Last August, Shangri-La announced it was undertaking an ambitious rebranding of its mid-range Traders Hotels to appeal to a new generation of travelers. Since then, they have opened 10 Hotel Jens in major cities around the Asia Pacific, differentiating this new ‘‘Jeneration’ concept with soft touch points and a locale-centric philosophy.
Marisa Aranha, came on board as Vice President Sales & Marketing of the Hotel Jen brand in May 2014. I sat down with to talk with her about the effort required for this aggressive rebranding roadmap and some of the lessons learned along the way.
First tell us about about the scale and scope of your rebranding effort
We started with the launch of the brand on September 15, 2014 with the opening of Hotel Jen Ocean Gateway in Singapore. In all fairness, we had a huge amount of publicity with the launch of the brand with that hotel – it is very much the flagship hotel for the brand in Singapore because it was a new build. A week later, we re-branded Hotel Jen Tanglin, which is also in Singapore about 10 to 15 minutes away from the first Orchard Road hotel. Tanglin was a very iconic Traders hotel in Singapore which has had a regular following over past 15 years. Then every couple of weeks, we rebranded the next four hotels – Hong Kong, Brisbane, Penang and finally Manila. We stopped at end of November with Manila – that was number six – and then we took bit of a break. Rebranding a property every two weeks is quite exciting, but also an exhausting exercise.
We started again in the second week of January rebranding the Traders Inn in Malé, Maldives. After a break for Chinese New Year, we started our marketing campaign in Beijing and Shanghai. We rebranded Upper East Beijing on March 4th. I must admit we’ve have an overwhelming amount of publicity and interest from the Chinese market and the media.
Why the great interest in Hotel Jen in China?
Well, I think it’s two things. Shangri-La has a very rich heritage there with 35 percent of its portfolio in China. It’s probably one of the first international hotel brands that established itself in secondary and tertiary cities in China, so there was a lot of interest in development of the group. Yes, we have other big international brands that are trying to launch as competitors to brands like ours in the market, but the fact that we have such a rich heritage with the Shangri-La Group definitely helped. We had the best media turnout in the Beijing versus any any of the previous rebrands that we’ve done from a volume perspective. So that’s been a good story.
In two weeks we’ll be continuing with the rebranding of Traders Shenyang – which is one hour from Shanghai. We did marketing activations in Beijing and Shanghai to get the brand out to the consumer in these two cities which are really the two main markets that are driving domestic business into the two properties. The focus is to get the word out in these two cities to social media, so we launched our social media channels and we’ve got a specific marketing plan for China because it’s a whole different market.
China is our number one market, but Australia is the number two market for the brand – it’s a source market for the other Asia Pacific hotels. We’re going to do a series of sales missions to reach out to the travel trade market in Australia.
We did have quite an interesting and a big budget last year to launch the brand. It was needed because the rebranding meant having a new website, having new collateral, having new guidelines, and changing all the physical elements of the brand. Each hotel also has its own local rebranding budget too.
We started the process very actively I would say, and the concept of the brand was all done by the month of May. To give you some timelines, we launched the website in the second week of August, the first hotel opened in the second week of September – honestly that was a record opening with Orchard Gateway. I’ve been in the industry for many years and opened many hotels in many continents over the course of my career, but rebranding and opening Hotel Jen Ocean Gateway in Singapore in the 3-4 month time frame was quite daunting!
The hotels that are rebranding now, like the ones in China, have a faster process than the ones in the beginning because all the new collateral has been developed. It was all finally fully developed by the time we got to hotel number four. The whole process started from May 2014 and we will have finished 10 hotels by April 1st 2015 – so 10 hotels in 11 months! Of course the concept of the brand was looked at before May, but then we really kicked it off in actively May. At the end of it all, there will be 15 rebranded Hotel Jen properties.
Traders Hotel KL will stay a Traders Hotel for the mid term. We would love to change it to the Jen brand but at the moment, there’s not commitment from the owners.
Traders Beijing is near the heart of the CBD district in Beijing near our Shangri La hotel. That property will be demolished next year and will turn into a shopping complex, but there is a site opposite it that will be developed into a new Hotel Jen that will open its door early 2016. It will be the Jen prototype and it will have a new design according to the new Jen guidelines. It will be the first complete new build from the ground up that is signed off, but we are working on a whole lot of development projects which we hope will firm up in the next few months.
We also have two properties in the Middle East: Traders Dubai and Traders Abu Dhabi which will stay as Traders for the time being. Our focus now is on the Asia Pacific.
What lessons have you’ve learned from these rapid transitions?
What we learned from this rebranding process is to appreciate the strength of the media and to focus on price. Hotel Jen Ocean Gateway in Singapore was a record opening. We didn’t open all 500 of the rooms, we opened 350, but in its first fifteen days we moved the hotel to an 82% occupancy. This was all due to the strength of the location and the publicity we got from the media. It was very important to target the customer and make sure they perceived the value that we’re putting in the new brand. Now the customer and the media can see the value behind the new touch points of the customer stay – that’s been one of the positives and critically important in our success I would say.
What we have learned is to ideally have a little bit more lead time in the actual re-branding, because it was incredibly stressful and daunting to roll-out so much in such a short space of time.
Why was the time frame so short?
The process kicked off in December 2013, but it took several months to recruit and get our team on board. I joined in May2014 which was when marketing kicked off.
In hindsight, what could have helped more is the actual roll out of the brand competency. Service levels on the property for the customer for the Jen Brand could have been rolled out earlier. As we speak, that’s happening. We are rebranding the hotels and they are trying to get it all done, but it’s quite a big task if you’re rebranding marketing wise at the same time you’re rolling out a whole new offering and service culture within the brand. You need a bit of lead time with the education of the staff.
How do you bring staff along?
Strangely enough we haven’t had that much attrition. Some of the hotels we’ve had for many years, so we have employees who have been on board for many years too. You can imagine that was the challenge to “un-train” them in what they were used to and to adopt a new service culture with a new service offering. Obviously, there always will be a little bit of attrition – it goes across the board with any rebrand – but interestingly, the younger staff members have embraced the concept of the brand and they enjoy the autonomy and the ability to be more expressive with the customer.
How do you suddenly make all staff ‘local lifestyle’ experts?
The general manager has to make sure that those who have guest contact have good knowledge of places within the vicinity of the hotel. They need to know local highlights in case the customer asks, “What is the best place down the road to have laksa in the city in Singapore? Or “What is the best noodle shop in Hong Kong in Kennedy Town?” They must be able to answer it or be able to come back to the customer immediately. We don’t have one dedicated concierge, so everyone who is in contact with the customer gets training.
We’ve had some internal training to do with what is very important locally and highlight questions that the customer will potentially ask. In most hotels the customer will ask where the best restaurant is and the staff member will say – go the one on the third floor! Traditionally, the correct answer was along the lines of “don’t leave the hotel”. Of course we want the staff to up-sell whatever they can, but very importantly, we have a slogan in the brand that says that every customer stay should start with anticipation and end with a high. From a marketing perspective, that’s the mantra that every staff member within the hotel sets themselves for the day. So sure, at the end of the day they have to upsell, but they’ve also got to show enthusiasm and energy and identify every customer that comes to stay with us as a friend.
That’s the concept – the idea that we are “hosting” the customer. Yes, we have to make money – that’s a goes without saying. But the branding concept is that you’re coming to stay with a friend. We are hosting you as a friend. If someone comes to stay with you as friend, you’re not going to try to rip them off and when asked, point them to the most expensive meal. You’re going to show them hospitality and welcome them in the way that a friend would. That idea has been really embraced by the staff members.
Have you rolled out this training process across the brand or does much of it need to be localised?
We have rolled out a training program which is about all the brand touch points. This has gone from hotel to hotel before the rebrand. So back to your point, could we have started this rolling out process earlier? For me – yes, because it always takes you that much longer when you’re actually implementing those levels. It’s all about human beings, isn’t it? It would have been more of a help for us if we started to roll that out earlier. Could we have reached out to market a little bit earlier? Maybe. But at the end of the day, sometimes you get a challenging task and it makes you more dynamic. You make sure that you put all your resources behind you and try to be targeted making it happen. Sometimes having more time slows your momentum. Our timeline made us develop a more dynamic approach to reaching out to the market.
Are you changing much in the roll-out of the rebrand to individual properties?
Hotel Jen Tanglin Singapore is under renovation and 126 rooms went under renovation from December. They come back into inventory in April and we will keep on taking rooms for renovation in the next few months, plus we have a few new additions to the properties. Hotel Jen Penang has a bar that we re-skinned and revamped completely. It’s a whiskey bar, complete with a snooker table and big televisions preferred by our older, corporate travellers. While we are targeting the millennial customer and the millennium mindset, we do have our eye on the older, corporate customer who is travelling a lot in Penang. We are not just making every hotel younger and hipper -we are localising the offering within every property. In Brisbane, we opened restaurant called Nest six weeks ago and in just six weeks it is turning around revenue that’s a good 40 percent higher than the same restaurant was a year ago. We’ve started to look at certain properties and are introducing new concepts while retouching and renovating some of the outlets.
Part two of our interview with Marisa Aranha will be published tomorrow. We’ll dive deeper into the soft touch points Hotel Jen is now implementing through its Rooms division and Food and Beverage offerings, as well as where it’s headed on the technology and social media front.