Once upon a time, an individual
hotel property could become famous for a unique offering that had
little to do with providing a comfortable nights stay.
Raffles has always been a fine hotel, but became a global icon
thanks, in large part, to the invention of the Singapore Sling by
one of its bartenders.
In London, the most
desirable venue for tea in a city known to take tea seriously
remains Browns Hotel. And if youre headed to Memphis, its possible
that the only hotel youve heard of there is the Peabody because
ducks march across its lobby twice a day.
Sling, tea and ducks reflect the personal style and public
relations acumen of an empowered general manager. These became the
properties trademarks, and thousands of room nights have been sold
as a result.
Today, hotel brands
create trademarked differences systemwide, hoping to garner tens of
thousands of room nights: Doubletrees cookies, for instance, or the
Westin Heavenly Bed. For other chains, the differentiation may be
in its level of service (Four Seasons, Mandarin Oriental) or
environment (Kimpton, W Hotels).
GMs at branded
chains are judged by how well they deliver on the promise of the
corporate brand -- thats whats expected of them, and in most cases,
thats all thats allowed them. Efforts to distinguish a property
within a chain in a manner that specifically reflects the GMs
interests or passions are discouraged because they may be at odds
with the brand image and dilute the brands promise of uniform
delivery of product.
However, theres a
problem with rolling out systemwide trademarks. Because they must
be duplicated uniformly across the brand, they can also be
duplicated by competitors. Heavenly bed? That certainly has worked
well for Westin -- so well that it inspired Bill Marriott to don
pajamas to promote his new, comfy beds.
In the long run,
you dont get much credit for being first once a trend takes hold.
The Mayfair Hotel -- now Roberts Mayfair -- in St. Louis claims to
be the first property to have placed a chocolate on a guests
pillow. These days, the chocolate is as much an entitlement as the
pillow, and few remember it all began at the Mayfair.
On the other hand,
its safe to say that the Peabody has a lock on ducks walking across
Given the state of
hotel branding, I was surprised to check into the Portman
Ritz-Carlton in Shanghai a few months ago to find a chocolate
motorcycle and sidecar on the coffee table. (There were chocolates
on the pillow, too.)
motorbike is part of a unique trademark-within-a-brand effort.
After I had made my reservation at the hotel, I received an e-mail
from the propertys public relations officer, Michelle Wan, asking
if I wanted to take a sidecar tour of Shanghai given by Mark
DeCocinis, the hotels GM (and also Ritz-Carltons vice president and
area general manager for north Asia). I replied I would.
DeCocinis has had a
lifelong love affair with motorcycles. Born in Salerno, Italy, he
remembers his grandmother putting him on the back of her Vespa and
zooming up and down the Amalfi Coast. When his parents brought him
to the U.S. at age 6, he brought his love of motorbikes with
A 15-year veteran
with Ritz-Carlton, he was assigned to the Shanghai property in
1997. While getting to know the city, he saw a surprising number of
1938 BMW R-71 motorcycles on the streets. He looked into it and
discovered that the motorcycle was manufactured in China after
World War II (the Russians, having taken the means of production
from the Germans, shared it with the Chinese). It became known in
China as the Chang Jiang.
Enter Danny Woody,
drummer for the hotels jazz band and avowed motorcycle freak who
had once restored Harleys in Los Angeles. Woody offered to
customize one of the bikes for DeCocinis, complete with a sidecar
for his wife and two sons.
In addition to
getting a premium paint treatment, the sidecar was upholstered by
Italian designer Stefano Ricci, who has a shop in the hotel. (Ricci
also designs and upholsters the interior of the Lamborghini
there might be others sharing his interest in the vintage bikes, so
he put one on display outside the gift shop with a $10,000 price
tag and a promise that each bike would be restored and customized
to the specifications of the buyer.
Guests from around
the world have taken him up on it, choosing among options such as
elephant- or ostrich-skin seats. There is one restriction, however:
If youre going to keep the bike in Shanghai, its available in any
color but red. Red is reserved for DeCocinis bike.
He decided to
further link the bike and hotel by offering to personally give
guests who stayed in the Presidential Suite a sidecar tour of the
city. The Presidential Bike Pack includes lodging in the suite,
custom-made Ricci leather jackets, DeCocinis sidecar tour and
enough luxury items to put the cost of a two-night stay at just
under the price tag of two fully restored motorcycles.
These days, its not
a requirement to stay in the Presidential Suite to get a DeCocinis
guided tour -- he said hes happy to give any guest staying in the
hotel the sidecar tour upon request, if his schedule
Its just a great
way to see Shanghai, he said. Youre much closer to the city than in
a taxi. You really can take in the sights, sounds and smells, and
we can pull over any time something catches your eye.
presidents, Clinton and the current Bush, have stayed in the hotels
Presidential Suite. Neither has taken the tour, but it turns out
that the bike sitting outside the gift shop was cause for a slight
breach of diplomatic protocol. When Russian President Vladimir
Putin visited Bush at the hotel, he became distracted by the
He was looking at
it and started asking about it, DeCocinis said. His handlers
reminded him he had to keep moving to be on time for the
appointment. Putin waved them off and kept asking questions about
the bike. And he did end up arriving at the suite a few minutes
Its hard to imagine
a more convincing proof-of-concept than having an idea for your
hotel be so compelling it can put the president of Russia
off-schedule for his meeting with the president of the
is allowed to have fun with the motorcycle because he first and
foremost delivers on Ritz-Carltons branded promises regarding
exceptional service. Its also part of Ritz-Carltons brand story
that employees are empowered -- letting DeCocinis pursue his
personal passion is in keeping with that empowerment.
motorcycle tour may never take off like the Singapore Sling, Im
willing to bet that, over time, itll give the ducks a run for their