Skift Take

Sheraton Hotels is going be embracing local hospitality trends more thoroughly, but can Starwood deliver real change at the hotel level?

Sheraton Hotels & Resorts is going local with a 10-point plan dubbed Sheraton 2020 to be rolled out over the entire portfolio of 435 hotels during the next five years.

As a legacy business hotel company that built its global network on the promise of consistent design and service brand standards worldwide, Sheraton has long been a preferred platform for meeting planners and busy executives who’ve always wanted a certain level of consistency in terms of service and design standards. Except today’s planner and business traveler want a lot less consistency than they did when the first Sheraton outside North America opened in Tel Aviv in 1961.

In addition, as parent company Starwood mulls its strategic and financial alternatives, interim CEO Adam Aron basically admitted to financial analysts that its Sheraton brand is a tired brand and that the service quality is subpar in some locations.

In 2008, parent company Starwood Hotels launched the Link@Sheraton lobby business hubs. At the time, the Link concept was considered really quite innovative, bringing the traditionally dreary hotel business center into the open lobby socializing scene. Since then, the company completed a $6 billion global series of renovation projects, but for the most part, Sheraton has clung to the conservative wood paneling and other unadventurous esthetic elements in its design choices across all continents.

Likewise, Sheraton Hotels has also been reticent to adopt some prevalent trends in hotel food and beverage, such as partnerships with locally respected third-party chefs, suppliers and restaurateurs.

Meanwhile, much of the hospitality industry has shifted toward more local, lifestyle-oriented and destination-specific design and F&B experiences.

Sheraton 2020 is designed to change Sheraton culture. Starwood Hotels is loosening the reigns on its global brand standards to give hotel owners and property executives more flexibility to align the local hotel user experience with the local hotel destination experience.

“Sheraton 2020 is a relaunch designed to reinvigorate Sheraton’s brand positioning,” says Dave Marr, VP, global brand leader, Sheraton & Tribute Portfolio. “The design elements need to change because having the same design everywhere is not necessarily attractive to locals. There is going to be a lot more freedom at the hotel level to bring in local designers, so you won’t walk into every Sheraton in the U.S. or China and have the same look and feel.”

On the food and beverage side, Sheraton is launching a new initiative called “Paired” that plays off the fresh market concept with unique parings of local ingredients. Marr says, “Third party establishments are a possibility depending on the market,” although it doesn’t sound like this is going to be a widespread brand evolution, which is a shame because those partnerships can inject a lot of creative energy into the overall guest experience. He adds, “We see the Paired concept driving community and bringing in local guests, because that really creates a strong social element.”

That’s true, but if it’s conceptualized in-house, it’s going to require a significantly nuanced delivery to resonate with locals to any degree. People now have a growing array of branded lifestyle hotels with creative F&B experiences in both first and second tier cities.

In order to create that more attuned local destination vibe, specifically outside North America and Europe, Marr says the company needs to listen to the local markets a little more closely than in the past. Previously, a lot of the decision-making around design and programming for the brand overseas took place at Starwood HQ in Stamford.

“With Sheraton 2020, one of our priorities is that profitability has to be balanced with guest needs, so we have to amp up that conversation with our international customers because we know this is not a one-size-fits-all situation,” says Marr. “We need to make sure we’re addressing a global audience.”

Sheraton 2020 Lacks Specifics

Starwood is launching a new upscale Sheraton Grand tier by reflagging 100+ iconic Sheraton assets. None of those hotels that will be converted have been announced to date because Marr says there haven’t been any contracts signed with owners yet. Some insight into the new Grand portfolio might be gleaned from the Sheraton Grand Hotel & Spa, Edinburgh, which recently completed a deft multimillion dollar renovation that marries forward design, local muses, and Scottish heritage well.

Sheraton’s resort properties, ranging from the ranch-style Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort in Phoenix to the Sheraton Kona Resort in Hawaii, are also possible candidates for the Grand designation. These are going to be the “best of the best” Sheraton properties says Marr, which he suggests will provide a positive halo effect over the rest of the inventory.

To push out the brand repositioning, the new corporate websites will roll out in July to kick off a $100 million marketing campaign online and in print/television beginning in the fall. The new Sheraton 2020 splash page shows the updated visuals. They’re fresh and modern, and while it’s a breath of fresh air to see Sheraton embracing modern visuals, how much of that will be expressed at the hotel level remains to be seen.

One of the other brand promises in the 10-point plan emphasizes how Sheraton will reclaim its position as “THE” meetings hotel brand, except there are no details about that right now. Hopefully we’ll have something more to look forward to soon, because that is where Sheraton has an opportunity to excite a growing customer base that is quickly losing loyalty to any of the big box brands in the upper mid-market category.

As of now, you get the feeling that Sheraton is getting ready to spend a ton of money on high-priced advertising and new websites, but it’s difficult to get excited about any real changes to the actual hotel experience without any specifics.

It would be good to see a little more content coming out of Starwood that illuminates more of Sheraton’s initiatives. Sister brands like W Hotels, Le Meridien, St. Regis and Aloft do a good job creating high impact content marketing campaigns, so it seems like Sheraton should also benefit from some of that creative juice at Starwood’s flashy new StarLab branding studio. Maybe that is coming. The meeting planner and executive traveler booking any business hotel of the future will appreciate that kind of engagement as well.

Greg Oates covers tourism and hospitality development.

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Tags: sheraton, starwood

Photo credit: Landing page for the new Sheraton 2020 campaign. Sheraton Hotels & Resorts

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