These are crucial times for citizenM as it expands rapidly outside its European base into North America and Asia. It has to stay vigilant about differentiating the brand, now 10 years old, and ensure it is still cutting-edge.
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Since the first citizenM hotel debuted in 2008 in Amsterdam, growth has been at a comfortable pace of one property per year, with all 10 hotels except for one in New York being on familiar European home ground.
But growth is becoming more rapid, and in new territories. Four citizenM hotels are opening between this quarter and next year, namely a second hotel in New York and one each in Taipei, Shanghai and Kuala Lumpur. Its pipeline includes a hotel in Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco and Boston, and two in Paris, where the company already runs two hotels. And it is in talks to plug the rest of the 30 cities in Europe, North America and Asia that citizenM wants to be in.
While the company owns and operates all 10 existing hotels and the ones in the pipeline, giving it total control over the product, the joint venture it has with Artyzen Hospitality Group, owned by Hong Kong-based Shun Tak Holdings, to grow citizenM in Asia largely through management contracts is a first for the company.
Brand guardian Robin Chadha, son of the founder Rattan Chadha, says Artyzen deals with the owners and so far, so good, although he admits there were “talks that we had to change the design of the room, this and that, but unless it’s a cultural no-no, we’re sticking to our guns because we are bringing something new to the market.”
Is it still something new?
Chadha, who currently is chief marketing officer, was with the hotel company in 2006 when his dad conceptualized citizenM based on a lightbulb moment in his previous fashion company, Mexx. At any given time, the senior Chadha had 150 aspiring fashion designers travelling the world on a strict budget of 100-150 euros but there were no hotels that offered lifestyle, location, the essentials, at a good price. So he looked at the frustrations people had in travelling – waiting in line to check in, hidden costs in Wi-Fi or movies, expensive mini-bars, tipping left and right – and started designing the hotel around the customer.
In came self check-in/check-out technology and out went the hidden costs, along with the traditional lobby, which was replaced by “the living room” where people could read, work, meet and co-exist.
CitizenM is widely considered a maestro at affordable luxury for a new generation of travellers who are mobile and use mobile devices, but in the 10 years, the concept has been copied and lots of new brands have entered the market.
As chief marketing officer, brand differentiation rests on Robin Chadha’s shoulders. He acknowledges the increased competition but says citizenM is not satisfied with the status quo. The one lesson that filtered through from his father’s innovation is that the brand must be designed around the customer, heed that and you’ll never be irrelevant, he says.
Customers’ new frustrations
So what are the new frustrations of customers? “They are more impatient. They want ‘flawless seamless’ from outside to inside the hotel,” says Chadha.
So technology is important going forward and citizenM is spending a lot energy and resources on trying to make it ‘flawless seamless’ for customers. For instance, custom technology enables citizenM to see problems in every single room, say, low water pressure, and rectify them before the room is sold to guests.
“We want to take that a step further for the customer. Currently, we’re busy preparing our own content that enables a customer to know what the happenings are, what new restaurants there are, filtered down to per price per neighbourhood, before he arrives and also via the in-room tablet.
“We have a bigger vision for this. Imagine you’re a citizenM guest and you have an app where you can order room service, dry cleaning, spa treatment delivered to you. We can team up with the local players, say the best Italian, Japanese, Indian delivery and only they are allowed to deliver to the hotel, even straight to the room. We don’t have facilities such as room service or spa, but why try and reinvent those when you can use the sharing-economy players who have perfected the services already?”
Creating the sound of citizenM
The company is also working with Soundscape London to strengthen its brand identity through strategic use of audio. “Remember the sound your Apple MacBook makes when you switch it on, or the sound of Nokia? A sonic logo can help the brand resonate deeper in people’s minds. That’s a way to build brand recognition,” Chadha says.
“A hotel itself has many sounds. It beeps when a door opens, pings when the elevator reaches a level. There are composers who work for the big car companies and create sounds that are tranquil when you open the door, but also warning sounds. Why not apply that to hotels? We’re looking at this too.”
Chadha says while there are lots of companies with the same positioning as citizenM now, he isn’t too worried.
“I don’t think you can copy the DNA and soul of our brand. In the end, the brand comes through our people and vision. Someone can design a hotel that looks exactly like a citizenM, but would the experience be the same, with the training, technology, sound, smell, art that we have?
“And don’t forget we are not standing still. We keep innovating. Moreover, with our expansion plans, we have quite a good spread in North America, Europe and Asia, which makes us the brand for this new generation of travelers,” he says.
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Photo credit: CitizenM Hotels' chief marketing officer Robin Chadha has to grapple with differentiating the brand when so many others have caught up.