Westin Hotels & Resorts used to do a fair amount of TV advertising, but in the last year or so, the company has funneled more money into ambient advertising, a medium that seems well suited to an upscale hotel chain. Some of Westin’s efforts include distributing its Heavenly blankets and pillows to United Airlines’ p.s. (premium service) customers and wrapping the interiors of shuttle trains in New York’s Grand Central Terminal with 360-degree scenes of scuba diving and lush rainforests. Sue Brush, Westin’s svp, said she is planning on other changes in Westin’s media mix in 2009, including more online spending and a shift from glossy magazines to newspapers, all in an attempt to drive home a value message to new and existing consumers. All of this comes, of course, as the travel industry is on the forefront of the down economy. Brush recently spoke with Brandweek about the changes. Some excerpts are below:
Brandweek: Since you’ve been in the business for a while, could you say whether these economic conditions are unprecedented or whether you’ve seen this before?
Sue Brush: I feel they are unprecedented, but at the same time, as in all situations, it brings an opportunity and so I think we’re pretty cautiously optimistic that the need for human interaction and travel is going to continue and has the potential of even increasing.
BW: How is your consumer business? It seems like travel and vacations are the first things that people cut.
SB: I’m not sure they cut them, I think they change them. We see people taking shorter trips closer to home. I was looking at some reservations this weekend in Savannah [Ga.] and that was totally booked, so I think people are still traveling and you need to feel good about yourself in tough economic times, and travel and seeing loved ones is very important.
BW: Do you see consumers getting more price-focused?
SB: No, we’re in what’s called the ‘upper upscale sector’ and we’re sort of at the top of that, so we’re right below luxury. And we feel that’s a great place to be. Because, in that white space, people are looking for value and they want to make sure they get it, but they want to make sure they get their money’s worth. So for Westin, we’ve been working for a couple of years on investing in our brand to really create those experiences that create loyalty, so when you have a downturn our guests aren’t willing to give up on their favorite brand, Westin. That’s why we have the best bed in the business which is the Heavenly Bed. We’ve got the Heavenly Shower. [And,] we’ve got the Westin Workout, so that at every touchpoint we have really invested to make sure we’re offering the best value and the best memorable experience we can, and so that will help us offset that in a down economy.
BW: What kind of media mix do you use to reach those customers?
SB: We’ve been shifting the last couple of years to online and I see that continuing in ’09. We love online because it is a way for our guests to engage and really get a sense of the Westin experience. It’s also very measurable and targeted. We know that the returns are good and it definitely works. Beyond that we see emphasis on driving incremental revenues from our frequent guests. If we’re going to have fewer guests, we’re going to focus on those we have, really convince them of the value of staying Westin and using the hotel service and then, while they’re there, selling them on the value of a leisure stay at Westin. And I think we’ll see a shift away from high-gloss magazines to more tactical newspaper advertising, again driving a value message versus a discount message.
BW: What about TV?
SB: In the past we have [advertised on TV]. In 2006 we had heavy concentration in TV; then, in ’07 and ’08, we changed that to focus on high-impact ambient advertising where we did the station domination at airports and we’re now doing the red carpet lounges at United Airlines putting our blankets and pillows, all things to get that message to potential guests, to generate trial.
BW: What’s the main appeal of ambient advertising?
SB: It’s high-impact and it’s not really done that much in our industry.