Having integrated Le Méridien into the Starwood Group, Eva Ziegler is now targeting "the creative guest". She is delivering a range of chic, cultured hotels as part of an extensive rebranding exercise. She tells Phin Foster about her new vision for the hotel industry.
On 1 November 2006, one year on from its acquisition by Starwood Hotels, California hosted Le Méridien’s worldwide relaunch. Acclaimed lighting designer Thierry Dreyfus’ reimagining of the 24-storey Le Méridien San Francisco as a tower of Mondrian-inspired light and colour did more than slow traffic; it helped illuminate an entirely new brand direction.
Although the Dreyfus alliance was conceived by Palais de Tokyo museum founder and recently appointed Le Méridien cultural curator Jérôme Sans, one could argue that Eva Ziegler was the evening’s real star.
The senior vice president for Le Méridien, Ziegler is responsible for overall marketing and operations leadership worldwide, and has been particularly active in communicating and executing the brand vision across more than 120 hotels in 52 countries. Innovations such as the appointment of Sans reflect the direction in which she is taking the chain.
Despite experience with a host of Fortune 500 companies, and her appointment in March 2006 following hot on the heels of the successful launch of the Rendez-Vous Toyota European brand experience centre on the Champs Élysées, Le Méridien is Ziegler’s first position within the hospitality industry.
PF: You have described yourself as a "non-hotel person". Has this been a help or a hindrance during your first year in the role?
EZ: Arriving from the outside certainly gives you a fresh perspective, but there are truisms that apply regardless of the industry. One must understand one’s audience. Who are the guests? What are their needs? How best can you make an emotional connection?
My experience with Toyota on the Champs Élysées was an extremely good grounding because there I had been creating a brand experience that was very much three-dimensional. That had also been about generating a particular experience and feel.
PF: So what appealed about the role with Le Méridien?
EZ: From a marketing perspective it was enormously interesting. Starwood has given itself the mission of transforming the hotel industry from a functional business to a branding business. That is what I have been doing for the last 15 years and there are not many opportunities for participating in such a largescale transformation. Being part of a company looking to change an entire industry is almost unique.
PF: Is the hospitality industry an exciting place to be in general?
EZ: Yes. The hotel business offers countless opportunities to make an impact, to make a difference and to differentiate. If you look at the guest experience, it has so many touch points and can last for one, two or three days. Compared with the consumption of a bottle of soda, one has much more scope for making a lasting impression.
PF: How has the brand moved on since Starwood’s takeover?
EZ: When I look at how much has been done over the last year it seems unbelievable. The first four and a half months were dedicated to integrating the processes and systems of Le Méridien with those of Starwood. Things like call centre structures being transferred and bringing Le Méridien’s standalone website under the company umbrella. The Moments Members scheme was transformed into the Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) programme, enabling access to its entire global portfolio.
The integration of these processes gave Le Méridien a backbone and a base of operations that the brand had never had before. We saw increases on SPG of 200% compared with March to December 2005, as well as the same increase in terms of revenue generated. The impact has been huge.
PF: Does Le Méridien stand for the same principles as it did before its 2005 takeover?
EZ: No, we repositioned the brand. At Starwood, there has been a move to encapsulate each member of its portfolio in three core values, finding three words that can distinguish each brand. For Le Méridien, these are "chic", "cultured" and "discovery".
Chic captures the style of Le Méridien: a sophisticated, subtle, forward-looking approach. Cultured is very much the content of the brand, based around the four passion points of art, architecture, cuisine and fashion. Discovery refers to the benefits for the customer, but we take it beyond the strict interpretation of the word – discovery of a new destination – and make it about providing a new pair of eyes.
PF: How is this achieved?
EZ: I believe that hiring Jérôme Sans is a major part of that. We said we wanted to provide an experience based around culture. There was a need to make this relevant and credible to the core audience that we’d defined – "the creative guest".
However, for the execution we needed an expert; it was not something that we could do by ourselves. Jérôme has helped to define these cultural experiences: suggesting partnerships, bringing people in who can push it forward, and so on. His presence guarantees content that’s relevant, ensures that it’s presented in a way that is chic and provides a new pair of eyes. With the Paris de Tokyo Museum, Jérôme redefined the concept of a contemporary art institution. We believe he’ll have a similar impact at Le Méridien.
PF: Tell me about this creative guest.
EZ: The creative guest is an individualistic person who is curious by nature and interested in learning something new. He or she is also well travelled, so you cannot give them a sterilized experience that perhaps some other chains are pursuing. We must stimulate our guests’ passion for art and culture by providing experiences that inspire and stimulate them.
PF: Does the brand have to evolve alongside the guest?
EZ: A brand is never something static. It should never simply be defined, executed and then remain the same for the next 30 years. It has to evolve with the trends and reflect social and cultural developments.
However, the really big consumer trends don’t change within months. There is a base out there that is curious and eager to learn something new. There is also a real movement towards well-being and belonging, which other Starwood brands tap into – well-being reflects Westin, while belonging is a core principle at Sheraton. These are big trends that will remain for a long time and can be approached accordingly.
PF: In approaching the rebranding, how much consultation has there been with individual managers?
EZ: A vital component of brand development is ensuring it’s not done in isolation. We have formed an advisory board, working alongside ten to 15 top Méridien general managers as we define the strategy, positioning, audience, look and feel of the brand.
This was not a one-off meeting where we spoke briefly and then said "thank you very much". We are meeting regularly as well as having monthly conference calls.
PF: Do you think the hotel industry has been slow in recognising the importance of brand positioning?
EZ: At some point an industry will find itself in a position where, from a functional perspective, one cannot differentiate between separate brands anymore because imitation is so prevalent and quick. It then comes down to price wars and will eventually eat into profit margins.
A fundamental question arises: how do we survive? In order to get out of this purely functional, price-driven approach, you need to offer something different, something of added value, something to emotionally connect with what you desire. Once created, you’re offering something that cannot be copied so easily and gives you a unique positioning within the market.
It is about becoming inimitable. Starwood started along this course two and a half years ago and more and more brands are starting to tap into the importance of identity. That can only be a good thing.