Would you sleep with Donald Trump?

Well, not actually with him, but in one of his hotels. Or would you buy an apartment in one of his modestly-named blocks or join one of his golf clubs?

Leona Helmsley was famous for her tyrannical behaviour but she used this reputation to suggest that standards at her hotels were higher than at those with less demanding owners. She was brought down by failure to pay tax, rather than her unpleasant personality.

Donald Trump has done much the same thing. To put it crudely, people have assumed that such a big-mouth who boasts of his high standards, must run some pretty good properties. The businesses have had plenty of ups and downs but appear to be fairly well-regarded. His move on to the main political stage could be dangerous though.

The US is divided roughly 50/50 between Democrats and Republicans. By coming out as an extreme Republican he has therefore put 50% of his home market against him. However, it is worse than that because many Republicans also find his views objectionable. If he loses the Republican nomination and goes on to stand as an independent, he could destroy the party’s chances completely. That would make him an enemy to most Republicans as well! If your brand is your name, and that name is loathed by 90% or more of your market, things could get tricky.

The Marriott family has always been careful to make it clear that their religion is a private matter and that business is business. People may regard Mormons as weird, scary or just harmless eccentrics but the Marriott chain has carefully distanced itself from the religion. Marriott was one of the first US companies to become actively “gay friendly” when many regarded the Church as quite the opposite. The sincerity of this posturing is open to doubt but it is likely that more people avoid Marriott hotels because of an aversion to their trademark vivid carpets than the religion of the founders.

Donald Trump has not made any attempt to separate business and politics. The profitability of a hotel depends on the last handful of rooms being sold every night. If these last few guests decided to stay away, things could get very tricky indeed. That could be much worse for Mr Trump than political defeat.

German Pizza Group opens new Hyde Park outlet

It is unlikely you will see that headline in any of the travel sections of the press in the next few days. You are more likely to see “Luxury German hotel group, Oetker Collection take over management of the Lanesborough Hotel”.

The Lanesborough has been closed for major refurbishment works and is due to re-open shortly. It had previously been managed by Starwood but will probably work better in the smaller, more focused portfolio of Oetker who run a handful of other luxury hotels such as Le Bristol in Paris and Brenners Park in Baden-Baden.

The original Dr Oetker made a fortune from inventing a type of baking powder in 1891. The company expanded rapidly after the Second World War and is now better-known for frozen pizzas and other supermarket goods. It has remained under the control of the Oetker family and is currently run by the great-grandson of the founder. As a family-controlled company, it has been able to diversify into other areas (brewing and insurance as well as the handful of luxury hotels) as it wished. 

The hotel division is currently going through a period of expansion which is probably necessary to bring it up to an economic scale. It does give the impression of being rather a rich man’s hobby and has almost no connection to the hugely successful food group. The chefs of Le Bristol in Paris are probably not too keen to acknowledge their employment by a frozen pizza group.

The mystery is why the Oetker family use their name for the hotels. Bernard Matthews made his fortune selling his “bootiful” turkeys. Had he used some of the profits to buy The Dorchester or a luxury British clothing brand such as Dunhill, he would probably have gone to some lengths to keep the two businesses apart. 

Any branding expert would probably have a fit of the vapours if you suggested using the same name for a luxury hotel group as a cheap frozen pizza company but the Oetker family are obviously happy to put their name where their money is.

Meanwhile, I will look forward to visiting the newly-refurbished Lanesborough. I am sure it will be bootiful, really bootiful.

BBC lose the plot with Hotel India

The BBC faces constant criticism for the way it presents news. The routine accusations are that it is anti-Israel, anti-business and biased against the Conservative Party. This is not the place to delve into that hornet’s nest but, as their documentary, Hotel India, shows they have huge difficulty in telling a straight story. The “plot” for the film had been carefully created and any “facts” used were adapted to fit.

The documentary was about the venerable Taj Palace Hotel in Mumbai. According to the puff accompanying the film, this is where “the super-rich” come to stay and” where rooms can cost up to £9,000 a night”.

The facts are that the Taj Palace is not even the most expensive hotel in Mumbai, and standard rooms cost around £150 a night. There are at least three hotels that are more expensive in Mumbai and many more in India that have very much higher prices. Nor is the hotel necessarily even the best in Mumbai – Tripadvisor rates it the second best luxury hotel in the city. Some visitors to Mumbai will fall for the old-style comfort of the place but others will go for the more modern, and possibly more luxurious styles of the Oberoi, Four Seasons or Westin.

The documentary focused entirely on the hotel’s 15-room suite, costing up to £9,000 a night which comes with 13 staff. That might have been reasonable if the makers had pointed out that the suite was far from representative of the hotel. Instead, they simply jumped on to a bland theme and pushed it to breaking-point.

This was a patronising and profoundly silly film which, whilst it was clearly written with the assistance of Taj Hotels’ PR staff, does the hotel no favours at all. Hard to see what “editorial standards” were at play in this and, as for presenting a sensible view of the hotel, it makes the pieces of editorial puffery in some glossy travel magazines look like prize-winning examples of objectivity.

Are @ConradHotels cheating?

At the beginning of September, Hilton are opening a new Conrad Hotel in London – except it is not new at all. The hotel is currently trading as the Intercontinental Westminster and is less than two years old.

Intercontinental is a bit of a mixed-bag of a brand. Most of its hotels are ok, even if some are rather dated, but there is little in the way of clear branding to distinguish them from other 5 Star hotels. Conrad is a very different affair. Hilton created the brand as a slightly more modern and laid-back alternative to traditional luxury hotels. You should be able to distinguish one of their hotels fairly easily by the sleek, modern design and the emphasis on understated luxury. 

It is pretty easy to see why the owners of the Westminster Intercontinental wanted to change the franchise. The intention seemed to be for the hotel to be slightly “off the radar” but there is a difference between that and the marketing department doing nothing at all. The only thing remarkable about the hotel was the number of bad reviews the restaurant obtained. Saying goodbye to Intercontinental is hardly a loss.

The design of the hotel is fairly modern and it is easy to see why it could be a good fit with the Conrad chain – but it cannot become a Conrad overnight. The only thing that can change immediately is the sign over the door and, maybe, the branded toiletries. Bringing in the service standards of Conrad will require months of training and surely the new managers will want to do some cosmetic work, at the very least in the lobby – and altering the bar and restaurant is an imperative.

If you ask a senior Hilton executive what distinguishes Conrad from other luxury chains, he would probably bore you senseless with endless talk about design, marketing, staffing and the ethos of the brand. On a more practical level, he would also point to tightly-packed folders of brand standards which the hotel must follow. No doubt an Intercontinental executive would be more than willing to provide a similar lecture.

The chains charge hotel-owners and, in turn, their guests, serious money for these branding concepts. Yet, the moment someone comes along with a good offer they drop their knickers and jump into bed. The idea that a hotel can transmogrify from Intercontinental to Conrad overnight is laughable. At the very least, the hotel should have been closed for a couple of weeks for cosmetic work to some of the public areas and major retraining of staff – but, of course, that would cost the owner money.

This shows just how shallow the so-called expert branding of the big chains can be. When they feel like it, they go to town but, when there is a tempting deal available, they will happily forget their own carefully created standards.

Starwood and charity begins at home

We do love a bit of enlightened self-interest so we must compliment Starwood’s “Iftar for cabs” campaign which it is running at hotels throughout the Gulf. Ramadan is a time for charity and the hotel chain has come up with a splendid scheme that appears charitable but is actually very much in their own interest.

At dusk, Moslems are allowed to break their fast by taking their first drink and snack of the day which is known as Iftar. Understandably, taxi drivers who have been at work all day might feel the need to stop work for an hour or so to take much-needed refreshment. This period is also a busy time for hotels as locals frequently go out to hotels and restaurants to take Iftar. In other words, at the busiest time of day (and the most lucrative one for hotel’s Food and Beverage outlets), you might struggle to get a cab.

Starwood’s brilliant solution is to offer a free bag of food and drink to every cab driver who pulls into one of its hotels’ forecourts at this time. This guarantees the hotels and their guests a ready supply of cabs – and the chain is able to bask in the publicity of its Ramadan charity.

Whoever thought that one up, deserves a promotion.

Club Mediterranee Shock

The big shock for many is that this company is still going. An even bigger shock is that two sets of shareholders actually want to take it over.

The original Club Med was almost the founder of “casual chic” but the company has lost its way badly in the last twenty years. Too many different owners, regular stalemate in the boardroom, a sinking reputation and bad financial results The original basic beach hut accommodation went years ago but the company has never really decided where to pitch the brand. Is it a luxury company, mid-market for young professionals or do they want to battle it out at the bottom of the all-inclusive family market? They actually have resorts at all these levels but few of them score particularly well as a look at Tripadvisor will show. The company lacks common standards and a consistent image. Whilst it is still reasonably well-known in France, in most other countries it is just a relic of a dim and slightly naughty past. 

This is strange because the all-inclusive concept is actually now more popular than ever. Companies like SuperClubs in the Caribbean and Mark Warner in the UK show there is a large market for hotels that combine food and wine with sporting and social activities.

One of the two groups of shareholders that wants to take over the company has the idea of targeting the group to affluent Chinese and other Asians. Would they really fall for being sold a tired 1960′s concept as if it were the newest fashion? The other group wants to continue as things are but improve standards and yield.

Whoever wins the battle, it is clear Club Med needs one owner with a lot of time and money and no boardroom squabbles to deflect the company from whichever path has been chosen. 

Maybe the glory days could return.


Too many Hyatts

The large hotel chains are basically franchising companies selling the strength of their brand to both guests and hotel-owners. Branding is the very heart of their business.

When a brand creates sub-brands, the company needs to ensure that the consumer knows just what he is getting. It is pretty obvious what Diet Coke is in relation to Coke but the link between Pepsi and Pepsi Max is rather less clear – which might explain the difficulties of the latter. Equally, we can all understand that a Holiday Inn Express is a slightly stripped-down version of the original and it is not hard to work out that a JW Marriott is meant to be superior to a standard Marriott.

All the big hotel chains have created numerous sub-brands in recent years to tap into new markets but Hyatt seem to have got themselves into a real mess.

The “standard” Hyatt is simply a Hyatt. Then they have Andaz, Park Hyatt, Grand Hyatt, Hyatt Regency, Hyatt Place and Hyatt House (we will leave Hyatt Zilara and Hyatt Ziva out since they cater to specific markets). You can probably work out that a Hyatt Regency and a Grand Hyatt are superior to a standard Hyatt but which one is the top? Where do Andaz, Park, Place and House fit in? All these four sub-brands are in some way more modern than traditional hotels but what distinguishes them? Who knows? Who cares?

Hyatt has had a remarkable turnaround in recent years and the company has created some genuinely good, new hotels but they are using far too many names without giving a clear definition to the customer of what they are offering.

The customer is paying for the peace of mind that a strong brand offers. The brand name is supposed to tell them what they are getting. Unfortunately, Hyatt’s plethora of meaningless names is more likely to confuse. And that is not the point at all.

Are @DC_Luxury Hotels compensating staff for income lost in boycott?

The boycott of hotels in the Dorchester Collection group is beginning to bite. The boycott started when a group of people in the Los Angeles fashion and film business decided to protest against the imposition of Sharia law in Brunei and the threat to stone women or gays accused of any form of sexual misconduct. The Dorchester Collection includes The Beverley Hills Hotel and Bel-Air in Los Angeles, the Meurice in Paris and a number of other deluxe hotels around the world as well as the Dorchester in London. Many of these hotels earn a significant part of their income from these businesses, and people indirectly associated with them. When Vogue magazine and the indomitable Anna Wintour join in such a movement, it is fairly obvious it is something all sides will have to take seriously. At the moment, no major film or fashion company is going to wish to be associated with the hotels.

The Dorchester Collection has hit back by stating that it is a liberal employer and a supporter of women’s and gay rights. They claim that the people most likely to be hurt are the hotels’ staff who risk losing income. They have also thrown mud at other luxury hotels claiming that many are also owned by people from countries with Sharia law.

These arguments do not hold water.

Firstly, staff in the Dorchester Collection hotels are at the top of the industry and are highly-prized in a business which is famous for staff mobility. Most of them could move to similar jobs without a problem. If the Dorchester Collection is such a caring employer, it could offer to make up the income they are losing in tips.

Secondly, the suggestion that any boycott should spread to other hotels is silly. The remark is presumably aimed at the Saudi, Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, who owns a large stake in the Four Seasons chain as well as the Kingdom Hotels group which controls many luxury hotels around the world including the Savoy in London. The Prince is just one member of an enormous royal family and would not be able to influence a change in Saudi law. He is also known for being one of the more liberal members of the Saudi royal family.

The comparison between Saudi Arabia and Brunei is totally false. Saudi Arabia has had Sharia law in place for many years but Brunei is introducing it as a partial replacement of a largely British legal system. The Sultan of Brunei is the sole owner of the Dorchester Collection and he is the absolute ruler of Brunei. He has described the introduction of Sharia law as “a glorious day”.

I have to say, I do not like the idea of boycotts. They smack of putting unfair pressure on people to tow a certain politically-correct line. On the other hand, I can see very well why anyone with any concern for women’s or gay’s rights – or simple western democracy for that matter – would want to avoid hotels in the Dorchester Collection for the foreseeable future. 

What does “free internet” mean?

The other day I was travelling through Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport and tried to use the new “free internet” deal they offer throughout the building. 

You have a choice of paying for a premium service or having an hour of basic internet without charge. 

The first time I tried to use it, it took ages to log on to the system and, when I did, I could only see the list of emails in my inbox but I struggled to open them. I tried again, in another part of the terminal where the signal was obviously a little better. This time I could open the emails – albeit slowly – but opening an attachment proved impossible. It took me nearly the full free hour to work out that the deal was useless. 

I might add that this was during a quiet time of day so goodness knows what it would be like when the airport is busy. To be honest, the offer of free basic internet seemed rather a scam, largely designed to encourage people to pay for the expensive superior service.

Countless surveys show that free internet is a major priority for travellers. Hotels and other companies are trying to match the demand and the offer of “free internet” is now much more common than it used to be.

But there is no point in offering it at all if it does not work.

The hotel group, IHG, made a big announcement last year that they would be introducing free internet for guests from this year. The deal was actually more restricted than the headline suggested and seems to have been reduced still further but, even on the limited basis, there have been complaints that the internet system in some hotels cannot cope with demand.

A major problem is that there is no proper definition of a minimum standard. How many hotels have you seen advertise “free internet” and then state the average speed?

The minimum requirement nowadays should be that any internet coverage is sufficient to watch videos without freezing. If a more basic service is offered, such as at Schiphol, it should be capable of opening emails and any standard website without difficulty.

Hotels do not specify the average or maximum temperature of the hot water they provide in the bathrooms. Guests merely assume that there is sufficient power in the system to cater for their needs. Is it unreasonable to ask that when they offer internet, free or otherwise, they actually state what they are offering?

Wombles invade The Shard

The great skill in running an international hotel chain is maintaining a common identity throughout the chain whilst making each hotel firmly rooted in its location.

The big American chains used to be hopeless at this. The original international Hilton’s, Sheraton’s and Hyatt’s were aggressively American but most of them (other than Marriott) have made serious efforts to “go local” with their newer hotels. Kempinski (even though it is Thai-owned) trades heavily on its German/European roots whilst many Meridien hotels still refer to their bars as “Le Bar” and make telephonists answer calls with “Bonjour” before lapsing into English.

Mandarin Oriental is one of the most successful chains at subtly blending its Asian style into different cultures. The Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park manages to be both very British yet with identifiable Asian twists. If you stay in their hotels in New York or Barcelona you will feel part of those cities yet still recognise the same Asian style. Maybe that is what you would expect from a company that was started by one of the great British Hong Kong trading companies. They have been blending East and West for a very long time.

The Shangri-La chain actually has a very similar history to Mandarin Oriental but it has only recently started to establish hotels outside Asia. Their new London hotel in The Shard was originally due to open before the Olympics but has been delayed over and over again. The hotel does seem to be creeping towards an opening date though because they have named an Executive Chef and announced the names of the three food and beverage outlets – Lang, Ting and Gong.

One is a cafe, one a bar and the other a restaurant. Goodness knows which is which. My initial reaction is not to care. They sound like characters from The Wombles.

A name should be an easily memorable form of shorthand so you know what to expect. These are just silly Asian-sounding names which are bound to confuse because they are too similar.

Shangri-La’s other major European hotel is in Paris and, whilst generally well-received, more than one reviewer has suggested it is like “a luxury Asian theme park”.

The London hotel and restaurant business is potentially highly lucrative but also very competitive. The hotel at The Shard will have to be much more than a Disney-esque version of Chinese luxury if it is to survive. And for the restaurants to attract outside visitors (who are vital to the success of any hotel restaurant), they will need identifiable names.