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Holiday Inn Express Makes 'Stay Smart' Move

Source: Holiday Inn

Holiday Inn Express, one of the fastest-growing chains in the U.S., is hoping that reviving its once-popular Stay Smart campaign will prove a smart move in the ever-competitive mid-price hotel market.

Holiday Inn Express today will attempt to bring its brand back to its glory days by re-launching the TV advertising campaign that was a hit from 1998 to 2008.

The commercials showed people successfully completing extraordinary tasks that they weren't trained for, then explaining it with the punch line: "But I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express hotel last night."

The line was so well-known that former vice president Al Gore used it while running for president in 2000.

The Stay Smart campaign propelled Holiday Inn Express, owned by InterContinental Hotels Group, into the national spotlight, outshining its older sister brand Holiday Inn.

The brand, launched in 1991, ballooned from 500 hotels in 1996 to nearly 1,700 in 2008, the year the campaign ended. It won over travelers by billing itself as "fresh, clean and uncomplicated," offering a free hot breakfast, high-speed Internet access and local phone calls. (Read more: Should Hotel Wi-Fi Always Be Free?)

In 2007, IHG turned its attention to the more full-service Holiday Inn brand, which introduced America to the idea of the roadside inn in 1952 but was starting to look dowdy. The Stay Smart campaign was a casualty of the $1 billion, three-year Holiday Inn overhaul that included a complete makeover and the closing of underperforming hotels.

"The rapid market acceptance of Holiday Inn Express began to overshadow its older, tired parent," says Chekitan Dev, an associate professor of marketing and branding at Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and author of Hospitality Branding. "As a consequence, Holiday Inn very wisely undertook a multiyear brand rejuvenation program."

In the process, Holiday Inn Express got drowned out. Meanwhile, the midscale lodging market became more competitive as the economy faltered, and travelers turned to hotels that offered value for their dollars. According to Smith Travel Research, there are 957 hotels and 90,997 rooms planned or being built for the upper midscale hotel market. Of those, Holiday Inn Express will have 206 hotels and 18,063 rooms.

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"There's more competition, because there's so much construction," says Bjorn Hanson, dean at New York University's Preston Robert Tisch Center for Hospitality.

Holiday Inn Express is hoping to reclaim its identity and better position itself against the Hampton Inns, Comfort Inns and Wyndham Gardens of the world, which have emerged as formidable competitors.

Heather Balsley, senior vice president of the Americas Holiday Inn Brand Family, says the company abandoned the campaign because it made the decision "to really put our efforts and focus on the Holiday Inn family to bring the brand back to relevancy."

Analysts say the Holiday Inn relaunch has been a success so far. In the past five years, U.S. Holiday Inn and Holiday Inn Express hotels have outperformed their competitors in the upper midscale market in terms of revenue per available room, a benchmark for hotels, by 7 percentage points and 5 percentage points, respectively, according to IHG's 2012 annual report.

Holiday Inn "is a brand that has been around from day one," says C. Patrick Scholes, managing director of gaming and lodging equity research at SunTrust Robinson Humphrey, "and for them to see good comparative growth with competitors is impressive."

Now, it's Holiday Inn Express' turn to shine. The new $20 million campaign "gives us the opportunity to break through the clutter and communicate to our guests what the Holiday Inn Express stands for," Balsley says.

There are about 2,200 Holiday Inn Express and 1,250 Holiday Inn hotels worldwide. While Holiday Inns offer social lobbies with pulsating music coming from speakers, Holiday Inn Express hotels are understated.

In the next few years, the company says, it will introduce better and healthier choices at the breakfast bar. New bathroom amenities from Bath & Body Works are now being rolled out. General managers will receive better training. The target will be the frequent traveler who craves simplicity and efficiency, Balsley says.

(Read more: Hotel Amenities Get Funny With Debut of 'Loo Laughs')

"The core focus is an efficient experience where guests get a lot of value for their money," she says.

One of two commercials making their debuts on several networks and social-media sites, titled "Acupuncture," shows a woman being treated by an "acupuncturist" in a spa. Turns out, he is really a panini delivery man.

The other, "Equation," features a man acting like a professor solving a difficult math equation in front of a class of university students. He then admits that he was actually just visiting his daughter, a student.

Reviving old campaigns has helped other companies, but only if they put them in contemporary situations, says Tracey Riese, president of TG Riese and Associates, a branding consulting firm. Think of Planters' makeover of Mr. Peanut.

Hotel chains are not known for ad campaigns, especially humorous ones. In that sense, Holiday Inn Express could have an edge, she says.

"When a brand has had a very successful or iconic campaign, and they go off and do something else or let the brand languish ... they often find one of the most effective things to do is to go back to the elements that have historically given them equity," she says.

But it doesn't always work, says Pam Danziger, president of Unity Marketing.

Middle-class consumers, she says, "are really pressed" and are looking for value when they travel.

"To be able to deliver value, it could be a very powerful positioning for the brand," she says. "But they have a lot of competition at that value price."

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