Arnie WeissmannOnce 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.

The original 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.

The Singapore 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 the lobby.

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.)

The chocolate 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 him.

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 Diablo.)

DeCocinis thought 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 permits.

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.

Two U.S. 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 motorcycle.

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 late.

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 U.S.

Perhaps DeCocinis 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.

While the 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 money.


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