Kim Walker was the sixth employee at Morgans Hotel Group.
Straight out of Boston University, with a degree in finance and a minor in hotel management, she was hired nearly 22 years ago by none other than Ian Schrager. The famed American real-estate developer -- credited with creating the "boutique hotel" segment and known for his days as owner of legendary New York club Studio 54 -- gave her a job as a front-desk agent.
For Ms. Walker, joining Morgan’s was an intentional choice. She eschewed bigger hotel chains like Hyatt, Hilton and Marriott in favor of a more hands-on experience. And, boy, did she get it. She worked in virtually every department, including stints as a concierge, room-service manager, housekeeping staff and in sales. But there was a common thread in the things she enjoyed most, whether it was sending mailings for events to Mr. Schrager’s "movers and shakers" list or helping design uniforms. It all came back to the brand.
Today Ms. Walker is senior VP-marketing and creative director for the chain, which owns boutique brands like the Hudson, Delano and Royalton. She’s responsible for overseeing Morgan’s public relations, marketing, partnerships, online and digital presence, special events, uniforms and guest-room amenities. During the next two years, she’ll be instrumental in the brand’s expansion, which includes new hotels in the Bahamas; Istanbul; Moscow; Las Vegas; and Doha, Qatar. Ad Age recently caught up with her.
Ad Age: How do you convey the value of a luxury, boutique hotel in what’s largely a price-driven travel market?
Kim Walker: Our guests choose to stay at our hotels not just to sleep and have a bed. They want to experience our entire culture. Whether it’s our public spaces, nightlife or restaurants, you get the feeling that it’s more than just a place to sleep. We have created a very loyal customer base that knows what to expect when they come. Our guest experience is different than other hotel brands. For example, we aren’t formal -- we are more interactive with our guests and make them feel like they are at a home-away-from-home and welcomed, but all while still providing great service. And by continuing to push the envelope with design, we are always trying to create lifestyle and restaurant venues that not just guests but also locals want to go to -- which is really important -- to hang out on the weekend. We give guests the essence of the city in which they are staying.
Ad Age: Are you working on modernizing the Morgan’s culture through new digital and mobile initiatives, like others in the hospitality industry?
Ms. Walker: Yes. Right now it’s all over the place. What our site looks like on mobile and on a tablet, it’s not consistent. Flash has prohibited us from doing the things we want to do. We’re also trying to bring [digital capabilities] more into the hotel so that you can experience them in the hotel and after you leave -- pulling it through your entire stay. Over the past year and half we have been trying to figure out the plan for 2013, and we really felt that since consumers are relying heavily on mobile access it was going to be our key focus for this year. Also our last website was designed five years ago, so it’s time for that. [The goal is to have a new one live this summer]. We met with about eight different agencies from Seattle, New York, Los Angeles and Brooklyn and hired Firstborn. Firstborn did a fabulous job and showed us some interesting things and really stood out amongst all the companies. It’s probably two months since we’ve been into the project and we’re very in sync.
Ad Age: Each of your hotels are designed differently and have a unique aesthetic, unlike other hotel brands where customers know what to expect wherever they are in the world. What are the opportunities and drawbacks of having a brand that actually prides itself on inconsistency?
Ms. Walker: We absolutely don’t want to be a chain and be cookie-cutter where you expect the same thing every city you’re in. The design should reflect the city, and it’s very purposeful that way. We think it makes it more interesting for the guests. Relying on one design to carry us through for the next 15 or 20 years isn’t what we want to do; we’re always looking for up-and-coming designers. Our audience is very sophisticated and they don’t want the same all the time. The one drawback is that we’re starting from scratch each time we do that. Right now we’re opening eight hotels in the next two and half years. We would have a very easy life [if they all looked the same] but because each is different it makes it more challenging. But also more gratifying.
Ad Age: What do you think a loyalty program needs to be? And what has Morgan’s done to enhance its own?
Ms. Walker: Our loyalty program is called the Global Card and made up of our guests who have 25 stays or 50 nights over the course of the year, as well as tastemakers in design, art and fashion that we want coming to hang out at our hotels. We don’t give points away. We may offer discounts at our spas and restaurants and shops, but it’s more about having exclusive access to events or giving them a dedicated guest-services manager to help curate their stay -- making them feel like it’s their own private concierge while they are staying with us, rather than a point program to cash in for free nights.