“Guests check in with expectations and they check out with memories,” says Trevor Bracher of Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, as he begins a discussion on how his company manages their hotel brands. What Trevor is talking about is the basis for building and maintaining a quality brand. “Years ago, we thought of our hotels as just a place to stay, but then we realized it was much more than that for our guests and that we had to build an entire experience.”
Starwood Hotels and Resorts is not a household name to many of us, but their hotels include well-known marquees like Westin, Sheraton, W, and St. Regis, as well as specialty hotels such as Le Meridien and Four Points. Trevor’s title is Director of Service Culture and he spends his days (and many of his nights) training the executives and managers at individual properties on what their specific brand of hotel is supposed to look, taste and most important, feel like to their guests.
If you think managing one brand culture is tough, try nine. That’s the number of hotel brands in the Starwood portfolio, each with its own brand concept defined by a multitude of physical attributes (architecture, bedding, fixtures and furniture), but amplified and made keenly memorable by emotional concepts such as family bonding, rejuvenation, or personal discovery.
Trevor is fluent in the specifications of all nine brands and on request describes the difference between two of Starwood’s most popular hotels. “We call them ‘global lifestyle brands’,” he explains, “Westin is a spa and Zen-like concept of feeling better than when you first arrived; the focus is about adjusting the guest experience so that every little thing is taken care of. Then our guests can walk away and feel rested and better than when they first got here.”
He then contrasts Westin with the venerable Sheraton brand: “A Sheraton is deliberately focused on the concept that life is better when it’s shared. Sheraton is all about family, and we teach how to keep it resonating in that way. So we have communal tables and it’s not about the personal Zen moments that you would see at Westin. Instead of white tea smell at the Westin, there’s a comforting warmth smell in the lobby.”
Yes, every Starwood hotel brand has its own smell.
Trevor goes on to describe how service culture training is undertaken at every new hotel with staff orientation of general brand training. Hotel employees are then led through 24 hours of training modules that explain their particular hotel brand and what makes it distinct. “It’s truly about creating an experience around a guest’s stay. What we’re selling is not just a clean room. It’s an experience. So we make sure our staff knows what is needed to create a stronger voice based on the brand.”
Each location has at least one permanent service culture trainer, more for larger properties. As new associates come into the hotel, they receive the same training as original employees. The amount of training depends on where a person will be working, with more for those with guest interaction. Some staff members will receive 48 hours of training on what it means to create an experience for the guest.
“Part of the training regimen includes how to be there for the guest even when you don’t feel your best,” Trevor notes, “It’s really about service training in a branded voice.”
Of course, no ongoing brand program survives long without enforcement-the oft dreaded “brand police.” Starwood does this by looking for what they term “detractors.” These are anything or anybody that is hurting their brand consistency. Trevor describes a Sheraton where the owners won’t invest in the standards of the brand. As a result they don’t have the same bedding, lobby, or food menu items. “So we start to pull them out of the chain,” he says, “without standards, we can’t maintain our brands. Every single employee is held accountable. If you see litter and you leave it there, you create an impression of a dirty place.”
While articulating the differences of nine different brands to the staffs of hotels around the world is a dizzying task, there are a number of consistencies in the Starwood approach that any company can apply to their own brand or service culture. For example, service culture training begins with management and continues through every last employee, whether they have direct contact with customers or not. Employees are regularly trained to understand how to work as teams and not just focus on their own jobs. Performance counts and will be reviewed and criticized, if necessary. Senior level managers can lose their jobs and owners can lose their franchise if they fail to meet agreed upon standards.
Finally, there is a focus on the customer that Trevor summed up with his opening line: Brands create emotional expectations, and customers will surely remember if they were fulfilled. Or not.