a bed and breakfast, your guests have more choice than ever before. And there is no end in sight.

This means that your property needs to compete by standing for something; i.e., you have to own a position in the consumer's mind. You, like Disney, Southwest and Six Flags have to get it. You have to do more than have a better product, service and value. Those are givens. You have to been seen as different. In other words, if you own it, flaunt it

Differentiating yourself isn't easy; if it were, everyone would get it. There isn't any magic potion you can drink or pixie dust you can sprinkle to make it easy either. But there are some strategies that can launch you on the road to owning your uniqueness in the consumer's mind. So, here are four battle plans for your hotel's marketing war.

Own an Attribute. Exploiting a unique feature of your hotel is probably the number one strategy for differentiating. You just can't own the same one that your competitor does. The Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo, California, is a great example. In an era of standardization, this unique hotel is the epitome of garish, gaudy, gilded, over-the-top d'ecor. In a time when hotel companies are trying to cut costs by standardizing everything from bed size to color schemes and discounting just to get people in the door, the Madonna Inn features 109 individually themed, premium-priced guest rooms with names ranging from Caveman and Love Nest to Yahoo (as in cowboy, not computers). We can also see this strategy working at the Peabody with its whimsical ducks, at the Westin with the sumptuous Heavenly Bed, and, of course, at Starwood's Aloft with its adventurous a-go-go. While these three hotels may tout their unique features, they are known for their respective attributes of fun, renewal, and cool.

Tout your heritage.Consumers value a business with a long history. Being in business a long time projects the image that you are an industry leader-at least in longevity. So longevity can become a strategy for differentiation. You can be the original, the premier, or as Coca-Cola(R) puts it, the "real thing." Look at the Grand Hotel on Mackinaw Island in Michigan. Yes, it is a beautiful property; yes, it has exquisite service; yes, it is in a beautiful setting. But so are a lot of other hotels. What makes the Grand Hotel unique is its tradition of being a grande dame of yesteryear. Being a guest there is like stepping back in time to an era of gentility. But owning the heritage position won't pay the bills forever. Ask the storied Greenbrier in West Virginia. More than 200 years old, it has maintained its heritage position while adding all the amenities and services of a traditional resort. Management is even thinking about adding a casino, saying that "... the Greenbrier must add the casino to stay competitive or risk ending up just another grande dame." Remember, even history moves forward. Offer the newest and latest. Nobody uses this strategy better than Intel, thriving on planned obsolescence. No sooner does one of its microprocessors hit the market, than the introduction of the next generation is announced ... the 286, 386, 486, Pentium, Pentium II, Pentium III, and Pentium III Xeon. Look at Canyon Ranch, the famous wellness resort and spa. There is no way this property can go head to head against the Disney Resorts, Marriott or Hilton. But when it comes to having the newest and most innovative health and spa services, Canyon Ranch has commandeered a unique position. Wellness aficionados, who want to "take their bodies where they have never been," know there is only one place to experience the newest and best-and that's Canyon Ranch.

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Guest Service: A Culture of YES

In a recent global consumers report, 97% of the participants said that customer service is a major factor in their loyalty to a brand, and 76% said they view customer service as the true test of how much a company values them. And since there is no industry more reliant on customer satisfaction than the hotel industry, managers must be unrelenting in their determination to hire, train and empower the very best people, and to create a culture of exceptional customer service within their organization. Of course, this begins with hiring the right people. There are people who are naturally service-oriented; people who are warm, empathetic, enthusiastic, pleasant, thoughtful and optimistic; people who take pride in their ability to solve problems for the hotel guests they are serving. Then, those same employees must be empowered to solve problems using their own judgment, without having to track down a manager to do it. This is how seamless problem solving and conflict resolution are achieved in guest service. This willingness to empower employees is part of creating a Culture of Yes within an organization.  The goal is to create an environment in which everyone is striving to say “Yes”, rather than figuring out ways to say, “No”. It is essential that this attitude be instilled in all frontline, customer-facing, employees. Finally, in order to ensure that the hotel can generate a consistent level of performance across a wide variety of situations, management must also put in place well-defined systems and standards, and then educate their employees about them. Every employee must be aware of and responsible for every standard that applies in their department. The April issue of the Hotel Business Review will document what some leading hotels are doing to cultivate and manage guest satisfaction in their operations.