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Breaking Travel News Interview: Hoyt Harper, SVP brand management, Sheraton

Breaking Travel News Interview: Hoyt Harper, SVP brand management, Sheraton

Sheraton is continuing to invest heavily in new hotels and the refurbishment of existing properties, despite the economic downturn. Global brand leader Hoyt Harper sits down with Breaking Travel News for a spot of tea at the Sheraton Park Lane, to discuss the brand’s recent USD$6 billion revitalisation effort and further expansion plans, which include building the world’s biggest Sheraton, tapping into the Chinese outbound market, and identifying a new property in London.

Breaking Travel News: As part of Sheraton’s USD$6 billion revitalisation you have been focusing on fitness for guests. Why do you consider this to be such an important area?

Hoyt Harper: 62% of our customers said that staying fit while they travel was very important to them. We went beyond just putting equipment in a room. We have made out fitness facilities larger and brighter using state of the art equipment. We have partnered with Core Fitness, which specialises in training elite professional athletes. They are applying their knowledge to help our guests perform at their best while travelling.  It focuses on four principles: mindset, nutrition, movement and recovery.

One Spa Gym at the newly rennovated Sheraton Grand Hotel in Edinburgh

Today our restaurant offers healthy dining options and guests have the option of creating their own personal workout. Meeting planners are incorporating tips provided by Core Fitness. We have created a website at to share this information for guests.

BTN: In what ways are you tapping into the spa market?

HH: Another trend in the market is the development of urban spas. Of our 418 hotels, 182 have spas. Business and leisure travellers are taking advantage of these.

BTN: Which other traveller trends have you noticed?

HH: More and more business travellers are mixing business with leisure. They will come for business and stay for pleasure. They will travel with a significant other. So having facilities on site – such as our new urban spas – is something special.

The swanky reception at the Sheraton Grand in Edinburgh

BTN How has Sheraton been impacted by the economic downturn?

HH: When we began our revitalisation effort the internal message from out COO was: “Own the upswing: We’re going to renovate during the down period and then be ready to capture more than our fair share of the market upon its return”.

The strategy has paid off brilliantly. We have seen a consistent upgrade in customer satisfaction and loyalty. One of the key metrics we look at is likelihood to recommend, especially in today’s world with social media. We have finished 2011 with our highest scores ever in terms of guest satisfaction, which includes likelihood to return to the hotel or brand and likelihood to recommend. These are the results we are able to gauge from a post-stay survey.

The Sheraton Macau

BTN: What is your vision for the Sheraton brand?

HH: Sheraton represents 50% of all Starwood rooms worldwide and we enjoy the largest development pipeline. The vision for the Sheraton brand is to continue to lead Starwood in global growth and market share gain and to position hotels everywhere affluent travellers wish to stay. By doing so we lay groundwork for our other brands to follow.

Sheraton was the first international hotel brand in China, the Middle East and South America. In every one of those markets Sheraton is still highly visible and highly regarded and has allowed us to bring in other Starwood brands including the W, Westin and Le Meridien.

The Sheraton Oman

BTN: Where are you looking next for new hotels?

HH: We are looking aggressively at where we can expand in the UK and there is still room for another Sheraton in London. We have good representation from other Starwood brands but we’d like to see another Sheraton here.

And we recently opened in Madrid. So we have plans to continue to grow in emerging markets and international resort destinations and key urban markets.

BTN: Where in London are you considering?

We are looking for the right location with the right partners and the right development opportunity. I couldn’t say specifically but we’re out there looking.

BTN: What is the Sheraton pipeline?

We have opened three hotels this year, including Madrid, and we will open an additional 20 hotels this year, including the largest Sheraton in the world– half of which will be in China. We will be opening in India, Australia, Eastern Europe, the US and Canada. They spread across the globe. It will create an additional 12,000 guest rooms to go with our 148,000.

Sheraton Oman

BTN: Where does China fit in to your plans?

HH: By 2015 it is projected there will be 100 million outbound travellers from China and we believe that when they travel abroad they will stay with brands they know. We believe Sheraton specifically and Starwood in general – given our strong presence in China - will get there fair share of business. Sheraton brand has 51 hotels open with 56 in development in China.

BTN: How will you make these travellers feel at home?

It starts with basic language – we have established a call centre in China, we have built a Chinese language website and we are working with all of the travel agencies and meeting planners. At the hotel level we are actively hiring Chinese speaking associates around the world with training in place to understand cultural differences as well as dietary requirements. Over the next 2 or 3 years you will see us gear up for this.

BTN: What is the key to your ongoing success?

HH: Sheraton has been in the market since 1937. Our global footprint is key to our success. As business and leisure travel becomes more global, we are well positioned in the marketplace. There is great brand association and we have a history of providing great hospitality. As we look ahead with a Starwood focus on innovation and applying consumer insights to deliver more personalised service, we believe we will continue to lead.

We have been successful at making positive connections with our customers. We call Sheraton ‘the world’s gathering place’. It’s a brand that transcends your reason to travel. In addition to business and leisure travellers we cater to big groups including weddings and hosting summits.

The lobby at the Sheraton Grand Edingburgh - making people feel at home

We position Sheraton from a design perspective as luxury without the pretence – people feel comfortable coming as they are. The brand needs to have broad appeal. In each hotel we have a common design sensibility and yet we want our designs to be locally relevant. We want our core signature items to resonate everywhere you go.

BTN: What are the top items today’s travellers are looking for?
HH: 1. First and foremost a great guestroom and a great bed.
2. Feeling as though they belong.
3. Feeling that someone is paying attention to travellers needs.
4. The ability to be productive.
5. Creating a sense of social environment – a place where guests can interact, whether it is online or face to face.
Those things make an emotional connection with out customers and by doing so we gain their loyalty and trust and they come back.

Castle View Room at the Sheraton Grand in Edinburgh

BTN: Since you began your career in the travel and tourism industry 30 years ago, in what ways have these aspects of the traveller experiences changed?

HH: Travel has changed dramatically. I remember when I first started in Sheraton 21 years ago. You would go to a hotel room and have a better television experience than you could get at home with movies and a broad range of channels. But in today’s world you have a better variety at home.

Hotels weren’t just a place to sleep; they were a place to dine and to be entertained. And we are bringing a lot of that back today. In the traditional markets today, the idea of eating in a hotel has become less glamorous. In the emerging markets it’s the opposite. We have four or five outlets in our hotels in China and India and the Middle East because hotels are still the key place to dine for hotels and beverages.

There are more branded hotels today than there were 20 years ago which has given customers confidence that wherever they travel they will find a hotel they are familiar with. Customers have much more information at there fingertips than they did before. But despite that, we still believe that a well informed travel agent is still our best friend. Their ability to know our products and recommend us has been a significant benefit.

BTN: How much of your business is booked through agents?

HH: About 1/3 of our business still comes through agents.

BTN: What is the outlook for Sheraton?

HH: Business is picking up. We’re back to pre-recession occupancy levels worldwide. Our rates have been steadily rising since 2009. One benefit of the recession is that there wasn’t a lot of development, so in high demand markets there is still a balance between supply and demand which has helped us stabilise. Our plans to own the upswing have paid off with many of our brands. Our focus on innovative lifestyle brands, differentiate us from each other as well as our competition.