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In mid-December, the Independent Collection hotel group announced its purchase of two boutique hotels in Miami Beach, both part of Marriott’s fast growing Autograph Collection. Now with nine properties in Florida and across the Northeast, Independent Collection makes an interesting case study about today’s hospitality trends, because it’s 21st century native and it’s thriving five years after launching during the recession.
Part of the larger Hersha Hospitality Trust group, which operates select service brands nationwide, Independent Collection consists solely of design-conscious hotels in culturally-rich communities. To date, those include Tribeca and Midtown in Manhattan, Georgetown and Capitol Hill in D.C., Brooklyn, Boston, Philadelphia and now South Beach.
The two new Florida hotels are the 75-room Blue Moon Hotel and 70-room Winter Haven Hotel, which together underwent a $9 million renovation in 2013. Both are historic Art Deco buildings located in the very heart of South Beach. Like the rest of the portfolio, the properties are intrinsic parts of their community, each possessing an edgy, yet mature design and a devout community-centric user experience.
“One of our core beliefs has always been around the neighborhood—the independent spirit within a community that defines us differently than your larger or branded hotels,” says Foiz Ahmed, VP of Independent Collection. “We’re bringing the neighborhood into the specific hotel experience. Our goal is to be in major markets where we can pull from the community to create a story.”
Independent Collection is not quite a household brand yet. In fact, when the group began offering printed neighborhood guides in the guest rooms a couple years ago, the hotel staff called or visited every establishment recommended in the guides, because many of the people working in them didn’t know the hotels existed.
That has since changed. Ahmed says local business owners are now calling the hotels to request being included in the guides. Then last summer, Independent launched a comprehensive series of digital neighborhood guides for each hotel with more indepth information, geared around local restaurants and bars, shopping and cultural attractions.
“They include restaurants and shops, etc., that you might not find on e-channels,” says Ahmed. “We know the guides are successful because our front office staff are constantly being asked to provide more specifics and recommendations.”
With so much talk these days about how travelers, especially younger generations, are arriving at hotels armed with a wealth of local knowledge sourced online, just as many don’t. The combination of the six-page printed guides, updated twice yearly, and the digital guides provide a very handy resource.
Ahmed explains that exchange of information is a priority for guests.
“Our guests are looking for instant feedback about everything, which means from start to finish, they want to be in constant communication with the hotels,” he says.
Toward that end, Independent Collection signed on with a new central reservation system last week with better real-time interaction between the hotels and both potential and existing customers. The system captures a person’s email as soon as it’s entered, and when a person leaves midway through a booking, an automated query goes out asking for more information and if a hotel representative can be of any assistance.
“Our priority moving forward is to figure out how to better profile our guests, but most important is to make sure that they have one point of contact, and that typically means some sort of software,” explains Ahmed. “But all our hotel managers will be directly connected, whether it’s via email or text, as to what the guest requests are, all through this one platform we’ve just engaged with…. So it allows us to be very strategic in our marketing moving forward.”
Ahmed declines to name the CRS just yet because some vendors have still not been notified, but he expects to announce it within 30 days.
We asked Ahmed who the target client is. Is it younger generations, due to the emphasis on community integration and groovy design? And do Independent Collection executives specifically use the word “Millennial” during their sales/marketing strategy sessions?
“You know, it wasn’t a word that we used up until about three, four months ago,” says Ahmed. “When we started thinking about profiling, and how we want to move forward and who we’re catering to, “Millennial” and “Gen Z” became a pretty standard topic of discussion for us.”
And why is that?
“From a Millennial standpoint, we’re quickly identifying that that’s our core customer, for now. It’s more about growing their base, because in the future they’re going to be the ones with disposable income. For Gen Z, we’re discovering more and more that the young kids of today are very involved in their parents’ decisions about travel—this is more on the leisure side—because they have their own devices.”
For its online reputation management, Independent Collection uses newBrandAnalytics to capture all of the digital dialogue about the brand.
“That piece has been critical for us as far as response, and it also creates awareness among the entire senior leadership team,” says Ahmed. “They see every comment that goes on to any social media platform or internet platform on a daily basis all the way up to our CEO.”
Answering if he thinks that is unique in hospitality, Ahmed says, “I think that’s very unique. It just sets the tone that there’s a lot of eyes on making sure we execute on what we promise.”
Ahmed circles around and says it all comes back to the next generation of travelers who want to be in constant contact—and have the ability to engage in real-time communication—with the hotel when, where and how they want to.
“Everyone is in a huge rush these days, so one of our focuses as a group is how do we minimize wait time during that dialogue,” says Ahmed.
Looking forward, Independent Collection has signed a management contract to operate a 65-room new-build hotel opening in two years in Miami’s super trendy Design District.
Greg Oates covers hospitality trends and next generation hotels. He has participated in 1,000+ hotel site inspections in over 50 countries.