by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | October 10, 2012

Hoyt Harper II of Sheraton HotelsThis year marks the 75 anniversary of Sheraton Hotels & Resorts. From humble beginnings as a single small hotel in Springfield, Mass., Sheraton has become one of the most recognizable brands in the industry, with more than 400 properties in 75 countries and a pipeline that seems to have no end in sight. This overachiever dominates parent company Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide's stable of brands (nine and counting) in terms of sheer revenue growth and portfolio strength. And Sheraton shows no signs of slowing its pace or ceding ground as it continues its aggressive expansion across Asia, and now into Latin America. To reflect on the brand's achievements and get a glimpse of what lies around the corner for the chain, the Hotel Insider sat down with Hoyt Harper II, global brand leader, Sheraton Hotels & Resorts, who oversaw a worldwide $6 billion revitalization effort.

The 321-room Sheraton Huzhou Hot Spring Resort, ChinaQ. "Branding" is a big buzzword in the hotel industry, used with lots of less-than-successful attempts. Why do you think Sheraton was so successful with its branding strategy?

A. We have been making changes in the brand for the past 21 years. Prior to Starwood's acquisition in 1988, there were so many different properties within the Sheraton brand. They came in all sizes and design ranges. It was hard to define, but we knew the opportunity was there to create a distinct brand. It's a process that is never over. We are always looking at the guest experience and working at exceeding it. We want each hotel to be locally relevant, in terms of design aesthetics and local food items on a menu, but we also want to ensure there are brand standards, such as our bed, the Sheraton Sweet Sleeper. That's what the guest expects.

Q. Let's talk about some of those branding initiatives. How do you think they differentiate Sheraton from its competitors?

A. Consistency is very important, but you have to understand your market. For instance, even as we go about doubling our footprint in Asia, where expectations of the brand are very high, we continue to learn as we go, and we adjust for the particular market. For example, the Sheraton Macao Hotel, Cotai Central, is in a gaming destination. But we decided that the design of the hotel would not employ the usual gaming psychology, which is to have the casino front and center. We decided to change that, because we wanted to appeal to and attract the MICE market. The casino at that property is self-contained. You don't have to walk through it to get to the reception desk or the elevator to your room. There is nothing like it anywhere. In the U.S., most of our competitors have de-emphasized their club lounges — they have limited weekday hours, and some are closed down entirely on weekends. Our club lounges are open 24/7. In fact, we invested $120 million in refurbishing them, because our sales people tell us they are very appealing to groups who like to gather in the lounges during the day for small, informal meetings. And at night, they are packed with people networking after the meeting.

Q. Sheraton's expansion rate seems to be moving at Olympic speed. What can we expect to see?

A. Definitely more resorts. Between now and next year, we will be opening 40 new Sheratons globally. Seven of those will be Sheraton-branded resorts, which is almost 20 percent; of those, four will be in China and one will be in Bali.

Q. That's interesting, given that resort properties are frowned upon in the U.S. when paired in the same sentence with "corporate meeting."

A. That's changing. And resorts are a very big market in China and in many parts of Asia.

Q. Sheraton's growth in China has been phenomenal. Starwood even relocated its leadership team there last year for six weeks. Will that continue?

A. Absolutely. Whenever I attend an opening of a Sheraton, at least a dozen prospective investors will approach me with their business cards, asking when will we build a Sheraton in their town or city. And now that we are established in the major gateway cities of China, such as Beijing and Shanghai, the second- and third-tier cities are our primary focus. That's where much of the country's industry, such as its factories, are located. And that is where we are seeing a demand for our product.

Q. Rolling out so many hotels must place a tremendous strain on staffing resources, especially with training.

A. It is definitely a challenge. We invest a tremendous amount of time and resources on training. But what we also try to do is make our employees comfortable, which translates to front-of-the-house. At the Sheraton Macao, we have 22 different nationalities represented, and we work with our human resources on training, which means pairing them with a native speaker. For example, some of the same employees who opened our Great Wall Sheraton Hotel Beijing in 1985 were at the Sheraton Macao helping with training. Having seasoned people there to help them through their opening process establishes a comfort level for our newer employees.