Obviously, few industries should be as globally aware as travel. But hotel brands in particular have frequently struggled to win over customers in other countries -- or else they have had to totally change their product in an effort to appeal. Economy brands in the U.S. become upscale properties elsewhere; limited-service hotels offer restaurants; hotels that pride themselves on their consistency go astray in trying to "be local."
In his recent book You Can't Lead With Your Feet On the Desk (Wiley), Ed Fuller, president and managing director for Marriott International and the longtime leader in that brand's march across the globe, wrote, "What we needed abroad was often quite different from what we needed at home. For example, we needed prayer rooms in Muslim countries; two, equal-size ballrooms to separately accommodate men and women at weddings in the Middle East; more restaurants catering to local tastes and ingredients, and flexible smoking policies."
At one point, writes Fuller, Marriott took senior executives on 10-day jaunts to experience different cultures and customers. The whole point of Fuller's book and the thinking behind the title is that "the best way to gain a better, more complete understanding of people, cultures, beliefs and historical events is to leave my desk behind."
While much of Fuller's concerns focus on operations, his lessons apply equally to marketing. You can't market to a clientele with which you're not intimately familiar. One marketing-focused brand that has more recently "gone global" in a big way is W Hotels, which has been built on a sense of style that is not easily translated into many countries. One advantage for the brand as it moves worldwide is that it is led by Eva Ziegler, an Austrian by birth and once a ranking pro tennis player who traveled extensively as an athlete.
W Hotels has decided to establish its international image through universal sensibilities like fashion and music. Most recently, the brand played a big role in New York's Fashion Week. While it has played a backstage role in the event for a number of years, W moved front stage this year by hosting the presentation of several emerging designers. In another industry first, W Hotels debuted its Global Glam Collection (note the name) -- sold in W Hotels -- at a formal and elaborate presentation at Lincoln Center.
After Fashion Week, the emerging designers did trunk shows at W Hotels around the world; also, they will be designing exclusive pieces for the next Global Glam collection. W Hotels will also provide the designers with exposure on W Vision, an in-room TV channel.
In an interview, Ziegler said that, "Two years ago when we saw our portfolio transforming into a global powerhouse -- with more than half of our hotels outside the U.S. by 2012 and 80% of development international -- we saw the opportunity to create local contexts for all these properties and fashion is part of that. We see fashion as an ultimate expression of design, an international language, that can showcase our point of view."
With its transformation into a global company, says Ziegler, "Our marketing will be different. Our challenge is to bring different experiences to each of these locations."
In Taipei, says Ziegler, local video artists will be brought in to create installations; similarly, local artists will help create an environment at the London property. W Hotels has also named a global music director to create live and DJ events at hotels abroad. Says Ziegler, "We are also taking our music strategy to our hotels abroad; it's also a universal language but with local context."
Some may not think of artistic installations or DJs in a hotel lobby as marketing, but W's cultural events have brought the brand's prime psychographic -- stylish, design-oriented -- into the hotels even before they became regular guests.
Marriott and W Hotels are two very different brands. But both recognize the subtleties of taking a brand's message to "foreign" environments.
There may have been a time when an international Hilton or Sheraton could rely heavily on American travelers, but today, American-born lodging brands that take their product abroad must look to local guests and visitors from countries other than the U.S. to make it work. The margin for error is narrow because a bungling brand will have to work extra hard to remake its image.