Finding the keys to a healthy hotel brand relationship can put everyone on the path to success
The post-pandemic landscape for hotels is one of change, with direct impacts on nearly every department. Given how fast the world moves and how quickly guest behavior is evolving, many owners and management companies are understandably questioning their relationships with their brands. The question of all questions to ask yourself is whether your brand is aligned to help your hotel increase revenues, preserve the bottom line, and grow asset value during the transitional decade ahead?
While you may feel the big hint within that question means scrutinizing your franchisee agreement and potentially changing flags, that’s not the intent. Rather, the goal should be getting the most out of your brand, and there are numerous ways to deepen your relationship to maximize success, particularly by focusing on a few key areas.
A BITTER PANDEMIC AFTERTASTE
Many franchisees felt pinched by what they perceived as unnecessary and onerous brand mandates related to mitigating COVID-19, often with increased costs borne by the properties. This created lingering distrust and tension that both sides must first work to repair before going about setting the stage for a prosperous decade ahead.
“Both sides need to start by being more upfront, honest, and transparent,” commented Mark Hope, vice president of development and revenue strategy at Coast Hotels, when discussing the motivations behind the brand mandates during the pandemic. As further background, Coast Hotels is a boutique, upscale brand with 40-plus flags spread across the West Coast in Canada and the United States, from Hawaii and California to Alaska and the Yukon.
“Without question, mandates need to be explained as to how, why, and when,” Hope continued. “Mandates shouldn’t be dropped in the laps of franchisee on an overnight basis. They should be done on a realistically planned and timed basis. Sometimes there needs to be some wiggle room based on the specific franchise. I always look at multiple perspectives – from the guest, from the brand and from the owner’s capital spend with an ROI component. And I explain it from that viewpoint.”
What should be stressed from the brand side of things is the importance of timing with any mandate. For Coast Hotels, for instance, it may be easier to coordinate a rollout plan for only 40 hotels where only 30 are franchised – with some having multiple owners – and there’s enough bandwidth to talk each through the pending change. However, this gets tougher for bigger franchise companies that have hundreds or thousands of licensees to guide.
While the ball is still in the brand’s court to act more transparently coming out of the pandemic as a means of instilling trust, property-level operators would be wise to stay attuned to incoming brand directives and be proactive in maintaining a regular rapport.
Hope suggested we treat the relationship like a dance. The tempo goes up and down on repeat. With amenity creep and technology creep bound to accelerate, it’s time for the brands to temporarily slow down and listen to the greater franchise communities before righting the ship.
1) ACT AS A CUSTOMER
Ultimately, you’re the customer and the buck stops with you. Customers have rights and brands are there to serve your needs. This starts by asking. Prepare a list that brings together needs from every departmental head and invite your regional brand manager to the property for executive committee to address each.
For starters, ask your territory rep for similar properties in the region and get introductions so you can share information and learnings with like-minded colleagues. Concurrently, your brands should be able to provide you with market intelligence with particular information pertaining to current issues such as how best to navigate labor shortages.
There also are technology considerations that require the industry to move at full throttle to stay ahead of evolving demands and cost-cutting automations. Typically, brands are the vanguards of new tech, but they should move faster to promote and push these to the franchise level. Ask what new products are brand-approved and how quickly they can move to make introductions or assist with on-prem setup.
Again, it’s about asking and receiving. Review how your property is displayed on the brand website, any other vanity URLs beyond your direct purview, and on the brand’s social media accounts. If there are issues, make a list and tackle them with the regional brand manager’s team. Moreover, brands should support your media efforts by lining up press coverage at a regular chip or advertiser deals. If they aren’t, find out why.
2) ACT AS A CANDIDATE
Let’s say you had an upcoming job interview. Ideally, you would research the prospective company, its competitors, and the entire industry. This shows preparedness and will make you shine as the best candidate who’s wholly worthy of the company’s endorsement. The same principle can be applied to your brand relationship.
Due diligence means interviewing operators currently part of the brand cohort. Ask how the brand supports their regional efforts, how the brand responds to their needs, and the degree to which the brand proactively helps in data mining. While brand cannibalization is always a concern, realistically there are bigger fish to fry and it serves you best to be a consummate student in your brand as well as the specific tactics that have proven fruitful for other local franchisees.
Being proactive also means educating yourself on everything the brand has to offer, including informational webinars your team members can attend, online courses that may also offer performance accountability, and regional or national conferences that can serve as motivational tools for managers. Do your homework and review your co-op plan so you come back with thoughtful requests from your regional brand manager. Take advantage of any training programs offered and participate in brand-related activities including sales missions.
As previously mentioned, any issues related to new tech solutions that are ready to implement, problems with the website and media relationships will require you to first audit then summarize the situation before addressing it with the brand. They aren’t mind readers, but if you bring forward your concerns in a clearly outlined document, it’s hard not to generate a productive discussion with helpful follow-up actions on their part.
3) ACT AS A PARTNER
It’s clear that cultivating a better relationship between brand and franchisee will always be a dance, where one partner moves and the other countermoves. But perhaps it should be framed as a healthy marriage, where any dislike is brought forward with compassion and disagreements are tackled constructively.
“The brand should focus on detailing and explaining why mandates are still relevant for a flagged property. Like being married, it is about managing the evolution of the relationship and therefore finding ways to tweak then enhance the partnership for the benefit of all parties,” said Nicholas Messian, general manager at the Algonquin Resort, a 233-room property that’s a member of Marriott’s Autograph Collection located in New Brunswick along the Bay of Fundy close to the Maine border.
Illustrating the first point about trust, Anil Taneja, managing director of the Palm Group, a management company with multiple branded and independent properties, said, “Transparency on why you can or cannot do something to your asset is key, but this will only buy you time with the brands. The better the brand, the stronger its ability to dictate without compromise. The more units a brand has, the more infrastructure it has behind it to enforce their mandates. If you want ultimate flexibility within the brand framework, then a soft or newer brand is the way to go.”
Do the dance. Be an active customer. Be a worthy job candidate. And if the relationship still isn’t working after you’ve put in the necessary work, then and only then is it time to consider going in another direction. This should, of course, be considered a last resort but brands evolve and there often is an emerging sub-brand within your current house of brands that may better fit your target customer, especially in the post-pandemic world where so much about travel has changed within such a short period of time.