Where are all the good hotels?

Hotel brands had the chance to be the heroes of the COVID-19 pandemic – so why didn’t they step up?

 When it started back in late March, Project Roomkey seemed like it would be a great opportunity to correct some of the inequities Californians faced in the COVID-19 crisis. The program, launched by Governor Gavin Newsom and administered by the counties of California, sought to take unhoused citizens most at risk for catching COVID and placing them temporarily in hotels throughout the state. At its face, the project seemed like it was a fairly sensible approach to mitigating two major impacts of the crisis: a rise in homelessness in an already terribly unequal economy, and a virtual shutdown in tourism.

But this week, the program began to wind down after ultimately failing to get support from most major hotels. And one major culprit? Poor brand strategy.

A recent report by the city of LA’s chief analyst detailed the reasons hotel managers gave for not participating in the program. The reasons given were pretty bald-faced –  the Doubletree said that “ownership had issues with participating.” For the Biltmore, “a company that represents a major portion of their business objected to Project Roomkey participation, and threatened to pull their business with the hotel.” And the Omni “expressed concern about impact on the brand.”

The Loew’s Hollywood went so far as to shutdown entirely rather than participate in the program. It should be said, turning down guaranteed income and laying off your staff just so you don’t have to serve the poor is a really dumb idea.

In San Francisco, the city government has had better luck securing hotels, but often under one suspicious proviso – that they take steps to prevent the hotel names from being publicized. Apparently, these companies were happy to participate, just as long as no one found out.

All of this begs the question – why don’t any of these companies want to be seen stepping up and doing the right thing? After all, 71% of consumers prefer buying from brands that share their values, and a pretty good way to show that you’re not just a heartless corporation is to give some alms for the goddamned poor. Not to mention, they’d be getting paid for full occupancy at a time when basically no one is travelling.

The answer is disappointingly obvious. The hospitality industry is built on prestige, and hoteliers are worried that if they put poor people in their beds, rich people won’t want to sleep in them when this is all over.

This is, of course, bullshit. For one, we will have eaten the rich by the time we get out of this crisis, so their patronage will be largely irrelevant. But more importantly, if your brand depends so much on its exclusivity that it can be undone by a few months of pivoting to help save the community during a once-in-a-century crisis, it’s not a brand, it’s a con.

I should know. Before I got into marketing, I spent four years as a Guest Experience Auditor for brands like the Ritz Carlton (who refused to participate in Project Roomkey because their downtown location has “too many access points”). The job was basically to act like a secret shopper – staying in the rooms, dining in the restaurants, and making sure the brand was being represented appropriately across the country. Not a bad post-college gig!

But having never stayed in fancy 5-star places like this, I quickly learned something. After spending one night at the regular old Marriott, and then my next night at the Ritz, it became pretty clear – there’s basically no difference. Both are owned by the same company, and have the same standards pretty much across the board. The Ritz, however, has nicer shampoo. And more flowers in the lobby. And it costs $300-$500 more a night.

What you largely are paying for when you choose the premiere brand is this ephemeral feeling of luxury – you walk in the hotel for the first time and the front desk associate greets you with a “Hello, Mr. Shapiro.” She already knows your name, like you are a much-anticipated foreign dignitary. But it’s a hollow luxury – she only knows your name because it was radioed to her from the valet as you arrived at the gate. It doesn’t take long to see the seams in their curtain – it’s not elegance, it’s a parlor trick.

The Ritz, and these other prestige brands, are banking on the fact that you don’t notice that they’re selling you a dream. And they’re petrified that if they use their resources to help the neediest when that help is most necessary, their core consumers will wake up from that dream.

But that’s a bad bet, because it misunderstands the basic principles of what a brand is. As noted marketing strategist Marty Neumeier says, “A brand isn’t what you say it is. It’s what they say it is.” And if you’re so worried about getting a few bindles too close to your wine cellar, you might not hear everyone else saying “Boy, those guys are some real assholes.”

To be sure, the blame for the failure of Project Roomkey doesn’t rest entirely on the hotels. Local governments have always come up short in how they deal with the homeless, and convincing unhoused residents to enter into a new, untested program is not an easy task. But these hotel brands had the opportunity to actually do good for their community and didn’t take it. And that will not soon be forgotten.

One Comment

  1. Hi great rreading your post

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