As John Lee sees it, hotel brands can’t lure customers in with a cane like carnival barkers. Attracting more guests relies on building relationships, trust, and ultimately loyalty. For more than 12 years, Lee has overseen everything from advertising and public relations to direct marketing and promotions in his role as vice president of brand marketing for Embassy Suites Hotels. “If you grow share of heart, I think share of wallet is going to take care of itself,” Lee says. “It’s about building that loyalty and tapping into it in a meaningful way. Organically, if we do our jobs right, the stays will come.”
After earning a bachelor’s degree in English and journalism from California Polytechnic State University, where he met his wife, Beth, Lee got accepted into the University of San Diego’s broadcast journalism master program. He decided to stay in San Luis Obispo, however, and found a job selling ads for local radio stations and newspapers. “I told everybody back then that I sold space and time,” he recalls. “That was a real slog.”
When an Austin, Texas-based company, Loral Hotels, was preparing to open a Hilton hotel in Santa Maria, Calif., Lee advised the group on pre-opening marketing and how to create a buzz. From there, Loral asked him to create a plan for marketing opportunities in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and Lee presented his ideas to owners and investors. Afterward, the general manager asked him to be the hotel’s opening sales manager.
“That’s how I got into the hotel business,” Lee says. He became the director of sales for Loral’s next hotel, a Park Suite in San Luis Obispo, which later converted to an Embassy Suites.
Lee networked and built relationships with regional directors and vice presidents, and eventually earned the opportunity to open a corporate Embassy Suites in San Rafael as director of sales and marketing. He also helped open several other California properties, setting up sales teams at the new properties and replacing old teams at existing ones to improve performance. Lee could have pursued a general manager position, but says he prefers to focus on marketing and sales. “I’m more energized by understanding how customers think and understanding what motivates customers to buy certain products.”
Lee and his family moved from San Diego to Memphis, Tenn., in 1995 when he landed the regional director of marketing position for Embassy Suites Hotels, which at the time was under Promise Hotels group. “I was in Memphis for 14 years, and a lot of exciting things happened out there. We purchased DoubleTree and brought it into the family, and then we were bought by Hilton and merged with that company.”
In this role he provided brand support for more than 40 franchised and company-managed properties until 1999, when he took over as vice president of brand marketing. The Lee family moved again in 2009 to McLean, Va., when Hilton Worldwide relocated its headquarters. “When I took over marketing for brand, my first boss asked me, ‘Who are Embassy Suites customers?’” Lee recalls. “I said, ‘We have to figure out who we are first before we figure out who our customer is.’”
The best way to build a brand identity is to speak to brand loyalists and competitive set loyalists to find out what resonates with travelers, Lee says. During his first 10 years on the job, he spent about 30 percent of his time (now it’s about 15 to 20 percent) staying in tune with customers. When studying the attitudes of upscale and upper upscale travelers, the brand looks at demographics, psychographics, firmographics, and ethnographics. “The time we spend with customers not only really helps focus our advertising and PR efforts,” Lee says, “but also fine tune our product and our innovation within the hotel.”
Lee believes it’s the corporate team’s responsibility to put the power of branding into the hands of hotel operators, by making sure they have the right tools and resources to be successful brand stewards. When Lee discusses the brand’s marketing and communications strategy at general manager orientations, the first thing he says is, “The brand does not reside in McLean, Va., on the 10th floor of our global headquarters. It resides in your hotels. On every street corner where we have an Embassy Suites, that’s where it is.”