Independent hotels capture the zeitgeist of the hospitality industry

Ever since Kemmons Wilson planted his first Holiday Inn sign along a highway in Memphis, the hotel industry has been dominated by brands. From Marriott to Hilton, and the seemingly endless others that crop up, brands meant reassurance: comfort and security in knowing what you were going to get.

But over time, as the world evolved and travelers did the same, the norm became mundane, boring. In order to solve this, hotel companies did what they thought travelers wanted: more brands.

But were more brands targeting different segments and psychographs the answer? The jury is still out, but the space is getting more crowded by the minute.

With the tools and technology now afforded to developers and owners, building independent hotels has become an easier—though still trying—task. (Some lenders still bank on the brands.)

But, then, the major hotel companies started to wise up: many travelers were opting to stay in what are deemed independent hotels, or properties without any large corporate backing. Enter the soft brand or affiliation program: allowing independent hotels the ability to plug into the vast systems that come from being associated with Marriott, Hilton, Starwood, etc.

The move by the big hotel companies illustrated a shift: the independent spirit is alive and well in the hotel industry.

Such was the backdrop for the Independent Lodging Congress, being held in New York this week at the High Line Hotel. Now, while the definition of a true independent hotel is up for debate, the independent feel, spirit and experience is less ambiguous, though it does come in varying shapes and forms. How could it not?

Defining what independence is was the topic of a panel composed of four hotel groups: Ace Hotels, Destination Hotels, 21c Museum Hotels and Benchmark Resorts & Hotels. They were accompanied onstage by Bunkhouse Group, a brand builder.

Full disclosure: editorially—Ace (seven hotels and two on the way), Destination (a collection of more than 40 hotels), 21c (four hotels with one on the way) and Benchmark (another hotel collection)—are not true independent hotels. When you have more than one hotel, you can't call yourself an independent hotel anymore. What they all do exhibit, however, is a feeling or spirit that doesn't come from the traditional brands. It's an experience that is hard to place, explain or touch, but guests know it the instant they set foot in the property.

If anything, don't call them boutique: they hate that. "We have an indy mindset," said Brad Wilson of Ace Hotels. On boutique: "The chains are trying to reproduce the boutique feel, but it lacks imagination," he said.

"An independent luxuy hotel has more in common with Ace than a boutique hotel chain. The independent customer is not drawn to chains. The chains are just finding alternatives for their customers. And it's a good move for them, but they are not creating an independent hotel."

The independent spirit goes beyond design, too. Staff and service are huge components—perhaps the biggest. "It's about empowerment for guests and associates, and the ability to position and curate the experiences for the local market place—not run-of-the-mill experience," said Jamie Sabatier, president and COO of Destination Hotels.

Moreover, Alex Cabanas, CEO of Benchmark, (making a point above) said you almost have to brainwash staff to understand how different the independent mindset is versus the chain mindset. "You have to deprogram staff to have a brain and heart again," he said.

It's the same mindset at 21c, said it's president, Craig Greenberg. "People want to be themselves in their position: no scripts," he said. To be empathetic."

Authenticity is another buzzword often accompanying the independent spirit, and it's "super hard" to achieve, particularly in what Ace's Wilson called a "karaoke capitalism," or copy-cat business. "Authenticity is in the heart, not on a website," he said.

Wilson left the crowd with a story that helps to capture the meaning of independence. A friend of his owns a popular ice-cream shop on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. One day, a couple got on the long line, and when it was their turn, they turned to the employee manning the ice cream and asked, "So, what do people get here?" Without a pause the employee answered: "What do you care? What do you want?"