Home2 Suites by Hilton is the worst

I am a Hilton Diamond member. This puts me into elite status as a customer of their brands. It also means I travel so much on business during the year that I spend my life in airports and sleep in unfamiliar beds, sheets and pillows. It entitles me to a free breakfast (believe me, you get what you pay for), complimentary Wi-Fi and a bottle of water when I check in.

I am in Seattle on business today and I am staying in another Hilton property (I hesitate to call it a brand) called Home2 Suites by Hilton.

Home2 Suites
Hilton can do better than its Home2 Suites.

It is quite seriously the dog ugliest hotel I have ever seen. It looks like it was built from corrugated metal and scrap. From the outside, you would expect to enter the lobby and find folding chairs.

When I checked in last night. I told the very nice desk attendant that the hotel was the ugliest thing I had ever seen. Her reply was interesting. “Yes,” she said. “We are an extended stay hotel.”

I guess in order to qualify as an extended stay hotel it has a prerequisite of being hard on the eyes.

The limited service at Home2 Suites.

As I write this blog from my hotel room, please excuse any ramblings or tirades. I am not quite myself. You see the rooms are not soundproof and the gentleman in the next room apparently can’t sleep with the TV on full blast with a never-ending parade of action movies. I have the opposite affliction and was not able to sleep with explosions and bad acting ricocheting around my room all night.

Despite telling the front desk about this, that TV is still in a continual loop here at breakfast time. I am assuming that limited services in extended stay also apply to front desk help.

Home2 Suites is poor excuse for a hotel and has no place in the Hilton brand. (And I know something about the Hilton brand, having done brand work for Hampton Inns, Doubletree and Homewood Suites.)

This is a terrible industry for branding because the chains slice and dice the category into such fine segments that you can see through them. They think we know the difference between their descriptors of those who stay at their brands. Here I am. Staying at Home2 Suites. Who am I?

Hilton has no brand permission to be in this low tier segment. It is a boil on the brand’s butt.

So who am I? Well, I am a chump, according to this past stay. Let’s see if they have that as a market segment.

Branding Vacation Destinations in Travel and Tourism

Branding your vacation destination. When the traveling consumer decides where to vacation this year, what influences…

Branding Your Vacation Destination

By Tom Dougherty CEO, Stealing Share

Published in Advance Magazine

Branding vacation destinations
Destinations need to be competitive

What is the answer?

When the traveling consumer decides where to vacation this year. What influences the decision-making process? For tourist destinations, cruises, island paradises and vacation clubs, the hope is that all the dollars spent behind advertising and promotion will translate into a top-of mind preference. The question, however, is how to ensure your place in the traveler’s mindset. There is, after all, a lot at stake.

The answer is brand. Yes, that time-tested consumer package goods idea about building a brand is more important that ever. Our understanding of what makes a brand powerful has changed. Our knowledge of the consumer and the art of “brand management” has evolved to such a degree that the old sciences look more like alchemy than chemistry in this day and age. Brand is more important in destination and tourism than perhaps any other product or service, and brand advertising is far removed from image advertising.

Image advertising is syrupy and hints at the traveler’s benefit in a melodrama that is more cookie-cutter than revealing. Brand advertising, on the other hand, always illuminates a real reason to choose. So, how does a more complete understanding of brand-building affect the tourism business?

Branding vacation destinations requires research to know what is valued
It is never a level playing field

What is usually done?

Traditionally, a brand manager was responsible for the packaging, advertising discipline and strategy. Brand managers, through consumer research and product development, continually tweaked the advertising strategy to ensure that the compelling benefit was reaching the correct target audience. Management of the brand was an internal process.

Recently there has been talk about the death of brands, and I would agree that the way in which we understand brand has indeed died. But as Mark Twain so eloquently stated, “The reports of my death are premature.” As it turns out, Twain would be proud because brand is much more than the aforementioned model and it is alive and well. It has far-reaching implications that are of greater value to the destination and tourism industry than consumer package goods because of the emotional tug that destination and tourism hopes to ignite. It is the means by which one can create demand for services and own a competitive advantage over the competition by reaching into the essence of the traveler.

The first step in making this work is understanding brand as it is today. Brand is not a product or service. It is no sandy beaches, crystal clear water, or snow-capped mountains. Brand is, in fact, the expectation that the consumer brings to a service or resort. Brand belongs to tile customer -not to you. A powerful brand always answers the question of “Who am I – not “What am I.” The “who” refers to the customer. Not to you. This consumer-owned brand reflects the consumer’s own definition of himself or herself. How do I look today? Where do 1 want to go? How am I doing? What do I hold as important?

Brand Really Matters

Brand is the magnet that attracts every traveler who needs to discover what he or she believes to be true about themselves. We are not attracted by that sexy couple strolling along a secluded beach that is lined with royal palm trees because it looks like fun. But if the advertising is successful, we will desire to be them, because in our own fantasy that is who we believe we should be.

Branding vacation destinations means knowing how you are different
Destinations can be exotic

Today’s consumer is constantly in a state of “becoming: Every purchase choice he or she makes is an attempt at defining who they are. From a destination and tourism viewpoint, this becomes an opportunity to help define your target audience in a way that is aspirational in tone and reinforces the choice. Who am I? I am trim, slim and look flattering in a revealing bathing suit. I’m romantic. I’m active, virile, and young. I’m cosmopolitan. I’m thoughtful. I’m fun.

If identifying the answer to “Who am I” can build a preference for soap detergent, how much more powerfully can it be utilized when identifying and experience like a cruise or skiing vacation? It stands to reason that if brand belongs to the consumer and not to the tourist destination, then our new definition of brand management requires a more finely tuned target audience than we have heretofore understood.

Brand management should aim for simplicity

Brand management today requires helping the consumer manage his or her own expectations. You can’t own it. You can only define it clearly and convey it consistently in every aspect of your communications. This understanding of brand can be found inherently in some of the great tourism advertising. Virginia’s powerful campaign built upon the branded idea that “Virginia is for Lovers,” for example. Why has this campaign had such staying power over the years? Why is it not tired, but still acutely compelling? The answer is that it is the voice of the vacationers identifying themselves. It never said Virginia is a lover; instead it spoke of the “Who am I” of the person who appreciates the beauty of Virginia. Think about this, who wouldn’t want to be considered a “lover! It is aspirational in tonality and asks those who consider the romantic in themselves, as important, to come to Virginia and be reaffirmed. It is a strategic position that can be continually discovered by new tourists and revisited by the old.

Find what makes you shine
Destination often boarder each other

It’s powerful stuff because the identity belongs to them, not us. So, if you can’t own a brand what should you own? You should own a position in the marketplace. While brand always answers the question of “Who am I,” position always answers the question of “Why am I” It speaks to you and your resort or destination. It is your reason to be. If one thinks about it carefully, positioning is the part of your marketing strategy that allows for differentiation and appeals to the needs of your target audience. It needs to be unique because ownership implies exclusivity.

Two families cannot own the same house without some obvious problems. The brand that you are managing helps payoff this positioning promise in a way that spells success. They must work in concert if they are to be effective. Today’s consumers have many options when it comes to spending discretionary dollars. The world is smaller and more accessible than ever before. Micronesia is competing with the Caribbean for SCUBA divers. Australia is competing with South Africa for tourist dollars. An overnight stay at the Jersey shore is competing with a long weekend in Jamaica.

Marketers of recreation and tourism must provide a compelling reason for the customer to bypass the noise of competition and bring their dollars to your destination. Brand will do that. Like a headline in a compelling advertisement, brand yells, “Hey, notice this! This is for you. The more personal the you is, the more it is believed. The more it is believed, the more it answers the brand question of “Who am IT And success will follow.

Most destinations get it all wrong

What makes destinations popular when they all look the same?

The time is right for destination marketing to change

Market Study on the Destination and Tourism Sector

Hotel Branding: Aim For Intelligence

Holiday Inn Express. Hotel rebranding

By Tom Dougherty

HIEXS_mCMYK300dpiThis examination of the Holiday Inn Express brand considers the pitfalls of humor, and whether its “Stay Smart” campaign (unveiled in 1998) works.

The concept behind the Holiday Inn Express brand certainly should be “smart.” Customers are supposed to feel an increased sense of intelligence after staying at Holiday Inn Express because they have recognized and capitalized upon good quality for a great price.

With the reputation of Holiday Inn’s quality for reasonable prices backing the brand, Holiday Inn Express should have a win-win status in the mindset of the consumer and should also boost the efficacy of the Holiday Inn parent brand.

The Hotel Branding Campaign Messaging

Does the current messaging for Holiday Inn Express accomplish this status? We think not. Many brands use messaging that makes the customer feel smart, as though he has made the right choice. Wal-Mart and Target are examples of brands that ensure customers, that if they shop at those stores, they are avoiding the embarrassment of overpaying and not finding what they want or need.

question-marksCustomers not only like to know that their purchases matter; they like to know that their choices matter. Brands that give customers real affirmation that they have “done the smartest thing” will succeed. This affirmation must be evident through effective brand execution, which also includes marketing and advertising. The message must be both clear to the customer and clearly shown by the brand.

Does Holiday Inn Express have a sure-fire brand message? Yes. Does Holiday Inn Express convey and execute this message properly? According to our brand model at Stealing Share, it comes up a short. In fact, if you read how the “Stay Smart” campaign began, the brand is more superficial than it even appears.

The Customer Feedback

According to customer questionnaires conducted before the campaign, the two reasons why customers felt more savvy for staying at an HIE were free breakfast and free local calls. Perhaps these two elements created a little more of an advantage for HIE over other limited-service establishments. But these kinds of table stakes are not what fuels real brand. Clearly the right questions were not asked. The customer’s connection to the brand should go deeper than cinnamon rolls.

going-upFurthermore, the commercials for the “Stay Smart” campaign contribute to the shallow continuum of brand execution for HIE. For example, one commercial opens on a group of scientists hovering around a microscope, observing a strain of the Ebola virus.

The man standing in front of the microscope explains the characteristics of the virus and proceeds to knock the sample off of the table, assuring the group that it was not airborne. When his colleague asks him how long he has been studying the virus, the man responds, “Well, I’m not actually a scientist. But I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night.”

Several other commercials followed in a similar pattern. One commercial showed a man who had not graduated past the seventh grade winning Jeopardy because he stayed in a HIE the night before. While the commercials are humorous and borderline ridiculous, they demonstrate a rather narrow interpretation of the brand.

Although the commercials are effective for short-term brand awareness and recognition, this brand execution is overall unsatisfactory because the customer will not consider the brand a serious option. If anything, the brand has become more of a joke among consumers because of the blatantly ignorant people portrayed as customers in the commercials.

The Real Brand

sb10067679w-001The customer’s perception of himself when he uses the brand, is not one of intelligence. In fact this brand face mocks intelligence rather than reinforcing it. This failure to execute is more at the fault of brand management than advertising creation.

Unfortunately, in all industries, one directly influences the other. Humorous commercials are memorable and entertaining, but does the brand directly reflect the customer and benefit from this type of execution? In the case of Holiday Inn Express, we argue against this method.

The hotel branding execution began with category benefits rather than the belief systems of the customers. The advertising had to rely upon a general campaign focus of “Stay Smart” without knowing what being smart really meant to the target audience. In order to correct this problem, Holiday Inn Express would need to take a few steps back, observe what its customers want/need from the brand and challenge the brand to accommodate these expectations. They would need to get a full outside-in perspective from the market.



balanceThe “Stay Smart” campaign was effective in getting HIE’s name out in the market, but that is where the effectiveness remains. Real brand success goes beyond the reiteration of a funny punch line. The “Stay Smart” messaging does not reinforce the brand as a tangible option for the customer. The humor, in this case, actually creates distance between the brand and the customer.

Overall, Holiday Inn is all about quality for a sensible price, and Holiday Inn Express can make that message work as well. Holiday Inn Express needs to convey this message with a little more honesty and customer perspective in order to own real estate in the mind of the customer looking for reasonable hotel accommodations. In short, “smart” needs to be more about intelligence of the customer than the cleverness of the business and its agency.

(Read our market study on destinations here)

Holiday Inn Demonstrates why we have too many hotel brands

Too many hotel brands and sub-brands

By Tom Dougherty

Too many hotel brandsThe hotel business has some explaining to do. Tell us hospitality brand managers, what is the difference between a Hilton hotel and a Marriot hotel? Or, what is the difference between a Motel 6 and a Super 8 motel? Beyond a generalized class of service (and cost), is there any real difference? Hotels, motels, inns, and resorts have done a remarkable job of being successful in spite of themselves. BRAND should be a reflection of the customer when they use a specific product or service. At its very core, BRAND should answer the question, “Who am I when I use a product or service.” Unfortunately for the hospitality industry, with very few exceptions, the definition of BRAND is something wildly different.

Traditional Hospitality Industry Definition of Hotel Branding

Traditionally, the hospitality industry has used the idea of brand as nothing more than an identifier that serves to do two things:

  • Tell the customer where the BRAND fits in terms of class of service and price, and
  • Allow for identification of the property

For the vast majority of the hospitality landscape, brand is defined this way in the hospitality business once you take brands like Ritz-Carlton, Waldorf Astoria, Four Seasons, and some independent ultra-luxury hotels out of the equation.

Too many hotel brandsThis is especially true when you consider how most travelers choose hotels. For business travelers, cost, consistency of service, location, amenities, and reward/loyalty programs certainly play into the selection. For pleasure travelers and families, those things also play a role in selection. For the business traveler, affinity programs may play a larger role in the decision making process. For pleasure travelers and families, cost may play a larger role, but the typical decision making criteria are similar for both segments. Cost is always at the forefront.

However, from a business perspective, you are not competitive in the hospitality industry if you are not competitively priced, offer consistency of service, have convenient locations, comparable amenities, and have good loyalty/reward programs? These “table stake” claims are descriptions of the lodging business not the basis for building brands.

What most of the major hotel chains have is a business built on a sales model with each claiming to be the “best” or “cheapest” or “best value” or “softest beds” or “most attentive,” rather than built on a marketing model where the industry players each position themselves against the competition in terms of who the customer is when they use the brand. It comes down to an industry-wide misunderstanding of what brand is and is not. For the hospitality industry as a whole, the misunderstanding can be summarized as:

  • Brand is the same as image
  • Good brands are supposed to be for everyone.

Holiday Inn as Proof

To get an idea about just how misdirected the hospitality industry is, let’s take a look at Holiday Inn. In October of last year, InterContinental Hotels Group, the parent company of Holiday Inn, made the following announcement:

24 October, 2007 InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) announces worldwide brand re-launch of Holiday Inn InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) today announces a worldwide re-launch of the Holiday Inn brand family, comprising Holiday Inn, Express by Holiday Inn and Holiday Inn Express (‘Holiday Inn’). All Holiday Inn hotels will be required to implement the relaunch programme, focused on delivering consistently best in class service and physical quality levels, including a redesigned welcome experience, signature bedding and bathroom products.

Too many hotel brandsRedesigned brand signage will be installed at hotels once they have implemented the relaunch programme. This will give Holiday Inn a refreshed and contemporary brand image. All Holiday Inn hotels open or under development are expected to have implemented the re launch programme by the end of 2010, with the first due to open in spring 2008 in the US. Established in 1952, Holiday Inn is one of the world’s most recognised hotel brands with over 400,000 rooms (3,125 hotels) open and a development pipeline of more than 110,000 rooms (942 hotels).

This development pipeline continues to grow rapidly, with over 16,000 rooms signed in the third quarter of 2007, a 6% increase on Q3 2006. Further details of Holiday Inn signings, openings and removals since 2001 are available at www.ihgplc.com/holidayinnsignings.pdf. IHG expects the re-launch programme to allow Holiday Inn hotels to generate significantly higher revenue per available room (RevPAR), and generate an enhanced return on investment for their owners. Owners and franchisees will invest up to $1billion over a three year period in total to carry out the brand re-launch to meet the required service and quality levels.

Too many hotel brands
Too many hotel brands

IHG will make a non-recurring revenue investment of up to 30 million Pounds to accelerate implementation of the re-launch. This cost is anticipated to be accounted for as an exceptional item. This investment will, inter alia, fund a proportion of the cost of signage conversion at recently opened Holiday Inn hotels that agree to fully implement the re-launch programme during 2008, and fund the re-launch programme at certain high profile hotels that will be used to showcase the brand. IHG expects to generate a strong return on this investment through RevPAR increases across the Holiday Inn brand family following completion of the re-launch.

Announcing this to an audience of over 4,500 hotels owners, managers and investors at IHG’s annual Americas conference in Dallas, Chief Executive Andrew Cosslett, said: “This is an important moment in Holiday Inn’s history. The brand is the largest and one of the most successful in the hotel industry and its re-launch will ensure that this position is maintained. We have spent a considerable amount of time getting the facts and the insights to enable us to make these changes, in partnership with our owners.

The Holiday Inn sign is seen by hundreds of millions of people every day around the world. The changes we are making will ensure the Holiday Inn brand goes forward into the future with a strong and confident new image. We want our guests to get as much enjoyment from Holiday Inn hotels over the next 50 years as they have over the last 50.”

Rick Takach Jr., Chairman of the International Association of Holiday Inn (“IAHI”) representing nearly 3,000 of IHG’s hotel owners and operators, added: “Holiday Inn is a legend in the hotel industry. It has a proud history, and IHG is now demonstrating its commitment to keep the brand fresh in the minds of both hotel owners and guests with its renewed focus on quality and innovation. The IAHI strongly supports this development and looks forward to the business improvement it will deliver.”

In summary, the press release makes the following points:

  • IHG has decided to “relaunch” a Holiday Inn brand focused on “…delivering consistently best in class service and physical quality levels, including a redesigned welcome experience, signature bedding and bathroom products. Redesigned brand signage will be installed at hotels once they have implemented the relaunch programme.”
  • The stated purpose of this “relaunch program” according to the press release is to “…give Holiday Inn a refreshed and contemporary brand image.” and to … ensure the Holiday Inn brand goes forward into the future with a strong and confident new image. We want our guests to get as much enjoyment from Holiday Inn hotels over the next 50 years as they have over the last 50.”
  • This “relaunch program” is slated to cost $1 billion.

Our Thoughts. Too many hotel brands

Too many hotel brands

Make no mistake about it; this is not a “rebranding” campaign. This is a “reimaging” campaign. The first summary point makes it clear that there is great confusion between the business of Holiday Inn’s “business” and the business of its BRAND. In order to be competitive in the hospitality industry, a hotel must have consistently good service and quality.

That is not the Holiday Inn BRAND. It’s Holiday Inn’s business. Image is not BRAND. However, a new logo and identity CAN make customers visualize the brand if it is combined with a fundamental organizational change. However, that is not the case here. Holiday Inn’s stated purpose is to “…give Holiday a refreshed and contemporary brand image.” Unfortunately this $1 billion expense is all about signage not about brand.

Holiday Inn Re-imaging

So lets take a look at what Holiday Inn is going to do with this “reimaging” campaign:  Gone is the heritage element of the logo that travelers from all over the world have come to know over the past 50 years. Holiday Inn WAS an iconic brand with a lot of under-exploited brand equity in their heritage alone. Most everybody in America can remember this sign:  Even the words in the marquee – “The World’s Innkeeper” – echo elements of a long lost brand opportunity. The current imagery does pay homage to the heritage of the Holiday Inn brand but all of that heritage and BRAND equity is gone with the NEW identity. There is an old adage in marketing, “be different and better.”

The new logo is certainly different. But better? In fairness, Holiday Inn (at least in their Express brand) had the makings of a BRAND in their “Smart” campaign. Its issue is that the tongue and cheek approach did not make travelers feel smart. It made them feel entertained. Unfortunately for those who have a connection with the heritage aspect of the “old” Holiday Inn brand or those who are looking for a clarity of choice in the their hospitality choices, purely on the basis of identity these customers will be disappointed again. As much as Holiday Inn and the rest of the hospitality industry would like to believe, brand is not identity. Identity is certainly part of brand, but asking your identity to be the vehicle of your brand is too much to ask of your logo to carry alone. (You can read a market study on the destination and tourism industry here)

The Hospitality Problem is a Hotel Branding Problem

The issue here is not unique to Holiday Inn. For years, the players in hospitality industry have traditionally built their brands on “image” alone. They have used this pseudo-strategy to do nothing more than give travelers the illusion that their brand is somehow different than the rest. Those companies with a fundamental understanding of what brand is SUPPOSED to do, however, have done a remarkable job in an otherwise unremarkable landscape. For example, take W Hotels.

Too many hotel brandsThey have capitalized on the letter “W” and created a whole brand mythology around the “W” and have turned it into a lifestyle brand. Staying in a W Hotel is not about hospitality or lodging anymore, it is about style and vibrancy. Granted, W is not for everyone but the best brands are not supposed for everyone.

This brings us to the second brand misconception in the hospitality industry: Good brands are for everyone. Sure, it makes sense to “dumb” down your brand message to be all encompassing. After all, occupancy is what dictates revenues and revenues keep hotels in business. But if a given hospitality brand is supposed to be for everyone, it is in reality not for anyone.

This is the reason why the industry players have had a difficult time in differentiating themselves. Each is trying to say and do the same thing, resulting in each hotel, motel, inn, and resort getting lost in the enormity of choices consumers have today.

The best brands tell the target consumer who they are (and subsequently are not) for. W Hotels makes no qualms about telling the market that they are for the style conscious and lifestyle-seeking, chic traveler. By saying this, the W Hotel also says it is not for the budget-minded, family oriented, no-frills consumer.

In fact, to that customer, the W Hotel might seem cold, ostentatious, and utterly ridiculous. But the W Hotel’s clarity of who the brand is for is exactly the element that the vast majority of hotel brands are missing today. At is brand core, W Hotels cater to those who believe that “what others think of me is most important.” Why? Style is not about the person who exhibits it. It is about those who SEE the person exhibit it. Style-conscious people will say they “like the way something looks” but what they are really saying is, “I like it when someone notices me.” The W Hotel brand is about being noticed.

A Different Model for the Hospitality Industry and Hotel Branding

Too many hotel brandsThe rest of the industry would be wise to take notice to what W Hotels have done. The W Hotel brand is not about the hotel. It is about the customer when they stay at the hotel. It is not enough to just say it, however. The W Hotel brand affects everything it does and the “experience” is carefully choreographed to pay off its brand at every turn – from its website to its restaurants to its rooms.

As the number of players in the hospitality industry continues to grow, competition for each and every lodging dollar will become increasingly intense. According to the American Hotel & Lodging Association, in 2006 the industry-wide average occupancy rate was only 63.3%, signifying how competitive the industry has become. With so many choices, and the competitive landscape currently being shaped by being the “best” or “cheapest,” the industry is ripe for a player to separate itself from the noise of the market through the careful and thoughtful execution of BRAND.

(Read how the tourism industry is failing the customer here)

Brought to you by Importantality

What the heck is Hamptonality?

Hampton Inn thinks prospects see it as a special form of hospitality branded by Hampton as unique and important. However, these trite tactics won’t build market share. It is way too clever and much too cute.

imagesRule one in brand messaging aimed to influence behavior— be authentic and avoid cleverness. Hamptonality fails both axioms.

There are other important values that are more highly emotional among hotel customers. Things like on-line check-in and customer recognition. Things that give you more than free Internet access and a bottle of still water.

The meaning of Hamptonality

This is simply a lost category of brands.

I stay mostly at Hilton properties, not because I love them, but because of a loyalty program that feels as much like a snare trap as it does VIP treatment. What a great foundation to build preference by igniting resentment and a feeling of less choice.

We have not worked on a hotel brand in some time so I can’t definitively tell you what the highest unclaimed emotional intensity is in the market. But looking at the messages, it is evidently clear that the category hasn’t defined it either.

Therefore, this small tidbit of brand wisdom is brought to you by Stealing Share in the name of brand Importantality. Sounds authentic and important, doesn’t it? All it needs is a service mark to prove it is even more of a “tinny” marketing tagline.