Hilton Worldwide launched the lifestyle-oriented Canopy by Hilton brand last week, announcing signed letters of intent from owners to build or convert 11 hotels in the U.S. and London, scheduled to begin opening in late 2015.

The facade of each Canopy is being decreed as a “streetlamp” illuminating the way for leisure and business travelers to discover the hotels’ immediate local neighborhoods. The brand promise combines an authentic destination-specific experience, the service and operational standards of a global flag, and many of today’s lifestyle hospitality trends ranging from mobile check-in to free Wi-Fi.

On paper, Canopy is compelling. For a growing percentage of business travelers seeking hotels with a strong character and local identity, the primary focus on destination context at each of the hotels provides a fresh, untapped alternative in the marketplace. For the leisure guest, hotel design plays a primary role in the overall user experience, but it emphasizes community and casual comfort more than aggressively modern embellishments.

Nuance, however, will be important in determining if the actual hotel assets upon completion feel local or faux local. That’s a big “if.”

Take the Savannah Historic District, for example, earmarked for one of the new Canopy by Hilton properties. There’s clear demand for modern accommodation options among the Spanish moss-draped streets and venerated urban parks, but it’s going to require a lot of attention to detail to build a product that aligns with the antebellum ambience.

According to John Vanderslice, global head of luxury/lifestyle brands for Hilton Worldwide, the Canopy design vision is a 50/50 collaboration between local designers and Hilton’s corporate design division. He says each hotel will embrace the local vernacular, so every hotel is going to look different.

The mandate for the corporate design teams is to create spaces where people feel free to move and engage in a natural way like they might at a friend’s home.

“We really think that there’s a redefinition of the lifestyle category, and what we determined, one of the white spaces in this hotel category was for a brand that was much more accessible,” says Vanderslice. “Accessible for consumers and also accessible for owners. People are really interested now in comfort rather than high design, and they’re really interested in simple, guest-directed service.”

To determine demand and sculpt the brand’s deliverables, Hilton polled over 9,000 guests from the U.S., U.K. and China in an effort to have everything behind this brand 100% consumer validated. The hotel company then prioritized four goals for the Canopy end product: high scalability, clearly defined offerings, a stable business model, and a strong value proposition for owners.

“The funny thing is, we designed the concept to be conversion friendly, meaning you don’t overbuild the guest rooms, you make sure the economics of the lobby experiences are right, etc.,” says Vanderslice. “So then we brought that to select owners, and with the 11 deals we’re announcing today, 10 of them are newbuilds. Basically people said, ‘I like your thinking. I don’t have a hotel today that I want to convert to Canopy, but I tell you what, I’ll build you a new one.’ So that’s kind of a great testament to Hilton and where we are.”

In terms of the Canopy customer, Vanderslice adds, “We don’t think in demographics anymore, we think in mindsets.”

Those four Canopy guest profiles have been defined as:

  • Originals: slightly younger consumers interested in experiential travel
  • Cultured Vacationers: travelers who avoid normal excursions and dig a few layers below that to discover the local culture
  • Room Centrics: business travelers who only care about the room
  • Modern Business: interested in efficiency, combining business and leisure travel

Vanderslice says, “When I look at those four groups, I believe that at any given time you could be each one of those depending on the trip.”

Curating the guest experience, the hotel staff are branded as “Enthusiasts,” inspired by the upbeat and conversational employee/customer relationship at Apple stores. The goal is to break down the barrier between guests and front-of-the house staff who will be encouraged to share their local knowledge with guests.

In terms of specific Canopy product standards, everything begins with the lobbies, which Vanderslice emphasizes will be a central brand differentiator.

“We won’t have a front desk per se, there will be something more like a hospitality station, like a big farm table or something like that,” he says. “If we can, we’d like to have our lobbies be very open so you can see inside the lobby from the street to create the relationship with the area that defines the brand. They’re really like a beacon in the neighborhood, and that could be hard to design in certain areas, but that’s our design intent.”

Guests will have the option to check-in either physically or with a mobile key. “Artisanal” breakfast, Wi-Fi, and a locally-inspired F&B gift are inclusive in the price. Guest rooms will have memory foam beds and an “uncloseted” space for clothes. And instead of highly marked-up minibars, guests can purchase a variety of “street-priced Foodie Bags.”

As expected, Vanderslice is a little cagey about cost, because we’re still a long way off before any grand openings. Canopy by Hilton’s price point, he says, will range from premium to upper upscale, which in hotel-speak means the beginning rate is upper mid-market.

Canopy could provide a competitive corporate option for travelers hungry for a local vibe, and the brand could scale well worldwide, if the rates are as “accessible” as the hotel user experience that’s being promoted.

Greg Oates covers hospitality and tourism development / email: [email protected]

Photo Credit: Promotional photo depicting Canopy's emphasis on casual upscale comfort/ Canopy by Hilton