I was in Seattle last March attending the 2014 Sheraton General Manager Global Brand Summit. I was reporting for AmericaEconomia’s print magazine. This is the original, unedited English version of my interview to Hoyt Haper, that was published in its Spanish version by AmericaEconomia on early April. You can now access the full Spanish content online.
The reason why we continuously do research is to stay on top of trends and trend-lines. We understand that whatever we create today may not be relevant four years from now. So we are constantly, through our GEI -Guest Experience Questionnaires- learning from our guests. Periodically we conduct research to understand what we have to focus on next.
The Link@Sheraton, for example. When we decided to create this lobby experience, we asked ourselves “does it work everywhere? Do people in all parts of the world relate to the notion of getting out of your guest room?” So we tested this idea in Boston, in Bangkok, in Brussels and in Buenos Aires. We found these ideas and issues are universal. They follow the human truth that is “I want to feel like I belong, I want to feel in control, want to be my best”. There is another human truth that people like to be around other people. So when we executed the lobby experience we did it everywhere.
The other aspect to keep in mind is that we cater to a global customer. So, Buenos Aires is not only a great hotel for locals to travel within the country or the same region. It’s a destination for people from around the world, China, US or Europe. Continuity and consistency of a product is important. People have expectations when they go to a Sheraton and we want to create socially active spaces for them.
Globalization is a common topic, but everything global manifests locally. What is Sheraton doing to achieve a more inclusive image of a client that’s not only linked to a Caucasian-middle-aged-male business traveler?
That’s a very important aspect of our research. Customers are changing all the time. More female travelers, particularly in business such as consulting, high-tech… There’s a world of truly being global. We have an increasing amount of travel from China to South America. There are also great historical connections between Latin America and Europe which fuels traveling both ways. We see these travel patterns, we see our guests changing, so we always need to stay on top of what they need, what’s going to make them feel comfortable, feel at home when they travel.
When I first went to Buenos Aires in 1996, I remember one of my fondest memory is related to the wine shop that was at the lobby of the hotel. Every afternoon between 4 and 6 they had wine tasting. It was not just any wine, but local wines. They are proud of them. They presented them, and conducted the sampling with so much pride. Ten or fifteen years later we are looking at leveraging wine as social beverage and recreating that atmosphere, that experience. Giving our hotels in different countries the opportunity to promote their local wines, making the event locally relevant. Same thing in Chile.
Sheraton is a global brand with hotels in all the different countries and regions, does it consider alliances with local or regional partners, representative brands from specific locations?
It depends. For example we work with Starbucks worldwide now. But five years ago that wasn’t true. The acceptance of Starbucks in Asia or Europe wasn’t as strong as it is today. Now you can go to Eastern Europe and find a Starbucks, you can go to the Great Wall of China and there is a Starbucks.
If there are opportunities to create a more local experiences by working with local operators, that happens too. It depends on what product is it. Dining is an opportunity. I ate more red meat in Argentina than every country I visited before, because it tastes so differently than what I was used to, because of the way it was prepared.
Our guests want local culture. You want to get off your plane and feel like when you get to the hotel you will experience the destination. That’s important to us.
But there are other things. Our customers feel a sense of comfort in knowing that when they get to a Sheraton hotel they will have a Sheraton suite sleeper bed and it will be that bed they are familiar with no matter where they go, that they will have high quality bath amenities, that they feel safe and secure, those are things that are associated with Sheraton. It can also be very practical things, that we have staff that can help them to facilitate a meeting, or help them enhance their social or leisure experience. All those things we want people to expect no matter where they go to a Sheraton in the world.
An orientation toward a more tech-friendly environment is visible, the will to make it easier to connect, to access the hotel services and people from online platforms and mobile devices. Is it part of a strategy that targets Millenials? Is it about rejuvenating and bringing diversity to the Sheraton’s image?
We use technology as an enabler. We use it to connect with our guests more efficiently, to store and pull data. Customers give us data for the sole purpose of us enhancing their experience. It should be easier to connect a phone call with us, it should be easier to make a reservation with us, it should be easier to check in a hotel with us. If I give you information, I expect you will deliver a higher level of service to me. I want those amenities in my room. We normally put still water in rooms, but someone likes sparkling water better, or not necessarily wants to have cheese and wine in the room. So why not to save the money and provide something more relevant to me?
Those are the things we do by leveraging technology. We have technology that it’s guests facing. We are now developing a digital wine list. That becomes important because the availability of the wines changes quite frequently, based on popularity, supply, among others. We might have a special offer that isn’t normally on our list; on the digital menu we could change it in an instant. The customer may want to know more about the wine, then it would be useful to offer an option for video or text content with further details.
Moving into a digital age allows us to provide more information. You may want to rate our wines; we have professional ratings but everybody’s tastes are different. So having guests tell other guests which wines they like the best is information and it makes it fun and interesting.
Technology will touch almost every aspect of the guest experience, from how you make your reservation to how you communicate with us at arrival, making us to know when you will walk in through the door so we are on time delivering your amenities. It will touch the way you communicate with us during stay. Before picking up a phone you may just want to send us a text because it’s more convenient, or asks us something…
We are also looking at ways to create more self-service. You can help yourself to a cup of coffee, or a single glass of wine. We have automated wine dispensers that we are testing now and we could put in our club lounge. There are lots of ways in which technology will touch the guest experience and we want to be cutting edge.
It was announced that Sheraton has enabled a specific website devoted to Chinese travelers. Is it there any difference in the message Sheraton wants to convey to different regions of the world?
We want to speak to our guests in the language of their preference, through the channel of their preference, whether it is phone or text, or website, or social media, we want to be responsive no matter the channel the guests will select.
We have an elaborate program to handle Chinese travelers going to other parts of the world, that relate for example to different food items. They are also more likely to wear slippers so we provide it in the rooms. They are not as accustomed to the social gathering places we create. So we are creating opportunities for them to interact in a setting they feel more comfortable. Same thing is happening with India, as India becomes a big outbound travel market. It is also about providing training and cultural awareness to the associates. It involves education, information to our associates, which will help us deliver more relevant services and make people feel like they belong.
There are also differences we find among the genders, not only cultural. There are certain items some gender values more… We all value to feel safe and secure, but there are some items women care about more than men. For example, the idea of having an adjoining door, women don’t feel comfortable with it. But we have guests who ask for the adjoining door because they are traveling with their children. Actually some guests don’t want it for the noise factor.
We have to cater to all different types of customers. We have airlines crews and they have their own inspection process focused on security and safety. There’s a lot that goes into our big bookings and operations of a hotel.
We are careful not to make assumptions. We prefer to ask questions and have that dialogue with the customer.
Are there any particular strategy or future projects designed for Latin America? Are there any plans to change ownership of assets and keep the brand and management fees?
We have an asset light strategy. That means we are primarily in the business of managing and franchising hotels.
That being said, we are always looking for opportunities to enhance our portfolio in properties, which might mean an acquisition or an opportunity to sell anything at the right price. The real state is something we are always mindful of. We just spent 55 million dollars renovating the Sheraton in Rio. It will be in its best shape in two decades, getting ready to welcome the World Cup in Brazil. We have new openings in Recife and Bolivia. So our portfolio continues to expand. Buying and selling hotels is something it’s done on opportunistic bases. There’s no strategy to sell anything at this point.