Steve Belmonte and the ad that changed hospitality

Steve Belmonte, CEO, Vimana Franchise Systems
Steve Belmonte, CEO, Vimana Franchise Systems

It’s Flashback Friday, so I thought I’d peel back the decades and share a great story from Steve Belmonte. These days, Belmonte is best known for his role as CEO of Vimana Franchise Systems, which operates the Centerstone and Key West brands. But back in the 1990s he was the straight talking leader of Ramada, who revived a brand on the precipice of irrelevancy.

The following lesson from the early 1990s is as important as ever – maybe even more important --  because it speaks to the same problems many hotel brands have today; staying relevant and front of mind with consumers. The problem with most industry advertising in 2016 is a sense of drab sameness. There may be a funny line, but most ads share nothing specific about the brand being advertised. To me, all hotel ads seem fungible. There are no points of differentiation mentioned. Put any brand name on the ad, and it’ll work just fine.

Now I don’t have a magic wand to create something better, but I do think it’s an issue we need to grapple with as an industry. So let’s look back, so we can learn a lesson for going forward.


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Belmonte took the helm of Ramada in 1991, a time he said turned out to be the best era of his career. But when he was put in charge the brand was “completely dying on the vine.”

“You never heard about it in the press and the brand had 400 properties. The industry trades never had the word Ramada in print, it was a dead brand,” says Belmonte.  “Ramada was in serious trouble and had an identity crisis and it needed some very unprecedented and unusual marketing efforts to wake it up.”

Belmonte says people didn’t understand the Ramada product at that time. “If the public doesn’t know what you are, you aren’t in their thought process, and you aren’t in play when people are making reservations. There was no advertising being done, no video or print. It was dead and nothing exciting was happening,” he says.

Belmonte’s idea was to figure out how to be provocative at a time when hotel advertising was very passive. So he did something never done in the hotel industry, created an ad so controversial in our universe it sparked a brand renaissance with consumers and hotel developers.

Thinking about ads like The Pepsi Challenge where the soda brand pitted themselves directly against the industry leading titan Coca-Cola, he focused on relating Ramada to a brand customers already knew, Holiday Inn.

“It was about saying we are just like Holiday Inn, and we are an alternative. We did something never done before in the industry.”

The resulting ad called “Ramada Inn, Holiday Out” developed by Jay Arnold Impax Marketing Group, a Philadelphia advertising firm, created a series of ads pitting Ramada against Holiday Inn in an edgy and comical way, says Belmonte.

“My God did the industry take note,” he says, of ads featuring 1970s Claymation superstar and Saturday Night Live fixture Mr. Bill. “They were very edgy and stirred up a lot of interest.”

So much interest, Ramada became a fixture in hospitality trade media that year and stories about the ads were even featured on the front page of TV Guide. Back then it was the number one magazine in the country with tens of millions homes receiving every issue.

Here's a peek at some other Mr.Bill & Ramada ads: 

“It was amazing, publishers picked up on it and every [trade magazine] issue was this war between Ramada and Holiday Inn. Prior to those ads we couldn’t find Ramada in print, now we’re on the front page of every magazine. It was amazing,” he says of that very heady time.  

Belmonte says at first Holiday Inn kept quiet, but then that brand’s marketing chief started writing letters to the trades, which he responded too, igniting a long lasting feud that played out like a Telenovela in the press.

A follow up television ad subtly called out that individual by name when Belmonte played a waiter asking if MR so and so gentleman wanted a little ‘wine’ with his dinner.

The ad escalated the battle, which only seemed to propel Ramada to new heights with consumers. And wow, did they sell more hotels. The brand soared, going from 407 hotels to 1,100 properties in a massive and unprecedented growth spurt.

That was then, and this is now, and Belmonte sees a very different landscape dominated by a Wall Street mindset preventing anything like this happening again. He thinks current ‘matrix system’ corporate organizational methods stifle that specific form of creativity as brand stewards are focused on five or ten brands, rather than one.  

“When you do that [matrix system] the true passion and love for the brand and the fight to make it the best is gone,” he says is gone.

I, for one, hope not. The industry needs more zing in its advertising; especially in a world of short attention spans and distractions.

Do you think advertising is like it used to be in hospitality? Let me know here at [email protected] or on Twitter @TravelingGlenn.