Will poor execution of a great offer become a public relations nightmare for Hilton hotels?

This is an example of how the old world of ‘special offers’ with hidden strings attached clashes with the new world of social media where transparency, honesty and engagement rule. It also shows, once again that a one-size-fits-all brand strategy conceived by well meaning executives in one country can backfire on the brand in other locations.

Hilton January sale
At the beginning of January 2010, Hilton Worldwide announced “a global multi-brand wide January Sale. Guests who book hotel rooms in January can save 50 percent off weekend getaways throughout the year at participating hotels in Europe, Middle East, Africa and Asia Pacific.”

“To take advantage of the January Sale, guests can pre-purchase hotel rooms between January 1, 2010 and January 31, 2010 and receive the discounted rate for Friday, Saturday and Sunday night stays throughout 2010.”

Hilton Hotels is making a really big deal of this January sale And so it should, after all 50% off a Hilton room is a significant amount of money. Especially in a recession. But I suspect executives at the head office in Virginia didn’t think it through enough.

After all, whilst January and February may be slow months in the USA and other western countries, it is the busiest time of the year in countries like China, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam as families get ready for the lunar New Year. In other words, peak time and not really the right time to give away hotel rooms at half price!

But anyway, despite my ‘reservations’, and (plot spoiler) they were the only ones I was going to make, when I read the other benefits

– Lazy breakfast until 11am
– Late checkout until 6pm
– Kids stay and eat for free (Terms & conditions apply)

I knew this would be a great offer for me to take advantage of personally. My family had been suggesting a trip to Singapore but I had managed to put them off the idea because of the costs etc. But with rooms at half price, kids eating for free and the late checkout, even I saw this as an excellent opportunity.

3 hour cocktail hour with free flow
Especially as the Hilton, with its great location and attentive and tolerent staff (very important with my family), is our 2nd favourite hotel in Singapore. Did I mention that the cocktail hour on the executive floor lasts for 3 hours of free flow everything?! Well that helps as well.

So, excitedly I called my wife, to see if we had anything on that weekend. Conincidentally, she was going to be in Singapore earlier that week hosting clients at the Singapore air show and could stay on for the weekend. I thought it odd that Hilton would have such an attractive offer at such a peak period but told her I would drive the kids down to Singapore and meet her at the Hilton for the weekend. She was understandably excited. I also sent a text to my teenage daughter who called back immediately and asked excitedly if we could go shopping!

So the family is pumped, now all I have to do is take advantage of the fantastic Hilton offer. For our preferred weekend of 5th – 8th Feb the offer is not available. Hhhmn, OK, never mind, these things happen, especially with the Singapore air show ending on the Thursday.

So I call my wife and teenage daughter again to check availability for weekend of 12th – 15th Feb. Great, they are both free. Unfortunately the special offer isn’t available that weekend either. Now I’m starting to get irritated because this is taking more time than it should but worse, I’m going to get the cold shoulder at home for 2 weeks. I better check availability for other weekends before calling my family. So I check the weekend of 19th – 22nd Feb. Not available. What about the weekend of 29th Jan – 1st Feb? Nope.

As disappointment sets in and I realise the dream of a very affordable weekend at the Singapore Hilton was just that, a dream, I choose some random dates to see if the offer is available at other times. 5th – 8th March, unavailable. 16th – 19th April, unavailable. One last try, 23rd – 26th July, oops, a 404! This is ridiculous, I can’t spend any more time on this.

Social media
At Hilton facebook page, there is more information on the Hilton sale. But further inspection of the dialogue shows that a vast majority of the comments posted by consumers, both existing customers and new prospects, is related to their frustrations and disappointments because they can’t book on the weekends they want! So I’m not the only one!

It is great to see Hilton using social media, not only to announce such initiatives, but also to engage prospects and customers in real time. But the unfortunate Hilton representative responded to 15 or so complaints, all related to lack of availability and then appears to have given up!

Here are 5 things the Hilton should have done to get the most out of this campaign.

1) Understand that we don’t all march to the beat of the US drum. This is not a political statement, but common sense. Chinese New Year is a very busy time of the year for approximately 1.5 billion people in North and South East Asia. Flights and hotels are full.
2) Check local calendars in the countries you offer special offers. The Singapore Air Show sees hotel rack rates as much as double.
3) If you must black out peak dates, do it in a transparent manner, so that prospects and customers are aware at the outset of restrictions and will not be disappointed. Hiding them in T&C doesn’t count.
4) It is no longer enough to announce a great offer and then assume everone will listen, praise the announcer based on the content of the offer only. As Peter Drucker said, “Communication only works from one member of ‘us’ to another.” If the offer doesn’t stack up, consumers will let others know about it and any good can be undone very quickly.
5) Your existing customers are the key to profitability. Make such offers available to them before new customers.

What started as a great offer from a truly global brand soon became a public relations nightmare and the Hilton credibility has suffered as a result.

What do you think?

Retention is key. Low cost carriers must learn from the mistakes of legacy carriers

The legendary Peter Drucker said it best: “The purpose of business is not to make a sale but to make and keep a customer”. This is what branding is about. It’s not about aquisition, it’s about retention. And the airline industry, and in particular, Low Cost Carriers (LCCs) need to realise this soon otherwise they will find it tough to build brands that can compete, long term with the mighty legacy carriers with their frequent flyer programmes, multiple classes, business lounges, inflight entertainment and gourmet food (well some of them).

Most of the LCCs have a price based offering. Being small, they are nimble and more efficient than their lumbering competitors. These young, brash and determined airlines, often helmed by charismatic individuals with little industry experience have ripped up the industry manuals and replaced them with revolutionary business models that charge consumers for peanuts, coffee, noodles, seats, luggage and most recently in the case of Air Asia, a ‘convenience fee’.

According to an official response from the airline to an indignant passenger, this ‘convenience fee’ is “meant to recover costs in implementing, upgrading and maintaining our online payment systems. It is also to enhance security features for credit card payments to give guests a comfortable and safe booking environment.”

You’d be forgiven for thinking that this response, available here in full on malaysiakini.com came from one of those stuffy legacy carriers mentioned earlier. You’d be forgiven too for scoffing at the line, “give guests a comfortable booking environment”. How does charging me more make me more comfortable? You’d also be forgiven for thinking that perhaps the online payment system wasn’t good in the first place and wondering what the implications of that might be.

In the past most airlines, including Air Asia, would have absorbed these costs. I quote again, “However, now that AirAsia is experiencing a rapidly growing number of online transactions, these costs have significantly increased.”

The official response to the complaint goes on to say, “This convenience fee is charged on a per way per guest basis because the costs of these systems are driven by the value of the transaction rather than by the number of transactions. As costs vary per country, the convenience fee also varies.”

The whole process has been dealt with in a manner more suited to one of the aging behemoths than such a young, aggressive and savvy carrier. To me it says that because you, the customer have helped us grow so fast, we’d like to reward you by charging you to use our online booking service. Even though it is automated and therefore doesn’t require the ongoing investment in real estate and talent that a booking office requires, we’re going to make you, the customer pay for it.

The danger here is that Air Asia is making a common legacy carrier, or perhaps I can call it legacy branding, mistake. It is treating passengers as if they are insignificant seat fillers and it is assuming that all passengers are the same, don’t have options and will put up with being treated badly. Irrespective of whether it is the first or fifty first time the passenger is using the airline.

Surely, if a passenger is a long time user of the airline, there will be significant personal data available (and Air Asia offers customers the opportunity to submit a lot of personal, travel and other information) and multiple transactions with that customer mean that the liklihood of fraud is low, should that passenger be treated, and charged, the same as a new customer? And anyway, the burden of fraud is with the Credit Card company and not the carrier, which is why it is the Credit Card company that sometimes calls after you use the card to make a booking.

Unfortunately, because the prevaling attitude in most agencies (and companies) is that acquisition is key, the typical response is yes. And it would seem, based on this episode, that Air Asia agrees with this attitude.

However, FusionBrand has long argued that retention is key to brand building. Although LCC’s have thrown some traditional branding theories out the window with their price driven strategies, you cannot build a long term profitable brand, on acquisition alone. Indeed, a low price strategy that aims to ‘buy’ loyalty can often encourage only disloyalty. That’s because a price driven customer is always looking for a cheaper alternative. And, in the LCC space, will often find it.

This is substantiated in a survey carried out by Sabre Airline Solutions, which found that 86% of airlines believe that customer loyalty and retention will have the most positive impact on their business in 2010.

So my advice to Air Asia and other LCCs is that if you want to become a brand, you must start treating customers with more respect, understand that a low price alone will not build relationships, think carefully about how you communicate with your passengers and remember that the purpose of business is not to make a sale but to make and keep a customer.