Of people, hotels, brokerages and brands

Brian and I just got back from a business trip that provoked an unusual amount of discussion on customer experience, branding and hotel room biohazards.

What follows is something like a travelogue.

Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort & Spa, Kona, Hawaii, Day 1.

We check in, receive a simple welcome, and are handed some coupons from DontPayFull.com to a restaurant that is closed and a key to an outdated room. A black light special. The lamp on the desktop maintains its posture with the aid of Scotch Tape. There’s no hot water in the shower and our “Lanai” overlooks the parking lot.

All of this courtesy of my Starwood Platinum status.


Taxi Cab. Highway. Day 2.

Destination: The Four Seasons Resort Hualalai. Brian and I are giving a presentation here this morning. His topic: How to create a killer user experience on the Web. My topic: Why that’s worth doing.

During our cab ride, we talk about the thoroughly disappointing brand experience at the Sheraton. This of course goes where it usually goes with us: real estate.

This Sheraton, a franchised property, broke promises the Sheraton brand had made, and largely kept to us, for years.

Sound familiar?

We leave that territory when we arrive at the Four Seasons. Sheer splendor. We hurry through the lobby in search of the restaurant before our meeting. It is 7:30 a.m. and the place is packed.

After breakfast we hike the grounds in search of our meeting room. Everything is picture perfect. From signage to foliage. It is as if God runs the grounds crew.

Four Seasons Resort. Late afternoon.

Our meeting is over and it’s time to head back to the land of frayed carpet and sticky tabletops.

I am not excited.

So I stop by the reservation desk at the Four Seasons and inquire about a room for the next couple days. One is available, with an expansive ocean view, despite my lack of status in their rewards program. After all, this is Kona, Hawaii. What other view could there be?

I check us in. Midway though getting registered, I am handed a chilled platter. On it are skewered pineapples and an ice-cold Mai Tai. A simple gesture to get me into the right headspace.

I place the beaded necklace they hand me over my head and take the key.

Taxi cab. Highway. Evening.

I call Starwood on my way back to the Sheraton to retrieve our belongings. They handle the cancellation of my reservation with such ease that I wonder if this isn’t the first time this has happened. Or the second. Or the last.

I grab our stuff and take a photo of the taped lamp. A postcard image from paradise.

Broken Lamp at Sheraton

Four Seasons Resort. Room 2213. Balcony. Night.

Two hotels. One sells rooms. The other sells heaven.

The former is a series of interactions wholly disconnected from the exuberant brand promises communicated through its Website and the gauzy images piped through the in-room promo loop.

They go to great lengths to sell people with words and images. But fail in real life.

And the latter? A hypnotic excursion of wonderment. The brand expression is calculated and understated. They don’t resort to a sales pitch. Or rely on advertising to distract me. They create a set of i’s and t’s. They dot and cross them. Every minute of every day.

Yes, you get what you pay for. But you should get what you’ve been promised at any price. And, hopefully, a little more than you’ve expected. One brand nailed it, one failed miserably.

Dots, crosses, pineapples and cocktails

I understand the difficulty real estate brokerages have creating and executing on brand promises. Maybe you’re not even aware of all the i’s and t’s you have. Or you are, but in your attempt to dot and cross as many as you can, you find the i’s revolt. The t’s complain. Neither letter realizing the inherent value of being a part of your alphabet.

Maybe you don’t care. And have no plans on being anything but a timeworn Sheraton. After all, they sell rooms every day. They’re still here, for now.

Or maybe you do care. A lot. But you don’t know where to start. You struggle with the risks of pursuing “new” ideas with which you have no track record.

I get it. But here’s what I know for sure: A clean room, hot water, fresh pineapple and a cocktail are not elements available exclusively to the Four Seasons. These things are within every hotel’s reach.  But few grab for them. The one that does gets 4 times the room rate and is packed despite a torpid economy.

We don’t take exotic vacations that often. We don’t buy real estate often either. You don’t have too many opportunities to get the customer experience right. Or wrong.

When I take my next vacation, I have no doubt in my mind where I’m going if I am able to afford it. And I’m convincing my closest friends to do the same.

I am also quite sure where I won’t be staying.

Mai Tai, anyone?