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The shift toward lifestyle hotels is opening up opportunities for hospitality management companies like Destination Hotels, which operates over 40 properties across America.
In the last two years, Destination Hotels took over management of La Cantera Hill Country Resort in San Antonio, previously run by Westin, and Eden Roc Miami Beach, formerly a Renaissance flag. The properties are iconic resorts within their cities, with well defined design narratives and hotel experiences straddling both leisure and group segments. They also both underwent comprehensive renovations after hooking up with Destination Hotels.
This type of brand conversion is an emerging trend according to Jamie Sabatier, president/COO of Destination Hotels. He says hotel owners who are affiliated with the legacy brands see the surging demand for lifestyle product, and a growing number of them feel they can grab market share by repositioning that way as well, as long as the hotel product fits the lifestyle market.
“Absolutely, we’re seeing a lot of owners who are thinking about their portfolio or their properties, and they’re now asking, ‘Is this a property that benefits from a chain?’” says Sabatier. “We are having more conversations on that front with more real opportunities than any other time before.”
Contractual complications are obviously an issue if an owner wants to jump ship, as witnessed with the protracted legal battle between Marriott and Eden Roc’s owners in 2013. But if an owner can unhitch themselves from their brand obligations, companies like Destination Hotels offer a potentially new distribution channel option with less structure and brand standards.
Sabatier says those lengthy lists of design and operational brand standards handed down from the global brand gatekeepers can be a burden for entrepreneurial-minded hotel executives. Destination Resorts encourages on-property senior executives to be flexible, adaptable and entrepreneurial to help boost business at the local level.
“The company was founded over 40 years ago by Bob Lowe, who built this property in Aspen called The Gant,” says Sabatier. “So Bob was and is very entrepreneurial, and therefore one of our key cultural values is empowerment that transcends throughout the company. We’re looking for each one of our property teams to really drive the performance and positioning of that specific hotel or resort.”
John Spomer, VP and managing director of La Cantera Hill Country Resort, says that the company’s independent spirit is inherently aligned with today’s overwhelming focus on local travel experiences.
“From customer service to training to the brand messaging to everything else, our hotels are not mandated to do this, say this and be that because that’s the way the brand does it,” he explains. “The brand is La Cantera Hill Country, and we have every opportunity to craft an overall experience that best shows off our destination.”
Sabatier emphasizes that he doesn’t think one hotel management business model is better than another because it all depends on the individual property. However, he says hotel owners aren’t the only ones eyeing the lifestyle segment. Executives at the big chains are also re-evaluating the market.
“One of the most interesting developments over the last 18 months has been how many really top quality people are coming to us from the large chains, and telling us about how they’re told what to do at the property level,” says Sabatier. “It gets to a point where they’re saying, ‘We think we can add a lot of value, we think we really understand our guests, and we want to create that environment, but we’re being held back from doing that.’”
New Website Launches in June
Based on all of these market trends, Destination Hotels is intent on raising its consumer-facing profile in 2015. The individual hotel brands will still take precedence but Sabatier believes there’s untapped brand value in the Destination Hotels marque than can be used to leverage greater cross promotion throughout the collection.
The opportunity for a higher level of consumer engagement is further supported by the success of the company’s loyalty program, Destination Delivers, which in less than five years has accumulated almost 500,000 members.
“We think we can help each of our properties drive better performance if our guests understand as much as possible that they can be in Chicago at MileNorth Hotel, and then if they want to go to Vail, and they see that Vail and MileNorth are part of the same DNA in terms of how they’re operating, then they’re going to maybe take a look our Vail Cascade property,” explains Sabatier.
To help expand its brand name recognition in consumers’ minds, Destination Hotels is launching an all-new website in June with the company’s new operating tagline: “True to Place, Diverse by Design.”
In tune with today’s hotel website design trends, the new portal will have punchy screen-wide photos, an experiential tone, long page scrolls for a mobile-friendly user experience, and an indepth destination blog showcasing local insider activities and attractions.
The website will also include the new two-day Destination Guides that the company began producing this week, offering sample itineraries created by hotel staff members. Here is a link to one of the guides for The Inn & Spa at Loretto in Santa Fe.
It won’t be available at the launch but the website will also eventually have a drag-and-drop Destination Inspiration and Destination Suitcase functionality where consumers can build an itinerary before they leave home to learn more about the local area.
Isaac Gerstenzang, assistant VP of corporate e-commerce at Destination Hotel, says there’s also a push to ramp up customer engagement after the booking.
“Once the guest has made a booking, we’ll send them a follow up email that says, ‘When you come to our property, these are the things that you should not forget to pack, such as hiking boots in the winter,” he says. “Because ultimately what we want to do is make sure each of our guests are immersing themselves in the local culture.”
This idea of independent hotels acting a portals into their local communities is now standard positioning throughout the lifestyle segment, and many of the big box brands are also promoting themselves in a similar fashion.
The value of content strategy lies in the execution. For this to work well, the blog editorial needs to be engaging, and the photos have to avoid looking like brand marketing photos. If the content is good and it attracts guests’ interest, Gerstenzang says that helps significantly with SEO, time on site, direct bookings, and guest loyalty.
The website architecture is going to be using the Sitecore experience management tool, which customizes what the viewer sees based on their previous online behavior within the site, and data from the loyalty member’s profile.
“The personalization of the website is going to be really key,” says Gerstenzang. “If somebody goes to Stowe Mountain’s website and they look at the spa page a lot, and then they decide to go to Vail Cascade’s website, the first thing they should see on the Vail homepage is a spa photo versus a ski photo.”
Another somewhat innovative design element is called “in-context booking” that integrates the booking engine into the website content, which is presently loaded at the new Eden Roc Miami Beach website. If you’re scanning the rooms category and hit “read more” alongside the room photo, the drop-down area also includes the booking engine with room night availability.
The new Destination Hotels website will go one step further and include rates in the system.
Greg Oates covers hospitality & tourism development. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.