Hotel chains are trying hard to be not your father’s Oldsmobile, but it may be too late, as it was for that fabled automobile. I’m not saying branded lodging is doomed. I am saying the line between branded and independent boutique lodging is blurring, sapping the power of brands, and that independent, or indie, lodging has a lot more character – among other attributes.

I discovered that emerging truth on a late summer trip when I stayed at the Embassy Suites Niagara Falls; the Hotel Le Germain Toronto; and in Pittsburgh, at the Shadyside Inn & Suites. The Le Germain and Shadyside are independents.

independent hotels

Alkistis Hotel Mykonos, Greece

That Embassy Suites wasn’t bad, but the American-style breakfast seemed stuck in the ’80s, but overall, while the place was clean and well-maintained, it seemed tired. Embassy Suites has always been a safe bet, but the pressure of online reviews and social media postings – with pictures – is making chains a harder sell, especially because chains are one size fits all. The buffet-style breakfast was generous, but we’re a gluten-free family and couldn’t eat much of it. At the same time, props to Embassy Suites for the free Wi-Fi, but thumbs down for the high parking charges.

At the independents, breakfast could be tailored, offering dishes for all sorts of palates – including gluten-free with hard-boiled eggs and freshly squeezed fruit/vegetable juices. Wi-Fi and parking were free, too.

In my travels, I’m not seeing the gross disparity between chains and independents there once was. At the independents, I experienced fresh fruit, hallways with fresh filtered water, free access to nice gyms down the street and breakfast that didn’t feel like it came out of a box. It could be that the independents have the money (no franchise fees) and flexibility (no “big brother”mandates) to cater to the guest in the most effective way. Much of that has to do with social media, which indies can act on more quickly than chains.

Years ago, you’d fill out tent cards with your comments, feedback would go to a support center where staff would consolidate it for management and then forward it to the brand’s corporate office. Due to the large chain of command, change came slowly, if at all, at the chain hotels. Conversely, at the indie, you’d fill out the tent card and immediately, the owner/manager received the feedback and could respond much more quickly due to less hierarchy.

independent hotels

Pages Siem Reap Hotel, Cambodia

How times have changed. Now you, the customer, go online and provide instant feedback across numerous channels. You hope the chain and indie are plugged into all these channels so its officials can act – if they’re empowered to.

While chains pride themselves on incorporating local flavor, their standards limit how local they can be. And when it comes to amenities and entertainment, the amenities are always the same throughout the brand. However, independents have the ability to accentuate the innovative, local or unique offerings at their locales.

I liked the localized menu and upscale amenities of Le Germain, which was basically an upper-midscale hotel. I liked the personal feeling at Shadyside, like the basket of fresh fruit at check-in. I liked the rate I got at all these hotels by doing the research online, booking online – and then calling direct. I always do that. A voice booking saves the hotel the 30 percent fee it would otherwise have to pay the OTA, so why wouldn’t the hotel give the savvy traveler a better deal?

Because of such online work, the difference between the branded hotel and the indie is disappearing. Twenty years ago, travelers had to count on the regularity of a chain, negotiate with their travel agent, leverage a loyalty program, and deal with the hassle of an 800 number. Now they can Google to find a hotel’s “ingredients,” reviews and any other information they need.

Travelers’ tastes are changing as quickly as technology, making catering to today’s incredibly diverse traveler ever more challenging. The independent hotel has a better shot because it has the ability to make changes quickly and because it’s not hampered by a large franchise fee.

At the end of the day, the hotel owner has to decide, do I cater to my guest or my franchise? The independent hotel doesn’t confront that dilemma – and the successful independent has more money to work with.

Pamela Barnhill is founder, president and COO of IBC Hotels and theInnDependentInnCentives hotel loyalty program. Reach her at pbarnhill@ibchotels.com.

– by Pamela Barnhill