Branding a hospitality product used to involve slapping a recognizable shingle on the side of a building and opening the cash drawer in anticipation of the hordes of reassured guests it would attract. Traditionally, a known entity was enough to draw travellers comforted by its familiarity, confident in its ability to deliver on a promise of safety, ease and consistency — no extra effort required.

Today, a shift in consumer behaviour has hotel patrons seeking out brands whose promises are layered in sophisticated expectation of hyper-local, beautiful, rich and one-of-a-kind offerings. These are the hotels that host customers who buy experience over product, who visit the Color Factory in San Francisco on their trips and eat at pop-up dinners for 100 in the Redwoods. The current crop of branded hotels, says Connor Smith, vice-president of Brand and Marketing at U.S.- based Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants, must cater to this evolved consumer and their penchant for unique adventures and emotional experiences.

At Kimpton — which has 67 hotels worldwide, including the recently opened Kimpton Saint George in Toronto — that penchant might find purchase in the dark wall coverings and edgy art of the restored-tenement Palladium in Seattle, the sunny De Witt in Amsterdam, the tequila tastings at the Hotel Van Zandt in Austin, or the on-tap local suds at the Riverplace in Portland. Either way, says Smith, modern consumers are looking to a brand as a curator. It’s why his company invests its time and energy into furnishing content and facilitating partnerships that inspire its guests — always — “with new, beautiful things from our singular perspective.”

In the current hotel-branding landscape, that singular perspective often finds play in the form of soft brands. Still a relatively new phenomenon, these hotels straddle the line between big corporate entity and unique singleton. With this structure, existing brands extend their embrace to take in one-off properties with established equity. They offer these independent brands the infrastructure and benefits of a franchise system, including access to loyalty programs, national sales efforts, OTA relationships, marketing push and buying clout, without requiring them to ditch their independence or identity. These properties get to keep their names, signs and fixtures, along with all their amassed history and charm.

In 2009, Choice Hotels was the first to launch a soft brand on a major scale with its Ascend banner. Other hotel operations followed suit — Marriott has its Autograph collection, Hyatt has The Unbound Collection, Hilton has Tapestry, et cetera — and now most offer franchisees the option to ride the branding fence. “There’s initially an apprehension on [the operators’] part to become part of a [big brand] because they think they’ll lose their independence,” says Brian Leon, president, Choice Hotels Canada. “But that’s exactly the opposite of what happens. They soon realize they still have their own identity — but also all these frills.”

Today, some 250 of Choice’s 6,000-plus hotels are Ascends — making it the biggest soft brand out there. “It’s still a small component of our business,” says Leon. “But the rate of growth is big. We’re not even remotely close to being saturated with soft brands. We’ve just scratched the surface.”

Brian Stanford, senior managing director with CBRE Hotels, calls the soft-branding option inspired for the way it tenders the essential to a wider audience. “It’s not to say there isn’t room for independents; there always will be. But, the ability to tap into a reservation system and all the booking channels and frequent-stay programs is critical.”

For the consumer, he says, there’s confidence about quality of service and product, but also excitement about experiencing something unique. For the operator, there’s the potential of attracting new clientele, including consumers who don’t want to stay in a core-brand standard when they travel.

But, soft branding isn’t a universal concept. While Stanford believes there’s no question of consumers’ acceptance of the trend, he calls the bigger challenge the limited number of properties that fit the model. Soft branding won’t work, for example, on a tertiary asset in a secondary market. “It’s about finding a market that attracts enough consumers, but also making sure you have a product that’s unique enough in experience to fit into your collection — and there are only so many properties that fit into that niche.”

People are the centre of the brand promise for Group Germain’s hotels and have been for 30 years. “We’re in the hospitality industry and so we can talk about amenities and comfort,” says Monique Strouvens, vice-president of Sales and Marketing at Group Germain Hotels, which has 17 hotels across Canada. “But what really goes into making a brand is creating an emotional bond with the customer, having a conversation with them, really engaging with them.” It was these conversations, she says, that inspired the hotel to eliminate fixed check-out times for direct-booking guests a year and a half ago — a wildly successful initiative.

The people piece, says Strouvens, is also about hiring employees who share the corporate values of respect, aesthetics, teamwork, daring and generosity and training them to understand your mission. Picking like-minded suppliers is also key for hotels keen to integrate themselves with the local community. “We’re not driven just by money, but by our values. So we want to find the right local artist to put art in our bedrooms. If it takes six months, we’ll wait.”

In 2018, Group Germain launched Alt+, its third brand. This kitchenette-equipped, design-inspired studio offering is for travellers looking to enjoy longer stays in a stylish, roomy place that feels like home. In branding this Alt extension, says Strouvens, it was important to create a bespoke personality. “At Germain, we believe in intuition and really grabbing the opportunity when it presents itself. You have to be very agile.”

Indeed, agrees Paul Cahill, area vice-president of Eastern Canada at Marriott International. As much as brands need to be built around storytelling that touches on history, mission and values, they also need to convey the uniqueness of an individual location. When Marriott introduced its storied St. Regis brand to Toronto at the end of last year, it was committed to acquainting customers with the luxury brand’s rich legacy. (Launched in New York in 1904, the original hotel was a playground for founder John Jacob Astor IV to pursue his passions in the company of the city’s luminaries.)

“At the heart of the brand are the coveted rituals that endure at St. Regis hotels today, including the glamour of afternoon tea and evening champagne sabrage, the magic of midnight supper and the brand’s iconic butler service,” Cahill says. “Each is a modern articulation of a timeless tradition and an opportunity to invite guests to experience not only the St. Regis legacy, but also the story of brand and how it comes to life at each individual hotel.”

Branding, says Dorothy Dowling, Chief Marketing Officer at Best Western Hotels & Resorts, is more important than ever. “Most hotels can’t get financed if they don’t have a brand on the building.”

It also helps to offer brands for everyone. Today’s hotel-branding environment is not unlike Procter & Gamble and its slew of Tide SKUs, Dowling points out. “We all have multiple brands. Best Western has 13. That’s important today. It’s about having all the right solutions, being in the market for all the customers. And that all comes down to branding.”

Written by Laura Pratt


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