Growing appeal of independent hotels spurs soft brand trend

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Soft brands are not a new innovation, but as with other trends in the hotel industry, their popularity has waxed and waned over the years. The current environment has been particularly kind to these groups of hotels in terms of growth.

Of the recent round of soft brand launches, one has been particularly fast out of the gate in building distribution. Not surprisingly, Curio Collection from Hilton Worldwide has a major multibrand company with global reach—and development team—behind it. Launched 14 months ago, Curio Collection already had nine hotels signed up in North America as of late July, with four more scheduled to open in the next eight months. The portfolio ranges from Carefree, Ariz., to Chapel Hill, N.C. In addition, Curio recently enrolled its first properties in the Caribbean (Jamaica), Europe (Germany) and Latin America (Argentina).

Meanwhile, Tribute Portfolio is the most recent entrant in the soft-brand sweepstakes backed by a major multibrand company. Debuting just three months ago, its parent is Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide and its first property is the Royal Palm Hotel in South Beach, Miami, which had just been acquired by Chesapeake Lodging Trust.

According to Starwood, four more hotels will be coming on board with Tribute Portfolio shortly, all four located in Southern cities (Asheville, N.C.; Nashville, Tenn.; Savannah, Ga., and Charleston, S.C.).

Independent targets

Like soft brands generally, Curio Collection and Tribute Portfolio both target independent hotels and resorts that see a value in retaining their individual identity. But these properties also see a significant benefit to be gained from having access to a major hotel company’s distribution channels and marketing support, including a powerful frequent guest program.

For Hilton and Starwood, launching a soft brand is a relatively inexpensive way to build distribution, often in desirable markets where the barriers of entry for new construction can be formidable. In fact, Tribute Portfolio is Starwood’s second soft brand, joining The Luxury Collection, which focuses exclusively on independent five-star hotels. Luxury Collection was part of CIGA Hotels, which was acquired by Starwood in 1994.

For its part, Marriott International created its own soft brand in 2010 in the last wave of soft brand launches. Its entrant, called Autograph Collection, today includes more than 80 hotels worldwide, the most recent addition being the Gewandhaus Hotel in Dresden, its second property in Germany, which joined last month.

Authentic and individual

Underlying the popularity of soft brands is the growing appeal of independent hotels. When surveyed, consumers, especially millennial consumers, increasingly express an interest in bookings hotels that are individual and provide an authentic experience.

Brands on the other hand are too often viewed as standardized and cookie-cutter. It’s for this reason that the word “collection” (and now “portfolio”) shows up so often in the soft brands’ naming. For owners, it’s a way of having many of the benefits of being affiliated with a brand without the restrictions.

One of the properties that signed up to join Curio, the 1,000-room Diplomat Resort & Spa in Hollywood, Fla., actually had a prior life as part of a brand, specifically Starwood’s upper-upscale Westin brand. In 2014, however, Thayer Lodging Group acquired the property from United Association, a union group, in a deal valued at $460 million. Thayer retained the Diplomat name, but dropped the Westin affiliation and subsequently decided to go the soft brand route with Curio.

Annapolis, Md.-based Thayer made a similar series of choices with another recent acquisition. Acquiring the 198-room Hotel Palomar in Dallas a year ago for an undisclosed sum, Thayer replaced Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants Group as manager with Interstate Hotels & Resorts. The newly named Highlands Dallas Hotel then signed on to join Curio.