DoubleTree by Hilton is often best known for its warm welcome—literally, from the warmth of the chocolate chip cookies that guests receive when checking in to one of its hotels. But in recent years the chain has worked diligently to bake in a new image, one that emphasizes not only its focus on warm customer care throughout a guest’s stay, but also on the local flavor of each hotel’s unique, regional site.
The hotelier’s new recipe for success launched in 2011, when DoubleTree overhauled its global brand identity by modernizing the logo—capping the T in what had previously been Doubletree—and by tying the chain to its parent brand by adding by Hilton to its name. It may seem straightforward and even a bit superficial, but the company then made more significant changes, specifically in the way it operated and marketed itself.
The rebranding was, and continues to be, a balancing act. On one hand the hotelier strives to maintain a consistent brand experience all over the world. But it also wants to provide the hospitable, local touches that tend to characterize boutique hotels (beyond the chocolate chip cookies upon arrival). From an operational standpoint, about 75% of DoubleTree hotel locations are franchised, and the brand indexes performances on a regional level instead of a global one.
Naturally, there are skeptics. “How are you going to make a DoubleTree look local?” asks Bill Carroll, a senior lecturer at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration. “It’s a DoubleTree for heaven’s sake.”
And Carroll is even less optimistic about DoubleTree’s international expansion. The brand, he says, is a Johnny-come-lately in terms of hitting those local nooks abroad and lags behind competing global chains that have already established international brand recognition. So where does that leave DoubleTree? “What you are is a regional, local operator who promises a vanilla service,” Carroll says.
Such is the perception. But John Greenleaf, global head of DoubleTree, has a plan, and it comes down to driving consumer engagement through its marketing creative and customer experience.
“Rather than operating or marketing our brand on a high level, which we could have done because we’re global, we work hard to push the brand out to as many targeted people as we can through social media…[virtually] shaking hands and going face to face with guests and potential guests around the world,” Greenleaf says. It’s part of what the brand calls its C.A.R.E. culture (Creating A Rewarding Experience).
Greenleaf is confident that his approach works: Over the past four years the chain has experienced an 8% year-over-year increase in revenue per available room—a key hotel growth metric.
And in 2012 DoubleTree opened 49 hotels—31 in the Americas and seven in the Asia Pacific region, giving it a total of 350 hotels on six continents. More are coming in the next few years: DoubleTree has signed deals for 75 hotels to open leading into 2020.
Here’s how it was done.
DoubleTree’s social branches
It’s a good time to be an hotelier. Scott Berman, principal industry leader for the hospitality and leisure group at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC), says demand has increased for the hotel industry in general. In the United States just as many people are checking into hotels as they were before the recession.
But more stays by more hotel guests means more online reviews and social chatter that could affect a brand’s reputation for better or for worse. After all, consumers increasingly rely on peer-to-peer reviews to identify whether a specific property matches the type of hotel experience they want and if it’s in line with how much they want to spend. They also look to reviews to help determine what market they want to stay in. This last part is essential: According to DoubleTree research, 70% of travelers don’t have a destination in mind when planning a leisure vacation. To help fill this void—and to use social channels to help appeal to the 40% of its customers who travel for leisure—DoubleTree launched DTour this past May.
DTour is a YouTube channel developed in partnership with Google that allows guests to upload pictures, videos, and text of their regional experiences anywhere in the world. In terms of highlighting DoubleTree’s local flavor in a global way, having travelers upload their own content about local restaurants and attractions—versus posting sponsored content—drives brand engagement and provides guests with objective insight that can help them find the right markets for their trips.
“It’s a much more comprehensive way to understand travel opportunities, but more important, it gives you an opportunity to share wonderful travel experiences that you’ve had in a much more social way—other than the way they’re currently posted, [such as] on travel sites,” Greenleaf says.
DTour received more than 115,000 visits within its first 90 days. In addition, participants have posted approximately 1,500 content submissions, and the website has received about 6.8 million views of uploaded video—totaling approximately five million minutes in watched content.
Cornell’s Carroll says peer-to-peer reviews can lead to more satisfactory search results because they better target consumer desires.
“That information, in some semantic search capability, allows you to capture and view what experience we expect to have from the lens of your own social graph, what you’re looking for, or groups that might be enjoying that system or have gone there before and are like you,” Carroll says.
DoubleTree also drives global brand awareness while promoting each hotel’s local charm by maintaining local and global social presences—individual Facebook and Twitter pages for each hotel. And each location appoints one social media expert within its existing staff to respond to guests’ posts.
When it comes to social media strategies, hotels are taking cues from retailers, not necessarily from other leisure companies, PwC’s Berman says. And they’re doing so not solely with social, but are following retailers’ leads with other channels like the web. For example, many hotels provide 360-degree views of their rooms, much like how retailers provide 360-degree views of their products, Berman says.
“The hotel…brands have been focused on e-commerce, social media, and understanding their best customer and their most loyal customer,” Berman says, adding that hotels’ websites beat out social when it comes to attracting travelers and getting them to book their stays.
Greenleaf agrees that the Internet is the fastest growing and highest single booking source for DoubleTree, but he notes that travelers in different parts of the world have different booking preferences. For example, in China, the Internet plays a small role in the booking process and is used as more of an educational resource to learn more about the hotels. Similarly, in Europe, most travelers book their stay by calling the hotel directly, Greenleaf says. Hence, as part of its efforts of being “face to face with customers around the world,” and having local flavor in its marketing and customer experiences, it’s crucial for DoubleTree to provide multiple touchpoints so it can connect with its users through their preferred channels.
Keep them coming back
DoubleTree uses the Hilton HHonors loyalty program to show the other side of the global-local equation. The brand’s smaller, local hotels may have their own flavor, but they’re supported by one giant Hilton brand.
Although some guests have an affinity for a particular brand, such as a business traveler preferring to stay exclusively at DoubleTrees, factors like redeemable points, length of stay, and party size can often persuade guests to stay elsewhere, Greenleaf points out. When DoubleTree customers look for other options due to situations like a fully booked location, the brand strives to keep customers’ business inside the Hilton family by being one of the 10 hotel brands to participate in Hilton HHonors.
“Rather than viewing it as competition between the brands we view it as the brands combining to offer the guests something they can’t get anywhere else,” Greenleaf says, noting that DoubleTree’s positioning is “upscale” but “just below Hilton Hotels [and Resorts].”
The if-you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours mentality of the Hilton HHonors loyalty program benefits Hilton Hotels & Resorts globally and its individual brands like DoubleTree specifically. The program has more than 34 million members who can redeem rewards at more than 3,900 hotels in 90 countries and territories. About half of DoubleTree’s hospitality business stems from the rewards program, according to Greenleaf, proving that a brand is only as great as the sum of its parts.
“What we’re looking to do is, continue the diversity of the portfolio that we have, but truly emphasize the positioning and the understanding of the positioning for the brand,” Greenleaf says. “[We’re looking to] really focus on how our C.A.R.E culture and our service philosophy act as the string that holds together a portfolio that now approaches 350 hotels.”