Sol Melia confident that ME brand will stand out from the crowd

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It's never easy launching a new hotel brand, even for a well-established company like Sol Melia Hotels & Resorts.

Yet, even though it is entering a market brimming with new hotel concepts jockeying for consumer attention, Sol Melia is confident that it's new product, ME by Melia, will be a standout.

Two have already opened. The 448-room ME Cancun made its debut earlier this month, and the 192-room ME Madrid, Reina Victoria opened in October in Madrid's Plaza de Santa Ana. Both hotels were developed from existing properties.

At first blush, ME by Melia seems to be a trendy cousin to Starwood Hotels' fast-growing W Hotel brand.

"It is a contemporary interpretation of the Melia experience," said Andre Gerondeau, Sol Melia's executive vice president, North America. 

ME by Melia aims to strike a balance between hip/contemporary and Sol Melia's reputation for distinctive hotel experiences to ultimately create an experience that is sexy, evocative, sophisticated and elegant.

In developing ME Cancun, Sol Melia tapped Alvaro Sans, an architect who has developed several Sol Melia properties, and designer Rebecca Pere of Interarq, a Mexico-based architectural firm. Mexican artist Yuri Zatarain has been asked to reinterpret the Melia Turquesa to fit the ME by Melia concept.

Zatarain enlivened the rooms with a palate of rich colors, along with custom wood-and-stone furniture.

Sol Melia then added some of the hallmarks of the ME by Melia brand, including DVD players, 32-inch plasma-screen TVs, surround-sound audio; an extensive DVD library and iPod adaptors and connectivity docking stations in all guest rooms.

Beds feature 300-thread-count linens and a down pillow-top mattress. In the bathrooms are all-natural toiletry products by Aveda.

The property also has a spa, a swimming pool, meetings space and a banquet hall. High-speed Internet access is available throughout.

Added to the mix are restaurants and lounges run by third-party companies with a track record for developing successful restaurants.

The result, is "a balanced, overall experience" that Gerondeau described as "Nuevo Latino."

If at first you don't succeed ...

About three years ago, Sol Melia forged a joint venture with Hard Rock Cafe in an effort to develop hotels by building on each company's market strengths.

"Hard Rock needed a partner that could focus on bringing in the systems -- administration, technology and sales," Gerondeau said. "We were looking for an alternative way to freshen up internally and understand new concepts and bring high energy into our company. This was a perfect match."

The two companies hit upon a lodging concept that combined Hard Rock's high energy, music-oriented hotel background with Sol Melia's international experience.

The joint venture could have provided Sol Melia with an opportunity to expand its presence in the U.S. market. Currently, it has only one property in the U.S., the Paramount Hotel in New York.

"It would have been a Hard Rock and a Sol Melia experience," Gerondeau said. "We were going to try to bring the Hard Rock brand into Europe, South America and the Caribbean, where we had experience, profiting from the Hard Rock's U.S. experience while bringing substance to the brand," Gerondeau said.

But it became increasingly difficult to execute the concept.

"We both decided the effort we were putting into the joint venture and the direction was not necessarily, in the long term, going to be in the best benefit of both companies," Gerondeau said. "So we decided to dissolve the joint venture."

Nevertheless, Sol Melia was still hot to create a fresh new hotel concept, and that inspired the development of ME by Melia.

"We felt we needed to launch something that is a standalone, high-energy concept supported by our name, Melia, while at the same time we needed this high-energy concept to support Melia as a brand," Gerondeau said. "So you will see a more contemporary Melia, along with a high-energy brand within Melia."

How it all began

The launch of ME by Melia is the latest highlight in the history of Sol Melia Hotels & Resorts.

The roots of the company were planted in 1956 by Gabriel Escarrer Julia. 

At the time he was just 20 years old and working as head of reservations for the Wagon-Lits travel agency in Palma, on the island of Mallorca off the coast of Spain.

"There was a huge demand from the German and British market coming into Palma de Mallorca," Gerondeau said.

But Julia felt that supply wasn't keeping pace with demand.

"He saw the lack of offerings Palma had. So he convinced [a businessperson] to lease a 20-room property to him. He started with that," Gerondeau said.

While keeping his day job, Julia later went on to lease three other properties to keep up with his growing clientele.

Using a similar formula, Julia expanded into Spain where he later had an opportunity to acquire a known group of properties, Melia Hotels, which at the time was linked to Melia travel agencies.

"It grew from there," Gerondeau said. "Julia was someone who worked very hard and never took anything for granted."

Julia continues to guide Sol Melia today.

The company's portfolio includes 330 properties in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Mexico, the Caribbean and South America. The hotels generally fall under one of four brands: Sol, Melia, Paradisus and Tryp.

Sol Melia owns or leases about 45% of its hotels, while the remaining 50% to 55% of the properties are operated under management agreements.

By comparison, most major U.S. hotel chains own few properties that bear their name as most are franchised, a business model that holds little appeal to Sol Melia.

"We understand franchising is a good model," Gerondeau said. "We have nothing against franchising. But we haven't worked with it. We prefer not to."

Sol Melia's objective is to develop hotels that accommodate the "life cycles" of its guests.

"As you move along the cycle, we have an opportunity to upgrade the experience for you," Gerondeau said.

"We feel that it is very important that the customer cycle moves along with our own cycle. They can start being a Sol or a Tryp guest and then move into the Melia cycle. While you are in the Melia cycle, you can become a member in the Melia Vacation Club," said Gerondeau. "It is a very important in our strategy in that we create guest experiences so that we can keep the loyalty of our customers for the next 40 or 50 years."

To contact reporter Michael Milligan, send e-mail to [email protected].

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