The Independent Hotel’s Guide to Soft Brands

With Hilton Worldwide launching the Curio Collection in June and Best Western announcing the BW Premier Collection in October, soft brands once again find themselves in the spotlight. Like others of the genre, Curio and BW Premier target independent hotels. Owners of these properties gain access to the brand companies’ sales and marketing platforms, including access to their increasingly powerful loyalty programs, yet stop short of actually having to trade in their independent status and become part of a traditional “hard” brand with its often stringent standards. With a soft brand, owners get to retain their properties’ independent standing, especially when they feel there’s significant value in their hotels’ stand-alone name.

These two new brands join Marriott International’s Autograph Collection, Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide’s The Luxury Collection, IHG’s InterContinental Alliance Resorts, Choice Hotels International’s Ascend Hotel Collection, and Vantage Hospitality’s Lexington Legacy Hotels. Richard Kessler, one of the first owners to sign up his properties for Autograph Collection, cited “the global exposure and reservations potential” in joining. Hotel companies clearly see an opportunity. In launching Curio, Hilton President and CEO Christopher Nassetta noted “the current size of the independent hotel market and demand for differentiated hotel stays.”

In fact, much is made of the individual, authentic nature of these properties, which explains the frequent use of the word “collection” to describe them. In rolling out Autograph Collection, Arne Sorenson, then Marriott president and COO, spoke of the “distinct life experiences” these hotels would offer. Similarly, Dianna Vaughan, global head of Curio, described the properties chosen as “embodying the fabric of their local community.” And the stream of new soft brand entries doesn’t seem to be slowing.

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“Creating soft brands has been a way for hotel companies to grow without having to compromise the standards of their traditional brands and at the same time generate additional revenue,” says Bjorn Hanson, clinical professor at New York University’s Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism, and Sports Management. The brand companies are also aware that, despite how deeply they have penetrated the marketplace, there are still some people that prefer to book independent properties. Soft brands are a way of capturing this business.

Yet Curio, Autograph Collection, and their counterparts are only one aspect of the lodging industry’s soft brands. While they lack an affiliation with a major, multi-brand company, representation companies like Leading Hotels of the World, Preferred Hotel Group, Small Luxury Hotels of the World, and IBC Hotels also target owners of independent hotels. The number of member properties they represent actually may be significantly higher than the brand companies’ collections, and the range of properties equally varied.

Hanson, however, points out one key distinction between the two types of soft brand: The representation companies will accept branded hotels as members. In India, for instance, five of the seven member hotels are branded Taj and are part of Taj Hotels, Resorts, and Palaces. The representation companies, meanwhile, do offer member hotels access to electronic booking channels, including mobile apps, sophisticated websites, and reservation centers. In some cases, they even maintain their own loyalty programs, though, granted, they’re considerably more modest than, say, Marriott Rewards or SPG.

Whether brand company or representation firm, most of the soft brands focus on high-end independent properties. On this point, firms like Leading, Preferred, and Small Luxury work hard to burnish their own images. “Membership is often seen as a kind of Good Housekeeping seal of approval,” Hanson notes.

For owners, it can be more empowering to retain their independent status and still gain access to the distribution platforms and marketing muscle. “There’s a certain freedom and prestige that comes with being independent,” Hanson says. Soft brands also don’t necessarily discriminate in regard to size. Autograph Collection’s portfolio includes both a 15-room hunting lodge and the 3,000-room Cosmopolitan.

Costs to join will vary. Much depends on the particular soft brand and location of the property. Typically, owners can expect an initial application fee, which will include a flat fee plus a charge per room. In some cases, there might be a minimum. There may then be an annual membership fee plus marketing, royalty, and reservations fees. Owners also should keep an eye out for extra charges that might be added on for a higher level of service regarding revenue management or social media support.

A big part of the soft brands’ appeal is the lure of the loyalty program, especially if the program is one of the industry’s largest. But the appeal works two ways. Before IHG had even officially launched InterContinental Alliance Resorts, Las Vegas Sands Corp. had signed up to join on behalf of its Venetian and Palazzo resorts. At the time, Sands COO Michael Leven spoke of the deal being a win for both parties, given that IHG’s millions of loyalty program members now could earn points for their stays. Of course, for IHG the deal made sense on a different level: Those millions of members now would have a pair of luxury resorts where they could redeem their points.

Hanson concludes by noting how consumers’ view of traditional brands has changed over the years. “There was a time when these brands’ rigorous standards were highly valued by travelers,” he says. “But these standards can be a negative today, especially to younger travelers. They still like their frequency points but not the sameness associated with brand standards. Soft brands are a way for a hotel company to have flexibility without sacrificing loyalty.”

View the Guide to Soft Brands here.

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