Industry Update
Opinion Article 2 July 2020

Do Not Let Covid Infect Your Brand

By Keith Kefgen, Managing Director & CEO at AETHOS Consulting Group

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The first thing that came to mind when Marriott International furloughed two-thirds of its corporate and property staff was - Is this going to severely impact the Marriott brand and the relationship with their most important asset: PEOPLE. Many blue-chip companies in hospitality, gaming and travel followed suit. These same companies have spent untold millions over the past decade building both a customer and an employment brand. Would their reputation be severely impacted in ninety days? I sought the expertise of my friend Anshuma Lal, founder of branding agency Human Made NY, to weigh in on the issue. Here is what she had to say:

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"Maybe it's best to start with what brand integrity is not. It is not muddling the truth. And it certainly is not communicating one thing and doing another. People do not expect companies to be perfect. In fact, you may be surprised to know that it is not your low pricing or superior product that keeps your customers coming back. Or the perks you provide as an employer that keep your staff from jumping ship. It's your ability to maintain authenticity, transparency, and sincerity that elicits loyalty. During these unprecedented times, a company's effectiveness in exercising these values will directly determine how well they weather the storm."

Anshuma's comments hit home as some hospitality leaders such as Arne Sorenson at Marriott, Danny Meyer at Union Square Hospitality, Chris Nasetta at Hilton and Matt Maddox at Wynn have done an admirable job of staying true to their brands in the face of the pandemic. Below are more specific examples of how they have been maintaining brand integrity and consequently customer and employee loyalty.

Be Informed

Marriott put CEO Arne Sorenson front and centre in a corporate video where he laid out the facts about the COVID-19 impact on his company and the industry. Furloughing two-thirds of Marriott's workforce was a painful decision but he was honest and decisive. He also shared how he sought the advice of numerous experts and shared timely facts about the industry-wide shut down. It was difficult but heartfelt.

During a time of great uncertainty, employees and customers do not need opinions; they need accurate and up-to-date information. Hire or seek the advice of experts in the relevant areas of concern. In this case, infectious disease specialists, labour relations/law experts, communications professionals, virus disinfection & sanitation services. Like Arne, gather a well-rounded group of advisors.

Tell the Truth

When Danny Meyer at Union Square Hospitality laid off 2,000 associates, he said it was a tough but straightforward decision. In his interview on the Masters of Scale Podcast he laid out his thoughts in greater detail. He brought his team together via technology and told them the following hard truths about closing his restaurants:

  1. It could be dangerous for them to come to work.
  2. There was no work.
  3. The only way there would be work for them in the future was to keep the business alive and kicking.
  4. There were programs in place such as unemployment that his team could tap into and that he would help them access these programs.

It may not be easy, but telling the truth is always better than communicating a misinformed and unrealistic picture. This is what plagues President Trump as he is constantly backtracking on pandemic comments that prove to be erroneous.

Show Compassion

For example, Hilton donated rooms to help healthcare and essential workers have a comfortable place to stay. They also provided free vacations to workers after the pandemic subsides. Many other hotel companies followed suit. Las Vegas Sands has been at the forefront of keeping employees on staff and paid.

There is no better way to support your staff than to keep them paid and engaged. If you can't, donate what you can. This will be over at some point and people will remember how leadership acted during the crisis. Remember that you are part of a community and both friends and foes are watching. The pandemic has inflicted a great deal of pain world-over with people losing livelihoods and loved-ones. Speak and act with acute sensitivity that empathizes and resonates. The key is to keep your humanity.

Deliver

Matt Maddox at Wynn Resorts put out a 36-page how-to strategy for re-opening a casino resort. He has shared that strategy with everyone to replicate and refine.

Take authentic action to help and execute. Everyone is better off when you deliver on your promises. This is a precarious time to be a leader and a business owner, so even small wins are better than loses. Collaboration is also critical. Support the AHLA, NRA and AGA and their efforts to help the entire industry recover.

Thoughtfully Innovate

Hilton created CleanStay in collaboration with the maker of Lysol and the Mayo Clinic. They are developing processes and training to make rooms cleaner and safer when the economy reopens. Numerous other companies and the AHLA has developed similar protocols.

Safety is too important to the entire world and these companies are sharing their programs for the betterment of all people. The world has changed, and we need to change with it. As always, innovations will be the key to progress. Let the past be a reference but not an impediment to advancement.

Brands are a fragile balance of many inputs and they need constant reinforcement. More so during difficult times. Use your brand pillars to guide your decision making and you stand a better chance of coming out on the other side with your brand integrity intact.

Keith Kefgen

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