It's new. It's sleek. It's happening. It's the largest hotel in Sweden. A live rock band plays adjacent to the front desk, and rock stars and other glitterati drop by the bar, which is open 24 hours a day. With this kind of buzz, would you say it's the latest W hotel? An Art + Tech Le Meridien? Not even close -- it's a Clarion.
The new 550-room Clarion Hotel Stockholm, which opened in May, has been hailed as the city's hippiest hotel. In addition to its trendiness, the property also has extensive conference facilities for up to 500 theater style (800 banquet). "Conferencing is very important for the Scandinavians," says Bruce Haase, senior vice president of international for Choice Hotels, Clarion's parent company. "They do much more conferencing than we do." As a result, Clarions in Scandinavia, which include other recently opened properties in Gothenburg, Sweden; and Copenhagen, Denmark; boast five-star conference amenities. "They're built to very high standards," says Mark Pearce, vice president of international. "The newest properties all have built-in AV, and there are ergonomic chairs in the meeting rooms."
Not "budget," but "value upscale," is the image Choice likes to project. The Choice brands throughout Sweden, Denmark, and Finland are a partnership between Choice Hotels International and a local company, Choice Hotels Scandinavia. One of the requirements of flagging, according to Haase, is that the front desk has to speak English, "although it's usually much more than the front desk. These properties are full service, but at a price that's below the upscale properties that are next door."
With the Ericsson Telephone corporate headquarters and major offices for other international businesses nearby, the Clarion Hotel Stockholm is well poised for meetings business, but overall, admits Haase, "the Scandinavian countries are admittedly a small market for American business travel. The properties see more Americans as a market for smaller meetings and incentives."
Economy brands like Clarion have long been the favorite sons of travel managers who, for reasons that are obvious, direct individual business travelers to the properties that are under the flags of Best Western, Carlson Hospitality, Cendant, Choice, and others. The cost differential between hotel segments can be considerable; for example, at the Park Hyatt Tokyo (featured in the recent film release, Lost in Translation), the price per night room with king bed is $469.33. Meanwhile, at the Clarion Hotel Tokyo, a similar, albeit less luxe, room goes for $288.94. The average Tokyo hotel room costs about $366.
Looking for Customers
But recognition for international potential is not there, just yet. Like their American counterparts, these brands are positioned to target local and regional meetings markets -- not pull 'em in from overseas. "There's a segment of business from the States," says Mike Schiff, vice president, international strategy and development, for the hotel group of the Cendant Corporation, "but we're not looking for an influx of that business. We find that over in the U.K., the economy brand targets local and regional play. There are American companies meeting, but they are not necessarily the focus."
Cendant, which has such brands as Howard Johnson, Ramada, Super 8, and Days Inn in its stable, is currently concentrating on its strategic base of Days Inn (simply called "Days" overseas) in Ireland and the United Kingdom. "We have twenty-seven hotels [there], which break into fifteen limited-service Days Inns, which are located along motor arteries; seven full-service Days Hotels, and the five Days 'serviced apartments.' " Properties average 75 to 80 rooms and maybe one meeting room, "which may be a converted guest room," says Schiff. Of these, the Days Hotels are full service with restaurants and bars -- especially bars. "Bars are a very important part of the European social experience," says Schiff. In contrast to the U.S. brands, Schiff says that the overseas properties "tend to be a half-step or a step higher than the U.S., because they are either in new construction or in reconstructed buildings. Or the expectations of the particular market may be higher, [since] the true economy segment doesn't really exist in Europe. For U.S. travelers, the experience tends to be a pleasant surprise."
Choice attributes the perceptions of enhanced quality to a more relaxed approach toward brand positioning. Says Pearce, "The product clearly stands out as different, largely because it's not oversegmented. We only have three brands overseas because, in smaller countries, you don't need to have seven brands [as in the U.S.]. With three brands, there's no need to keep tweaking the midscale; you can have a broader array of amenities."
When it comes to a variety of properties, Best Western International (BWI) is a leader, operating approximately 1,000 properties in Europe that range from two to four stars. Unlike other budget chains, BWI is actively targeting the meeting audience with two initiatives: Best Western Premier and First Place Europe. This year, BWI has designated 59 hotels throughout Europe as Best Western Premier properties which have had to undergo a special design and quality review and offer standard amenities like full-service restaurants, and concierge service (but not necessarily meeting space). Says David Trumble, BWI spokesperson, "Premier was launched in Europe last March. It's more of a differentiator -- like a 'Best of the Best Western' -- than a new brand." While some are what one would expect, others, like Barcelona's four-star Best Western Hotel Regina, are charming old-style properties with modern amenities. First Place Europe is a service which offers free help with site selection from more than 430 Best Westerns throughout Europe.
Marriott, famous in the U.S. for brand consistency, can also vary abroad. Several years ago, Marriott purchased the rights to Ramada International outside the U.S. The European Ramadas were reflagged as Courtyard by Marriott, and these remain all-suite properties. One property, the Courtyard by Marriott Amsterdam Airport, was in the midst of construction when it was flagged, and it bears little resemblance to its stateside model. Part of a complex that includes a Claus! PartyWorld entertainment center (kind of a Dutch "Dave and Busters," which in itself can hold banquets for over 500 and parties for up to 2,750), the Courtyard itself has five meeting rooms that can seat up to 160 theater style. According to Benno Busscher, general manager, "Meetings business is ninety-nine percent corporate; for the event center, it's sixty percent events and forty percent seminars and presentations, as well as meetings and incentives." Like the BW Regina (as well as most European Courtyards), the hotel is four-star and "a little more luxurious compared with the American Courtyards. There's none other like this property. It's a unique and green environment, next to a large lake, and close to the airport, Haarlem, and Amsterdam. Visitors think it's smashing." But, admits Busscher, they are not predominantly Americans; "Those utilizing the property comes from Dutch companies, although there are generally ten to fifteen percent American clients, mainly as employees of Dutch companies."
Another unusual airport property is the Country Inn and Suites Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport. Siegfried Nierhaus, general manager, claims it is "the first Country Inn and Suites outside the U.S. to be built specifically for the brand. It opened in August 2002. It is a mixture of American comfort and European-style architecture, which translates into a really comfy atmosphere, at a comfortable price." Unlike stateside Country Inns, it is a full-service property with eight meeting rooms, the largest being 4,736 square feet, which can seat 190. Says Nierhaus, "We have access to the beautiful Roissy Gardens by a private entrance that was created especially for the hotel."
The efforts of the property, which was built specifically to attract Americans, have been blunted by recent world events. Says Nierhaus, "We are trying to attract [them], but it is hard because of the conflict. For the moment, Americans staying at our property are attending international trade shows at the Villepinte Exposition Centre nearby; as well as individual business travelers and some leisure bookings through Carlson Worldwide. So far, our main market has been British and French companies in the industries of auto manufacture, pharmaceuticals, and banking. Two big French pharmaceutical groups that are coming have requisitioned all of the meeting space."
As surprisingly upmarket as these brands can get, would they ever be considered for high-end meetings and incentives from a stateside perspective? Mary T. Ryan, senior planner at Carlson Marketing Group in Minneapolis, MN, wonders. "They are suitable for meetings, training sessions, and product launches," she allows, "but the traditional premise of an incentive is winning a unique reward that individuals could never reach on their own." She adds, "While things are much more budget conscious than ever before, I would never skimp on the property."
That won't stop the budget brands from trying to resuscitate at least the leisure portion of the American market. Says Cendant's Schiff, "In the U.S., the business travelers who are familiar with our brands are the 'road warriors' with regional territories. They stay at Days Inn because it's convenient and inexpensive. But if they go abroad, they may also stay at a Days because they're familiar with the product." To help the effort, Cendant is launching a new reward program. Schiff says, "We're expecting it to be tremendous. Phase I will be a points redemption program to and from the U.K. We're expecting dramatic increases in transatlantic business."
Nierhaus also thinks the market will come around: "Our main advantage is that Americans like to go to places they know, and they know this brand perfectly. They really feel at home."
Best Western Premier: www.bestwestern.com
First Place Europe: www.firstplaceeurope.com
Clarion Stockholm: www.clarionstockholm.com
Cendant Corporation: www.cendant.com
Courtyard by Marriott: www.marriott.com
Days Inn: www.daysinn.com
Country Inn and Suites CDG: www.countryinns.com
Howard Johnson Shanghai: www.the.hojo.com/shanghai14816