Why soft brands are gaining momentum with developers

(It's clear guests want a curated, bespoke experience, and the industry's biggest names are willing to help independents get their name out there.)

Independent hotels have never been in a better place, particularly now that larger hotel companies are willing to step in and shoulder some of their overhead. It's clear guests want a curated, bespoke experience, and the industry's biggest names are willing to help independents get their name out there through soft-branded associations. But is the relationship worth it?

According to Gautam Sharma, president of Global Vision Hotels, he gravitated toward soft branding in order to have the support of a major brand in the back end, as well as its marketing dollars. Sharma is in the process of expanding his own sub-brand, enVision Hotels, beginning with a property at Boston’s Longwood Medical Center and expanding to St. Paul, Minn., and beyond. But Sharma had a problem: Developing independently is an expensive and difficult process, so he turned to Choice Hotels International’s Ascend Hotel Collection for assistance. 

“Once we had success with the [Longwood] property, we stopped all other development and began making more enVisions,” Sharma said. “To do it independently we would have to spend a lot of money and maybe not get what we were looking for. Ascend provided that security, as well as marketing support.”

The enVision Hotel Boston

Janis Cannon, SVP, upscale brands at Choice, said if owners want to use soft branding to further the development of their own unique brand, they will be supported by the Ascend Collection. In addition, the opportunity to attach the name of a major brand to a property can open up new avenues for financing, and often provides back-end investments such as property-management systems and access to loyalty programs.

“The future of travel is going to be more about customization and personalization, and not just what is going on in the hotel,” Cannon said. “Everyone has their own unique story to tell, and how to bring that story to life is important.”

To Sharma, taking on the mantle of the Ascend Collection did not mean free business. In his experience, brands have the potential to help a hotel earn 50 percent to 70 percent of business from their internal reservation system, but that is in addition to what a hotel is already booking. The challenge to Sharma comes from a high degree of competition found throughout the industry, as well as an ever-growing mountain of brands.

“[EnVision] has more publicity now, so people are starting to understand it as a soft brand, but it’s sometimes hard to understand how many brands a single company can have,” Sharma said. “There are almost 90 brands out there; it’s tough to differentiate and when they see ‘Ascend’ attached to our name it can be confusing, so we have to create a wonderful experience that can allay those fears.”

The penthouse suite at the Hotel Florence in Florence, S.C.

Grey Raines, owner of Raines Hospitality and president and principle of SpringBridge Development, said soft branding is the direction the industry is headed in right now, particularly with regards to loyalty programs and fees.

“As an independent, you are constantly weighing fees,” Raines said. “That fee creep every year seems to be getting tougher, and as we create and market our experience we’ve seen fees offset through our pricing power and improved [online travel agency] negotiations, so as far as independents versus soft brands, we see fees as neutral.”

SpringBridge’s Hotel Florence, located in Florence, S.C., also chose to side with Choice’s Ascend Collection, with Raines saying the association allowed the property to have a fully customized guest experience while comforting lenders. In fact, SpringBridge is in the process of developing three additional independent hotels and is considering soft-brand possibilities for them. This way, Raines and his team can focus on what they do best: Developing interesting hotels.

“Defining the experience is the most interesting part of developing an independent,” Raines said. “There is a perception that you can throw unique furniture in a room and be done, but [furniture, fixtures and equipment] is such a small piece of what creates a successful soft brand and hotel. We like this historical side, and using a location’s historical nature to create a story built around a property.”