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Lessons from the big brands: staying relevant in an ever-changing industry

In an era of start-ups and disruptors, legacy brands have a new role. We asked some of the industry’s biggest names how they’ve weathered a fast-changing sector, and how to stay relevant in the future.

One hundred is a birthday few get to celebrate, and it’s even rarer that a commercial brand sees a century or more of success. After all, it’s notoriously difficult to build a brand that people remember, let alone care about, and so it was a real achievement for Hilton to celebrate its 100th anniversary this May. 

It’s not the first hotel brand to celebrate a centenary, though. Fairmont was established in 1907 and the first Radisson was built 110 years ago. With so many well-established hotel brands out there, it might seem like there’s no space for new kids, but Hilton’s story, among others, offers key learnings that can help younger hotels across the industry make the right impact. 

The role of innovation and pioneering spirit

“When I first arrived at Hilton,” explains Nigel Glennie, Vice President of Corporate Communications, “one of the things that they gave me on my first day was a copy of Conrad Hilton’s autobiography, Be My Guest.”

The biography charts Conrad Hilton’s journey from growing up in a hospitality environment with his parents to accidentally becoming a hotel owner after his deal to buy a bank fell through. “He saw the business potential of that hotel, and a lot of the pioneering spirit and entrepreneurial spirit he brought to the industry continues to be part of this company’s culture.”

Its hundredth year, Glennie says, has given them the opportunity to remember the pivotal moments when it has shaped the travel industry, from being the first to install air conditioning in all its rooms to inventing the world-famous piña colada. Over its 100 years, it has driven entire concepts – it was the first brand to successfully run an airport hotel and in the 1930s it was the first to standardise room service across its portfolio.

It seems that Hilton has often been ahead of the curve, and in that respect, Glennie says, nothing has changed: the innovative spirit still remains. 

The importance of change

But it’s not always easy to keep moving forward, and many of the brands with long legacies have to modernize at serious scale these days, such as the Best Western group. 

"As we evolve,” explains Ron Pohl, Senior Vice President & Chief Operating Officer. “We obviously have to ensure we’re relevant to consumers today and into the future. If you don’t change you die.”

As we evolve we have to ensure we’re relevant to consumers today and into the future

The brand went from being a roadside hotel membership association in California to a global chain today, with well over 4,500 properties in more than 100 countries. “That perception that is created with ‘roadside’ does not resonate as contemporary, unique and relevant – and changing that is difficult.”

Hilton’s Nigel Glennie agrees: “The biggest challenge from a guest or consumer point of view is that people have a perception of a brand – particularly if there’s a long milestone attached to it – and that may be from many years ago.”

Creating contemporary counterparts

That’s why both groups have continued to launch new soft brands to keep their name fresh and remain relevant to younger consumers. “With a certain age comes certain expectations,” explains Glennie, “our ability to surprise and delight people with different brands and a different look and feel, that to us is what we’ve been looking to do, and we’re using our 100th to tell that story.”

In late 2018, Hilton announced the creation of Motto by Hilton – an “urban affordable brand” or ‘microhotel’ that speaks to a different kind of consumer the chain hasn’t yet fully engaged. “We’re able to give credibility with the Hilton name, but still bring new and exciting things to the industry,” says Glennie. Without diluting the historic Hilton brand and the high-quality service associated with it, the group is moving into new markets and different styles of hotel. 

“Similarly, Best Western recently rounded off its portfolio with some significant acquisitions and the launch of new brands. “With the creation of Vīb, GLō, Sadie and Aiden, the stage is set for Best Western to be relevant long into the future,” says Pohl."
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Motto by Hilton - hotel bedroom
Motto by Hilton speaks to a different kind of consumer the chain hasn’t yet fully engaged. Photo credit: © 2019 Hilton

 

Creating brands consumers can connect with

There’s more to being memorable than scale, though, according to Chief Marketing Officer at Accor, Steven Taylor. “I think Accor is really a group that tries to break the rules. So the best advice I can give is: don’t try to be all things to all people. In this world of hyper segmentation, I think it’s important that brands – and particularly small brands – find their niche, and that they stand for something. They need to connect with consumers on a deeper level.”

He uses Ibis as an example. Part of the Accor group today, it was originally launched in the 1970s and was positioned as a modern and simple hotel chain. “But consumer taste and preferences have moved on and people no longer want that. They want more,” explains Taylor. 

“They want experiences and a brand that stands for something. So we relaunched Ibis in January with the positioning of ‘We are open’. That not only communicates aspiration for the experience, which is Ibis being vibrant social hubs for the local community, but it also gave an opportunity and a platform to reinforce the values that we have and to stand for the importance of an open and tolerant society. In this day and age, I think that’s a very relevant platform for a brand like Ibis to connect with consumers around.”

Keeping up with trends

Aside from evolving the brand and altering consumers’ perceptions of them, hotel chains with legacies like Best Western, Accor’s Fairmont and Hilton also have to consider the way the industry changes in a more practical way. 

Gone are the days when the majority of guests want to be greeted by name every time they walk through the door. “The meeting-and-greeting and service is different from 70 years ago, we can’t forget about that,” says Pohl. “But still, at the end of the day, while customers are choosing when they want to interact with us in hotels, they still do expect people to provide good service.”

Glennie says the changes in service style, and even major changes in the properties like room configuration and facilities provided, comes from the consumers themselves. 

“With consumers, we’re not the ones communicating change to them – it’s rather them communicating change to us. We are swimming in feedback from guests and that shapes where and how we adjust our service offerings.”  Best Western has a similar outlook, says Pohl: “I’ve always said that if you’re investing in things that aren’t important to the customer, you shouldn’t be investing in them. It’s all about the customer experience.”

 

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Hero image: credit to © 2019 Hilton
Takeaway
  • Building a brand people care about is hard, but both Hilton and Best Western have proven it’s possible to survive in the world of fickle consumers
  • Defining values and maintaining those can help create a consistent brand that empowers its employees
  • Brands with significant legacies must work hard to change guest perceptions
  • Ultimately, good service and listening to the consumer are the keystones for success

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