Independent hotels were in the spotlight during the InnDependent Lodging Executive Summit held during HI Connect’s Nashville event. The sophomore summit featured panels, meetings and educational sessions on lodging- and hospitality-related topics in a fashion similar to other events hosted in the industry, but with a bent toward independent hotels and owners.
IBC Hotels, an independent hotel company with 6,300 members in 170 countries, co-sponsored the conference. Pamela Barnhill, president & COO of IBC Hotels, said the conference’s second annual showing was a mix of branded and independent operators, creating a number of networking opportunities for those in attendance.
“We found there are many hotel owners that own both kinds of properties,” according to Barnhill. “A lot of shows don’t embrace the owners, so this one did more for those beyond the second- and third-line employees.”
The Digital Boost
What attracted Barnhill to the independent space was the level of involvement the average independent owner has with his or her property, as well as the ability to swiftly make changes and evolve based on what guests are looking for. This aspect of the business is what pulled Michelle Nelson away from her post at a national chain. Nelson, who is owner of the Arbuckle Lodge in Gillette, Wyo., attended the conference for the first time to meet with other independent owners and get information on how they promote their properties.
While the Internet has been a boon for independents, creating more avenues for hotels on their own to get their name in front of guests at a low cost, actually succeeding in the online space can be overwhelming without the support of a large brand.
“The Internet is a big boost, but we can always improve,” Nelson said. “Independents have to embrace different marketing strategies, such as email communication with guests, but we also have to set that up on our own. Holiday Inns send preemptive emails and follow up with guests automatically, and if we adopt those we can help drive business directly.”
Direct bookings are in many ways the lifeblood of success at independent hotels. In this sense, the issue of overcoming online travel agencies and their hold on online bookings is one faced by hotels both big and small. “The honchos like Expedia and Booking.com can really drive a lot of business your way, but the expenses that go with them can haunt you,” Nelson said.
Brian Froelich, business consultant for BPF Consulting and JDB Fine Hotels & Resorts, said that independents are also succeeding because of the rise of experiential travel. “If I’m taking my own time, I want to experience something different when I’m on the road,” Froelich said. “And that’s what consumers are interested in. They are more open to ideas and adventures today.”
Froelich urges independents to learn from Europe, where the market’s split between independent and branded hotels is reversed from the one found in the U.S., with independents on the top. However, he also said the brand mindset is an asset in a number of ways, particularly when it comes to operational efficiency.
“Independents are good at being unique and different and all the good things associated with that, but they can struggle with efficiency,” Froelich said. “When you do 1,000 hotels in the same way, there is some effectiveness to that.”
The Loyal Few
Another major hurdle facing independent hotels is consumer loyalty, with Barnhill saying that an underwhelming number of independents are embracing loyalty programs. Part of the problem is that a number of independent loyalty programs exist, but they are inclusive and target primarily the upper-upscale market. Eric Gravelle, VP, revenue management for North America at Diamond Resorts International, said that another barrier to the success of independent loyalty programs is that independent operators are often just as picky as the programs they wish to join.
“We’ve looked into loyalty programs in the past...but your program must have some kind of value your customers want and will become a follower of,” Gravelle said. “We need to be at the top of their wallet.”
Gravelle also urged operators and vendors to consider attending an independent conference. “Bottom line is this is a quality event,” Gravelle said. “Just about anyone involved in lodging can get something out of attending this. Don’t pigeonhole yourself.”