Look beyond minimum brand standards so your property stands out in the sea of competition.
By Larry Mogelonsky, MBA, P.Eng.
Long-term capital appreciation and ongoing income, coupled with perceptive timing and commitment to success will ultimately make for a highly profitable return on investment. This is why hotel investors purchase limited-service properties. But it does not mean you have to limit everything that isn’t immediately suggested in this formula.
One of the secrets to limited-service property success comes from top-down brand directives. Expertly developed franchise guidebooks detail everything you need to know about the running of your establishment and provide an operations manual for your team to follow. Sounds great, right? But are these operating procedures enough? Location aside, why do some properties perform far better than others?
Brand standards are only the beginning
A property rarely dominates a coveted location on its own for a long time before the competition comes sweeping in. Just when you seem to have it all worked out, a new property under a different flag pops up next door. Or, maybe you’re the new kid on the block trying to break into that prime spot. In either case, value-adds are essential to prevent competitive locations from devolving into a price war.
You have to look beyond the minimum brand standards detailed in your franchise agreement. You need to use your imagination and ingenuity to create points of difference for your property. It doesn’t necessarily have to add a lot of expense, but it will require some time investment from your management team. On the following pages, I’ve outlined several different approaches, all of which have been proven by properties in operation around the world.
Sense of arrival
Most hoteliers instinctively understand the concept of a sense of arrival. Broadly defined, this is what the guest sees the moment they arrive at the threshold of your establishment. The goal here is to quite literally wow your arriving guests from the get-go to both reaffirm their hotel selection and to reassure that they’re in for good times ahead. A strong first impression is critical because it sets the tone for the rest of the visit, whether that be a positive or, hopefully not, a negative framing.
Walk through your front door as if you were a guest to ensure that the ‘performance’ is flawless. If it is done well, guests will be excited about their stay and all of their preemptive doubts will be alleviated. Your arrival routine may even include an upsell routine to a better room type. Train your front desk staff on the proper welcome address, creating eye contact and, as obvious as it may sound, smiling. Make this part of your operational code.
Lastly, a bowl of fresh apples on the counter says a lot. Apples are bright, fresh, delicious and nutritious. Disregarding the healthy component, you may opt for straight-from-the-oven chocolate chip cookies and let the sugary goodness waft through the air. These are but two examples of little extras you can insert to heighten the welcoming experience. Flowers, art, cleanliness, air fresheners and even the channel you select on the lobby lounge flat-screen can all make a difference.
A typical limited-service property offers a complimentary breakfast ranging from pastries and coffee to something more extravagant including waffles, an omelet station or buffet. In all cases, just because you are obligated to serve breakfast with a mind towards low unit costs does not mean that you shouldn’t splurge a little.
This monetary expenditure must be incredibly focused, though, in order to prevent overages. And to this end, nothing is better at the present than local, authentic specialties.
First off, what is your region known for above all else, and can it be applied to breakfast? Are there any nearby purveyors with whom you can partner? Consider local jams, jellies and honey as these can be stored long-term. Next, look to cheeses, artisanal breads, muffins pastries, cured meats or fresh produce.
Create signage to promote these products, and don’t be afraid to present unusual flavors. Promote your local producers and share their story so they feel the love and will reciprocate in kind. An easy way to do this: Print a Google map of the area surrounding your property and simply flag each of your suppliers. The next level up would be to commission a graphical reproduction with short descriptions in place.
The lobby: Your third space
The modern hotel is not only a place for a good night’s sleep, but also one to see and be seen. Lobbies all over the world are being refitted to accommodate a renewed vigor for what is collectively known as ‘the third space’ or ‘the third place,’ denoting a public locale that serves a hybrid role somewhere between the home and the office. The third space is one of productivity but also relaxation; one of quiet reflection but also socialization. If this explanation is too cryptic, go to your nearest Starbucks to see how the pros do it.
To transform your lobby into an environment conducive to this sort of interaction need not be costly. I am not advocating a capital investment, but rather a creative one. Some of these ideas may require a bit of coordination and extra effort, but ultimately they will provide your property with distinctiveness and sense of community.
- Local art: One approach is to develop a relationship with a local fine arts college. Allow students to hang their best works in the lobby. For many of these budding artists, it will be the first time their art has had public exposure. With a little dose of presentation skills, this newfangled art gallery space will create excitement for your guests. Who knows, a student may actually sell a work and forever sing your praises!
- Community sports vibe: If art isn’t your forte, you might consider turning your lobby into a hall of fame for local sports. Although not initially as pleasing as the previous suggestion, looking closer may reveal quite a few professional superstars who got their start in your region. Their stories will heighten interactivity and give the guest a better understanding of the area. Beyond this, you can sponsor a local team or, at the very least, reach to them to see if they have any memorabilia or archival photography for you to borrow. In this sense, it’s less about the stars and more about the evolution of the community through sports.
- Kids welcome: If your property is heavily oriented towards families, then your third space better be attuned to your core demographic – families with young kids. This may include a television at children’s eye level, likely two to three feet off the ground and preset to an appropriate channel. Buffer the area with kid-friendly chairs and play toys.
A friendly greeting from staffer to guest can never go wrong, no matter the circumstance. It’s easy; it’s fast; it’s a sign that you are always welcome and ready to serve. Even better would be to follow-up the salutation with a simple, “How are you?” or, “Can I help you with anything?”
And yet, at many establishments outside of the five-star or ultra-luxury brackets, the only greeting I get is the perfunctory one at check-in – an instance where I approach the front desk and not the other way around where an employee goes out of his or her way to offer assistance. While I wouldn’t expect a housekeeper or maintenance worker to drop everything to cater to my every immediate whim, stopping for a second to greet me is nonetheless uplifting.
Questions without a yes or no answer are even better as they imply a more descriptive response. In any case, always initiate conversation and greet guests everywhere, not just at check-in, on approach to the front desk or when seated at a restaurant.
But more so than speaking the words, the true power of hello lies in how the words and any subsequent questions are spoken – that is, the tone. For this, an attitude of warmth cannot be understated. Speak slowly and smile. Making a guest feel welcome with each and every encounter is an unassuming trick to boost guest satisfaction. And, best of all: for you as an owner, it’s free!
Pets are profit
Does your property accept pets? According to the ASPCA, 37–47 percent of Americans have dogs and 30–37 percent have cats. These are serious numbers! If only a small percentage of those percentages actually travel with their pets, it’s still a number large enough for you to not ignore.
Whereas I cannot tell you to start accepting four-legged friends or not (likely a top-down decision from the brand), those properties that do should make the most of it. Plan a doggie welcome basket. Create a pet registry at the front desk as well as a fun dog-cat menu of items that can be left in the room, including a help guide showing veterinarian locations, toys and treats.
I am often asked if it is appropriate to levy cleaning surcharges for having an animal in a room. The answer is yes, and the amount that can be billed is independent of the room rate. Typically, I have seen rates in the range of $25 to $50 (or more) per stay. Some hotels charge this ‘pooch premium’ every day. Either way, most guests are already expecting to pay a little extra when they bring their pets. The key is to not make it too exorbitant.
Local expert handouts
Let’s face it, who knows more about your local area: you or your guests? The answer is simple. And if it is ever the guest then you really have to step up your game!
Just like my earlier suggestion for breakfasts, it’s time to demonstrate your expertise. Invest in some mini-folding maps. These are sold by a variety of suppliers and can also serve as a key card envelope. When open, the map provides two sides. Consider a jogging map on one side with the other side reserved for a property overview. Sell advertising space on the maps to offset costs.
Next, solicit local stores to provide discount coupons. Many will do this because they realize that tourists are pure incremental business. Put the coupons in a small folder and call it a local passport. When tied in with the map, you have the makings of a local shopping package.
Some Final Words
Owning a limited-service property is a tremendous opportunity to become a community leader, so embrace it through your actions. Encourage local service groups to hold meetings in your space. Each summer, offer an internship to a student from a community college. Donate old furniture and soft goods to a shelter. Meet with local media and share stories. Above all, have fun with it and you will be rewarded in more ways than you can imagine. ■
Larry Mogelonsky ([email protected]) is the founder of LMA Communications Inc. (www.lma.ca), an award-winning, full-service communications agency focused on the hospitality industry (est. 1991). As a recognized expert in marketing services, his experience encompasses Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts and Preferred Hotels and Resorts, as well as numerous independent properties throughout North America, Europe and Asia.