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Why it's brand on the run

Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel AsiaSmall is beautiful on our 2016 travel poll. So is integrity and personalised human touch. What readers love – and hate – about airlines, hotels and hoteliers. See our growing Winners' Album.


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by Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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Shangri-La wins Best Hotel Brand in Asia Award

Shangri-La's 2016 'Twin Win' - Corporate CEO Madhu Rao (centre right, Shangri-La No.1 Hotel Brand in Asia) and Franz Donhauser GM (centre left, Island Shangri-La HK No.1 Business Hotel in Asia). With Smart Travel Asia's Vijay Verghese (far left) and Joey Choi (far right).

EVERY September it falls to us to formally announce the results of our Best in Travel Poll. It is a singular pleasure that gets all of us at Smart Travel Asia out on the road meeting with individual winners in places as disparate as Shanghai, Sanya, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Singapore, Mumbai and Bali, an annual blend of exhilaration and perspiration, crisp haircuts and razor-creased dresses, dodging inclement typhoons, taxis, and tricksters.

It is a time for us to pause, understand, and reflect on the ‘journey’ of several remarkable brands in Asia as they reached the top, and to applaud their success – not with arm-twisting over expensive gala dinners or usurious nomination fees that guarantee smiles for those who shell out generously, but with personal one-on-one meetings to recognise each brand, big or small, and to learn more about its management techniques, problems and solutions. Several recipients are featured in our steadily expanding Winners’ Album.

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The cost of this market research and award presentation travel is wholly underwritten by us. It is an education and a privilege. Some takeaways from our May-July 2016 poll, the 13th since 2004 when we launched with just an airline poll. (Who was best and worst in 2005?)

Humans like humans, not hi-tech. Hi-tech is welcome as an enabler but not when it displaces the human touch. Take the light settings. Wrote one reader, “Why can’t hotels have a single on-off switch?” We agree. Simple switches are tactile, low-tech and effective. Turning on lights at night using a tablet requires a degree of menu precision and alertness that is hard to muster in a Singha beer haze at 3am.

{Travellers lambasted hotel general managers who have disappeared from the lobby with the advent of the web. “Hospitality is about people,” lamented one reader

More young voters in 2016 saw the emergence of new faces on our TOP 25 Lists. Fresh boutique brands emerged – even in India and Sri Lanka – and old favourites disappeared. Small is beautiful again. With almost 70% new readers each month, our reader voting pool can be a tad volatile but the core average profile stayed at 12 air trips a year and US$160,000 household income annually. Apart from jet-setter business and meetings, the main travel drivers were culture, shopping, dining, and family holidays with kids. It is a hugely knowledgeable base. To that we added editorial scrutiny to eliminate over-exuberant clickers who clearly forgot they had cast their vote 10 or 30 times already using different aliases.

We blocked mischievous IP addresses, removed suspicious ‘block’ votes, defended our polling page from hacks and attacks, and watched for odd trends out of sync with the times. A word of advice to hoteliers: don’t employ children and schools to vote. They can’t spell (but then nor can several PR staff for that matter); and inform your hotel crew about the voting categories. It is aspirational but unwise for a hotel to be casting votes for itself in say ‘The Best Airline’ category, unless it is constructed atop Mt Pinatubo. It’s a dead giveaway and, just as when Mt Pinatubo erupts, the cover is blown.

Of course our focus was on travellers and end consumers, not eager public relations executives who suddenly grew a set of 12 arms like hyperactive Indian goddesses. That was not in the script and these votes were excised. Yet, good PR can galvanise voters. Many reached out to their constituents. Others had to be firmly steered from beach bikini shoots to the brand ballot. Some were blushingly blasé – “We’ve spent all our resources on another poll and so we cannot participate,” said one – jolly rum, considering this poll requires zero resources or outlay. Others who routinely buy their way to the top were chagrined to find their product listed as a ‘humble’ TOP 10. “My chairman will be insulted,” fumed one. We didn’t know whether to grimace or grin.

As always there was a clear traveller bias towards ‘classic’ service and décor as dished out by old stalwarts, indicating that some things – like solid oak-hewn families – should freshen up, certainly, but never change their essential character. This is something even top brands have a problem wrestling with – defining their brand and holding on to that core DNA.

People like relationships because of the ‘integrity’ of a partner and this is exactly what was sought by many who believe ‘trust’ builds brand strength. Brands perceived to have integrity tend not to make promises they cannot keep. Fumed one irate reader, “Time and again we have been duped by advertising hype.” Said another, “If I like what I see, I expect to get exactly that, not a bait and switch like some massage agency.” “I saw vast parquet floors online but when we checked in it was more like an oversized cupboard.” There were complaints too about best available rates (that weren’t).

More volatility was added by capricious weather, smog, pollution and traffic as cities sank or swam based on the vicissitudes of nature and the fallout of development. A ‘rising tide’ of positive sentiment for Hong Kong, Bangkok, Taipei, Shanghai and Singapore – popular cities as ever – lifted many. Inefficient delay-plagued airports ruined the travel experience for others who dished out red cards indiscriminately for hapless city hotels. There is a clear knock-on effect between airlines, airports and city hotels, whose ‘brand value’ or score is interlinked.

Travellers lambasted mystery hotel general managers who have all but disappeared from the lobby with the advent of the Web. “Hospitality is about people,” lamented one reader, “so why hide? It’s an opportunity to win friends and influence people” and, perhaps, cut off potential rogue posts at the root. More face time in the lobby could ensure fewer cringe moments online battling negative comments.

{Getting friendly cabin crew aloft was likened to playing Russian roulette. It's a game of chance. Get more multi-ethnic crew, suggested one reader

Charging for WiFi came in for a roasting too (especially at luxury establishments that can afford the change) and clipped a few points off some heavy hitters. Shrink-wrapped soap received a much needed smackdown while others, presumably, lathered up and helpless in the shower cubicle, demanded better and larger labelling on bathroom toiletries.

Getting friendly cabin crew aloft was likened to playing Russian roulette. It's a game of chance. Get a happy, switched-on crew, and there are smiles aplenty. Get a tired, overworked, sullen crew, and it's a different story. "Get more multi-ethnic cabin crew," suggested one reader, while another bemoaned the absence of smiles and eye contact. "It seems service is getting more military-like and Spartan these days as airlines cut back on costs."

Travellers felt airports can do more to improve the arrival experience by dealing firmly with taxi overcharging and cheats. Airports tend to outsource taxi management but passengers see this very much as part of the airport experience. Singapore's Changi was held up as an excellent example with smoothly regulated taxi queues, while New Delhi and Bangkok came under fire. "Delhi's Terminal 3 has controlled chaos outside the arrivals gate and only Indians seem to know how to navigate it," penned one exhausted frequent traveller. Bangkok's machine printout with the driver's name and taxi registration number was seen as a move in the right direction.

Voters, like bar-hoppers, picked some new brands that they saw trending. It is now up to these brands to maintain their positions with service to match.

Readers who came in to poll also said that ‘visibility’ remains the biggest influencer on any poll. Out of sight is out of mind and in a crowded online space it is never wise to be coy. Our personal belief is that brands spend too much time – and too many dollars – in pushing sales, to the clear detriment of brand aspiration.

From the traveller’s perspective, there is no point spotting a brand only at the check-out counter at a discount store (the online travel agency or OTA) when the brand decision is taken before even stepping into the store. This critical and formative first-step ‘brand’ space is almost wholly occupied by whippersnapper minnows that have transformed selfie-snapping kids into armies of indefatigable brand ambassadors on Facebook, Instagram, and Weibo. This is where print-obsessed legacy brands have missed out.

As many as 97% of voters said they formed brand decisions online, not in print, and 82% said they went online in the first instance to research and collect information, not to find the best rates. In a sense this offers the key to understanding how brands might influence travellers or consumers – by building visibility in the research space, not just at retail. So, without further ado, the winners of our 2016 poll.

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