GREAT, CHEAP, GLOBAL AMERICAN HOTELS
By Joe Brancatelli
June 5, 2014 --Writer and academic Gerald Early once claimed that there were only three things people would remember about American culture two millennia from now: the Constitution, jazz, and baseball. "These are the most beautiful things this culture's ever created," he wrote.
As a business traveler, I must disagree. There is a fourth: good, cheap hotels. No culture does good, cheap hotels like America. And the great news is that the lodging companies that create these good, cheap hotels are taking them to the world.
As every business traveler knows, America's highways and byways, suburban office parks and downtown business cores are awash with properties the lodging industry calls "select service" brands. You're almost always guaranteed to find a Hampton Inn, Courtyard by Marriott, Hilton Garden Inn, Four Points by Sheraton or Hyatt Place. These brands aren't weighed down by the stuffy old precepts of gilded, five-star palaces and they specialize in what we might as well call the five Cs of modern lodging: They are clean; they are comfortable, with good beds and well-appointed bathrooms; they are convenient, with workable WiFi; they are admirably consistent; and they are, of course, cheaper than their five-star competitors.
As every business traveler also knows, the concept of clean, comfortable, convenient, consistent and cheap hotels remains a rarity outside America. From Argentina to Zanzibar, the quality of lodging has traditionally declined precipitously if you didn't check into the best place in town.
TripAdvisor, the hotel-rating site, makes light of the state of European lodging in its newest television spot. And it was 15 years ago that Paul Sistare, the American chief executive of Brazil's Atlantica hotels, explained the problem U.S. business travelers faced overseas. "Fly into South America and you have no choice in lodging. You have the high-priced, so-called five-star properties and the no-star properties. There's nothing in between."
In the intervening years, Sistare and Atlantica have addressed the balance in Brazil, opening dozens of hotels in the three- and four-star range and operating them as franchises of familiar U.S. names such as Four Points, Comfort Inns and Clarion. And in the rest of the world, Hilton, Marriott, Starwood and Hyatt are extending the reach of their mid-market brands, all of which specialize in the aforementioned five Cs.
Courtyard by Marriott now has branches in 38 countries. Hilton's Hampton Inn, perhaps the quintessential great cheap American chain, operates in 10 countries. You'll find Hilton Garden Inns in 19 countries. Starwood's Four Points brand is in 30 countries.
The newest mid-range player on the global block? Hyatt Hotels, which last year opened the first international branches of its eight-year-old Hyatt Place and two-year-old Hyatt House chains. There are already about two dozen Hyatt Place and Hyatt House properties under development just in China, for example.
"There's a gap in the China market just as there used to be a gap in the U.S. market," says Chris Walker, the Chicago-based vice president of Hyatt's mid-market brands. "Travelers are looking for better than the local properties, but may not want to spend what it takes for a five-star, first-tier hotel."
American-branded mid-market hotels are growing rapidly throughout India, too. And why not? "There are more hotels rooms in Orlando than there are in the entire country of India," says Adrian Kurre, the Memphis-based global head of the Hilton Garden Inn brand. U.S. chains also find fertile ground elsewhere in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East, too. And Marriott in April became a huge player in Africa when it purchased South Africa's Protea Hotels, which has more than a 100 hotels on the continent.
Europe remains a challenge—"all the best sites were built on 500 years ago," quips Walker of Hyatt—but the mid-market chains are finding niches. In February, Hampton opened just a few steps from London's Waterloo Station. There's a Hilton Garden Inn in Rome's elegant Parioli district and one near the airport in Fiumicino. Hyatt Place operates at Amsterdam Airport and in Yerevan, Armenia. Marriott, which says just 30 percent of the continent's lodgings are branded, has a franchise deal with AC Hotels of Spain and is building a Eurocentric chain called Moxy.
Still, something is lost in translation when familiar American brands head overseas. Or, perhaps more accurately, what works well in America sometimes needs to be tweaked to reflect local sensibilities. "The trick," explains Walker, "is to stay true to the brand while you're adapting. You want the American who's booking you overseas specifically because they know what to expect, but you must also adapt to serve the needs of local travelers."
For the Hyatt Place and Hyatt House hotels being built in China, Walker notes, feedback from Chinese clients led to changes in some color schemes and more Chinese design accents. And a brand signature—fairly elaborate free breakfast buffets—is sometimes a challenge to source locally.
There are also space trade-offs. Courtyard hotels designed for the European market have a standard room size of 22 square meters, or 237 square feet. In the United States, a standard king-bedded Courtyard room is 316 square feet. Doubles with two queen beds are about 350 square feet.
On the flip side, savvy business travelers who use mid-market brands in the United States often notice that their international cousins have some unusual perks. That Hampton near Waterloo Station, for example, is attached to a trendy new casual restaurant called Assado. Many of the new mid-market properties are in mixed-use developments, meaning a business traveler can stay in the comfort of a familiar U.S. brand and still shop or dine in a local atmosphere without ever leaving the building.
"I had to go to Irkutsk for a client last year and I didn't know where that was," says Phillip P. Lawrens, a Los Angeles-based global management consultant. "It's in Siberia. Literally Siberia. And you know where I stayed? The Courtyard Irkutsk."
Lawrens conclusion? "It was just like working in L.A., except colder."
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
THE FINE PRINT This column is Copyright © 2014 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2014 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.