The Musings Of An Opinionated Sod [Help Me Grow!]

The Hotel Industry Is In A Mess …
November 6, 2007, 8:00 am
Filed under: Comment

Yes I had a lovely time with my Mum – it was very, very special and I am over-the-moon I was able to be there.

Right, enough of my personal life, take a look at this …

If you can’t read it clearly, let me elaborate.

Above is an ad for the Ritz Carlton in Kuala Lumpur … an ad that promotes the fact they monogram each pillowcase and bathrobe with the initials of their guests so as to give an added little touch of luxury.

Now putting aside the fact I’ve stayed at that hotel on numerous occasions and NEVER received so much as a personalised greeting, let alone a fucking monogrammed pillow case or bathrobe, I have a fundamental question I’d like to open up for discussion …


I have weighed this issue up in my mind for all of about 9 minutes and the only benefit I’ve been able to come up with is that it serves as a convenient one-stop-shop for members of the ‘Anti-Wanker Federation’ to go and kill all the sad, chip-on-the-shoulder, delusions-of-grandeur tossers who stay there specifically for the monogrammed service, in one go!

I’m all for customisation but this seems more over-the-top than a Versace car seat cover.

Colonial Williamsburg Competition 

The sad part is that the hotel industry in Asia [Ritz Carlton KL excluded] is miles and miles and miles ahead of that of its Western counterparts.

The staff genuinely care about their customers satisfaction.

They are efficient, warm, considerate but never overbearing.

The rooms are spacious, immaculate and inviting.

They represent [excluding HK and Shanghai] stunning value for money.

They don’t try and screw you at every opportunity  [I once was charged TEN QUID for a crappy little toothbrush at uber-wank hotel, The Sanderson]

Which is why these sorts of gimmicks upset me because …

1 We are already blessed by their standards [standards that if you get in a Western hotel, tend to require you booking multiple suites at thousands of dollars per night]

2 The sort of people who are going to be attracted to this kind-of thing are most likely to be rich Westerners who think [i] Britain still has an empire [ii] wealth makes you a better human being [iii] everyone in Asia are thick peasants who are lucky to have a job, especially a job where they can even share the room with ‘white people’.

Anyway this leads me to a point about the hotel industry …

You see as a man who spends a hell of a lot of time in them, they seem to be caught in the rational-category-innovation trap.

What’s that?

It’s when in a bid to offer something ‘unique’, you start nano-innovating … making miniscule changes to your offering but always within the fixed rational parameters of your category.

The razor companies used to be one of the worst offenders for that, because the way they tried to differentiate their brand from one another was by simply bunging another blade on their product, then claiming it gave you an even closer shave. 

After adding 2 blades … then 3 blades … then 4 blades … then 5 blades, they finally seemed to realise that soon they’d be producing products that could be classed as a weapon of mass destruction so started to look for other alternative approaches.

Whilst they still are focusing their attention on the rational needs within their category, at least it is leading to some stuff that genuinely means something rather than parity-mediocrity wrapped up as genius.

So what would I do?

Well all I can tell you is what we did/doing with the Taj Hotel Group.


A while back, we were approached by Taj to develop a core brand idea for the company.

Taj is a very successful Indian company … with probably the most beautiful hotel in the World as part of their group … however outside of India, they are not very well known.

Given they had massive global expansion plans [they were buying up buildings all over the World], we had to give them credibility and awareness … especially in the 2 most profitable areas, Business and Family.

As we were exploring the brand, a couple of issues stood out …

1 Corporations are price conscious so talking about luxury is not conducive to attracting their long-term patronage

2 In the higher-end segment of the hotel industry, their is parity interms of service and facilities

3 [This from a Singapore Airlines pilot we interviewed] Each particular hotel chain has a unified ‘look’ so that often you don’t know what country you’re in until you look out the window

4 Luxury as a descriptor has lost some of its value as the standards are generally so good, no chain categorically stands out over another

5 When people visit new cities, they have architectural landmarks as both a place to visit and as a frame of reference for their physical location

6 As much as business travellers want to feel they are in a place they can relax, they also crave the feeling they’re doing something different to their friends at home and their colleagues in other hotels.

Taj Luxury

Now the thing with Taj is that they don’t have a uniformed layout because they don’t build hotels … they buy buildings.

Palaces … Government Buildings … Old Hotels … Stately Homes … if they think it has character and represents the city it is located in, they’ll buy it – which leads to the chain naturally developing a bespoke character.

The other thing is that even though we live in a time of massperation – where everyone wants/expects/gets ownership of luxury brands – the reality is the definition of the word has come to symbolise a badge of ‘quality’ rather than a unique ’emotion’ … and yet deep in the psyche of society, there’s still this belief real luxury is something not everyone can experience … it is uncommon, special, lasting.

With all this in mind [and quite alot of other things obviously] we came up with this thought around LUXURY SHOULD NEVER BE STANDARD

However rather than translate this idea interms of the facilities within the hotel [which as I said earlier, were at parity levels with their competitive set and was unappealing to ‘bottom-line conscious’ organisations] we decided to focus our attention on the unique character of the Taj buildings.

In short, we were going to treat the architecture as the item of luxury rather than the contents within it … and this had added appeal to business travellers because whilst they like to feel they can relax when they’re away from home, they also want to feel they are experiencing something different and special from the masses – both interms of their social network and the average business traveller.

So with all this in mind, we started to develop creative work like the one above … where the hotel is an item of precious jewellery … something special, unique, precious … all under the line NO ROOM FOR THE ORDINARY.

young family playing with daughter on beach in spain

Now whilst this proved positive to business travellers, to the family category it meant very little … and this is where cultural/lifestyle planning comes in as opposed to nano-innovation.

Following conversations with a whole host of people [Mums, Nannies, Marriage Guidance Councillors, Teachers] the things that shone through were

The woman is the dominant planner of family holidays

Mothers feel a family holiday is when they spend time together, not just when they are physically close together

Mothers feel family time is being destroyed by technology – especially products that allow constant interruptions from the outside World [ie: Blackberry – sorry Angus!]

Mothers feel the relationship between Father and Children is eroding as they spend less quality time together than ever before

… so with all this in mind we developed a 2-prong approach …


We installed mobile signal blockers in 4 of their key hotels.


We ran a DM campaign [aimed at affluent Mothers with young children] saying that when you book a family holiday at Taj, it’s like it used to be – a time where you can bond, share and enjoy life because we guarantee you’ll be free from the negative influence of external interruptions.

[We also pointed out that if the husband really had to contact the office, then he could use the hotel phone so as to not feel totally isolated]

Cause An Effect

Sure it’s still early days, however all indications are that by us looking with depth and breadth at culture and lifestyle [rather than just focusing on the rational category insights] we’ve been able to positively differentiate Taj from the competition whilst also building real emotional connection with their clientele … an emotional connection that has real premium, long-term value as opposed to nano-innovations that can [and are] quickly duplicated and undervalued.

I am very proud of the work we did on this assignment [especially the ‘family’ part of the brief] and the reason for that is because we came up with a genuine idea that MADE things happen rather than do an ad that might make things happen.

I’ve said this a million times before but my issue with adland is that quite often, they think an ad is the solution … rather than a bona-fide idea.

My view is if you really spend time finding out what will motivate the masses to fulfil your clients needs [because it fundamentally addresses an emotional requirement they were unable to articulate or realise] … then it will naturally result in the development of ideas that do not rely on advertising for anything other than to publicise the solution to the wider community.

For me advertising has become a passive industry and that’s a shame because it still holds some of the most ingenious, creative minds around … and I just hope that currency of communication goes back to what it once was, PRACTICAL IMAGINATION … because when that happens, great things will happen.

Sorry for the long, preachy post … this has just been something that’s been bothering me for some time. 

28 Comments so far
Leave a comment

thanks for this post rob, i was finding it hard to get to sleep. 🙂

Comment by andy@cynic

George will be very happy you’re back on the more serious posts and what a post this is. I love the work you did for Taj and I hope loads of young advertising people read this so they can appreciate why you keep saying communication must play an active role rather than a passive.
Brilliant, it’s nice to have you back and I hope you had a wonderful time with your Mum.

Comment by Pete

Andy, are you alright?

Comment by fredrik sarnblad

Brilliant post Rob. While monogram pillowcases irritates me and your profiling of people who are attracted to this sort of thing is 100% true, I sadly think there are enough of those sad people around to justify the poncey pillowcases; it seems the logical thing to do for the RC managers making the decision. Because unlike The Taj Group who appreciates the importance of understanding travelers on a deeper level than status [and planning that can unlock this], Ritz-Carlton’s view of human motivation in their business space is stuck in the functional “features trap”, all wrapped up in status clichés. Their view isn’t broad enough to see beyond themselves and their product. This forces them into an area where these short term “extra blade” solutions is the only thing they can think of. It’s a treadmill race nobody can ultimately win. What’s next…monogram-tattooed hookers? I’m staying with Taj.

Comment by fredrik sarnblad

I think the KL Ritz Carlton is in competition with the Bangkok Carlton – remember this Freddie?

Comment by Rob

i can only add a stupid comment to this one, given i’m hardly target market. in fact the only time i’ve stayed in a swanky hotel was when i was given a night’s stay as a present for my 20th birthday. the memorable bits were: swimming in the pool after midnight, the great breakfast and jumping up and down on the bed in complimentary dressing gowns, which we considered stealing. (the gowns, not the bed)
i’d love to see a DM campaign featuring proper hand-written letters like it was from your grand aunty, inviting you to stay at their place on your holidays and to make yourself at home.

Comment by lauren

I like the DM idea you have Lauren – but who would you be targeting with it, surely not business people – unless their Grand Aunty is some hot Swedish bloke/woman who is offering a body-to-body massage.

Comment by Rob

weren’t you targeting the the wives of said business people? those who want to be able to stay in something like the family stately mansion, with space to move but still enjoy meals and a swim in great aunty’s pool together, and have great aunty’s staff take care of the kids sometimes. like access to a ‘summer palace’ in every country : ‘away from home’, still associated with ‘family bling’..

i’m not talking my great aunt, i’m talking queen margaret type great aunt.

Comment by lauren

You see, the devil is in the detail Lauren …

And who the fuck is QUEEN MARGARET????

Comment by Robert


Comment by Marcus

Wonder what you presented to them or ‘to who’ for them to install jammers in 4 hotels.

Neat strategy – Luxury should never be standard![ as its core to their product]

Comment by bhaskar

i meant PRINCESS margaret…. hey, i’m trying really hard to not swear this week, give me a break if i use queen instead of princess. 🙂

Comment by lauren

That’s really fucking good. Thanks for the run through of how you got there – very interesting.

Comment by Will

That pillowcase is plain over the top. As if they are trying to out-extravagant each other without understanding why.

Comment by Rob Mortimer

Hi there Bhaskar …

Trust me, if you have a specific business goal to achieve and have an insight that is both validated and cultural [not just category] you’d be amazed how many ‘ideas’ you can get through that aren’t primarily based on a traditional ad.

And Will, it’s bloody great to know you’re alive.

Comment by Rob

I like this post very much.
Speaking from the cheap seats, there’s nothing worse than checking in to a mid-price hotel. You’ve travelled a fair bit, you’re tired, grumpy, ready for a showere, probably in a rush. And then you see the line of 20 harrased indivuals wanting to check in too.
And the same thing happens checking out.
Doesn’t matter how good everything else was, as a species we always remember the start and the end.
No frills may be good when it comes to not paying for a breakfast you don’t want, but no one wants to give up too much time….
The great unwashed jobsworths have spoken.

Comment by NP

Yes Rob, I remember that Bangkok trip very well. Especially the extravagant buffets [breakfast, lunch and dinner].

Comment by fredrik sarnblad

Clients who accept analysis and insight as a way to affect their business rather than just the communication. That’s the way forward. It’s the product stupid! You can’t replicate unique and different buildings. And any communication falls down if the experience doesn’t match the promise.

Bit harsh on the KL hotel though – everyone knows the robes are rewards for a certain level of guest behaviour and decorum ;O)

Comment by John

Thanks for making me look a total fucking privalidged whining bastard NP. Andy will be proud … and John, I’d of thought you’d like the Ritz Carlton in KL for more than just the robes and pillowcases – but because it is in the Russian Prostitute part of town.

Your reputation is going great guns since you met me isn’t it, hahaha!

Comment by Rob

Wait till Andy realises no one has talked about the creative and only the mobile blocking idea. 🙂

Comment by George

Ooooooh you bitch George. Well done, ha!

Talking of living the life of luxury, how was your weekend of billionaire lifestyle? Actually don’t tell me, I’d rather live in ignorance.

Comment by Rob

I don’t really care you would rather live in ignorance Robert, I’m going to tell you all every single detail and ensure annoying levels of jealous-inducing intricacy.

Comment by George

This is great stuff Rob, really interesting, more please.

Comment by Lee Hill

Finally a post I don’t mind a client reading. Hello Lee, see you in a few hours.

Comment by George

you wimp george. youre phones not on so if youre reading this, ill meet you there.

Comment by andy@cynic

Ok, I don’t have kids, but since living in la la land my life has become extremely hectic. My phone rings constantly, and my husband and I sometimes both work from home, and I know I sounds wanky, but we often email each other rather than talking. It is just easier.

Now when I read your post Rob about a hotel where your phone can’t ring I thought – how horrible. But after thinking about it for all of 30 seconds, I love it. I think this appeals to your target audience, but also to working mothers/wives whose hours extend beyond 9 to 5 and feel guilty that they aren’t able to create the perfect nest at home for their nuclear family, or even a nuclear family.

However, back when I used to work for a tree hugging organisation we used to stay in places like this all the time for work conferences. Admittedly they weren’t 5 star and were more like a commune and set in the wilderness, but there was never any phone or internet access and this forced isolation meant we got a lot done and also got to know each other better.

Comment by Jade

[…] I did something years ago for a hotel group based on this very issue, but I guess the real insight here is that nothing makes you see something like having it taken […]

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