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Many consumers are eating up experience-led storylines in travel. That gives an opening to independent hoteliers to compete with the global hotel groups on everything from hiring to word-of-mouth marketing.

Talent retention, digital marketing tactics, partnerships with local brands, and sustainability strategies were among the topics that independent hoteliers discussed the most at last week’s Independent Lodging Congress 2023 event in Austin, Texas. 

The event — part of a series founded by Andrew Benioff — came when many giant corporations were racing to copy or absorb many independent hotels, often through soft-branded collections. In November, Hyatt Hotel Corp. said it would acquire Dream Hotel Group’s dozen open lifestyle hotels. Last month, Accor, the Paris-based hotel giant, debuted a global “soft” brand, Handwritten Collection, to gather up lifestyle hotels that had formerly been unaffiliated with global chains. Interest-rate uncertainty also has complicated hotel development by independent owners.

“Chains keep buying smaller brands to add to their offerings, so there’s continually space for creativity, meaning the creation of new boutique, independent properties, and collections,” said Jennifer Barnwell, president at Curator Hotel & Resort Collection, a collective for independently owned properties.

Competing for Labor

There’s a war for talent in the travel sector, especially in high-touch businesses like lifestyle hotels. When it comes to team building, getting employees involved in the brand goes a long way.

“Retention is difficult for everyone,” said Stefan Merriweather, head of creative at The Line & Saguaro Hotels. “We welcome everyone [on our team] to certain wellness classes or activities. It helps with culture and educates them on the experience that guests will do so they can speak from their own experience.”

Smaller players often can’t as easily paint a picture of career advancement as large companies can.

“Austin is a great incubator for F&B [food and beverage],” said Todd Reppert, chief development officer at Austin-based restaurant group Hai Hospitality. “It’s hard to target key talent now. They want to advance in their career, but that’s tough because you only have one or two places [to promote them into].”

Others found investing back into the local community was the best way to build relationships, which led to a better staffing situation.

“One of the initiatives that we started testing last year is an impact fee,” said Mark Keiser, chief development officer of EOS Hospitality. “We started charging a 1 percent fee on guest stays that local teams can use to bring back to the community through youth centers, beach cleanups, and more. The cause is at the discretion of the individual properties.”

“There is a lot of chatter about resort fees and destination fees, but when guests ask about the community impact fee, they’re OK to pay it,” Keiser said. “The goal is to do good in the community and to become the employer of choice. When you work somewhere that you care about what you’re doing, you’re going to recruit your friends and neighbors to be a part of it.”

Another area of focus is improving communication, especially when some workers’ schedules may not overlap with that of management or when the decision-makers are at some distance from a property.

“One of the hardest things is figuring out how you share all the information among our teams, such as how we summarize programs and keep it engaging so staff is aligned on the offering,” said Cheryl Gilliam, senior vice president of brands and marketing at Lodgeworks, the hospitality development company behind the Archer Hotels brand.

Some independent hoteliers have been looking at internal communication software to help with asynchronous communication and translating messages into languages besides English when necessary.

“The product side is easy, the service side is easy,” said Alex Cabañas, president of Pyramid Global Hospitality. “The reality of human interaction is the hardest thing we do.”

Sharper Marketing

Many independent hotels need to level up their marketing games to compete with the giant budgets of the global hotel behemoths. Luckily, a segment of consumers craves a distinctive story, and hoteliers can use digital tools to help fine-tune and amplify their narratives.

Social media has helped level the playing field somewhat for independents.

“To create a really strong independent brand, there has to be a strong point of view,” said Christine Magrann, president and chief operating officer of Makeready, an independent hotel, restaurants and retail group out of Dallas, in a conversation over lunch. “We are sharing way more than we ever have as an industry.”

Using digital content can be a force multiplier for a brand campaign.

“One thing we know about our audience is that they love a good story,” said Merriweather. “Visual storytelling is incredibly important to us.”

Merriweather cited the example of his group’s Here magazine. 

The initial print edition didn’t discuss the Line in LA’s location in Koreatown but positioned the property as the neighborhood’s champion and encouraged guests to get to know and support local businesses. While the print magazine was great for connecting with guests and the local community, it wasn’t sustainable in terms of price and reach. So the group shifted to a digital publication.

“Digital media is arguably one of the most important things that we can do,” Merriweather said.

The storytelling can’t stop when guests book or arrive as independent hotels bank on the idea that their experiential offering, personalization, and design-led taste count more than branded chain points. 

Lisa Bonifacio, president and general counseof Bunkhouse, said collecting data on guest preferences is key to providing a more high-touch, personalized experience than what big brands can offer, leading to word-of-mouth marketing.

“The way that it’s executed is nuanced,” Bonifacio said. “We want to know who is on the property but the communication aspect of that is nuanced.”

Makeready’s brand impact team didn’t exist four years ago, but now it collaborates with creators in each market to produce content.

“We’re creating recipe cards to give guests who love a cocktail and then there’s the QR code on the menu that takes them to a video of the maker, crafting the cocktail,” Magrann said.

Gilliam finds inspiration by going out into the market and looking at what brands outside of travel are doing. 

“We often look to retail because they have their pulse on what consumers are looking for,” Gilliam said. “They [in effect] do a lot of our research for us. What is the consumer looking for in their everyday experience that we can translate into their stay?”

Vet Local Partners Carefully

When building a name as an independent property, local partners can play a critical role in signaling to the public what the lodging brand stands for. However, when executed poorly, partnerships can drag down operations and block staff time.

“Where there are two like-minded brands or experiences that want to collaborate, the ROI [return on investment] can be massive if done right,” said Keiser, alluding to how independent properties can leverage the space inside their doors to invite different food and beverage or retail concepts.

“We tend to try to keep our partners as small and homegrown as possible,” said Bart Knaggs, CEO of independent hospitality development and management company New Waterloo, which owns the South Congress Hotel where the event occurred. 

The South Congress Hotel positions itself as a “microcosm of Austin,” with multiple partners, including Austin-based motorcycle shop Revival Cycles, specializing in vintage restoration and custom apparel and gear. 

Knaggs, who founded Austin City Limits Music Festival, likens his firm’s search for hospitality partners to talent management.

“We look at these people as artists,” Knaggs said. “We can use the metaphor of producers of albums or managing careers in the music business. It takes special management to collaborate with great artists. We do everything they don’t want to so they can focus on their craft – and we all get great margins.”

Be Honest on Sustainability

Consumers are becoming savvier around greenwashing. So throwing “green” copy on your hotel website no longer works. The most effective method to making real progress towards sustainability goals is to get the whole team involved, hoteliers said. 

“We’re seeing that some of the best experiences are sustainable experiences because they’re aligned with a community-based, local tourism experience,” said Nina Boys, vice president of sustainability at PTG Consulting and for Beyond Green Travel. “When sustainability is packaged the right way, it’s not actually about sustainability but about a great experience.

Mike Everett, President of NuovoRe, which develops hospitality experiences in historic properties, spoke about giving consumers the power to make more sustainable choices like between a reusable or throwaway coffee cup. 

Collaborating with a hotel’s entire team can be key to building a more sustainable operation. 

“F&B can be a driver of sustainability in hotels by minimizing the transportation distance of food,” said Everett, “but the F&B manager and chef need the power to make those decisions.”

Yet even less ambitious businesses can take the first step towards making more conscious, sustainable choices by tracking their utility usage and waste, said Diana Dobin, CEO and chief sustainability officer of Valley Forge Fabrics, which supplies textiles to the hospitality industry.

“These businesses are already measuring their electricity, water use, and waste so it’s a simple next step to start calculating a project’s carbon footprint to get a baseline understanding of its impact, and then make goals to decrease it,” Dobin said.

While big chains can make some sustainability gains through scale efficiencies, independent hoteliers may have a more compelling story to tell.

“Independent hospitality is a harder business, but I have found the people are so much more creative and passionate,” Barnwell said.


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Tags: boutique hotels, experiential, experiential travel, future of lodging, independent hotels, labor, marketing strategy

Photo credit: Artist William DeSena decorates a room at the Line Hotel in Los Angeles. Source: The Line Hotels.

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