Being Beta

Exercises in the higher banter with One of 26. Elsewhere called 'poet of adland'. By a whipple-squeezer. Find out why being beta is the new alpha: betarish at googlemail dot com

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Commercial: What a lodge of rubbish

To Edinburgh this past weekend, for a stag night. And while all of that side of the witchery was fine, what was less compulsively brilliant was the standard of accommodation available.

Travelodge – along with other ‘budget’ accommodation brands such as Hotel Ibis and Premier Travel Inn – has been one of the more quietly successful brands in the UK of the last ten years or so. Tapping into the burgeoning markets for both more leisure travel (more weekends away, pre-wedding trips) and cost conscious business travel, these brands have carved out a mid-to-low level market positioning, between the traditional hotel chains and the budget B&Bs. Farewell Mr Hilton and Mrs Guest House, and instead welcome to the standardised, cheap staying away experience popularised by American motel chains. Rare now is the town or city centre which lacks one of these establishments, and they’re almost as common at motorway junctions, airports and exhibition centres.

Broadly, they all deliver exactly what they claim too. They have rooms with beds which, while not the depths of luxury, are perfectly restful. They have en suite bathrooms, TVs, kettles, linen, even some tea and coffee. For the price these rooms are (£66 for a city centre location on this trip), they are fine.

‘Fine’, however, masks a multitude of sins. An accumulation of tiny but telling details noticed during the Travelodge stay suggested that, however much the value element of the offer is to the fore, it won’t be enough to forgive a diminution in quality elsewhere.

So (and most egregious of all) the shower curtain in the bathroom didn’t reach to the floor, meaning that you stepped out of the less-than-powerful shower on to a bathroom floor awash with water. Of course there were no bathmats to soak the overflow up. The teabags produced an undrinkable liquid, suggesting that they had been there a while. A request for an extra duvet disappeared into the ether. We discovered that if you didn’t let in housekeeping when they wanted, you would be stuck with damp towels for the rest of the day. And even the receipt looked like that of a cowboy guest house, printed on a sheet of paper that had seen better days, sans logo, font and design.

Why does this matter? After all, we travelled knowing that it was a Travelodge, and not expecting the pampering of a Ritz-Carlton. The trouble is though, three things set an expectation that the experience was then less able to deliver:

1) A stay at one of their competitors: last year Hotel Ibis were able to provide a room in central Birmingham with a better level of finish – including a shower curtain that worked – for the same price of £66. If Ibis can, why can’t Travelodge?

2) Catching an interview with Travelodge’s chief executive which, if not smug, was certainly complacent. He was right that Travelodge has effectively become the generic brand in the sector, but that doesn’t automatically translate into continued leadership in the sector. And while doing the basics might be fine, if others are doing the small, incidental details of the experience better – and for the same price - then they need to be thinking whether it’s worth sacrificing some of their margins. After all it’s the smaller things which mean that I will not use Travelodge again in a hurry.

3) The Travelodge tone of voice: not so much an expectation setter, but certainly an exercise in tooth grinding patronising. For example, taken from the document that awaits you when you first get in your room:

Q: The tea and coffee tray – no teapot or biscuits?
A: No, again to keep costs down. You can make a decent cup of tea by sticking the tea-bag in the mug (indeed most people never make tea any other way!) so why incur the cost of a teapot?

Where to start with that? The assumption that you need to be told how to make a cup of tea? The utterly unprovable assertion that this is the way to do it, and the implication that a teapot makes you some kind of upper middle class, hoity-toity snob who can’t slum it in the real world? The whole document drones on and on and on about cost, and how the room is such great value. Which is fine. Except that: a) you know this already, having booked the room and b) don’t Travelodge offer anything else at all except a focus on price?

Clearly the answer is no. And that’s a worryingly short-term focus for them. Part of the problem appears to be the brand’s private equity ownership, which does obviously help with a ruthless focusing on the bottom line, but is less useful when it comes to brand investment. Trouble is, if their competitors are offering a better experience for the same price, there’s no equity or emotional resonance in the brand to keep customers. It’s the ultimate trap for value-based brands, and one that Travelodge appear to be falling into.

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