Independent Hotel Branding
Back in the 1970s, Holiday Inn revolutionized the concept of homogenizing the hospitality experience for America. Increasingly, travelers wanted to know exactly where they were going to stay when they got weary. Thus was born the branded hotel as we know it today, the same here as it is there as it is everywhere. Holiday Inn created an expected level of value and experience that was solidified in their new 1975 tagline, “The Best Surprise is No Surprise”. Theirs was a promise of low prices, consistent quality, and convenient locations to a generation of Americans heading out for the highway for business and pleasure.
Jumping ahead 35 years we can see the relative benefits and challenges that a branded world of hospitality has brought to the world. Hyatt, Hilton, Westin, Doubletree, W and Holiday Inn have all cemented their own brands and extensions of those brands so that everyone knows exactly what they will get when they walk into the lobby anywhere in the world. There is truly no more surprise for millions of travelers who have come to expect, and demand, the attributes that these brands deliver on a consistent basis.
One might conclude that this branded hotel evolution would have resulted in the absolute destruction the independent hotel market. Not so. In fact over the last 15 years, the growth in supply for independent segment has trailed the branded segment by only 4 to 5%. Also, what independent hotels might lose to branded hotels in total occupancy, they typically make up for in average daily rate (ADR).
So what is the real challenge for the independent hotel in a world dominated by brands? It is imperative that the independent hotel owner takes branding as seriously as their branded competitors. That means developing a brand strategy plan way in advance of hiring the architect, the interior designers, the food and beverage experts, the ad agency and the hotel staff. The independent hotel must nail down exactly whom they are going to serve. They must define that audience (persona) from both a demographic and psychographic perspective. It’s critical, because that’s exactly what the branded hotels do.
When you check into a Westin, you know exactly what type of guest is going to be there. What you want as an independent may a very different guest, one who is looking for a unique hospitality experience, one that they can not get at a branded hotel. This is the great opportunity, to provide this new expectation of value and experience that is unique to your offering. Going this any other way will create a hospitality property that is undefined and adrift. Marketing becomes an enormously expensive and ineffective when you don’t really know exactly who you are marketing to. Once both transient and group targets are defined, you can build a brand strategy around them.
One independent boutique hotel that has done a tremendous job of creating a unique experience unmatched by any branded hotel is The Ellis Hotel in downtown Atlanta. Well-defined guest personas are articulated in all branding, marketing, food and beverage as well as in room amenities. Hard to get it right, and they have done it right.
Once you have built a brand strategy, you can call back the architects, designers and f&b folks. Now you have a brand, now you can build, now you can fill the rooms with the confidence that you’ve done your homework and can provide something that the branded hotels can not, because sometimes the best surprise is a well thought out and unique surprise.