Winning - or losing - customers

Travelers who regularly stay in hotels grow to like some brands better than others. A particular brand might become their clear favorite. Business travelers may like one brand's hotels because its rooms have convenient work stations. Other customers might prefer another hotel because it has the most comfortable beds they've ever slept in. Another hotel may win guests over with a living-room style lobby that feels like a home-away-from home. When a hotel brand attracts loyal clientele like this, it has succeeded in its mission. It has established a brand identity that keeps customers coming back.

On a trip earlier this summer, I stayed in a hotel that reminded me of the importance of brand consistency. Returning to Atlanta from Las Vegas, I had a scheduled one-hour stopover in Denver that turned into an all-night stay in the Mile High City. Due to a bad thunderstorm over the Denver International Airport, my flight was diverted to Colorado Springs. Of course, by the time the plane made it to Denver, I had missed my connecting flight. It was about 10 p.m., and the next available flight was the next morning.

The airline offered to pick up the hotel tab, and when the ticket agent offered me the choice of three hotels, I told her any one would be fine. Each was a well-known hotel in the limited-service category, and they were all the same to me. She picked the hotel for me, which she noted "was on the airport grounds." I discovered the Denver airport's grounds are probably bigger than the city itself. My cab driver couldn't find the hotel, and during the hour or so tour he gave me of the area, we kept passing clusters of well-known chain hotels until he finally found my hotel on a side road.

My hotel was a budget brand, so I wasn't expecting Four Seasons-type accommodations. Still, I have stayed in this franchise's hotel before, and it was pleasant enough. This one, however, was different. As soon as I walked in the door, I was struck by the hotel's worn-out appearance. Instead of a traditional lobby area, there was a long hallway with a reception window on the left side. Across from the window was a cheap-looking couch, and a doorway leading to a room containing two vending machines and about 10 fold-out tables surrounded by folding chairs - The "lounge." It all felt more like a bus station than a hotel.

The hotel wasn't awful, just vaguely depressing. And in the morning, verifying the time of my airport shuttle with the front desk clerk was a comic ordeal I don't have the space to go into. Given a choice, I wouldn't stay at that brand's hotel again. My experience points out how important it is for a franchiser to establish a clear set of standards for a brand's rooms, lobbies and customer-service program. If a hotel doesn't meet a customer's expectations, it might lose that customer for good.

This edition of Hotel Strategies contains a feature story on hotel branding and franchising. Beginning on page 79, contributing editor Aaron DeWeese explores the ways franchisers are attempting to carve out a niche for themselves in an industry crowded with brands. In particular, he talks with executives in the fast-growing, mid-market segment to find out what franchisers are doing these days to capture that ever-coveted prize: a loyal customer.

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