Q&A: Happy Employees Are the Best Brand Advocates, According to Kimpton’s Chief Commercial Officer

'Investing in workplace culture' is in your company's best interest, said Kathleen Reidenbach

Reidenbach will take the stage as a speaker at Challenger Brands: A Brandweek Event, Feb. 6-7, in New York. Kimpton
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Chefs at Kimpton’s boutique hotels are happy to say goodbye to edible dirt, molecular food and activated charcoal. Deconstructed dishes? So 2018. And bartenders at the chain plan to bust out the celery root and tarragon to spice up this year’s cocktails. Those are a few of the findings from the brand’s 2019 trend forecasting report, and one of the ways Kimpton aims to show off its in-house smarts and stay ahead of the hospitality pack.

The San Francisco-bred company may be a millennial darling, but it’s purposely infusing a digital world with personal touches at its 66 hotels and 82 restaurants. “No amount of data and technology can replace human intuition and the value of one-to-one connections,” said Kathleen Reidenbach, the chain’s chief commercial officer, noting that “heartfelt human connections make people’s lives better.”

On the eve of an expected two-year growth spurt for Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, Reidenbach will take the stage as a speaker at Challenger Brands: A Brandweek Event, Feb. 6-7, in New York.

Ahead of that gathering, which will feature C-suite executives from Casper, Hulu, BarkBox, Giphy, Harry’s and other companies, Reidenbach spoke with Adweek about staying true to her challenger roots, staging a room-based social experiment and fostering an inclusive workplace culture.

Adweek: What’s the focus of your “Stay Human” campaign, and what is the brand trying to say—particularly to digital natives—about our tech-heavy environment?
Kathleen Reidenbach: “Stay Human” is a brand campaign inspired by Kimpton’s heartfelt approach to hospitality. It’s grounded in the idea that in our world of rapid innovation and constant technological changes, we’re craving more connections, personalized experiences and touches of humanity. With all the ways we’re able to connect nowadays—texting, emails, social media, to name a few—we’re still somehow disconnected from one other.

"With all the ways we’re able to connect nowadays—texting, emails, social media, to name a few—we’re still somehow disconnected from one other."

Our “Stay Human” campaign is all about treating people like people. It means focusing on what’s most important to Kimpton: delivering a more human experience. We’re strong believers that even in an age of automation and technology, consumers are looking for those immersive and authentic experiences. We seek to foster those connections in our spaces and strive to spark more conversations about the importance of individual expression, community, and the spectrum of the human experience.

How did Room 301 fit into that overall message? How did the experiment go and do you plan to repeat it?
As part of our “Stay Human” campaign, we also launched Kimpton’s first social experiment: Room 301. Room 301 was available for three months at The Everly Hotel in Hollywood and intended to determine what commonalities and connections exist between people who passed through the same space, no matter their background or reason for traveling.

On the surface, the only thing these guests had in common was that they occupied the same physical space at different times. However, we found that the activities in the room (which were designed to be interactive) and the choices the guests made illuminated the surprising ways in which their experiences, aspirations and values both align and diverge.

We’ve been truly moved by what we’ve seen so far and look forward to inspiring more human connections in our spaces. The findings were hilarious, deeply emotional, hopeful and empowering, but above all else, incredibly honest and human. The contributions were unfiltered and unexpected, and we came away from it with a newfound appreciation for our guests. Due to the success of this activation, we’ve created similar experiences at other Kimpton hotels across the country. That’s all I can share at this point, but you can expect more details from Kimpton in the coming months.

Why does trend forecasting make sense for the brand?
Kimpton has always been a trailblazer and a brand that’s chosen to do things a bit differently. To our founder Bill Kimpton, “boutique” meant creating a hotel experience that was more like someone’s livable and stylish home than a big-box, impersonal hotel. Thirty-eight years after our first hotel opened in San Francisco, we still always start from scratch—there’s no “Kimpton in a box.” We take a highly individualized approach to every hotel and look at each market and region with a fresh lens to translate local flavors and designs into eye-opening but approachable experiences. It’s the “hard” way to do it but we wouldn’t have it any other way. We embrace originality and creative thinking, which means our brand takes risks, colors outside the lines, and is willing to evolve to meet our guests (and employees) where they are now.

We’ve also sampled and introduced a number of different trend-bending verticals from music to culinary. For example, we’re heading into our sixth year of our Culinary+Cocktail Trend forecast, a curated list of the flavors, ingredients and dining philosophies that will inspire menus in the year ahead. The trends come from Kimpton chefs, sommeliers, general managers and bartenders in 80-plus Kimpton restaurants and bars. It really serves as an opportunity to showcase the incredible expertise and creativity coming out of our kitchen and bars. We also created our first director of music role at Kimpton to oversee our music programming and explore new creative ways to incorporate music into the guest experience. I also have to mention Ave Bradley, our fearless design leader who’s innovating so quickly in her field and pushing the boundaries of not just boutique design, but hotel and restaurant design at large.

What do you see as your most significant marketing challenge of 2019?
I think our biggest marketing challenge and opportunity is tied to our unprecedented growth. We’re heading into new domestic markets and have a number of exciting international openings over the next two years, including new properties in Taipei, Edinburgh, Grenada and Bali. We’re looking forward to bringing Kimpton to new corners of the globe, but also hyper-focused on scaling that signature Kimpton experience. We’re strong believers that boutique isn’t about size, and that great boutique experiences are grounded in authentic and personal connections. Many hospitality brands can offer a consistent branded experience, but true boutique offerings are guest-driven, open-minded and inspiring.

For Kimpton, there’s never been a formula or rulebook. We don’t checklist our way into delivering a highly personal experience. We take a psychographic lens based on real interests and emotions instead of boiling our guests down to traditional demographics like age, gender and location. We also have a 365-day-a-year love affair with our guests that allows us to develop relationships that go far beyond just a one-night stay at our hotel. We’re intentionally unscripted, and we’ve found that our people are our “secret sauce”—they’re the ones making magic happen every day.

Do you think building a strong workplace culture is even more critical for challenger brands?
Strong workplace culture is becoming table stakes, whether you’re a challenger brand or not. We couldn’t deliver on heartfelt care without an empowered employee base. Culture has always been a huge focus for us. … At Kimpton, we take care to go beyond the “perks.” Amenities and benefits are, of course, important, but too many companies stop there. We really find the biggest differentiator for Kimpton is our commitment to empowerment and servant leadership. We encourage our employees to bring their authentic selves to work and foster a values-based culture that puts a premium on trust and transparency.

"We’ve found that the employees who experience high levels of satisfaction work smarter, harder and take greater pride in a job well done. They’re the ultimate brand advocates."

The good news is that investing in workplace culture is also good for business. We’ve found that the employees who experience high levels of satisfaction work smarter, harder and take greater pride in a job well done. They’re the ultimate brand advocates. We see this every day, and it contributes to our low attrition and growth from within.

What is the toughest aspect of being a challenger brand?
We really see the concept of “challenger brand” as more of a mindset and an approach. Kimpton is technically the original boutique hotel company, but we operate like a challenger brand and don’t rest on our laurels. We’re constantly evolving and continue to define boutique and luxury in our own terms. As challenger brands continue to grow and find success, it’s critical to stay true to your brand values and never lose sight of your mission. It’s easy to lose that edge and sense of identity as you scale, but it’s important to remember that it’s your unique approach that made you successful in the first place. If you act like the rest of the world or the rest of the industry, then you’re not staying true to what made you a challenger from the start. Know your brand values and brand differentiators and never lose sight of them.

@TLStanleyLA terry.stanley@adweek.com T.L. Stanley is a senior editor at Adweek, where she specializes in consumer trends, cannabis marketing, meat alternatives, pop culture, challenger brands and creativity.