Hotel loyalty and its associated perks are a cornerstone to the life of any road warrior. Hotel chains can’t afford to offer full service hotels in saturated or smaller markets, but likewise, they also can’t afford to ignore the customer segments that require limited service hotels. Occasionally a bad experience down market can cost revenue for the chain’s upmarket. In Vietnam, our stay at the Novotel caused us to reconsider and ultimately book away from the Sofitel – the best property in Hanoi. How did this happen?
Hotel mega brands like Hilton, Marriott and in this case, Accor offer a wide range of hotel brands with varied levels of service to suit a variety of tastes and price points. The combined Marriott/SPG business involves as many as 30 brands, but wait, there’s more. Capturing a variety of markets allows hotel chains to offer something to everyone, and a property everywhere. A loyal Hyatt customer might prefer the luxury of a Grand Hyatt in bigger cities, but in a smaller market will settle for a Hyatt Place to keep his perks and earn points.
Most road warriors and point enthusiasts will suffer through hotel brands that may not be their first choice in a given market but allow them to redeem their points for something greater in an upmarket brand. There are tons of consultants, occupying the halls of Courtyard by Marriott and Garden Inns across this country, some of them living in the hotels full-time for a contract period – so that when they go to cash in a mountain of points they can burn them on aspirational properties.
Limited service hotels are everywhere and have a home in nearly every chain. Fairfield Inn & Suites from Marriott is more Inn than Suite and typically offer hotels in small 40,000-120,000 population markets usually near a major highway or interstate. Club Carlson offers Country Inn & Suites in the same type markets, Hampton Inn for the Hilton brand fills this space, Hyatt Place, and Holiday Inn Express also occupy the space.
Accor has the a couple of limited service brands mostly in Europe but also with a growing presence in Asia. Ibis brands are just such a product, and Novotel, perhaps slightly upmarket offer limited amenities, though they may have a restaurant, and pool in the right climate.
The goal for the hotel chain is to get you in one of their properties any time you have the choice. They want to offer benefits so great that you couldn’t possibly consider staying elsewhere even when the competition’s price is better, or their location more convenient.
Down market Leads to Up market
The traditional thinking is that down market stays lead to upmarket stays, meaning, if you stay in a Hampton Inn most of the time for work and become accustomed to Hilton Honors, you will be more likely to try the Hilton Waikoloa in Kona, Hawaii. If you have a choice on a weekend stay in New York City you will be more apt to try one of their name brands than stay with the competition.
In the case of the Novotel, I would consider it down market from the top-tier properties offered by Accor, but not the bottom of the pack – it’s not a Motel 6. However, their branding for their loyalty program was everywhere during our stay in Ha Long Bay and it would have been difficult to avoid correlating the two brands.
A balanced hotel chain will have enough choices to fit all of the available markets for their style of customer. Take Starwood Preferred Guest for example, most of their hotels are premium and have some sort of style element that makes a statement of the brand and the guest that chooses to stay there (Sheraton being the exception to the rule). Looking at W Hotels with their chic, trendy style, Aloft (self-proclaimed “vision of W Hotels”), St. Regis for traditional high-end luxury, Le Meridien for French contemporary luxury, Tribute/Design/Luxury Collection for mid to high-end boutique brands. Westin and Sheraton for the main stays (Sheraton is a black eye for the brand, Westin is more premium than other full-service hotels. Even Element plays to well-heeled, trendy consumers that can afford to pay a little more for a brand that reflects their environmental views.
Guests of Sheraton Four Stars properties, and Aloft are more likely to stay brand loyal if they see the aspirational properties as attainable. Personally, I work in a mixture of markets but more often than not there is a Hampton Inn within two miles of where I will need to be, and I know if I stay in enough of them throughout the year, before I know it I will be in a Conrad. It makes the stays in rural America worth it. But as a result, I see the two as a connected brand. If I have generally good experiences at Hampton I expect even better experiences at full-service Hiltons and the very best at a Waldorf-Astoria and likewise if I have mediocre experiences at a Holiday Inn Express, I don’t suspect I will be blown away at a Crowne Plaza or Intercontinental (I was correct in such an assumption).
With minimum exposure to Le Accor, their mid-range, full-service hotel should indicate where should expect the midpoint of the brand to be. We should therefore expect worse down brand and much better up brand.
Email, Lack of Support
Ahead of our stay at the Novotel Ha Long Bay, I tried to reach out to Le Accor to request a status match. It’s no secret that Le Accor used to hand this out like candy. In fairness, before they didn’t even require you to have a status with which to match, just feign a vague interest in their brand and BAM! top-tier status with Accor. That was a model far too generous and perhaps even damaging to the brand as there was no true value to the status since it was so easy to come by.
This match would be different. I have top status with Hilton, Hyatt and IHG earned the hard way – on the road constantly this year – 200+ nights away by my estimates. Just to be comprehensive I also added a match to Marriott/SPG which I fully intend to utilize next year. I am their target market, I am their ideal customer. I travel for work, I have my choice of brand (given the availability) and I stay a lot.
I emailed, I followed up, I called. They made zero effort to get back in touch. Customer service was not great, and it wasn’t just that they aren’t currently offering status matches – maybe they are and maybe they aren’t but most businesses always offer an incentive even if it’s not a publicly announced program – just like my 1K status match from United.
Regardless, even poor brands will usually communicate back. They made no such effort. It was telling of the experience we had generally.
We Had a Bad Stay Down Brand
The Novotel was less than desirable. There were not a lot of good options in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam and in retrospect we would have only stayed over one night on a Junk Boat and never in a hotel at all. I didn’t review the hotel, I may in the future, but it was terrible. The room itself was fine, we paid for an upgrade and supposedly got the best room in the hotel but later found out we absolutely did not. Then there was the non-smoking policy that was clearly ignored in neighboring rooms, hallways – they might have been ashing in our air vents.
The plug blew out an adapter and forced a $100+ Apple emergency purchase that burned half a day. Staff was supposed to come and investigate, but didn’t and were entirely unhelpful. Pool issues, safety concerns, it went on and on.
When we tried to remedy these problems the local staff and Accor generally were unhelpful. It felt like we were on our own, and if we are going to be on our own why even stay at a chain? Why not find an Airbnb that will probably present more space and value for money than a chain hotel anyway?
How Would Our Experience Be Up Brand?
Despite a good experience at the Sofitel Sukhumvit in Bangkok, I wasn’t sure of the experience we would have at the Sofitel Legend Metripole Hanoi. Call it silly but I was having a little trouble pushing the “book now” button on the Sofitel’s website while I was in the Novotel wishing I wasn’t there.
One piece of key supporting evidence was pricing for the hotel nights. The range went from less than $200/night on third-party OTAs to $320 on the Accor website. I was a little concerned with the room type listed however and would have preferred to book directly through the hotel to avoid the disclaimer of “if you would had just booked with us directly” when we end up with an interior, windowless room. I also was not happy with the process for getting a best rate guarantee enforced. If they can’t answer questions over the phone, can’t reply to emails, what are the chances that my demand for them to honor a best rate guarantee is going to go well? Slim to none.
Are these brands too far apart to make this assumption? Perhaps. I wouldn’t judge the Intercontinental Bora Bora by a roadside Holiday Inn Express. But this wasn’t a low-end property compared to their crown jewel, this was a full-service hotel compared to a boutique property re-branded to their top of the line Sofitel brand.
In the end, Accor went from a brand I love to a brand I can’t trust. We have plenty of Hilton points and while the Hilton Hanoi Opera was sold out due to a nearby conference we settled on the Garden Inn two blocks down because as much as we wanted to stay at the Sofitel (and we really did) – I just didn’t trust that if I had a bad experience I would have any support from the broader brand.
Have you ever decided against staying at an up brand because of a bad experience down brand at a chain?