A Chain By Any Other Name Is Still a Chain

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Stash Founder and CEO, Jeff Low, explains the difference between soft-branded chain hotels and true independent properties. Originally published in Hotel News Now.

The chains have a problem, and it is standardization. Standardization ushered in the Industrial Revolution, and it has given rise to many of the world’s largest and most successful companies. And it’s something many believed would never go out of style—until now.

Many of the well-recognized brands in the hotel industry were built on standardization: the same room and the same white bed no matter where you went. But a growing segment of travelers is beginning to reject this bland, formulaic offering.

Sameness is now a liability for hoteliers. The growing interest in authentic, stimulating guest experiences is especially pronounced among the next generation of travelers, the much-discussed millennial traveler who, according to some forecasts, will represent more than 50% of travel spend by 2020.

Yet the brands have struggled to answer the needs of these travelers. They’ve tried to build their own unique hotels, but those ring hollow. As one panelist summed up at the recent New York University International Hospitality Industry Investment Conference, “It’s hard to launch a brand that really resonates with a consumer. The bigger they get, the harder it is to maintain those distinctive personalities.”

That’s not the opinion of an independent flag-waver. It’s a quote from Simon Turner, president of global development for Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide.

So, what’s a chain to do?
If you can’t build ‘em, collect ‘em.

You can almost see a team of brand strategists gathered around the table in Marriott International’s innovation bunker poring over consumer survey data and focus group findings. How can we mass-produce a one-of-a-kind hotel experience? How can we create hotels that don’t feel like they’re part of a chain?

Their solution: transparent brands—formerly independent hotels that have been converted to chain hotels “while keeping their distinctive characteristics.” Alternately called soft brands or independent collections, versions of this new chain-product offering have been rolled out by Marriott International (Autograph Collection), Starwood Hotels (The Luxury Collection) and Choice Hotels International (Ascend Collection). Hilton Worldwide Holdings is the latest chain to join this group. In June, Hilton breathlessly announced the launch of a truly disruptive hospitality concept: Curio.

What’s in a name?
What is Curio? It’s “a remarkable group of upper-upscale and luxury independent hotels. Each one is unique, one-of-a-kind and with its own distinct perspective.”

Wait, that’s actually Marriott’s description of its transparent brand Autograph.

Let me try that again: What is Curio? It’s “an international portfolio of independent hotels that uniquely reflect the character of its host city.”

My mistake again, that’s Choice’s definition of Ascend.

Here’s how Hilton describes Curio: “Each hotel in the Curio Collection is completely different from the next. Curio is a collection of hand-picked hotels that are authentic, independent and remarkable.”

In their effort to distance themselves from the term “chain,” the chains have co-opted the name independent. But are these really independent hotels?

Unlike the definition of “boutique,” the term “independent” is consistently defined within the industry and academia; independent is not a sensibility or a state of mind.

According to PKF Hospitality Research, an independent hotel is “a hotel that is not brand-affiliated.” The Journal of Travel and Tourism defines an independent as a hotel that “neither belongs to a franchise chain nor to any corporate operations.”

And so, by the transitive property (if A=B and B=C then A=C), what the brands are creating is brand-affiliated collections of hotels that are not brand-affiliated.

Confused? I am.

If by definition an independent can’t be part of a chain, how should we classify this new hotel mutation? Assuming InterContinental Hotels Group and Hyatt Hotels Corporation will soon launch their own “independent collections,” it seems certain that STR will need a new chain scale for these branded non-branded hotels.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Faux-tiques
  • Chaindependents
  • I Can’t Believe It’s Not Independent!
  • Auto-Cend-io
  • Independ-ain’t

But perhaps the best definition for a hotel that once was independent but is now brand-affiliated: a chain hotel.

Because, of course, that’s what these hotels are. Applebee’s can claim it’s “Your Neighborhood Bar & Grill,” but it is a chain. Your favorite Chipotle may source ingredients locally and custom-design your burrito, but it’s still one of 1,600 restaurants following the same script, doling out beans, carnitas and rice in carefully prescribed portions.

And the independent hotel that just signed up with a chain? It’s now a chain hotel.

Here’s a quick test as to whether a hotel is independent:

  • Does the hotel follow a chain’s standard operating procedure?
  • Did the owners sign a multi-year franchise agreement with a major chain?
  • Does a VP of operations hundreds of miles away oversee the guest experience?
  • Has the character of the hotel been influenced by consumer research conducted in a basement lab in Bethesda, Maryland?
  • If the answer is yes to any of the above, then it’s a chain hotel.

A new definition
We travel for experiences that are invigorating, enriching and fantastic for their unfamiliarity. And that’s what real independent hotels uniquely provide.

And so I’ll add my own clarifying definition: Independent hotels are run by fiercely independent hoteliers, who don’t want—or need—to be told how to create extraordinary guest experiences. Those hoteliers, and the travelers who love independent hotels, know unique can’t be mass-produced. Authentic doesn’t have a 200-page handbook.

So let’s all agree to do away with the doublespeak.

I can promise independent hoteliers won’t misappropriate the term “chain” to describe their properties. Will the brands now take a similar pledge?

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