Skift Take

By Marriott Hotels partnering with interesting and diverse indie properties, and maintaining a hands-off policy, the Autograph Collection is evolving rapidly and organically in both major and secondary markets.

The story behind Marriott Hotels’ Autograph Collection begins during one of those perfect spring days in Savannah, GA back in 2005 when indie hotelier Richard Kessler gave an opening speech in front of his new hotel, Mansion on Forsyth Park. It was the first true luxury hotel in the city, anchored by an elegant historic home built in 1888.

In one way, Kessler hadn’t come that far up to this point. During his remarks, he pointed to the white building at the end of the park where he was born. On the other hand, the former CEO of Days Inn was laying the groundwork for Marriott’s entry into the booming lifestyle hotel market.

In 2010, Marriott approached Kessler with a partnership offer to incorporate seven Kessler Collection properties into its global distribution system, and co-brand the hotels under a new, as-yet undetermined brand name. Kessler resisted, suggesting that Marriott could sign up a couple hotels that might benefit from the increased exposure. Unless, he recalls in this video, Marriott made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

Marriott made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. The Autograph Collection launched that year with the Kessler properties forming the bulk of the hotel inventory.

Kessler built hotels themed around local culture and the cultural arts, each with an individual identity, a compelling story and a strong sense of place. Building on those themes, the Autograph Collection today consists of 57 hotels from New Mexico to Normandy, with another 20 potential partnerships pending in 2014.

Last year, there was a decided shift toward the luxury sector in Europe. New high-end, high-profile Autograph properties include: St. Ermin’s Hotel in London, where PM Margaret Thatcher and MI6 once held meetings, the ex-Ritz-Carlton Powerscourt Hotel outside Dublin, and last month, two Boscolo Hotels in Rome and Milan.

Stateside, the hotel inventory is mixed among price point and style, ranging from family resorts to hunting lodges to the high-watt Millennial magnet, The Cosmopolitan at Las Vegas.

We spoke with Amanda Altree, senior director, brand marketing at Marriott International, who says Kessler’s original vision celebrating the “Individualist” defines the brand to this day.

Skift: Amanda, how does Autograph Collection benefit its hotel partners?

Amanda Altree: Autograph Collection is a great opportunity for a hotelier like Richard Kessler, or any small hotelier who has a vision but just needs to introduce their hotels to a worldwide audience. And then for hotels that are still kind of evolving in that space and really trying to build their equity as an independent hotel, they get a boost from Autograph Collection that can pay off as early as a few weeks. Suddenly they’re able to do the things they’ve always dreamed of.

Skift: How do you decide which hotels to partner with?

Amanda Altree: It’s really about getting the right hotels in the right markets, and when I say that, it’s really about hotels that have an element of distinction. You know, there’s such a demand for those hotels that offer a level of enrichment that brings in the local flavor and cultural aspects of a community.

When we’re looking for hotels, it’s important that they have those authentic hallmarks, and knowing that they’re going to appeal to a customer that is looking for more than just a hotel stay. They want an experience, and they want to share that story or experience with their friends.

Skift: Is there growing demand in tertiary markets?

Amanda Altree: When I talk about strategy, it’s about finding hotels in market—they don’t have to hit and penetrate the big gateway markets, or anything like that. It’s really about finding hotels that Marriott can help by including them in our channels and bringing our powers to bear, with and Marriott Rewards.

There is significant demand in tertiary markets because these really unique independent hotels are started by hoteliers who wanted to create something special. Savannah is a great example. So I think these hotels are a little more organic in those tertiary markets, in that they’re very authentic experiences. I look at Santa Barbara or Taos, which lend themselves to their destinations so well.

Skift: As Autograph Collection accelerates its growth globally, how is your brand positioning evolving?

Amanda Altree: We’ve been expanding so quickly so our positioning became very important. We wanted to define ourselves and make sure we kept the integrity of these amazing properties in the collection.

To summarize our true north, it’s about championing independence, and that governs everything we do, whether it’s in operations or sales and marketing. We want to make sure that our support is building the equity that that hotel has in its independent point of view and its independent voice. And that we don’t have a heavy hand with our own brand standards, or do anything to water down the experience a hotel offers.

Skift: Is that viewed by Marriott as a strong differentiator?

Amanda Altree: I think this championing of independence has really given us a unique position in the marketplace. There aren’t any competitors I think doing what we’re doing in terms of building brand equity, in terms of the brand being the independent hotels, and not so much the curation of our own portfolio.

Championing independence is our internal dialogue. When we’re talking to customers, it’s really about providing hotels that are exactly like nothing else. That sort of serves as our tagline because we also want to convey that you may love one hotel in Asheville, North Carolina, but it’s going to be a very different experience when you go to San Francisco. There’s really no thread of sameness that runs through the hotels in the collection.

Skift: Who are your target demographics?

Amanda Altree: We do look at demographics but the psychographics are so much more important I think, because we call our target customer the ‘Individualist.’ That person is someone who is sophisticated, they’re confident, but they’re a little bit experimental, right? They don’t need a brand to make a decision for them. They’re not reliant on a brand stance, necessarily. They want to try new things, and they’re more trendsetting.

I think there’s some of that in all of us, so we try not to define that too narrowly by a demographic.

Skift: How do Millennials fit in that equation?

Amanda Altree: This psychographic is true with Millennials especially, this new traveler that everyone’s talking about these days who really does appreciate authentic experiences and trying new things. But it’s also my generation, and I won’t tell you my age but it’s at the top end of Generation X, and I love that too.

So it transcends any particular age group. It’s really a point of view, a mindset, about wanting to learn new things that you can’t wait to tell your friends about.

Skift: How has Autograph managed to successfully appeal to a wide range of guest profiles?

Amanda Altree: Our development has been organic. It’s not at all contrived. I think it’s a perfect fit for Millennials so they don’t miss out on things when they visit a new place. But then we do fall into the high-end price point most of the time, which often means an older customer, and that’s because they’re willing to pay for the heightened experience.

Skift: The word ‘organic’ seems to be the determining factor.

Amanda Altree: I love the word ‘organic.’ I’ve been in the hotel industry a long time, and I think a lot of hotels do a great job creating experiences, but Autograph Collection is doing that from the ground up, and it’s true to the spirit of the locale. That’s a little harder to convey because so many people have experienced hotels that are the same across market. You know, they’re consistent. Autograph Collection isn’t really even consistent market to market, other than the quality of the experience.

Skift: To what do you attribute the shift toward the luxury sector of late?

Amanda Altree: It’s interesting. The more that we’ve grown with our partners in the collection, it’s encouraging similar neighbors. It depends also by market, and it’s also this generational thing, but the definition of luxury has really changed. We used to define luxury by the number of fixtures in the bathrooms and thread count of the bed sheets and drapes. Nowadays, luxury is really about the service and the experience.

I think we’re skewing into that higher end travel space because, again, people want something unique. It’s really the demand from our owners and our guests that’s spurring our development pipeline.

Greg Oates covers hospitality trends and next generation hotels. He has participated in 1,000+ hotel site inspections in over 50 countries.

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