Hotels & hospitality

The soft sell

‘Soft branding’ is becoming increasingly popular, with ever more private hoteliers seeking to to harness the distribution power and economies of scale offered by major operators. But how realistic is the idea of leveraging such benefits while retaining genuine independence? Abi Millar asks Marriott International’s John Licence and Philip Ho of Leading Hotels of the World how such a deal can be made to work for all parties.   

When Starwood launched its newest brand, Tribute Porfolio, in April 2015, the company set foot in what was already well-charted territory. Along with Marriott’s Autograph Collection, Hilton’s Curio and its own Luxury Collection, Tribute would be a ‘soft brand’ – a selection of notionally independent hotels curated by a major operator.

Several months previously, Loews Hotels had announced its entrance into this space with the debut of the OE Collection. AccorHotels followed suit in June 2015 with a slightly different strategy – namely, opening its website to independent hotels – and in March 2016 Hyatt joined the throng with the Unbound Collection.

In the meantime, Tribute grew beyond expectations. Despite Starwood’s upcoming merger with Marriott, which might just as easily have slammed the brakes on growth, the brand signed 20 properties worldwide, double the initial projection for its first year. It hopes to have 100 by 2020.

According to Dave Marr, global brand leader for Tribute Portfolio, the brand is unlikely to be subsumed by Autograph Collection. Announcing Tribute’s latest three signings in April, he commented that “both organisations understand the huge potential in this independent hotel space” and that “for us to say we only need one brand to address that potential or opportunity, it’s like saying we only need one upper upscale brand.”

Signing bonus

The facts do appear to be on his side: with around 26,000 independent upscale hotels across the world, operators are catching on to the likely benefits. While their own luxury brands are, in the main, thriving, partnering with independent hotels enables them to corner a different part of the market.

As John Licence, European continent brand leader at Marriott International explains, brands such as Autograph Collection offer the best of both worlds to so-called ‘lifestyle’ travellers.

“They offer the promise of authenticity but with the assurances of a global brand,” he says. “The customer is going to get to enjoy this independent, non-branded experience but they can book it through channels they trust and with a partner they are loyal to. We have a franchise operation, in which the operators run the hotel independently and we provide them with services.”

Autograph Collection, which now comprises over 100 properties, was an early entrant into this space. Launched in 2010, this evolving ensemble collection remains Marriott International’s fastest growing hotel brand, and one of the fastest growing in the industry.

“When we launched, it was becoming clear that there were a number of great independent hotels that wanted to affiliate with a major company but also wanted to maintain their independence,” says Licence. “Autograph Collection is a win-win because it enables us to attract these fine independent hotels, but enables them to connect behind the scenes with the powerhouse that is Marriott International.”

In practice, this means benefiting from the Marriott.com website, sales network, and global distribution platform, along with marketing tools such as the Marriott rewards programme and various purchasing channels. As well as driving business, the partnership helps them drive down costs and brings them economies of scale.

For an independent hotelier, the attractions are obvious. Remaining unaffiliated means missing out on a wide pool of travellers (predominantly business travellers, who are tied into a frequent guest plan and are looking to notch up points). It may also mean paying exorbitant sums for the services of an online travel agent.

Should they join a traditional brand, however, their individuality is likely to be quashed. A hotel may be expected to undergo extensive renovations – not to mention overhauling operations and changing its name – in the interests of brand continuity.

Target market

Soft brands present a compelling answer to this conundrum. Insofar as there are any sacrifices to be made, these come in the form of strict performance monitoring from the operator, as well as the requirement to meet a certain standard.

Licence says his team turns plenty of hotels down, as in order for Marriott to reap the benefits too, the hotel needs to have what it takes to lure in the desired guest demographic. He only considers luxury properties with a strong sense of identity and narrative.

One recent example is the Cotton House Hotel in Barcelona, a restored palazzo that once served as the headquarters of the cotton growers’ association. Conversely, the Kameha Grand Hotel in Zurich is a whimsical newbuild boutique, and the Domes of Elounda in Crete is a beach resort designed for maximum integration with its surroundings. All fit the Autograph Collection marketing tagline, ‘exactly like nothing else’.

“Some hotels join us absolutely as is, but some we require to go through some kind of renovation programme via independent designers. We really want them to reflect their local culture and the history of the building they’re in,” says Licence.

Starwood’s Tribute Portfolio, meanwhile, runs the gamut from a Japanese ski resort to two heritage buildings in Paris. Given the – possibly well-founded – criticism that one hotel soft brand looks much like any other, Starwood has tightened up its focus. Its Luxury Collection is strictly deluxe, targeted at a boomer demographic, whereas Tribute Portfolio is more of a ‘millennial feeder’ product, occupying the upper upscale portion of the four star segment.

The single life

Of course, while the explosion of soft brands is a recent phenomenon, there is nothing new about the idea of bringing independent hotels into a single system. Luxury Collection came into being as early as 1994, and representation companies such as Preferred Hotels (founded 1968) and Leading Hotels of the World (founded 1928) have been around for much longer.

In these cases, the business model is slightly different. While Leading Hotels of the World does provide international sales, marketing and distribution support, it is a hospitality consortium as opposed to a brand. As Philip Ho, senior vice president Europe, Middle East, Africa & Asia Pacific, remarks, its model has been honed over decades specifically to serve hotel owners “better than major chain brand collections”.

“Our company was created by hoteliers, for hoteliers, and our organisation is structured in such a way that we operate as a not-for-profit business,” he says. “Our member hotels are free to run their hotels however they choose and can focus on the guests needs. We provide them with the relationships they need globally and at a scale great enough to allow them to do so.”

He describes the business model as a collaboration, both between Leading Hotels and the membership, and among members themselves.

“As travellers become more sophisticated, they crave more immersive involvement in their chosen destinations, and with their chosen hotels,” he says. “That one-on-one rapport is part of our DNA, going back to our founding when a group of like-minded hoteliers began recommending each other’s properties for their best clients. We still very strongly advocate for the individual.”

Blurred lines

While consortiums of this kind do provide benefits that the new wave of soft brands do not, largely in terms of networking opportunities, there are certain limitations from a marketing perspective. Last year, the hospitality company Design Hotels sought to bridge the divide between the two business models, by partnering with Starwood Preferred Guest. Since the start of 2016, guests staying in certain Design Hotels properties have been able to earn a limited range of SPG benefits.

Starwood CEO Adam Aron has described Design Hotels as an ‘11th Starwood brand’, designed to ‘fill a special niche in Starwood’s portfolio’. Although this is perhaps a matter of semantics (only a small proportion of Design Hotels’ 280 members are currently affiliated with Starwood), it does seem to suggest that, in the already hazy world of soft branding, the lines between ‘brand’, ‘collection’ and ‘consortium’ are becoming increasingly blurred.

Perhaps this is the natural corollary of a marketplace in which authenticity has become enshrined as the ultimate good. In today’s world of experiential travel, guests are becoming increasingly comfortable booking unbranded hotels – and major operators will need to find a way to compete. As Licence remarks, ever more private hotel operators are starting to consider their options.

“Previously, they would have been asked to have a name like Marriott or Hilton on them, and now they’re getting this new opportunity, so I would say we’ll continue to see these collector brands growing within the chains,” he says.

Ho believes this may lead to a new surge of creativity among hoteliers, as owners turn their attention to ‘developing their own masterpieces’.

“Such creativity and personal expression are simply not possible to achieve when having to adapt to the norms of someone else’s brand,” he says. “However the market evolves, we want to ensure that we continue to curate a collection of distinctive, independent hotels of exceptional quality that speak to, and embody the essence of, their destinations.”

This article appears in the Summer 2016 edition of Hotel Management International

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