Soft-brand category hard for hotel companies to ignore

Very hot. It’s an apt descriptor right now for the eclectic siblings—soft brands—in many hotel companies’ family of brands. They’ve gone from a nascent concept almost 15 years ago to a robust growth and market-distribution vehicle for leading lodging companies, which often dub the individualistic properties that compose this group as a “collection,” sometimes adding a corporate pedigree tag.

Choice Hotels International is widely recognized as pioneering this space, innovating its Ascend Hotel Collection in reaction to the industry downturn and recession of 2008. Among the first into the mix of independent historic, boutique and resort properties were the Golden Hotel in Golden, Colo., and Hotel Bothwell in Sedalia, Mo.—both still operating—heralds of now more than 200 upscale Ascend hotels located around the world.

Soft brands as a whole are attractive currently for consumers and hotel owners and investors alike, with the pandemic forcing rethought travel plans and greater interest in development, respectively.

Wanting experiences, “consumer travel preferences have evolved,” said Regina Richardson, head of Ascend Hotel Collection. “Travelers are increasingly taking advantage of opportunities to extend weekend trips and enjoy the flexibility of working remotely.”

Owners also have recognized how “evolving” into the space via a major brand can bring benefits from loyalty programs, tech platforms, strong sales and marketing efforts and other chain programs and systems.

“We’re now seeing a lot of interest in adaptive-reuse projects and hoteliers partnering with local municipalities,” Richardson said. “And, with the return of lending, there’s also interest in new construction.”

At presstime, there were 55 hotels in the Ascend pipeline and another 40 deals projected for this year, she said.

Fitting In

Finding the right niche in the soft-brand space had been a key consideration for IHG Hotels & Resorts. In 2018, it launched upscale-segment competitor Voco, debuting it in the Americas two years later in New York City. Last summer it launched the Vignette Collection as part of its “Luxury & Lifestyle” portfolio, opening Hotel X in Brisbane, Australia, in December.

According to Julienne Smith, SVP of development, IHG anticipates introducing the soft brand worldwide. “In November 2021, we launched franchise sales for Vignette in the U.S., and also recently signed our first European properties in Austria and Portugal,” she said. Thailand is another location in the works.

Smith, who noted conversions “work well” for both soft brands, said, “An owner also can work with IHG to create a purpose-built Vignette, leveraging [his or her] own vision for the property.”

In the Americas, Vignette likely will grow via franchise agreements, Smith said: “IHG also will manage for owners when appropriate and may invest in certain assets in key markets.”

With a focus on midscale and upper-midscale properties, Red Roof entered the space in 2018 with The Red Collection. Its current properties are all on the East Coast: Spot X Hotel in Orlando; Artel Hotel Times Square New York; Costa Azul Suites Virginia Beach (Va.); and Le Voyageur in Wildwood, N.J.

“Soft brands allow unique hotels to benefit from the consistency of a brand association, both through operations and by instilling positive expectations in guests,” said Matthew Hostetler, Red Roof’s chief development officer. “These hotels are attractive to guests because of their individuality, and owners sometimes have an opportunity to go light on brand standards in order to offer a more unique experience.”

Opportunities are coming via the chain’s current customer base. “Our owners and franchisees understand what makes Red Roof successful, and their recommendations are helping us grow beyond our perceived limits. Current relationships helped us find these new opportunities,” said Hostetler, adding the company will remain at a steady growth pace with The Red Collection. “We want to be strategic, not aggressive.”

No Labels, Please

While not considering it a bona fide soft brand, Jennifer Barnwell, president of Curator Hotel & Resort Collection, recognized the value of being in the space with independent hotels, as apparently did lodging real estate investment trust Pebblebrook Hospitality Trust, which launched the entity in 2020, together with a half-dozen hotel operators.

“Many independent hotels were struggling to keep afloat during the pandemic and Curator provided many solutions to reduce operating expenses and optimize their bottom line for these hoteliers,” she said.

To date, 91 properties are in the Curator collection. culled from the portfolios of partners Pebblebrook, Pyramid Global Hospitality, Davidson Hotels & Resorts, Noble House Hotels & Resorts, Provenance Hotels, Springboard Hospitality and Viceroy Hotels & Resorts. 

The idea, said Barnwell, is “to give indie hotels and small brands an alternative to affiliating with a big brand by providing them with the support that comes with belonging to a larger collection of like-minded, unique properties.”

And while relegating the soft-brand term to major chains, Barnwell acknowledged why the space has become so hot: “It would be fair to say that they were created or purchased because the big brands recognized that there is tremendous demand in our industry for accommodations that are interesting, creative, memorable and design-forward.”