Updated: Mar 7
What is the future of the large hotel chains? Have they finally had their day? What is it they have to do to stay current?
It was the turn of the New Year, London was about to get baltic, I’d worked hard over Christmas and I wanted out. A winter escape to save my soul. I needed a quick fix and bravely turned to the good old ‘All Inclusive’. You know the ones; queuing for the toast wheel in the morning, towels on sunbeds at the crack of dawn and a rather plump, shiny-faced man with a Bontempi organ playing Agadoo with gusto from 9pm daily.
Cue audacious traveller turning up nose.
In my defence, choices are limited when you only have a week, a certain budget and you want for nothing but sun and total relax. Plus the fact, all my creative decision making skills were sucked dry.
Husband and I chose the Iberostar, whose branding reflected that of a petrol garage - everything from the signage, to the little, boxed shower cap was fastidiously stamped with its brash, bright and uninspiring logo. One can't really imagine it ever emitting what it was meant for, plus it is a million miles away from the true philosophy and character of this Spanish chain.
Take the staff culture, for example. Reminiscent of Butlins circa 1984, it was almost refreshing, albeit a touch 'in your face'. Everyone from the reception staff, guest liaison, pool buddies (yes you read correctly) and the bar staff were flying the Iberero flag. They were friendly, fun and professional at all times and certainly deserved a better standing brand behind them to support their discernible dedication.
There must be a fair amount of imprisonment, as far as decision making goes, within these large corporate walls but I couldn't help thinking;
Has the hotel industry lost touch completely?
Have they lost control of their customers for good?
How will they scrape back the power and data it needs to improve?
And is that even possible in today's world?
Each large corporate hotel brand has its own diluted institution that may have worked in the 80s but is currently in serious need of a rebrand. They play safe, they don’t dare upset anyone, and they don’t want to stand out too much because sitting on the fence doesn’t alienate anyone right? Again, an antiquated approach that I is most definitely holding them back.
Think about it. Do they really know whether their efforts are applauded? How do they actually know whether guests have welcomed the hotel and all that it has to offer? Who actually fills out the little anonymous forms and posts them in their ballot box before they leave? And those that do - surely only moan.
Only a very small percentage of customers book direct with hotels nowadays, most shop around and book a deal through a digital agent. So the hotel loses the power struggle. The agent wins. They know a whole lot more about us guests than the actual hotel does so how can the hotel compete once again?
Clearly, the old fashioned way still works for some. There were a fair few folk in our resort that didn’t care that theme tune to Titanic (the pan piped version) had been played five times in one morning. Some thought that the potatoes at dinner were a ‘continental’ recipe, not undercooked with far too much oil and some didn’t care that the ‘morning yoga’ was not yoga at all, but a gentle stretch on all fours on the floor.
They were satisfied. They were happy to join in. They didn’t have to cook, clean up, they could fill their faces until they were about to burst then go and sleep it off in the sun.
Life was good.
But alas, the large chain hotels are slowly being coerced by a new breed, that has been slowly emerging over the last decade and these guys have learnt by their predecessor’s mistakes.
The ‘boutique’ army of hotels know how to brand themselves are able to be a lot more personal which breeds connection. The difference being and this is key – they aren’t selling to everyone. They sell to smaller, niche markets and sell out. It’s safe and clever. This also enables 100% worth of passion to be put behind the brand, and in turn the service. Which breeds a new army of repeat business and a new era of hospitality.
Look at the power of the travel blogger. They are serious hardcore travel writers who seek out things to do, places to go that they love - making it easy for like-minded readers to seek them out and follow suit. A new hierarchy of global community broadcasting giving you the heads-up, guidance and tips on things to try and things to avoid.
We now have a new breed of media that speaks the truth, and writes in a relative way which appeases the more intelligent, brave and out of the box voyager. A contemporary traveller who searches for a lot more out of their quick winter ‘escape’.
So the question is, can a large hotel chain ever compete? Or is it equivalent to Sainsbury’s vs. the independent grocer? How can they learn about the customers? How can they improve what is actually going on inside their business? How can they survive?
I believe they have two choices.
One, they take a leaf out of Madonna’s book and reinvent themselves. Be willing to lose money and customers and ‘start again’. Transform their tired methods, style and approach into a hospitality business that caters for the modern day traveller. Wipe that Instagram clean and dry and begin from scratch.
[Ooh my favourite thing to do.]
Or two, forget branding altogether. Accept that they are stuck and play to their strengths. They are in fact, a large oversized complex near a beach with a pool, offering food, shelter and the odd bit of toe-curling entertainment. There will always be a market for it, right? Well – at least for the next 15 years.
Soon I will be an ‘old style’ traveller. And the Titanic-loving creatures of habit that have passed before me will most certainly be in the minority if not completely extinct. But until that sudden transplant from requiring the exceptional, to settling for whatever, I will continue to strive for better and I will leave the large hotel brands with this;
a) You may be happily full right now, but don't think it will always be like this. Always plan ahead, be creative and take risks.
b) Understand your world. Your offering. What makes it stand out? Different from the others? What can you do that others can't- over what is already expected?
c) Don’t waste the time you have with your precious customers in the flesh. Don't just serve them flatly like a robot. Speak their language. Befriend them. Understand them. Love them and then give them your world.