CHICAGO -- In 1986, Holiday Inn told us, "We want you back." In 1997, they said, "We're making every Holiday Inn hotel as good as the best Holiday Inn hotel." And in 2006, they asked us to "Look again."
But surveyed customers said the only things they saw when they looked again were the same tired carpets, chintzy floral bedspreads and rooms just off the highway. Today, Holiday Inn is trying, again, to change.
By the end of this year, franchisees who haven't signed on to a billion-dollar overhaul that began in October 2007 will no longer be able to call their hotels Holiday Inns. The relaunch -- new signs, business traveler-friendly rooms, comfy bedding and a new customer service philosophy -- seeks to do what previous efforts could not: Bring consistency to one of the world's largest and oldest franchised hotel brands.
The undertaking is massive -- thousands of franchisees paying $150,000 to $200,000 per hotel to revamp in one of the worst hotel industry downturns.
"We just hadn't kept up with the brand. We hadn't made it contemporary," said Gina LaBarre, vice president of brand delivery for InterContinental Hotels Group, parent of Holiday Inn.
The most obvious sign that a Holiday Inn has been relaunched is, well, the sign. It features a large green-and-white "H" above the words "Holiday Inn," in a modern font that contrasts with the script-laden signs associated with the company's beginnings a half-century ago. Acknowledged LaBarre, "The worst thing you can do is put up a different sign, and they get in there and nothing has changed."
So far, the relaunch seems to be working. A J.D. Power and Associates survey, done annually, shows leaps in customer satisfaction through June. Those were Holiday Inn's best scores since 2005.
Still, not everyone is impressed. Rob Kantner, 57, president of management consultancy Kantner and Co., in Blanchard, Mich., stays in hotel rooms 150 nights per year. He considers himself a Holiday Inn brand loyalist because he likes the service, but he says the changes are "purely cosmetic."
"This new look, is it some demonstrable leap forward? I wouldn't say that," Kantner said. "You can get into some that are just not good." He said, for example, when he complained that the Internet in his room had gone down, the front desk told him to send his complaint through Holiday Inn's website.
Getting high marks from customers may even be tougher for Holiday Inn because "they've been trying to pull the rabbit out of the hat for a long time, and the challenges that face them are enormous," said Mark Eble, regional vice president of PKF Consulting in Chicago.
If successful, however, Holiday Inn could benefit from the economy. The chain is among several budget-friendly brands looking to cozy up to business travelers, who, because of slashed travel budgets, are downshifting from upscale brands.
"What we normally see in tough economic times is that people economize in lower price points," said John Arabia, senior lodging analyst at Green Street Advisors.
A National Business Travel Association study in 2008 cited the economy as a reason 65 percent of travel managers were encouraging midprice hotels. The hotels have been responding.
Best Western two years ago introduced a niche for business travelers. Super 8, Motel 6 and Red Roof Inn also announced sweeping changes as they try to cater to business travelers, but on eight- to 10-year cycles as opposed to the intense time constraints set by Holiday Inn.
Jim Abrahamson, president of the Americas at Holiday Inn's parent company, said if Holiday Inns were a person, she'd be that reliable, comfortable friend you bump into and wonder if she did something different with her hair.
"We still want to be that midscale hotel, but a better product. ... That older image of Holiday Inn wasn't helping us," said Russell C. John, general manager of the Holiday Inn & Suites Chicago-O'Hare/Rosemont. Renovations of the 300-room hotel were completed in June 2009.
The hotel directly competes with Sheraton, Courtyard by Marriott and SpringHill Suites, John said.
A $135-plus per night Holiday Inn room featured modern amenities: free Internet access, a big flat-screen TV, a desk and large cushy office chair, microwave, refrigerator and coffee maker. An upgraded bathroom boasted granite countertops and Bath and Body Works shampoos and soap, as well as a bowed-out shower curtain for extra elbow room.
Other changes made the room appear more homey: a thick comforter encased in a white duvet, cappuccino-colored carpeting, warm lighting, earth-toned curtains and artwork unique to each room. The old rooms, John said, sported gray and black carpeting, outdated furniture, and white walls that gave them an "institutional" feel.
"You went from a dark, depressed not-so-happy demeanor," John said, "to a bright, refreshed, more lively appearance."