When Marriott acquired Starwood last year, Marriott became the largest hotel company in the world. Post acquisition, Marriott now owns three soft brands, The Autograph Collection, The Luxury Collection, and The Tribute Portfolio. With the sudden tripling of the company’s soft brand options, Marriott has leaned into that market, enjoying the benefits of having so many opportunities for organic growth. LODGING touched base with Brian Povinelli, senior vice president and global brand leader of Marriott’s Premium Distinctive portfolio, and Julius Robinson, vice president of Autograph Collection Hotels and Tribute Portfolio, to see how these brands are performing post-merger and what we can expect from Marriott’s soft brand offerings in the future.
With the Starwood merger, Marriott added the Luxury Collection and the Tribute Portfolio to its brands. What was it like inheriting two soft brands at the same time?
Povinelli: We both have different perspectives on this, since I came over to Marriott with Starwood and I’m only about a year into this new position. Julius has 25 years of experience within Marriott, so he probably sees it a little differently than I do. That said, speaking broadly for the organization, I think bringing the brands together was quite seamless because they all naturally fell into their own spot within our brand architecture. We did a lot of work building up the architecture for the 30 brands during the integration, creating segments from select-service to premium, and breaking the brands into three categories—classic, distinctive, and lifestyle. When you use that architecture, each soft brand falls neatly into a segment. And, as we looked at soft brand experience demand was from a consumer standpoint, we felt each of these brands had clear, distinct lanes to play in.
Robinson: I would just add that, from the perspective of someone who’s been with Marriott and who saw the launch of Autograph, that widening our soft brand options has been a great step for us. Sometimes absolutely amazing assets would want to join Autograph, but they just didn’t fit into that brand’s upper-upscale market segment. Now, with the Luxury Collection and Tribute, we have the opportunity to bring those properties into the fold. When it was just Autograph, there was pressure to push the boundaries up or down. Now we have a much more organic home for most opportunities that we’re looking to bring into the broader portfolio.
What does Marriott’s soft brand development pipeline currently look like?
Robinson: Well, we have 120 open Autograph hotels and about 75 more in some phase of development. Tribute has about 20 open properties and another 35 to 40 in the pipeline. We really see both of these brands growing a very quick pace. Then the Luxury Collection isn’t growing quite so rapidly, but we’re very carefully curating that brand to ensure it grows at a sustainable pace.
Why do you think soft brands are taking off the way that they have?
Povinelli: There are a number of ways to look at this. The first is from the consumer point of view. More and more people are looking for more experiential everything, especially when it comes to travel. And this isn’t just millennials, people in general are just more focused on experiences than material things. The hotels in these soft brands have unique story to tell help create memories that last beyond a material purchase. Additionally, I think there’s a little bit more willingness to deviate from the comfort of a global chain scale brand than there was 10 years ago. A lot of that comfort comes from the digital world, because travelers can access so much information about these hotels online—pictures, customer reviews, you can literally engage with people who’ve stayed at a property and find out what it’s all about.
If we look at soft brands from a developer perspective, these collections give independent hotels the opportunity to plug into the sales organization, the loyalty program, the revenue management programs, all of the services that a big international hotel company can provide, which should help them be more secure during ebbs and flows of the business cycle. It’s a compelling business proposition for the owner.
Is it ever a bad idea to launch a soft brand? Has the market reached its saturation point?
Povinelli: From our perspective, all we’re doing is capturing an experience that already exists and putting a different formula around it. All of these hotels were already out there and we’re giving them an chance to be part of a bigger opportunity. So, I think it’s hard to say if there’s a saturation point because I don’t think we are adding more complexity or confusion to the marketplace. I think we’re making the marketplace cleaner for the customer.
That said, if you’re going to launch a soft brand, you really have to commit to spending the time to properly curate the portfolio and ensure that you deliver on customer expectations. If you’re just trying to grow your footprint and bring in everything and the kitchen sink, at the end of the day, the consumers expectations won’t be met and your plan is going to backfire.
Robinson: I’d also like to add that you need to be committed to building the internal infrastructure that supports these hotels. I think that’s a huge point of differentiation for Marriott is that we have a robust, dedicated team that is entirely focused on our collection brands. They ensure that our owners know how to tap into our resources, that they can maximize the systems that we offer to be successful. I think that’s pretty unique within the industry to have that support structure. If you can’t commit to a collection brand, hoteliers can sense that, and it won’t be successful.
LODGING’s conversation with Povinelli and Robinson will continue in our July issue’s Guide to Soft Brands.
Pictured: The Laylow, an Autograph Collection Hotel.