In 1990, George H.W. Bush was president; the Internet was not quite born; the hotel industry was about to enter a punishing recession; and the top song hits on Billboard included “Vogue” by Madonna, “Blaze of Glory” by Jon Bon Jovi, and “Nothing Compares 2 U” by Sinead O’Connor.
John Lee, vice president of brand marketing for Embassy Suites, may not have been listening to those particular songs, but you can be sure he was listening to something. Lee, a guitarist and guitar collector whose father was a jazz drummer, joined Embassy Suites that year—and has been there ever since, helping to create the image for a company that dominates its category as few others do.
Lee, whose college band was called “Free Beer”—an early entry into branding—listens to music from the time he wakes up until he goes to sleep and he credits it with aiding in the creative process—and creativity is something with which Embassy Suites has long been associated. That reputation emerged early with the introduction of Garfield, the very hungry cat, early in the life of the brand. It’s an association that lingers in the minds of many although, amazingly, Garfield disappeared from Embassy Suites ads more than a decade ago.
Garfield, says Lee, “put us on the map for families, but to me it detracted from our ability to pull serious business travelers. We even had Garfield cutouts in the breakfast area. We still work hard to attract families but don’t want to alienate business travelers.”
Lee sort of backed into his Embassy Suites career when a predecessor brand at which he was working was taken over by the then-emerging all-suite company, which was founded in 1984 and was taken over by Hilton in 1999. He started in sales before moving over to marketing and has held his current position since 2000.
Stability and Seamlessness
Not only has Lee been in place for a long time, but, as he says, the brand has been “remarkably stable.” The original formula worked, says Lee, and has always achieved “a great balance of leisure and business.
“The leisure side is easy to understand,” he says, “because of the complimentary full breakfast—a huge cost-savings when you have a family of four.” On the business side, he says, the appeal has been convenience, cost, and control. “We save business travelers time. They’re not taken hostage by a restaurant hostess, then hostage to a server,” he says.
Business travelers, says Lee, “also like the space in our suites and the ability to separate work from where their heads hit the pillow. A lot of competitors have fabulous workstations, but they are three feet from the bed. Our guests can finish work, microwave popcorn, and go into the bedroom.”
The core corporate markets, says Lee, remain relocation, training, and small business travelers such as consultants.
The biggest change for the brand since its birth, says Lee, came in 2006 with the launch of Design Option III, which targets owners who wanted to build an Embassy Suites in a secondary or tertiary market. With a smaller footprint, the product costs $15,000 less per key. As for guests, says Lee, “It’s a seamless move from our core product except the suites are side by side and are a bit more residential.” Today with a pipeline of 40 properties, 60 percent are Design Option III.
Focus: Focus Groups
A whopping one-third of Lee’s time is spent with focus groups sitting behind glass watching panels. “We never want to rest on our laurels. For one thing we’re always trying to make our breakfast more relevant,” he explains. “It was originally created by Boomers for Boomers, but for young and up and coming guests, tastes are changing. We are looking at how we can incorporate higher protein foods like power bars.”
It’s the same story with the two-hour evening managers reception. “It used to be,” says Lee, “simply two hours of complimentary cocktails. Now it’s become more of a ‘third place’ environment where guests want to socialize, go online wirelessly, read a book. It’s becoming more of an experience so we are looking to change the furnishings, make the setting softer. It’s all about continuing to try to evolve.”
Not only does Embassy Suites seek to connect with traditional segments such as business and leisure, but the brand also aims to make the “upstairs guest” and “downstairs guest” happy as well.
“The upstairs guest gets to the room, puts on sweats and goes to work. The downstairs guest wants to get the heck out of the room,” he explains. “Knowing that, how can one hotel brand be ideal for both? For the upstairs guest, they have all that space and a coffee table and couch. The downstairs guests have the atrium and, especially for female travelers, it’s not a dark, dank intimidating bar.”
All of that, of course, is more product and operations oriented than marketing. But as Lee says, Jim Holthouser , (senior vice president of brand management) “is so inclusive. We get involved in everything. There are three leaders in the brand and we always make decisions together.”
The third brand leader is Shawn McAteer, vice president of brand performance support, who has purview over sales and operations.
The process seems to work. Lee says Embassy Suites, with 207 locations, dominates the all-suite market with 60 percent of capacity, having seen products like Sheraton Suites and Marriott Suites exit the scene. He calls much of the boutique phenomenon “faddy and fashionable” while “we will stay tried and true.”
What may be surprising to some is that Embassy Suites is a player in the meetings market. Says Lee, “Over 60 hotels have more than 10,000 square feet of meeting space; we consider ourselves the small meetings expert.”
Returning To TV
On the marketing side, Lee says Embassy Suites will be advertising on television next year for the first time since 2006, when it stopped because of the cost of production. Now, with the proliferation of cable networks, says Lee, “advertising becomes more cost efficient.” While the actual message is being worked out, it will build on the “More Reasons To Stay” tagline that’s been running because, says Lee, “that speaks to the value of the brand. The ads will be shot in November and will run next year.”
Wherever Lee takes the Embassy Suites message, he keeps in mind that, “We are irreverent and don’t take ourselves too seriously. We try to portray our brand as being easy to do business with. Your brand has to have a personality and ours is of an upscale hotel where you can put your feet up.”
About half of the brand’s hotels are franchised and all marketing initiatives are run by the owners’ and advisors’ council. Sometimes, that means owners have to think creatively. Embassy Suites has been known for being a bit out there with its promotions—like the recent Breakfast in Bed Recipe Contest, based on a website called MyOmelet.com. Consumers were asked to share their favorite breakfast-in-bed recipe with winners receiving an Embassy Essentials bedding ensemble from the new EmbassyuSuitesAtHome.com site, which features guests’ favorite products and amenities that are available for online purchase. Other products available online include bathrobes, bath amenities, omelet-making items, an alarm clock, and even a pet food bowl.
Memorable marketing can get you trial but doesn’t guarantee retention, so Lee is concentrating on retention. Embassy Suites uses an internal 5-5-5 system to rank guests where the first 5 refers to “recency” (when was the last stay); the second frequency; and the third monetary—how much was spent in total on room, restaurant, etc.
“We ask ourselves,” says Lee, “how can we get a 4-4-4 to be a 5-5-5? Or if we see a 1-5-5, in most cases that means it’s a job change where the traveler’s patterns shifted.”
In its efforts to appeal to the next generation of guests, Embassy Suites devotes more than 50 percent of its marketing budget to digital advertising, including mobile. A recent Facebook contest offered 100 weekend stays to consumers who became “fans.”
“We went from 6,000 to 35,000 fans as a result of the contest,” says Lee; “and the beauty of that is that we now have a platform on which we can introduce other promotions and contests. There’s already a Facebook page called “Embassy Suites Has Great Bacon.”
Lee calls that kind of effort a “fun space; we’re not doing it to drive revenue but to keep the brand close to guests in a new and relevant way.” In fact, asserts Lee, “If we were to launch a new brand-wide initiative now, it would be on Facebook.”
Tackling Tough Times
During times like these, says Lee, “We ratchet up the value message; it’s a rational message showing what you get for your money. In better times we do an emotive message—what does all that room space do for me emotionally?
“We’re never going to have 100 percent share of wallet,” he continues, “but we want to create a share of heart and then the share of wallet will take care of itself.”
Embassy Suites is moving ahead in geographical space as well as cyberspace, with Latin America a target. A hotel opened recently in Valencia, Venezuela, joining properties in Colombia, Mexico, and Puerto Rico.
“We are working on a prototype for locations outside the Americas,” Lee says.
Prior to opening any hotels overseas, says Lee, the brand hired Accenture to see if the brand would fly outside of North America. “We don’t want a disconnect between what our loyalist experiences here and in Shanghai,” he says. “You can’t just plop a hotel anywhere. We want to have a sense of community. If a city in China is famous for calligraphy brushes, we would have a wall of calligraphy behind the front desk.”
Lee himself will be visiting some of those locations, saying that his traveling options have opened up since Hilton moved to McLean, Va.; prior to that he was traveling to the corporate office from Memphis, Tenn., every other week.
“I miss going to hotels and will be doing that more,” he says. ”You have to stay connected. I always wanted to put a face and personality to the brand. I strive to be humble. I always say at GM orientations that the brand resides in their hotels, not in McLean.”
One location he’ll be visiting frequently is New York where the Embassy Suites downtown is being converted to a Conrad, one of Hilton’s luxury brands. “Luxury brands are hot and there’s a void for luxury in that neighborhood,” he says. “We want to open another Embassy in New York and we’re looking around.”
When he’s not in an airplane, Lee is likely to be found on a bicycle. A serious cyclist, he rode in 100-mile races in college and, when he lived in San Diego, Calif., averaged 250 miles a week. While he is down to 60 miles a week now he still races and owns a 14-pound carbon fiber bike which he has ridden, as part of fundraisers, ahead of Tour de France racers.
Lee travels with a guitar and plays when he can. When he finally does retire, he says, “I can see myself in Boulder, Colo., playing with some other
But all that is well in the future. For now, says the 20-year veteran, “I’m not going anywhere.”