“Local-Minded”: The Rise of Soft Brands in the Hospitality Industry

How brands are adding a unique touch with boutique hotel lines



November 5, 2018

It is no secret that modern-day travelers are becoming increasingly more savvy when it comes to finding a truly “local” experience. Not only do they want food, drinks, social spaces, and excursions to be local, but they want their hotels to be local as well. Major hotels have taken notice of this growing trend and are incorporating “soft brand” collections into their already large portfolios.

What is a Soft Brand?

A soft brand has the look and feel of an independent property with a distinctive identity, design style, and regional flare. Soft brands also have the brand loyalty guest support, consistent staff training, seamless back-of-house operational standards, and access to new technologies that are affiliated with major brands like Hilton, Marriott, Hyatt, and more. Simply put, the hotel relies on its unique identity rather than that of their parent organization.

Choice Hotels was the first brand to launch a soft brand after introducing the Ascend Collection in 2008. Other brands noticed this rising trend and revenue opportunity and introduced brands like the Curio Collection by Hilton (launched in 2014), Autograph by Marriott (2010), Unbound by Hyatt (2016), Trademark Collection by Wyndham (2017), Best Western Premier Collection (2014), and others. These hospitality industry behemoths recognized a distinct opportunity to blend consumer desires for original experiences with their already well-oiled operational expertise and large loyalty following. Now, guests that belong to Marriott Rewards, Hilton Honors, World of Hyatt, etc. have the opportunity to stay at a property that feels like a luxurious, independent hotel with the peace-of-mind that their loyalty points can be put to work.

The Boulders Resort & Spa, Curio Collection by Hilton

Hotel Collections Have Been a Stronghold in the Industry for Years

Despite the growth of soft brands within major hotel operators over the last few years, hotel collections like Preferred Hotels & Resorts, Small Luxury Hotels, Leading Hotels of the World, and more have been a force in the hospitality market for decades. For example, Leading Hotels of the World (launched back in 1928!) has a portfolio of 410 independent hotels located around the world. In short, an independent hotel may become a part of a hotel collection like Relais & Chateaux or Preferred Hotels & Resorts to have their name associated with these prestiges collections and access to its loyalty members. In return of operating their hotel as an independent entity with ties to a luxury hotel collection, these hotels have to uphold an high-quality guest standard that matches what guests expect to find when staying at a Leading Hotels of the World property.

An In-Depth Look at the Soft Brand Experience

Hotels within a soft brand collection like Curio or Autograph each have a distinctly different look and feel from a typical branded property. Soft brands focus on boosting the guests’ culinary experience to match what they may find around the city, incorporate local art in the halls of the property, and provide a luxury experience that feels original and unique. Soft-branded hotels may also take historical landmark buildings and rejuvenate them into the 21st century—creating a hotel experience that is far different from a normal “cookie-cutter” property.

Hotels also enjoy many benefits of being associated with a larger brand, including boosting visibility from uniting with a parent organization, distribution channels priced at a lower rate, and potentially larger budgets for sales and marketing efforts. From the staff side, employees are trained to brand standards and guests who book a room at these properties expect the consistent level of customer service that comes with being affiliated with a parent brand. To get all of these benefits and become a soft-branded hotel within a larger collection, the property typically pays an application fee, additional costs for specific marketing efforts, and follows a room/pay-for-performance model.

Of course, access to a brand’s loyalty members is one of the biggest perks soft brands enjoy. More often, guests are looking for unique experiences that differ from their past hotel stays. With loyalty members, whether they are constant business travelers or weekend leisure guests, the ability for a soft-branded hotel to display on the parent brand’s collection page or search engine is a game changer. Not only can guests get the consistent service they expect from the loyalty program they belong to, they also feel like they have had a unique experience in an independent property (while racking up more points!).

Hotel Ballast Wilmington, Tapestry Collection by Hilton

The Future of Soft Brands

In the future, guests can only expect more options for soft-branded properties. In June of 2017, Marriott announced its intentions to grow its three soft brand collections—The Luxury Collection, Tribute Portfolio, and Autograph—by 20% this year and 50% in 2019. In similar stride, Choice has another 57 hotels in their Ascend collection pipeline, while Curio, Trademark, and other soft brand collections have similar plans for growth in the future. It’s no surprise this future investment is underway after the numbers show that overall occupancy for soft-branded hotels was 71% in 2016, beating the U.S. hotel average which stood at 66%. RevPAR also rose around an average of 5% on an annual basis from 2011 to 2016. With growth like this, guests will have an abundance of options in the next few years when it comes to staying at independent-minded hotels within all major hotel brands.

theWit Chicago, a DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel
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