I grew up in Portland, Oregon. Now I live in Seattle – where yes, it rains even more. Yesterday I drove “home” to visit family. I always stay in a hotel, which has been really fun. I’m able to see the city through travelers eyes.

I got a killer rate on Orbitz for the oldest hotel in the city, The Benson. I have ALWAYS wanted to stay here. The Benson has a restaurant called The London Grill, which boasts Portland’s ONLY four-star restaurant. My parents would go there for their anniversary – it was THAT kind of restaurant. I remember the doorman wore this elaborate costume, red velvet with gold scrolly things on the shoulders and a top hat. I had only been in the lobby once but I remember mahogany wood everywhere, tall ceiling, rich carpeting over marble floors. Super scary elegant.

When I pulled up, there was a huge tourist bus blocking the valet parking spots. I circled around a couple of times and just gave up and went to find my own parking. Dragging my suitcases up the four steps, the doors were blocked off with rope (it has been bitter cold) forcing me to use the revolving door which I barely fit into with briefcase and suitcase. No one offered to help me. The lobby was as I remember it except the smell of cigarette smoke smacked me in the face. There is a lobby bar now and smoking has not been banned in bars yet in Oregon.

I checked in, waited for the elevator which was charmingly tiny (cuz it was built in 1912), ding I’m on the third floor, nothing too fancy, thick striped wall paper and nice dark mahogany doors. Insert the key, push the door open — the moment I’ve been waiting for — the “moment of truth”.

The room was perhaps the smallest one I’ve ever stayed in. The carpet was gunmetal grey, the bed looked hard and was black and grey with white pillows. There was a tiny little desk, a tiny little bathroom, nothing special. I went to the window to see my view. I literally looked at the big grey wall of a bank building. No windows to peak in, nothing but big grey concrete. I panicked. It’s been raining or snowing in Seattle for like a month now and I’m wondering, what IDIOT would convince the management of a hotel in Portland, Oregon that grey would be the right color. Welcome to our fair city — we decided to decorate your room exactly like the outdoors. That way you won’t know if you’re in or out.

I never do this, but I called down to the front desk. You should never ever be mean to front desk staff for they DO hold the key to your comfort. Literally. But I explained to her that I live in Seattle and as she should know, it’s been raining there for like 3 months straight and I cannot look at a grey wall — I need some hope. Some kind of light. Some pinch of a view that makes me want to get up in the morning. She put me on hold. When she came back she said, yes, she did have a room higher up and would have someone bring the keys to me. Whew.

I had to get out of that room so I wheeled my stuff to the elevator and waited. Up to the sixth floor I had an even smaller room BUT it had a view of a vacant building that was painted the most beautiful salmon color, with green trim. I could do this. Now I started my ritual of unpacking. I traveled 148,000 miles by plane last year — god knows how many by car and stayed in hotels at least 120 nights.

One of my goals is to consult with the hotel industry. Conference hotels. Those middle to high end Marriott, Hilton, Sheraton types that draw the conference crowds from doctors to plumbers. I am their target audience. They compete for me. And to gain my loyalty they have to differentiate. Simple business practices. If you go to any hotel comparison website (Orbitz, Hotels.com, Expedia) you can side-by-side compare these folks by price, amenities, local attractions. The internet has the potential to commoditize almost anything. That’s where Modern Marketing comes in. You can’t beg for business anymore, now you have to earn it.

One of the biggest mistakes a hotel can make is to have an over-the-top gorgeous lobby with fountains and beautiful furniture and fireplaces with cozy couches and walls of books and magnificent stairways leading up to balconies with sitting areas. I’ve seen it all. ONLY to have the rooms be ridden hard, with stains on the carpet, leaky faucets, scary cootie-infested bedspreads, slivers of soap, bad coffee, and scratchy towels.

That to me is the metaphor for what “marketing” has become. That frosting on the pig. That big splashy promise of what you’ll get, only to take the elevator up and find you are in a hole. Those hollow promises of “we are here for you” only to have to sit on hold for 15 minutes. Those shiny happy people on your websites and brochures only to be greeted by a disgruntled teenager with wet hair sipping furiously from a Big Gulp cup.

When you focus on your target audience. Really listen to them, get inside their heads, walk in their shoes, or sleep in their beds (okay — you get the point) then you can begin to differentiate. Some of the most amazing things I’ve seen in hotels. And these are just my top five favorite moments:
1. A computer lap desk with padded wrist rest so you can sit in bed, watch TV while you check email on your wireless high speed connection.
2. A coupon for a free drink in the bar wrapped around the TV remote.
3. Free bottles of water. And they replenish them every day.
4. Bathrobe AND slippers — in leopard print.
5. A pillow menu. Do you like feather? Foam? Soft? Hard?

You don’t have to advertise that you have these things. In fact, I think it’s better that you don’t. Your competition will R & D you (rip off and duplicate). Word-of-mouth will build your business when you take the time to be different. AND, you will get REPEAT business. Loyalty. Steady income stream. All because you took the time to care.

The Benson doesn’t care. The lobby is still pretty gorgeous, they had live jazz in the bar last night and a nice complimentary wine tasting between 5 and 6. But all the love was in the lobby. My room — where I spend the majority of my time with them, is grey and dull, and such a let down.

I guess it’s true what they say, “You can’t go home again.”