Understand Independent Travelers

I’m an experiential traveler, looking for different types of places to stay depending on the nature of the trip. I’m not brand-loyal. What matters to me is how the place I choose to stay in fits my needs, so service and distinctiveness matter to me more than familiarity. Community matters to me, too. I like to feel at home wherever I am. I also want to stay in a place that surprises me – pleasantly. I book trips different ways, too.

Which raises the question: Do brands matter anymore? Some, of course, stand for distinctiveness itself, like Apple – and, at least until very recently, Kimpton in hotels. Would Apple signify flair and independence if Sony bought it? Will Kimpton retain the magnetism and stylishness it’s known for now that InterContinental Hotels Group is acquiring it? More on that later.

I want to talk about how we shop, in a world where social media and price rule. When I’m in the market for a dress, I want something different, something unique. Price matters. So do reviews. Above all, I know what I don’t want: to wear a dress someone else will. I’m not totally against shopping online, though I prefer my research to be digital, trying the dress on in a store. Fit matters, after all. So does the personal touch. That doesn’t mean I buy custom-made. It does mean I pay attention to style more than brand, to what other people say and to pictures I can research on the web.Independent Travelers

With social media influencing us 24/7, it’s time hotels come around to this view of brand, too. Today’s traveler wants something different, distinct, fresh, and local – something with personality. That’s tough for a brand.

What hotel brands do – at least they used to – is serve up the familiar. Major brands build their loyalty programs on that concept, not to mention their buildings. You know what to expect from a Marriott product, an InterContinental hotel, a Choice hotel (Best Western? Not so much). And that’s comforting, for sure.

But today’s adventurous, better-informed traveler wants more, wants the total experience. Sure, brands provide standards: What you see is what you get – again and again and again. And there’s the rub. What is a brand today? A flag? A franchise system? A collection? Even the franchise systems are fuzzing the definition, generating soft brands to extend themselves and give them cachet.

Well-known hotel brands like Marriott, IHG, Best Western – the list goes on – are dependable, and you can’t blame them for trying to corner the market with their soft-brand strategies. But that doesn’t make them buzzworthy, especially when social media-driven sites like Airbnb are coming on strong. Airbnb, basically, trades on the notion of community. Its branding is based on experience, locale and individuality. The adventurous traveler goes to the Airbnb site and looks around, seeing whether there are accommodations that will enhance the trip he or she wants to make. It’s like wandering into a conversation among a group of friends; it’s all about peer-to-peer interaction.

People want the local experience, the human touch. So the definition of branding is changing as people change their lodging behavior. Not only is it more peer-to-peer – which is especially true for early adopters eager to try out the highest tech – it also incorporates other people’s reviews and pictures, and people seem to put more trust in those than what a third party or corporation does.

Almost all the big brands are creating soft brands so they can attract everyone, but I’m still not sure that that’s the answer. It goes back to this peer-to-peer idea. People like doing business without the use of an intermediary, they like to know it’s a local experience, they like to know they’re dealing with the business owner rather than providing their money to a third party with no stake in the guest’s experience. The skin in the emotional game doesn’t require a brand.

Years ago, when I was recently out of school, my job required me to move to Washington, D. C. for a few months and the employer was not going to pay for my housing. Looking back, I think how much easier it would have been if there had been Airbnb at the time.

We all know how hard it is to find short-term housing. The problem is compounded when you are working and don’t have time to search and negotiate. Not being familiar with an area and not knowing whether it’s safe don’t help. I didn’t know D.C., let alone the distance to certain areas, and as a woman, I had concerns about safety.

Services like Airbnb would have helped. Airbnb serves up reviews and pictures, both of properties and the general area, and offers a variety of types of housing or lodging to accommodate different people’s needs. The peer-to-peer economy is amazing, even revolutionary. And now that the technology is there to support it, it’s getting ever more popular.

Airbnb isn’t so much a brand as it is a community because it’s a shared a local experience, a personal experience. The definition of branding is changing as people change their lodging behavior. Because it’s more of a peer-to-peer experience and it also incorporates other people’s reviews and pictures, people seem to put more trust in it than what a third party or corporation does.

I don’t think people necessarily become loyal to a certain brand, but they do to a place, a site, a group of people. We’re back to this idea of a community that they can trust. How do you build this community of people with a set of preferences and shared experiences? That’s the issue facing independent hotels that stay local and reflect the small business owner type mentality.

Almost all the big brands are creating soft brands so they can attract everyone, but I’m still not sure that that’s the answer.

It goes back to peer-to-peer. People like doing business without the use of an intermediary, they like to know it’s a local experience, they like to know that they’re dealing with the business owner rather than providing their money to a third party with no stake in the guest’s experience. Putting skin in the emotional game doesn’t require a brand.

Everybody is sharing everything. There are these sites you can go to if you’re looking to find out about a store, a hotel, a store with hot fashions – the Yelps, the Facebooks. There’s so much information in regard to places, things and amenities that it’s very difficult to find anything that’s never been reviewed before. So what about brands?

The value of a brand is it’s familiar and dependable. The drawback is it’s familiar and dependable, which is where soft brands come in. What makes Apple unique and what makes Airbnb unique is this aura of new, fun, easy, different.

Hotels, especially independents, should take Airbnb’s lessons to heart. People pay attention to reviews and pictures and are ruthless in their desire for service, safety and amenities. Those companies that address those needs are and will continue to be rewarded.

Meanwhile, the rush to soft brands continues. Starwood, which pioneered the branded boutique with W (has it really been 17 years?) just announced it is planning a “collection brand,” aiming to join Marriott’s Autograph collection and Hilton’s Curio in the increasingly competitive field.

It seems everybody is getting into the act, upscale on down. Even Hospitality Lodging Systems, in addition to reviving Budgetel, is launching Haven, a soft brand consisting mainly of conversions. According to HLS officials, Haven will be midscale to upscale. And Best Western is finally executing on its BW Premier Collection, the membership group’s attempt to affiliate with intimate, boutique properties. Best Western’s initial foray into boutique is the Hotel Master Johan in Malmo, Sweden. At 68 rooms, it’s Best Western’s first independent boutique. At the same time, as if to hedge its bets, Best Western is launching the “lifestyle” brand Vib (pronounced “Vibe”), designed for urban markets. So the fuzzing continues and, as brands continue to dilute, boutique is becoming a movement.

That’s particularly clear in the Kimpton-IHG deal. When IHG announced in December it would buy Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants for $430 million in cash, InterContinental promised it would retain Kimpton’s character: stylish, occasionally a tad eccentric, and green.

Integrating Kimpton’s intimate properties – they span 40 to 100 rooms – will be challenging. Kimpton boutiques – Bill Kimpton virtually invented the segment – have always challenged the chains, occupying choice spots in historic neighborhoods, setting their pizzazz against a chain’s predictability, their maverick quality against chain cookie cutter.

Chains bring marketing, reservation sales and standard operating procedures and expensive PIPs (property improvement plans). Soft brands/affiliate networks bring marketing, reservation sales and lower negotiated vendor contract pricing and flexible freedom to operate the hotel. Kimpton seemed to be doing well on its own, however. Could we be seeing that hoteliers desire more of the top-line and bottom-line benefits without the “costs”? Can Kimpton can maintain its independent character as part of the IHG fold? We’ll find out soon.

— Pamela Barnhill

This article initially appeared in Hotel Business Review