According to Cahners Official Hotel Guide, the hapless business traveller trying to find a bed for the night in Glasgow can choose between two Best Westerns, a Copthorne, a Posthouse, a Marriott, a Moat House, a Hilton, a Jurys, two Thistles, a Quality Hotel, two Stakis (now Hilton) and a Swallow; plus boutique properties such as the Carlton George, Malmaison and One Devonshire Gardens. Where do you start? Budget and location play a large part in where you choose to stay, but is there really much difference between one property and another? Especially when the traveller just wants a convenient roof over his head and comfortable bed for the night. 'Most of the time executives spend in a hotel, they don't want to be there. They want to be at home,' says Gordon McKinnon, director of marketing for Malmaison Hotels. So they want the hotel to feel like home, to be treated as an individual and not just the person in room 612. 'Being able to provide a personal service is a major asset, and this is one of the advantages smaller hotels have,' says Hans van der Heijden, general manager of the Carlton George, a 65-room business property that opened in Glasgow in May. Bedrooms have a large desk; direct dial phones; modem and continental power points; and a fax. But home comforts have not been ignored. The bar is complimentary and whisky, gin and sherry await, in decanters, like home - or as you might like home to be ... And there is a complimentary bar in a lounge on the seventh floor, plus a computer with Internet access and reading matter. Van der Heijden says the hotel is also building up guest profiles and noting how often guests stay, so they can be given some recognition such as a special greeting in reception or a present. The large hotel chains might seem hard pressed to compete with this, but according to joint managing director of TRI Hospitality Consulting (formerly BDO Hospitality Consulting) Jonathan Langston, hotels at all levels can and should give a personalised service. 'It is easy for hotels to replicate physical facilities,' he says. 'But groups like Ritz-Carlton know their customers. Guests get recognition, they are pampered. The group does not necessarily provide a consistent product, but hotels give a highly personalised service. 'With today's information technology, it is viable for four and five star properties to do that, but this is where independents score,' says Langston. 'There is an assurance of a certain level of quality by virtue of a name,' he says. 'However, fundamental details can be kept on file so that when a customer checks in, hotel staff can say: "Would you like your usual copy of The Times, Mr Jones?" That can be done by any level of property.' Most groups are, however, still relying on individual properties to draw up guest profiles rather than implementing it as company policy worldwide, for example Choice Hotels, comprising Comfort, Quality and Clarion properties - at budget, mid-market and four star service levels, respectively. 'We are working on finding a way of continuing individual properties' efforts,' says marketing services director Vicky La Trobe. 'We are undertaking an IT overview at all levels.' Even hotels investing heavily in technology to offer more sophisticated services to their guests, hoping to stand out by doing so, are building in the need to contact reception or room service in order to make things happen. Quadriga supplies interactive TVs to hotels and has clients ranging from Courtyard by Marriott to Inter-Continental Hotels. 'Some hotels have full guest services on TV, but still encourage customers to call the front desk, so that guests do not feel held at arm's length by technology,' says managing director Jon Freeman. But Freeman feels that hoteliers tend to concentrate on brand experience rather than the traveller's environment. 'It is possible to control all this through the TV, but when you walk into a room it is inert, dead. It has to be brought alive.' For example, Sheraton has installed videos to introduce guests to the room and talk them through what is there and how it can be controlled. 'It is a brave thing to do, but if it works it is right because it adds value to the next stay,' says Freeman. 'It has to be simple and reliable because people tend to think technology is going to be complicated and difficult to work,' says Freeman. One draw offered by nearly every hotel group is a loyalty scheme. Bass Hotels, which embraces Inter-Continental, Crowne Plaza, Holiday Inn, Express by Holiday Inn and Staybridge Suites, believes one appeal it has over its rivals is that its Priority club is valid across all brands worldwide. So a regular guest at an Express by Holiday Inn can redeem points earned there against a weekend at an Inter-Continental Paris or New York. However, Marriott, Choice, Starwood (Sheraton and Westin), Hilton and Forte all have loyalty schemes, and they offer similar advantages. Says TRI's Langston: 'The benefits are much the same and they are difficult to quantify. And if the corporate account is with Posthouse or Holiday Inn, you collect the points of the corporate choice.' Nonetheless, the hotel groups set some store by them. 'Hilton Honors is one of the world's biggest programmes, and one of its key appeals is it allows double dipping - the ability to earn airmiles and Honors points,' says Chris Wood, director of brands for Hilton UK. Wood says the Hilton brand is held in high esteem and well recognised, and the Honors programme is part of that. 'But we are not complacent,' he says. 'We need to invest in properties to get a consistent product and high service delivery.' And to that end, changes are lined up for next year. One area the group will be looking at is the amount of time taken to check in and out. 'Our standard is that a customer should be greeted at front office reception within three minutes,' he says. Check-in and check-out are two of regular travellers' major complaints. 'I hate queuing at check-in,' says managing director of engineering company Stork BP&L, who travels constantly. 'Guests tend to arrive at hotels at the same time of day and there are always delays. Although, at least express check-out removes that.' But ultimately he chooses accommodation by cost. 'If my client has negotiated a rate at a local hotel, I will ask them to book me in there,' he says. No brand loyalty there, then. Posthouse, Forte's three star properties, recognises the problem. 'We are looking at separate check-in for business customers and for superior rooms,' says Caroline Beecher, marketing director for Posthouse. 'We are also considering a choice of check-out - through the TV, picking up an express check-out and even the possibility of checking out during breakfast,' says Beecher. There are three types of restaurant throughout Posthouse, and The Junction is aimed at business travellers. 'It is a contemporary English-style brasserie, with some tables laid for one, and magazines and newspapers are available.' There are 40 properties with a Junction brasserie. But are special menus, Internet access and loyalty schemes really what business travellers want? Dignam gets the last word. His other bugbear is UHT milk: 'I want fresh milk in my tea or coffee, and many hotels that provide tea and coffee making facilities in the room, will not provide it, even on request.' McKinnon is right: executives would rather be at home. The next best thing, is to have what they get at home. Any hotel that can provide that - with or without branding - will win, and keep, customers. And that is down to individual staff, the personal touch, not brand promises. - Catherine Chetwynd is a freelance journalist HOW TO SUCCEED WITHOUT ASKING WHAT THE CUSTOMERS NEEDS Malmaison has properties in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Newcastle, Manchester and Leeds, ranging in size from 60 to 116 rooms. The hotels have a reputation for being the domain of rock stars, but that represents just 10% of their business; 60% is corporate travellers and their average occupancy is 90%. So what makes them a success? Not, apparently, asking customers what they want. 'People don't know what they want, until they get it,' says director of marketing Gordon McKinnon. 'Travellers always say they want what they know, but we have been in the industry long enough to know what we should be delivering.' And Malmaison aims to create everything someone would want at home, plus a bit more, from design to amenities. 'It is a common misconception that we are running design hotels,' says McKinnon. 'But the decor has to be accessible, stylish but not threatening - so that a guest thinks, this is the way my apartment in the city would be ...' Rooms have a CD player (with hotel library), a TV and video and bars with what McKinnon describes as 'real drinks and munchies'. By this, he means not Toblerone but biscuits, and a drinks box with all the ingredients for a G&T or Bloody Mary from which guests can make their own. Malmaison properties were launched on a basic business principle, rewriting the hotel manual to cut out unnecessary frills and pass on the savings to the customer. Evening turndown, chocolates on the pillow, room service menu and porterage went out the window. Although, by popular demand, the room service menu was re-instated and if a guest appears to be struggling with bags, someone will leap to their aid. There are tea and coffee-making facilities in rooms, with fresh coffee and cafetieres and UHT milk (fresh on request). And the rock element? Guests include Cher, Elton John and Robbie Williams, and Malmaison only promotes the hotels in lifestyle magazines on the grounds that business customers will follow from the leisure sector. 'Every accountant wants to be a rock star at the weekend,' says McKinnon.
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