As competition for the dollars of vacationers and business travelers ratchets up, hotel companies are on a never-ending search for ways to differentiate themselves. Hence the rise of so-called soft brands, or brands that appear to be independent but are part of a national or global chain. Canopy and Tru by Hilton and Vib, a Best Western brand, are a few examples of this trend.
Excellent service is no longer enough in a cutthroat industry; guests are looking for uniqueness, local flavor and history, and bespoke experiences that they can capture and share instantly through social media networks, according to a panel of hotel industry experts at the recent ULI Florida Summit in Miami.
The biggest challenge for soft-branded and independent hotels is to articulate what makes them different and express their brand identity consistently throughout the property—from the interiors to the service experience to the food and beverage offerings to the “smallest touchpoints,” said panelist Ron Swidler, principal with the Gettys Group, a Chicago-based hospitality branding firm. “Having a clear vision [of the brand] and delivering against that clarity are what guests are looking for. That’s why they are Snapchatting, Instagramming, Facebooking, and everything else. That is how you win market share.”
Storytelling and user-generated content have become two essential tools in the hotel branding and marketing toolkit. Stories, particularly when rooted in local lore and history, “make the brand come alive,” Swidler said. For the Edwin, a boutique hotel in Chattanooga, Tennessee, that will open next year, the Gettys Group developed a brand identity and interiors around founding fathers and civic leaders. The hotel itself is named after Edwin Thacher, chief engineer of the city’s Walnut Street Bridge; and the flagship restaurant, Whitebird, which will offer a fusion of Native American and Southern cuisines, pays tribute to John Ross, the chief of the Cherokee Nation who established Chattanooga before the Cherokee were expelled from Tennessee and whose Cherokee name was “Little White Bird.”
“It takes a little more time to be clever, but it’s worth it because all this stuff is getting hypercompetitive,” Swidler said. At the same time, cleverness alone will not cut it since “[the story] has to be real. You’re not just making stuff up to make something up. It’s got to have authenticity.”
In the age of social media, no better endorsement exists than guests taking photos of themselves at a property and posting them online. Moxy, a stylish, branded hotel by Marriott that aims to capture the millennial market, illustrates the power of social media on its website, where it curates photos that guests have taken of themselves at a Moxy hotel posted on Instagram using the hashtag #atthemoxy. Anticipating what those social media moments might be is now as much a part of the design process as is selecting the right fabrics and fixtures. “Literally, we’re talking about where people are going to stand to take a selfie,” Swidler said. “That’s very different than what the development world, the brand world, and the design world were talking about ten years ago.”
Panelist Andy Reed, assistant vice president of Destination Hotels, which recently merged with Commune Hotels and Resorts, echoed this point. Social media play a huge role in marketing a property’s food and beverage assets since chef-driven menus create photogenic opportunities for foodies armed with iPhones. The company “tries to focus on high-margin items and have a few signature dishes that put us on the map,” Reed said. Even better is when a guest snaps a photo of a dish and recommends it through Facebook or Instagram.
And it is not simply a property that hotel companies are marketing to consumers, but the destination itself, according to panelist Rafael Cardozo, president of hotel marketing firm Tambourine. Citing a recent survey in which 71 percent of respondents selected a hotel based on its ability to “enhance their perspective on the local experience,” Cardozo explained that places, not properties, are often guiding consumer decisions. “People want a port, a conduit” to experience local food, customs, and culture, he added.
For its part, Streamsong, an independent golf resort in central Florida, has turned its remote location and unique past as a former phosphate mine into a competitive advantage, said panelist Tom Sunnarborg, vice president of land development and management for Mosaic, the resort’s parent company. A one-off investment for Mosaic, a Minnesota-based crop nutrient and fertilizer company, Streamsong is located in southwest Polk County, roughly equidistant to the Tampa and Orlando airports. The resort features two world-class, designer golf courses—a third will open in 2017—and was home to the 2016 U.S. Women’s Amateur Four-Ball championship. It markets itself as an oasis in the middle of nowhere, an area called Bone Valley that is home to a high concentration of phosphate mines.
“This is part of Florida that most Floridians don’t know,” Sunnarborg said. “We don’t apologize for our location away from the beach or urban centers. We try to capitalize [on] and celebrate our remote location as a retreat.”
The resort has created hundreds of hospitality jobs in a region that traditionally relied on the phosphate mining and agricultural industries. After the mine that was once the Streamsong property closed, Mosaic saw an opportunity to bring economic diversity to the region and repurpose the site. “We wanted to change the perception of mining as something that most people think of as permanently destructive to something that is a temporary land use,” Sunnarborg said. “It wasn’t just about environmental sustainability, but economic sustainability.”
In keeping with the panel’s theme that the goal in hospitality is to stand out in a continually crowded field, Streamsong’s design approach is based on the bare essentials. “We embrace minimalism in our design and philosophy,” Sunnarborg said. The golf course does not feature flowers, only native grasses, shrubs, and a few trees. Golf carts are discouraged and walking is encouraged across its dramatic sandy dunes. The natural contours of the mine pits form the course’s terrain, filled with dips, curves, and manmade lakes. “It’s an authentic links approach to golf. The built environment sits very gently into nature and not in competition with it,” he said.