Identity crisis? No, standards crisis

By Arnie Weissmann
Arnie WeissmannMarriott International opened its first hotel in China, a JW Marriott in Hong Kong, in 1989. The company now has 74 hotels across six brands in China.

Starwood, whose Sheraton Great Wall opened in Beijing in 1985, had 140 hotels in China across nine brands at the end of 2013, and there are at least 80 more Chinese properties in its pipeline.

InterContinental Hotels Group opened the Holiday Inn Lido in Beijing in 1984. It now has more than 200 hotels across five brands in China and 150 more under development.

The oldest international hospitality group operating in China, Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels Ltd., better known by its sole brand, Peninsula, opened its first property in China in 1868. Today it has a grand total of three hotels in the country, in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing.

One could see this as a repudiation of the "first mover" advantage, but that would be a very Western way of looking at it: By almost any measure -- scale being the notable exception -- Peninsula is very successful. And from its own corporate perspective, it is in the midst of a warp-speed expansion program, with three hotels in development (Paris, London and Yangon), representing an almost 30% increase in its global portfolio.

I've always found Peninsula to be an interesting collection, in part because its reputation is outsized relative to its footprint. I think its strength is that it knows better than any other hospitality brand the difference between identity and standards, and it's a difference with which other, much larger companies struggle.

Consistency of delivery is regarded as a fundamental element of brand strength by most Western hotel companies.

"In hospitality, we like standards," said Nicolas Beliard, general manager of the Paris Peninsula, which is scheduled to open Aug. 1. "Use the guest's name a certain number of times. Answer the phone within three rings. But why? Does that matter more than what you say when you do answer the phone? Or whether you actually get to know the guests well enough to remember their names? "

Beliard recalls once going over standards with the staff when he worked at another brand. "The staff thought we were a [cult]," he said.

And he sympathized.

A discussion of the division between identity and standards is particularly relevant now. Consumer demand for authenticity continues to rise just as the corporate owners of iconic brands expand them as quickly as possible.

When I toured the St. Regis in Shanghai, I found a great business hotel that didn't remind me in the least of the original St. Regis in midtown Manhattan. The Orlando Waldorf Astoria is a fine, five-star hotel, but had it been labeled with any of several other luxury brands, I wouldn't have once thought, "This feels like a Waldorf Astoria."

But when I'm in a Peninsula, I know I'm in a Peninsula, whether in Beverly Hills, Bangkok, Hong Kong or New York. The age, height and layout of the properties can (and do) vary tremendously. Its rooms can have high-tech touches, its restaurants can embrace modern culinary trends, it can innovate with flexible check-in/checkout times, but in other respects it is superglued to its traditional, conservative, service-focused identity.

The Paris property will open 10 years after it was acquired. In part, that's because it's in a historical building, and the French are extremely particular about how old properties are restored, but also because Peninsula is going to great lengths to ensure that the property is worthy of the brand.

And the unusually long gestation is not solely due to physical preparation; part of the advance work involves staff training that is at once rigorous and unusually flexible, exacting and nuanced.

The problem with standards, Beliard believes, is that they often try to reduce the thorniest and satisfying aspects of hospitality into cookie-cutter shortcuts. "Dealing with other humans," he said, "is the most rewarding, but also the most difficult, part of running a hotel."

"In Asia, it's important to smile as a means to reduce tension," he said. And while that might seem a good and authentic "standard" to adopt, he understands that even something as simple as a smile can't be standardized.

"In some cultures, eye contact is important. In others, it would be inappropriate. Trying to understand the different markets in which we operate, but still act authentically, is the challenge," he said.

The Chinese famously bring a long-view approach to challenges; the West moves quickly. Pressures related to ownership expectations tend to influence the Western corporate view, while experience over extended periods is perhaps the dominant factor for the Chinese.

We're in a particularly interesting place in history, where technology enables change at an extraordinary pace and Chinese global influence has never been greater. When it comes to speed and tradition, it's not necessarily an either/or situation, and it strikes me that the tradition-bound Peninsula might have unusual advantages during this time of great change and disrupting influences.

Email Arnie Weissmann at aweissmann@travelweekly.com and follow him on Twitter. 
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