Last month, a group of ladies enjoyed afternoon tea inside the Palm Court at Chicago’s iconic Drake Hotel. Billowy white drapes flowed from the pillars and a spray of blooms from a massive floral arrangement lorded over the trio, as they sipped tea from china cups and selected tiny sandwiches off of a three-tiered tray.

The hotel specializes in afternoon tea and hosts splendid wedding receptions. Such events are singular, tailored, exciting — the exact opposite of corporate. Yet, many people would be surprised to learn the Drake is actually owned by a chain (Hilton to be exact) and has been for the past 50 years or so — though you’d be hard-pressed to find a blue “H” logo anywhere, as a recent visit proved. The Drake is a soft brand, meaning it operates under a powerful parent, leveraging the big player’s connections while retaining its independent spirit. Staff, for instance, can wear funky uniforms, the room design can be unique and the food playful — all of which is very attractive to the operator of a culturally rich hotel that doesn’t want to sell out by looking too commercial.

“The Drake is a good example of what a soft brand can become over time. It’s classic Chicago. We love that hotel,” says Vito Curalli, executive director Canada, Latin America and International for Hilton. He notes the Palmer Hotel in Chicago is also “technically a Hilton that adheres to our standards but has always been known for its name.”

The Drake’s (and the Palmer Hotel’s) owners harness Hilton’s marketing prowess and global reach. The partnership has a multitude of other advantages: good deals on supplies, access to financing, revenue management and reservations systems, as well as IT support. Travellers can rack up points through the Hhonors guest-reward program, which offers free stays at more than 10 brands within the Hilton Worldwide portfolio.

“While there are a significant number of soft brands out there, such as Curio Collection (Hilton Worldwide), OE Collection (Loews Hotels & Resorts), Autograph Collection (Marriott International) and Ascend Hotel Collection (Choice Hotels International), there is an extremely limited number of actual soft-branded assets in Canada,” says Brian Stanford, senior managing director, CBRE Limited. “As such, there really is no performance data which can be shared.”

Data aside, Stanford says the concept is a sound one. “These soft brands allow the uniqueness of the individual hotel to prevail through its own name and branding, while letting the hotel owner/operator benefit from the marketing power of the major hotel companies.”

The soft-brand model proved so attractive, says Curalli, that Hilton launched the Curio Collection in 2014. “Each Curio hotel is authentic and reflects the region it’s in,” he says. “Our thinking is ‘no design by design.’ Each hotel has its own look and feel and the owners love that freedom. That’s why we’ve got 22 [Curio] hotels (though none in Canada) in two years — clearly the formula is working.”

Before the properties became Curios, the “hotels were doing well in their own markets,” adds Curalli. “They came to us because they have a great hotel that is recognized locally but they needed to be in the global system.”

Getting heads in beds, after all, is much more challenging than it was 25 years ago when guests could rely on travel agents to verify a remote hotel’s quality. “In the absence of [travel] agencies, this mediation is attempted by websites such as TripAdvisor, but this, as anybody who has tried to book a hotel room in Rio can attest, very often just adds to the confusion,” writes Laurence Bernstein, a consultant at Toronto’s Protean Strategies, a company which helps businesses stimulate their brands. “Knowing the small, local hotel that looks so good online is endorsed by Marriott and is connected, however loosely, goes a long way to making the choice easier.”

“What’s really driving this [trend] is entrepreneurial people entering the hotel space and creating really cool, unique brands,” says Allison Reid, SVP, North America Development, Starwood Hotels & Resorts. But, she says, there’s room for both soft and hard brands in the Canadian hotel landscape. “It just depends on what that real-estate owner wants to spend their time and money on. Sometimes it’s just easier to take it off the shelf because their main business is yield for their investors, not creating entrepreneurial-type products.”

Travellers clearly trust Starwood Hotels & Resorts. When the stalwart launched its soft brand, Tribute Portfolio, in April 2015, it quickly opened 20 properties in one year. Hotel locations range from Japan to Jakarta and a Hotel Pur Quebec will debut in Canada in early 2017. “The hotel will undergo a full renovation of its 242 guestrooms and suites before joining the Tribute Portfolio system,” says Dave Marr, global brand leader for Tribute Portfolio/Starwood. “The hotel is filled with design touches and intriguing culinary options that truly exemplify the essence of the Tribute Portfolio.”

Pur’s Quebec location was a big draw for Starwood: “Saint Roch has undergone a recent revitalization, seeing an energizing influx of new restaurants, locally owned boutiques and innovative businesses, all of which have inspired a true indie neighbourhood vibe,” says Marr.

Whether it’s the food or the places being visited, being unique appears to be the hottest of trends. In tandem, the independent hotel segment has continued to grow exponentially, “With consumers increasingly desiring travel to hotels and resorts that don’t fall under a cookie-cutter brand,” says Marr.

In 2010, Marriott Hotels and Resorts tapped into the allure of the soft brand when it launched the Autograph Collection. Its motto and hashtag explicitly conveys its one-of-a-kind attitude: #exactlylikenothingelse. That’s not hyperbole. Each site is special, such as the historic Brown Palace Hotel in Denver, Col., which has rooftop honeybee hives that supply fresh honey to the six onsite restaurants (Autograph Collection hotels in Canada include the Algonquin Resort in St. Andrews-by-the-Sea, N.B., and the Hotel Saskatchewan; the luxury Civic Hotel in Surrey, B.C. and The Douglas in Vancouver are expected to debut in 2017).

Marriott’s marketing for the Autograph Collection is genius, exemplifying the brand’s savviness — it’s angling after and understands the discerning traveller as curated snaps on its website might show a giant balloon dog sculpture by the contemporary artist Jeff Koons or ingredients for an artisanal salad suspended in mid-air.

“There has been a clear acceleration from consumers to be unique when they do all kinds of things, especially travel,” says Julius Robinson, Brand Leader for Autograph Collection, adding, “At the same time they want to know they have the comfort of the Marriott portfolio in terms of standards.”

Owners of Autograph Collection hotels enjoy Marriott’s buying power and guest-reward program (which include the soft-brand perks outlined earlier). They also have carte blanche to run their hotels as they see fit. “We have just about 100 hotels in our collection and I love to say we have 100 different branded hotels,” says Robinson. “Each brand has its own identity, story and history. But, he points out the Marriott team keeps an eye on things: “We visit each hotel twice a year to make sure the quality and level of service is consistent in the hotel.”

“We’ve done six Autograph Collection conversions over the last two or three years and many of the other soft brands,” says Tony Cohen, partner and EVP, Crescent Hotels & Resorts. “You get the benefit of the distribution, the reservation system and the loyalty [program] without the stringent brand restrictions. It’s a great way to plug in to a network that you wouldn’t otherwise have access to as an independent. It’s a win-win.”

According to Stanford, these conversions are the right way to go. “As new-build [prospects], there may be a few opportunities for niche hotels benefiting from the soft-branding affiliation,” says Stanford, “although conversion and re-branding of established unique properties may be a stronger opportunity for owners, operators and the hotel companies.”

Manlio Marescotti, VP, Lodging and Development for Marriott Hotels and Resorts Canada, says Autograph Collection boasts a mix of both existing hotels and purpose built ones (which goes to show how popular soft brands have become). “Initially, they were going to be conversions of existing hotels that maybe were operating independently but wanted to maintain their brand and be part of a larger infrastructure with the sales engines behind it,” says Marescotti, offering the Algonquin Hotel Times Square, in Manhattan and the Hotel Saskatchewan in Regina as examples.

In terms of demographics, Robinson says they’re varied. “These kinds of hotels give millennials energy when they travel on business — they’re staying in a cool hotel but their company is paying,” he says, adding guests “could be married with children but when they’re travelling to Autograph Collection Hotels, unless it’s a resort, they’re [solo],” he says. “So, we know they see these hotels as treats.”

Soft-brand hotels, essentially, resonate with choosy travellers across the board who demand a non-commercial travel experience — from the millennial who Instagrams her heirloom tomato sandwich like it’s a rare jewel, to the middle-age businessman who enjoys great architecture and demands to stay at a cool and safe non-brand branded hotel.

Volume 28, Number 5
Written By Iris Benaroia

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