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Self-enhancement

Hotel success built on new brand habits

By Ella Lee

Hotels must decide on their market segment and position their brand accordingly

Branding is nowadays recognised as one of the most challenging of all marketing strategies. It helps to highlight the essential qualities of a product and brings them alive by creating something which is distinctive and memorable. When it comes to services and the companies which provide them, brand building can be even more important since, in highly competitive sectors, lasting success can depend even more on perceptions and reputation.

Branding is really essential for hotels, says James Lu, executive director of the Hong Kong Hotels Association. "Without it, a hotel is just a temporary place of residence with people coming and going every day." He adds that it is especially important in Hong Kong, where people are very brand-conscious and tend to identify with those they admire most.

Mr Lu emphasises that, in the hospitality industry, people think in terms of "branded services", rather than overall best practices. "There is no uniform service standard for hotels," he says. "Instead, each one maintains its own style and has its own way of serving customers."

Right positioning
Therefore, a hotel's brand should precisely reflect its positioning V as a deluxe resort, five-star accommodation for business travellers, a functional place catering to group tours, or an economical stop for backpackers.

According to Mr Lu, five factors will determine positioning:

1. Investment: which determines the resources available, including the establishment and facilities and the people employed.
2. Target customers: hotels should clearly define these. Different market segments have different requirements, which are sometimes mutually exclusive.
3. Services offered: these include the facilities available and the standards maintained. How staff deal with customers and the general environment are also key factors.
4. People who provide services: overall attitudes and training are the two main criteria for this.
5. Pricing: it must correspond to the target market and services offered.

In building their brands, hotels must also employ appropriate strategies for advertising and promotion. As examples, Mr Lu points to the Mandarin Oriental's use of celebrity-style endorsements, with James Bond's image in its advertisements.

This relates to creating a certain image which must be backed up by definite service "deliverables". The hotel's top executives play a pivotal role in ensuring standards do not slip and that the brand message is consistent. To do this, they must possess excellent communication skills both to deal with investors and the public and to motivate staff. Ultimately, of course, the success of any hotel brand depends on the quality of staff and their commitment to achieving defined goals.

According to Mr Lu, maintaining the required level of consistency is often the major challenge. All staff, whether working at the front desk, in the restaurants, or in back-office functions must have the same attitude towards serving all customers equally well. "A brand is very vulnerable and can be tarnished by a minor mistake made by a single person," he says. As a result, the best brands regard continuous training as essential for eliminating errors and improving standards.

Personal branding
An executive can also strengthen his company's standing and even have an effect on the results of the business by developing a personal brand. A good example, says Mr Lu, is Forum restaurant and its founder, the "abalone king" Yeung Koon-yat. In such cases the corporate and the personal brand should go hand in hand.

It is clearly an advantage for any hotel if the style of the senior executive exemplifies the corporate brand.

Developing a personal brand takes considerable time and effort. It requires commitment, charisma and dedication to winning the trust and respect of customers. "You have to believe completely in what you are doing and be prepared to give yourself to it 100 per cent," says Mr Lu.

He can recall several such "fanatics", one of whom regarded the hotel lobby as his office and was there almost constantly because of his desire to help guests in any possible way. He came across another such example when travelling in the US. Arriving after midnight at an up-market hotel in Maine, there was only one person on duty to help him carry his bags to the room V and that was the general manager!

To a certain extent, these people may be exceptions, but Mr Lu stresses that attitude is of utmost importance for anyone in the hotel business. As an essential characteristic it goes together with honesty, a positive outlook and the ability to work as part of a team.

When assessing candidates for the hospitality industry, Mr Lu says he only needs to ask three questions: what are your strengths and weaknesses, what is your favourite sport, and what will you do if you are rejected? The answer to the first one gives a good idea about the person's self-knowledge and confidence; the second shows if they are really a team player; and the third reveals their ability to face up to difficulties and cope with failure.

James Lu, executive director of the Hong Kong Hotels Association has over 37 years of international management experience in corporations such as Citibank, Dow Chemical Pacific, and Swire Group. He will share his extensive experience in leadership branding at the Executive Leadership Branding Seminar 2005 on 19 May, 2005 at Sheraton Hong Kong Hotel & Towers.

Taken from Career Times 13 May 2005

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