Photo by Laura Joy

One could argue the hotel industry’s first “soft brand,” the Ascend Hotel Collection, was born from a company that started with a similar model.

Back in 1939, a group of seven Florida motel owners decided, in an unusual move, that it was better to cooperate than to compete in a burgeoning hospitality market. Rather than pilfer each other’s business, these enterprising operators began referring their guests to each other. And in 1941, to ensure they were sending customers to hotels that met their own exacting standards, the owners formally unified as a membership association named Quality Courts United, establishing service protocols, such as quality standards, operating practices and value for money — heralded as the birth of the first U.S. hotel chain.

Over the next several decades, the company’s membership — and acquisitions — boomed and broadened to include budget, mid-range and luxury lodgings around the world. And, in 1990, it changed its name to Choice Hotels International to reflect that global growth. But it was missing one key element in its vast array of offerings: a segment that allowed its franchisors to accentuate and celebrate their individual communities and distinguish their properties through design and decor.

“In Canada, probably only 50 per cent of hotels are branded, so there are all these independent properties that might speak to the local area and community,” says Rob Alldred, director of Membership Development, Ascend Hotel Collection. “Choice saw the opportunity to fill a gap where people were looking for unique, local experiences [and franchisors] could still be part of a branded company [with] access to everything that is Choice — whether it’s loyalty programs, sales-and-distribution systems, our central-reservation booking engines, our training and marketing — while maintaining your own local identity.”

Enter the Ascend Hotel Collection, an upscale network of distinctive hotels that launched in 2008 across the U.S. and, a year later, in Canada, as a soft brand designed to fill what Choice saw as an under-served sector: unique, boutique, historic lodgings.

The Courthouse Hotel in Thunder Bay, Ont., is a case in point. The existing building, with its Beaux Arts architectural style, original oak trim and mouldings, was home to the province’s Superior Court of Justice from 1924 to 2014. “The owners maintained it in its naturalized setting, utilizing the actual features like the grand staircase, the banisters, the original judge’s bench and the grand ballroom,” says Alldred. “That is key to what Ascend is — having a story and celebrating that story — and the Courthouse is a great example.”

Another illustration, says Alldred, is the St. James Hotel in downtown Toronto, formerly a Ronald McDonald House. The owners, Toronto-based Sterling Hotels, sifted through city archives and found historical maps, drawings and diagrams of the area and created artwork and wallpaper based on those findings to decorate rooms, corridors and the lobby, as well as to create the hotel’s logo.

“That was part of our design strategy, to refer to Toronto in the late 1800s/early 1900s and try to bring that feel [to the converted building],” says Sterling Hotels’ president, Farhan Kassam. “On the old maps, that area is identified as the St. James.”

In fact, it was Ascend’s mandate that franchisors accentuate their own uniqueness, reflect their community and tell a local story that attracted Sterling’s interest. “That’s where we were in sync because that’s what Ascend wanted and that’s what we wanted to do,” says Kassam, whose stable of 23 branded properties includes two Ascends — the St. James and the Windmill Suites in Surprise, Ariz. “We wanted to create a unique place to stay in Toronto because, up until then, you had either an independent hotel or a branded hotel. This was the first mix of both. Other franchise properties give you a cookie-cutter [version] of what the room should look like, what the furniture in the lobby should look like, what colours you have to use — all of that is fixed. Whereas, with Ascend, we get to keep that sense of identity; we [essentially] created our own brand.”

Kassam also appreciates being able to operate his company’s two Ascend properties remotely through Choice Hotels’ web-based management system, choiceADVANTAGE — “one of the best systems in the hotel industry,” he says — as well as the discounts Choice negotiates with the OTAs; the easier financing that comes with the Choice name; and the rewards program. “Otherwise, we’d have to build all those separately. We just sign up with Ascend and get these benefits right away.”

The Sunray Group of Hotels, owners of another Ascend property — the Champlain Waterfront Hotel in Orillia, Ont. — also reached back into history and incorporated old letters, photos, historical notes, drawings and registration forms from the 1940s into its decor during renovations of the nearly century-old building. Sunray also maintained the original external masonry brick to reflect its Victorian boutique style and added customized furniture.

It’s this design freedom that, Alldred says, is the backbone of the Ascend mandate. All the company requires is franchisees use premium amenities and furniture that fit with the upscale style of the properties.

And while many brands are rolling out the red carpet for the millennial traveller, Ascend tends to attract an older crowd. “We found early on that our guest demographics are more mature travellers — very social, business [focused], higher income. They’re more sophisticated and looking for that experiential travel; they’re tired of going to the same old box.”

In fact, it’s travellers’ appetite for unique experiences that’s fuelling the engine of soft brands, says Alldred. Developers are attracted to the design and operational freedom Ascend offers, as well as a strong return on investment. “They’re entrepreneurial already; they want to show their own vision for a property in what they’re doing, [and we] allow them the freedom to do that. [Also] rates are higher, so we’re going to drive premium rates for the developers and franchisees [and] they’re going to see greater ROI. [And guests have] the Choice loyalty program, [which translates] to some significant resources.”

And the growth continues, with four new additions this year, including The Hue in Kamloops, B.C. — which marked the brand’s first new-build property in Canada — the Calabogie Peaks Resort in Calabogie, Ont. and the Hotel Dupuis in downtown Montreal. By the end of 2019, Alldred says the brand will have 17 Ascend hotels in Canada and another five in the pipeline, including a new build in Halifax set to open in 2021.

“We’re really proud of the fact we were the first soft brand,” says Alldred, “It’s a diverse portfolio.”

It’s that pride, diversity and drive that have catapulted the company to heights that, all those years ago, a group of seven idealistic motor-hotel operators could only dream of.

Written by Robin Roberts


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