Accor isn't the first large hotel company to let members of its loyalty program book independently designed lifestyle hotels. But it is the first to move the concept downscale in rate and amenities. Can it democratize access to quirky hotels worldwide?
Accor, the Paris-based hotel giant, will reveal on Thursday a new global “soft” brand, Handwritten Collection, featuring so-called lifestyle hotels. These mid-priced properties have funky furniture and buzzy restaurants and bars but don’t offer the full services of a premium boutique.
Handwritten Collection’s first two hotels are Hotel Shanghai Sheshan Oriental, Handwritten Collection, which officially switched from being a Sofitel on Thursday, and Le Saint Gervais Hotel & Spa in Saint Gervais, France. A few more properties — in Australia and France — aim to join to the collection by May.
Accor said it has a dozen “secured signings” and a pipeline of “leads” with interested partners reflecting about 100 properties.
Handwritten Collection aims to appeal to owners of lifestyle hotels by letting them tap into Accor’s loyalty program — which can drive a lot of direct bookings that are typically more profitable for a hotel than reservations made through online travel agencies.
“Coming out of the pandemic, we’ve seen that a lot of independent boutique hotel owners are longing for support from big groups such as Accor in reaching customers around the world without losing their identity and personality and characteristics that they have put in their blood, sweat, and tears over many years to achieve,” Alex Schellenberger, group chief brand officer.
Roughly 80 percent of these deals will be conversions, with the rest new construction, Schellenberger said.
Soft brands like Handwritten Collection involve fewer rules, or “standards,” from the Paris-based headquarters of Accor than hard brands. Accor in 2021 added a soft brand for the luxury category called Emblems, which it positioned between hard brands Sofitel and Fairmont in terms of amenities and service. For over a decade Accor has had MGallery, a soft brand for boutique hotels — now numbering about 100.
Moving Soft Branding Down the Scale
Soft-branded collections have been around since 2008 with the launch of Choice’s Ascend Hotel Collection.
Other hotel groups have pursued similar strategies. For example, Hyatt in 2018 bought boutique hotel company Two Roads Hospitality for $280 million. The deal included the brands Alila, Destination, Joie de Vivre, Thompson, and Tommie. It created the JdV by Hyatt brand as a soft-branded collection of boutiques. In October, the company said it would fold in most of the 5,500 rooms in Germany’s Lindner Hotels to JdV by Hyatt.
What’s notable about Accor’s Handwritten Collection is that it showcases properties with the market segmentation called midscale. They’re at a middle point in a spectrum of amenities and decor that range from the simplicity of budget properties to the pinnacle of four-star resorts.
From a guest perspective, the properties would be between the hard brands Novotel and Mercure in terms of amenities.
“We want this brand to be accessible to as many people as possible to gain global traction, including in markets such as Latin America and Asia Pacific,” said Alex Schellenberger, group chief brand officer.
While rates would vary by market, the goal is for rates that are affordable worldwide, meaning, “not upper midscale” rates, Schellenberger said. Think: under $150 on average in the U.S. and Europe.
Nearly all of the soft-branded collections of other major hotel groups have been either in the “upper-midscale” through “luxury” spectrum of service and rates.
So if Accor’s new branding gains traction, its peers will be tempted to copy the move down the chain scale. Though the companies may run out of names, given that Marriott has the Autograph Collection. Will there be a Hilton Letterpress Collection?
What’s Next for Accor in Branding?
The hotel giant has more than 40 brands, more than any other hotel company. One possible path is that it may attempt to take some of its regional brands and scale them up.
“We ask ourselves, do we maybe have the opportunity to take one of our existing regional brands and take them global?” Schellenberger said. “Because that’s always easier. It doesn’t require a lengthy ideation process, from coming up with a name and a design aesthetic, or a lengthy IP process, with all the trademark work worldwide that is associated with it.”
Creating new brands from scratch in response to changed customer behavior is another option.
“We’re in the process of doing a social media segmentation study,” Schellenberger said. “Instead of doing the traditional survey, where it’s claimed behavior, we actually see observed behavior via social media, such as by tracking what people interact with, what they engage with, and what their interests are. That gives us also some further insights into where future guest demand trends are heading.”
Photo credit: A guest room at Hotel Les Capitouls Toulouse Centre, that is expect to join Accor's new Handwritten Collection in May. Source: Accor.