I See Brand Equity

Consumers aren’t always looking for the lowest price. Often, they’re looking for better value, and they’re willing to pay for it. In fact, consumers are not only willing to pay for value, but they will happily do so. Advertising and marketing folks call that “brand equity.”

I recently discovered a small hotel in Cimarron, New Mexico that relies on brand equity every night. Cimarron is a small town that most people zip through on their way to somewhere else such as Red River, Taos, Angel Fire or Eagle Nest. But, a century ago that wasn’t the case. Long before those tourist towns began drawing trout fishermen and skiers and golfers, Cimarron was drawing gold miners and traders and cowboys moving along the Santa Fe Trail.

The St. James Hotel opened in Cimarron in 1880 and quickly became the hot spot in town. The old guest records on display in a glass case in the lobby boast the names of such notables as Frank and Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Annie Oakley, Buffalo Bill Cody, Wyatt and Morgan Earp, Bat Masterson, Doc Holiday, and Zane Grey among others.

The history of the St. James includes at least 26 murders, and the 22 bullet holes in the tin ceiling of the old saloon attest to the hotel’s violent past. Legend has it the hotel is haunted by several spirits, not the least of which is the ghost of a man named Thomas James Wright who won the hotel in a poker game one evening but was shot that same night as he stood outside his room. He crawled into his room and died. To this day room number 18 remains padlocked shut. It’s said that poor Mr. Wright’s ghost refuses to leave “his” hotel or allow anyone to use “his” room.

If you like stories about ghosts and the old West, you can stay at the St. James yourself. There are 14 rooms available in the old hotel and another 10 in a new annex next door, and that’s where the point of this story comes in. The old hotel has no phones, no TV and no air conditioning. The rooms are small and furnished as they would have been in the hotel’s heyday. Plumbing was added a few decades ago, so some rooms have private baths, but others have shared baths.

The floors creak, the walls in the hallways are covered with photos of the bandits and outlaws who have stayed at (and in some cases died at) the hotel, and there is nobody staffing the front desk overnight. At nine o’clock they lock you in with the other guests – and the ghosts. Of course, you could choose to stay next door at the new annex in a modern room with AC, TV, telephone and new plumbing. On a summer weeknight a couple of years ago, a room in the annex was available for $70 and a room in the old hotel was available for $105. My wife, Laurie, and I were more than happy to pay the premium for the chance to sleep in room number nine of the old hotel. It’s on the second floor, across the hall and a few doors down from number 18. Too bad number 17 wasn’t available.

I’m disappointed to report that we had no ghostly encounters – even though I woke up well before dawn and wandered alone around the dimly lit hotel for more than an hour waiting for someone to show up and make coffee. I would have even been happy to encounter angry old Tom Wright if he knew how to make a good cup of Joe. But, no such luck. I walked the halls looking at the pictures of outlaws, lawmen and land barons who had stayed at the hotel. I stood outside room 18, peaking through a small crack between the door and the frame and wishing I had the key to the padlock. I stood in the dining room/bar looking up at the bullet holes in the ceiling. I sat in the lobby next to the tombstone of one of the hotel’s many gunfight victims and read an old account of how he had died.

But, I heard no voices and saw no apparitions. Too bad – I really wanted to go back to my room and whisper “I see dead people.” But, the only visitor I had was a young man who arrived shortly after sunrise to vacuum the lobby. Perhaps you have to believe in ghosts to see them.

Still, it was a night to remember and the best thirty-five bucks we spent on the entire trip. If our choices had been between a Hampton Inn for $70 and a Holiday Inn for $105, we’d have taken the Hampton and saved the $35. They both would have met our basic need of a bed for the night, and I don’t perceive one or the other as being substantially different. But, the St. James Hotel has that something extra that at least some consumers place a premium value on. We never even considered the annex.

I see brand equity. — Matt

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