Hotels want you to take stuff home

 
LA Times | Travel
 

More times than he can count, Gregory Day has been asked where guests of Shutters on the Beach can buy the rolling shutter doors that inspire his Santa Monica hotel's name. \"I must get 10 requests a week for all kinds of things,\" says Day, general manager of the $500-a-night hotel. \"They wa...

By Valli Herman // 04.18.09
 

More times than he can count, Gregory Day has been asked where guests of Shutters on the Beach can buy the rolling shutter doors that inspire his Santa Monica hotel's name.

"I must get 10 requests a week for all kinds of things," says Day, general manager of the $500-a-night hotel. "They want to know where they can get our light fixtures, the hotel's rental bicycles, the uniforms the staff wears."

Shutters addressed the demand five years ago by launching Shutters Beach Style, a catalog and online boutique offering many of the hotel's distinctive home décor items, gifts, totes and towels. Even though the shutter doors aren't in the catalog, Day says the boutique is an unqualified success.

"You would be absolutely shocked at how much stuff we actually sell," he says.

In these recessionary times, other hotels have taken notice. Looking to augment slimmed-down revenue, hotels are opening or improving online boutiques and selling more than just logo-laden robes and golf shirts. Others are using vending machines on-site to sell wares.

In February, the Ritz-Carlton launched www.ritzcarltonshops.com, its first online version of the Shops, its glossy catalog of signature Ritz cobalt glassware, small leather goods, jewelry, Steuben glassware and take-home versions of the luxury hotel's bath and spa products.

Spokeswoman Allison Sitch says the launch has been profitable and "a very positive experience."

For many hotels with online retail, the results have boosted the bottom line and reinforced customer loyalty. For those customers, the online shopping opportunities have helped them take home a piece of vacation bliss without having to lug it through security.

Online boutiques perform an important function as equal parts customer service and marketing tool.

When guests ask where they can buy their favorite guest-room items, hotels can more easily direct them to a website than to an in-house gift shop, one that may not stock the bestsellers -- mattresses, sheets and pillows.

Though hotel guests have long lusted for hotel logos on towels, robes and polo shirts, today's customers buy their favorite hotel brands in many forms -- and the hoteliers couldn't be happier.

"The first year the online store opened, sales grew 1,900%," Eva Ziegler, global brand leader for W hotels, says in an e-mail. "Online revenue is double that of our store revenue . . . and has grown 50% each year, year over year, for the past six years."

Of the 21 W hotels around the world, only nine have boutiques on-site, yet all link to the online version at www.whotelsthestore.com, which stocks $49 beaded bangle bracelets and $410 Louis XV "Ghost" chairs, designed by Philippe Starck.

The W hotels' retail catalog and website are notable for selling items not usually found in a guest room: shoes, jewelry, watches, CDs and sunglasses, items that help reinforce the hotel's hipster aura.

Though the sites do bring in money, most hoteliers look at online retailing as marketing that pays for itself.

"Having an online boutique helps us create a lifestyle brand," says Elon Kenchington, chief operating officer of the Gansevoort Hotel Group. The Gansevoort hotels in New York, Miami and Turks and Caicos are known for their fashionable clientele (modeling agency Wilhelmina is in the Miami hotel), an image reinforced by its on-property, brand-name shops, such as Henry Beguelin leather goods, Inca swimwear and the boutiques Big Drop and Curve.

Kenchington says Gansevoort's online boutiques, now being updated, are "always profitable."

Another plus: "Because of the economy, we are getting a lot more great brands that want the association of being partners with us."

Every purchase is a potential mobile billboard, Kenchington says: "Wouldn't we want everyone to carry our umbrella or shopping bag wherever they are? It's product placement in our target cities."

Furthermore, when a customer pays the ultimate compliment by asking to purchase a part of a hotel room, "You can't just say, 'No, I'm sorry.' There is no such thing as 'no' in our brand," Kenchington says.

At Mondrian South Beach Hotel in Florida and other luxury lodgings, it's not an online catalog that dispenses items; it's a vending machine called the Semi-Automatic. The machine can sell items as diverse as a toothbrush and an automobile -- a real one. These "vendotiques" aren't about hotel branding as much as they are about offering adults a grown-up version of a gum-ball machine with significantly better prizes.

Passion for hotel products is relatively new, a few million snitched Holiday Inn towels notwithstanding. Then came a revolution: the Aug. 31, 1999, launch of Westin's Heavenly Bed, 10 layers of pure white fabric and fluff.

"The first week, 32 people called and said, 'I would like to buy that bed,' " says Sue Brush, global brand leader for Westin Hotels and Resorts.

To date, the chain of 173 hotels has sold 30,000 beds, more than 100,000 pillows, 32,000 sheet sets and 13,000 shower heads.

It now also sells dog beds, collars and leashes because, she says, "It builds goodwill and loyalty."

It must be working. Beds and bedding remain the top sellers at the Ritz-Carlton, W, Westin, Wyndham and other hotel companies.

Yet for some hotel companies, selling guest soaps or sheets isn't about the money.

"We don't look at it as a retail opportunity," says Kevin Rupert, marketing vice president for Wyndham Hotels and Resorts.

"We prefer to have that product in a customer's hands so that they have a good affiliation with Wyndham, as opposed to making a couple bucks off the product."

Wyndham gives members of its loyalty program an additional discount when they link to the site, www.wyndhamathome.com.

For Day, however, profit is also positive -- and instant -- feedback that Shutters is doing something right. And currently, its guests are in love with a swirling cone of chrome -- the $49 French fry holder that's on the tables at its Coast Café and Bar.

"This thing is on fire," he says. "We're completely sold out."