Strict Marriott gives an inch with Autograph Collection

The St. Ermin’s Hotel

The St. Ermin’s Hotel is one of two Autograph Collection properties in London, along with the Threadneedles Hotel.  Pictured: The St. Ermin’s Hotel is one of two Autograph Collection properties in London, along with the Threadneedles Hotel.  

National Report – Marriott International made its mark as a hotel powerhouse by being a stickler for brand standards. But in Autograph Collection, the soft brand it launched in 2010 that affiliates with independent hotels, the hotel company is giving some slack.

For a company as firm and resolute as Marriott is, was relinquishing some control a tough decision? “It does fly in the face of what we have done in the past,” said Tina Edmundson, Marriott International’s global brand officer for its luxury and lifestyle brands, including Ritz-Carlton, Edition, Renaissance, Moxy and Autograph Collection. “[Marriott] is known for consistency, but this is about what will make Autograph special. The hotels have to feel completely independent.”

This is part of the reason why Edmundson is quick to call Autograph a collection of hotels and not a brand. “We don’t want to tell hotel owners and developers what the brand should be. We want them to tell us,” she said.

So far, so good. The Autograph Collection already is around 60 hotels strong and Edmundson said that by the end of 2014, 80 hotels will be Autograph-affiliated. The Autograph Collection, which plays in the upper-upscale and luxury segments, is as diverse as it is large: from the 15-room Kessler Canyon in Grand Junction, Colo., to the 3,000-room Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas.

Sensible choice

For owners of independent hotels, Autograph Collection is a solid proposition: the ability to harness the power of the Marriott booking machine without giving up much, if any, control in exchange. Edmundson said the fee structure is identical to Renaissance Hotels, a percentage of room revenue (she did not disclose the actual percentage).

The Pier One in Australia’s Sydney Harbor is the most recent Autograph Collection addition. It was one of 32 Marriott-branded properties added in the first quarter of 2014.Pictured: The Pier One in Australia’s Sydney Harbor is the most recent Autograph Collection addition. It was one of 32 Marriott-branded properties added in the first quarter of 2014.

That aside, does affiliating with Autograph Collection make financial success? One of the benefits independent hotels have is they keep the bulk of their profits, minus payroll and other expenses; they don’t need to fork over a fee like other branded hotel franchisees do. According to Marriott figures, joining Autograph is rewarding: 12 months after conversion to Autograph Collection, independent hotels see an average RevPAR percentage change of 19.8 percent and an average RevPAR index percentage change of 12.5 percent. This is based on STR data for a group of U.S. hotels that were members of Autograph Collection for a full year and had been operating before they joined the Collection.

If there is any complaint about Autograph Collection, it’s invariably coming from owners of branded properties—those who might see it as unfair that they are subject to sometimes intransigent brand standards and other times extra fees. Problem is, it’s not a fair argument, according to Edmundson. “Do we ever hear it? Sure. Our response: if you want to be that [independent] hotel, then you have to try and be that brand, which means x, y, z and hiring a branding company, etc.,” she said.

“The thing about Autograph Collection is that it sounds easy, but if you’re not already an independent, it’s not that easy. You have to have a brand, and creating a brand is hard. With [Marriott’s] brands, it’s easy plug-and-play. We’ve written the standards—that this is what the design looks like, what collateral looks like, etc. We make it really easy. With Autograph Collection, if you aren’t a brand, you have to do it from scratch.”

The lobby of the Castle Hotel in Orlando, Fla. The hotel is also part of The Kessler Collection, a founding member of the Autograph Collection, which now has 11 Kessler Collection hotels in total.Pictured: The lobby of the Castle Hotel in Orlando, Fla. The hotel is also part of The Kessler Collection, a founding member of the Autograph Collection, which now has 11 Kessler Collection hotels in total.

Edmundson has experience leading lifestyle and luxury brands. She joined Marriott in 2008 from Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, where she was SVP of brand operations for Starwood’s luxury division. There, she worked closely with The Luxury Collection, which, like Autograph Collection, consists of like-minded independent hotels. But Edmundson said that’s where the similarities end. “Luxury Collection is only luxury; it’s a little limiting,” she said. “We are more diverse. Luxury Collection is more of a brand. We are much more a collection. We never tell a hotel owner that they have to use this amenity or these are the brand standards you have to follow. We aren’t that prescriptive.”

Future moves

Autograph Collection will almost certainly grow at a brisk pace, particularly because once a hotel affiliates, it literally is an Autograph Collection hotel the next day: there isn’t a lot of change.

How it will grow is the question. Up until now, growth has primarily been via hotels merely deciding to join Autograph and being approved (since the affiliation program started, no hotels have been exited, Edmundson said). However, that is beginning to change. The Autograph Collection recently opened its first new-build hotel, the Epicurean, in Tampa, Fla. And, in Asia, there are currently four hotels in the pipeline, including a new-build property in Sanya, China, and a project in Qufu, the hometown of Confucius.

➔ 80

Number of forecasted Autograph Collection hotels by close of 2014.

Source: Tina Edmundson, Marriott International

“We’ve had a fair amount of interest in new builds,” Edmundson said. “They love the strength of the Marriott engine. We are getting more requests for that.”

Like most U.S.-based hotel companies, Autograph’s growth has primarily been in the U.S., something that should continue, Edmundson said. “We haven’t exhausted our efforts,” she said. However, Edmundson said the focus for Autograph in the coming months will be on growing the footprint in Europe and the Caribbean/Latin America. “Europe is prime for this collection,” she said.

Autograph, similar to Marriott’s other lifestyle brands—Edition, Renaissance, AC, Moxy—is looking to capture that new traveler, the millennial. Marriott International CEO Arne Sorenson made that abundantly clear at this year’s Americas Lodging Investment Summit, when he described the millennial traveler, who Marriott refers to as Jia. He described her thusly: “She wants a hotel that lets her be Jia. She wants to control her own experience and wants a brand that won’t get in her way. She expects fast Wi-Fi and a bar with a spark. A tweet-worthy experience. One she’ll share with her friends. Jia is the customer we want and she will be won over if we deliver value and are eager to grow and change right by her side.”

Edmundson said work is going on at Marriott right now to capture that millennial share, though she wasn’t at liberty to name specifics. But she said it revolved around mobile, rewards, promotions and how Marriott talks to this consumer (through which channels), “who is a bit different.”

“One of the compelling learnings is that the millennial is looking for an experience,” she said. “They want more, and have higher expectations of travel. It’ll be interesting to see how the industry responds.”

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