The rebranding of a hotel goes a lot further than a few cosmetic tweaks and a new logo – it requires major investment and a rethinking of a business’s entire culture. So what do hoteliers consider before undertaking it? Rosalind Mullen reports
Brands are powerful. We all know that. They promise a set of standards to travellers across the world while offering hotel operators a valuable customer database and marketing clout. But while a particular brand might be ticking along in a particular property, sometimes it just isn’t reaching its potential – and that’s when hoteliers start looking around.
One of the more recent UK rebrandings was unveiled at the end of last month. Aly Kassam, owner of Crimson Hotels, purchased the Regency hotel at 100 Queen’s Gate, London, in October 2015 for more than £100m. By December the company had carried out the works required by Hilton to brand the property as a DoubleTree. Just four years later, however, Kassam has rebranded the Kensington hotel as a Curio Collection by Hilton, with the addition of 25 rooms, taking the room count to 228.
The rebrand represents a total refurbishment investment of £20m and a switch from affordable to luxury. The Curio Collection by Hilton is a soft brand featuring “upper upscale hotels with character”; it first appeared in the UK with the rebrand of the Trafalgar St James London in 2017.
In the same year, Crimson had begun work on a multimillion-pound refurbishment of DoubleTree Kensington. The intention had been to continue operating the hotel as a DoubleTree, but having traded under this brand for 15 months, Kassam was starting to see potential for an upscale hotel in the location.
“The business mix was very different to that of our other two DoubleTree properties in London [in the West End and Victoria], and so our business strategy did not work as well for us in this location as it has elsewhere,” he explains.
“The more experience we gained in this part of town… we felt there was a perceived glass ceiling on the average daily rate [ADR] for the brand and that it was unable to compete with its established competitors, who were achieving a significantly higher ADR than we were.”
He adds that DoubleTree as a brand is performing “phenomenally well” but, as with any brand, location is key. “Its growth story over the past 10 years speaks for itself. Our other two DoubleTree properties in London achieve annual occupancies in excess of 90% and are among the best-performing in our portfolio,” he says.
Crimson Hotels, which has 10 properties across the UK, Portugal and UAE, tends to work with three global companies – Hilton, InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) and Accor – and Hilton’s Curio was quickly identified as being a good fit: the building is Grade II-listed; Kensington has a rich cultural history, attracting both an international and domestic clientele; and the area is a gateway to London’s West End, financial district and beyond.
“We feel the hotel aligns well with these influences and that Curio will establish us on the international stage,” says Kassam. “There is clearly demand for upscale hotel accommodation in this location and we hope to capitalise on this demand.”
The aim is to achieve an ADR of £200 upwards and Kassam believes the hotel’s enhanced facilities, including 11 suites, one of which has a private entrance and the flexibility to create a private four-bedroom suite, will justify the higher price point and help to attract new leisure customers from overseas, particularly the US, the Middle East and China.
Another revenue source is the three F&B areas. This is a key difference between the rebranded Curio and the DoubleTree properties and is expected to draw a significant number of non-resident guests.
“We had to invest additional sums, particularly in public areas and F&B, to enhance the guest experience and to bring the 100 Queen’s Gate hotel story to life,” says Kassam. “When trying to achieve a higher ADR, there will clearly be an expectation from the guest to deliver a high quality of service and facilities. We have therefore invested heavily in staff training and development. Key to this is also recruiting the right calibre of people.”
To strengthen its recruitment pull, Crimson has this year added a supervisory trainee programme to its training opportunities, expecting the first employees to qualify in early 2020.
“Much like we look to create long-term relationships with our guests, we operate similarly with our team members. So when we look at attracting talent we promote the benefits for the individual, from external training for personal development to the Crimson Academy, which is our bespoke management development programme, or English classes for team members who need to improve their English to grow with us and within the industry,” says Kassam.
Given that Curio is a softer brand and effectively the equivalent of launching a new hotel, Crimson has employed an external PR company in addition to working with the Hilton marketing department to create an effective campaign and achieve maximum exposure, particularly in the run-up to opening.
“While this is another long-term investment, it will help to establish the hotel and drive long-term business opportunities,” says Kassam. “Some guests moved with us when we acquired the hotel in 2015. We hope they will continue to make us their base when in London and will be pleased with the superior facilities and services the hotel has to offer that will justify a higher price point. However, we will be trading in a completely different market to that of a DoubleTree, attracting predominately leisure business, while still retaining [a] regular corporate base during the week.”
Kassam has drawn on his experience of rebranding and repositioning other hotels in the group: Park Inn Russell Square, now the DoubleTree London West End, and the Hesperia hotel, rebadged as the DoubleTree London Victoria. He understands it will take time to establish the property and so he has set realistic targets.
“We are expecting to achieve a significant increase in the ADR [and] this will no doubt take time to achieve, potentially at the cost of lower occupancies. We know from local STR data the rate that our competitors are achieving – however, some of these properties have been established for many years,” he says.
Finding the perfect fit
So what does Kassam look for when choosing a brand? “You need to consider the location and standard of the property and, more importantly, the story and the individuality behind the hotel,” he says. “We are continuously looking at potential opportunities within London and further afield. We will closely monitor the performance of 100 Queen’s Gate over the initial period and then consider the benefits of either rebranding existing properties [as Curio] or looking to acquire new hotels for the group with a view to branding them from the outset as a Curio.”
Arguably, one of the benefits of working with different brands across a group is that you can see what works best, but Kassam stresses that the key to repositioning a property is to have a thorough understanding of competitors and realistic trading projections: “It is critical that detailed due diligence is carried out at the outset and that different brands are considered, taking into account location, competitors and the guest profile,” he says.
“It was fortunate for us that at a time of significant investment, Hilton had recently launched the Curio brand, which gave us the ideal platform to offer a new sense of luxury and uniqueness in Kensington and yet have the benefit of Hilton’s global distribution system. The significant advantage that we have over independent boutique hotels is the strength of not only the Hilton system, but also the Hilton loyalty programme, which boasts more than 70 million members.”
Creating a standalone brand
The Hari, Chesham Place, London
In August 2016, Harilela Group relaunched its 85-bedroom Belgraves hotel in London’s Belgravia under a new brand. The rationale was to fulfil chief executive and chairman Aron Harilela’s vision to launch a brand.
“For me, this launch is the culmination of a lifelong dream to create my own hotel brand,” he said. “Global travellers are deserving of a more layered and singular hotel experience that our team will deliver. The Hari will wholly encapsulate my values and reflect everything I love when it comes to design and service.”
The Hong Kong-based group typically builds, owns but does not manage hotels worldwide. Its 15-strong hotel portfolio includes alliances with IHG, Artyzen Hospitality Group, Onyx Hospitality Group and Two Roads. It opened Belgraves in 2012 with US-based Thompson Hotels. When the opportunity presented itself, Harilela chose the hotel to be the flagship of his five-star hotel brand, the Hari, and the company now both owns and manages the property.
The interior design by Tara Bernerd & Partners was still new, so little investment was needed in the fabric of the building or the interiors – though it was important to refresh it to ensure the reflagging was as tantalising as the original opening. Most investment, however, went into the system changes, rebranding, partnership with third-party representation, and in training the team to a new culture and way of working.
The Hari’s general manager Andrew Coney explains: “With the rebranding, careful thought was taken into discovering the true values and USPs of the new Hari brand. As ambassadors for the hotel, it was important for staff to be trained and fully understand the brand’s new culture, which focused on the importance of family-style hospitality, generous service and a personalised approach. Empowerment was key: everyone needed the confidence to make the decisions that ensured a superb stay.”
Through creating a standalone hotel, the Hari has been able to find its own voice in the luxury market. In 2016, the hotel increased revenue by 15% while the competition grew by 3.9% in the same period. In 2017, after its first full year trading as the Hari, the hotel exceeded its budget with a 50% growth in room sales year-on-year.
The restaurant subsequently changed, reopening as Il Pampero, and although not part of the relaunch, it has been an essential element of cementing the brand, providing hotel guests and the locality with a hub.
The group is now building a second hotel, the Hari Hong Kong, due to open in 2020. Tara Bernerd & Partners will reference the London design, but it will have its own identity to reflect its Asian location.
So, what advice would Coney offer to anyone launching their own brand? “Be bold. There will be plenty of people threatening a cliff edge, but our experience has been that immediate control of the day-to-day business, whether it be pricing, purchasing or empowerment of the team, have driven extraordinary results,” he says.
From independent to branded
Nine Hotel Group
Vivek Chadha, owner and director of Nine Hotel Group, has built a business through buying and repositioning independent hotels or those with soft brands.
“The strategy is to buy assets that require repositioning due to lack of investment or because previous owners have had a narrow vision of the hotel and have not taken the opportunity to open it to a national or international platform,” he explains. “We have had experiences where many corporates seem to reject softer brands.”
He founded the business in 2015 having seen a lack of hotel supply in regional areas and around the M25. He now owns and operates 18 hotels in London and in cities around the UK, and is about to open a property in Malaga, Spain. The hotels operate under a number of IHG, Accor and Hilton brands.
“We have decided on certain types of brands due to market segment. Some brands are better with corporate customers and some work better for leisure or groups,” says Chadha.
Recent launches include: Ramada Birmingham North, relaunched as Holiday Inn Birmingham North; Best Western Reading, relaunched as DoubleTree Reading; Best Western Sittingbourne, relaunched as Holiday Inn Sittingbourne; and Hilton Basingstoke, relaunched as Crowne Plaza Basingstoke.
Chadha points out that the return on investment (ROI) for rebrands requires long-term patience. Investment in a major refurbishment and rebranding, for instance, could be from £20,000 per room and the ROI may take anywhere between three to five years.
“The main reason why it takes longer is the public perception about rebrands,” says Chadha. “Most rebrands don’t entail any exterior changes and for that reason it can take a while before customers change their mind-sets. Online presence can also take time, as web updating and marketing always takes a while, and review channels such as TripAdvisor may not rebrand the historic page so the online ratings review may not change.”
But he is confident about his strategy: “Rebranding helps your hotel go from a corner shop business to an international corporate business,” he says.
Any pitfalls? “Sometimes brands may not be the right fit for the type of property, as some mainstream brands might not do justice to, say, a more traditional hotel,” says Chadha. “Whereas some brands may work well for improving room business but will not include your F&B and events business.”