Once upon a time, Holiday Inn marketed itself to guests with the slogan, ‘The best surprise is no surprise’. Fast forward several decades and individuality has overtaken brand uniformity only at large hotel operators’ most luxurious properties.

Until recently, that is. Locality, individuality and authenticity are now becoming key drivers at most tiers of the sector, amid a growing acceptance that a cookie-cutter approach lacks appeal for a new generation of guests who are enjoying an unprecedented range of hospitality options.

This shift has also reshaped the playing field for those independent hoteliers who value their freedom, but have been somewhat left behind by an increasingly scale- and brand-dominated market. Buoyed by a combination of the success of upscale soft brands such as Hilton’s Curio Collection, and growing demand from owners and consumers for a slightly lower-end version of the same concept, soft branding is slowly infiltrating the three to four-star segment, bringing upscale hoteliers and travellers on a slightly less-than-luxury budget a blend of independence and reassurance that was hitherto out of reach.

Hilton’s Tapestry Collection, which targets independent hoteliers in the ‘upscale’ market segment, and Wyndham Hotel Group’s Trademark Hotel Collection, which was designed for ‘savvy and autonomous owners’ in the ‘upper midscale’ segment who seek independence on their terms, are cases in point. For both operators, the launch of a soft brand in the three to four-star price point was a no brainer.

“With demand for soft brands growing at a rate of nearly 20% in the past several years, we saw an opportunity to expand our portfolio while advocating for upper-mid-scale independent hoteliers with no existing soft brand options available to them,” says Philippe Bijaoui, chief development officer for Wyndham Hotel Group (EMEA). The group already supports nearly 5,000 franchise owners across its portfolio and announced the launch of Trademark – its first soft brand – in June of this year.

“This collection targets an untapped pool of hoteliers across the upper-mid-scale segment and above. The traditional segmentation of our industry typically sees only luxury hoteliers maintain independence. Trademark goes beyond this to broaden and redefine the scope of a soft brand," he says.

It’s an opportunity Hilton Worldwide has also identified, resulting in the launch of its 14th brand, Tapestry Collection, back in January. “While numerous brands compete in the luxury and upper upscale segments, Hilton’s extensive consumer feedback and competitive data analysis have revealed a white-space opportunity in the upscale market segment, especially for a collection brand,” explains Mark Nogal, global head of Curio Collection and Tapestry Collection, adding that the company’s proven experience of launching a successful collection brand – Curio Collection – gave the team confidence that they would be able balance each hotel’s individual identity with the strength and reliability offered by Hilton and, as a consequence, drive “organic net unit growth”.

One-of-a-kind properties

From the guest perspective, the appeal of upper-midscale and upscale soft brands is clear. As Nogal explains: “[These] hotels cater to guests seeking reliability and value in their independent hotel choices. You’ll never see the same thing twice and every experience will be uncommon, backed by the reassurance of the Hilton name and award-winning Hilton Honors programme – providing guests the best of both worlds.”

For Bjorn Hanson, a clinical professor at the NYU Jonathan M.Tisch Center for Hospitality and Tourism, it’s all part of the wider evolution of what constitutes a brand. “A brand used to be absolute uniformity. It didn’t matter if a hotel was in Oregon, Hawaii or New York City, the brand had a standard and the furniture and the fabrics would all be identical, even down to the art on the wall.

Whether they are in design, marketing, operations or staffing, there are creative ideas that brands could incorporate into their systems or across collections.

“Holiday Inn’s old slogan used to be a positive, but it’s becoming a negative. More travellers are looking for something genuine and authentic and that’s what these collections offer – the opposite of the old, rigid brand uniformity.”

Hilton chose the name Tapestry because it’s a ‘one of a kind’ element and the collection’s first property, Hotel Skyler Syracuse, which was named after its owner’s one-year-old grandson, fits the bill perfectly. First built in the 1920s to house the Temple Adath Yeshurun congregation and later used as the home of Salt City Center for the Performing Arts, the eco-conscious property opened in 2011. Today, Syracuse’s first LEED Platinum Hotel features an eclectic mix of retro and contemporary décor across 58 unique rooms.

“[This model] is a way for brands to get great ideas from developers and owners that have found ways to operate in their local market,” says Hanson. “Whether they are in design, marketing, operations or staffing, there are creative ideas that brands could incorporate into their systems or across collections. It’s kind of an intellectual capital in addition to the scale and inventory capital that’s gained.”

Independence and global reach

For the likes of Hotel Skyler owner Norm Swanson, the draw to join a collection like Tapestry or Trademark is the fact that they can maintain their own independent spirit and identity – thanks to more flexible standards than a traditional brand – but also take advantage of the scale, global distribution and internationally-recognised loyalty programmes that come with affiliating with one of the world’s largest hotel operators.

Trademark hoteliers, for example, will be able to gain access to a growing base of more than 52 million members who are part of the Wyndham Rewards loyalty programme; gain significant cross-selling opportunities, as Wyndham Hotel Group’s hotels are distributed through at least 10,000 affiliate partners and in global call centres handling more than nine million calls annually; take advantage of the group’s buying power with negotiated OTA rates and a mix-shift in reservations away from third-party intermediaries towards Wyndham Rewards and other direct channels such as website and call centres; and rely on Wyndham’s experienced global sales, marketing and operational teams.

Similarly, hoteliers that opt to join Tapestry Collection gain access to more than 50 million Hilton Honors members and a global distribution network, and, thanks to the soft brand’s flexible standards, only need to make minimal changes to their operations. Swanson, for example, had to increase the speed of the property’s wireless internet network, upgrade its 24-hour fitness centre and install a system that allows guests to unlock the door to their rooms with a smartphone app.

For Hanson, the biggest challenge of the model will be that owners of the more traditional brands may start to want some of the flexibility they see offered in the collections.

“They may even start to resent the brands,” he says. “All of a sudden, if other brands at the same price level that they’re competing with, perhaps even affiliated with the same hotel company, are given the ability to make decisions not to comply with brand standards, the owner of the more traditional brand could feel very disadvantaged.”

More travellers are looking for something genuine and authentic and that’s what these collections offer – the opposite of the old, rigid brand uniformity.

Only the beginning

Tapestry and Trademark have already attracted significant interest from independent hoteliers. Following the announcement of Hotel Skyler Syracuse, which converted in May, Hilton has more than 24 deals in various stages of development, including properties in Chicago, Nashville, New Orleans, Hampton and two in Indianapolis, with an additional 50 deals under discussion.

Meanwhile, there are currently 53 hotels in the Trademark Collection. The team is also actively working with a number of individual owners and large developers all over the world, including owners of existing hotels and new construction opportunities in urban markets. With the global supply of independent properties in the upscale market estimated to be more than 15,000, neither company will be stopping there.

“While the first opportunities Hilton has identified are in the US, we will continue to carefully evaluate and expand the collection in additional markets that align strategically for the brand,” Nogal says.

Focus on growth

At Trademark, the immediate focus will be on growing the brand in distinctive markets. “We’ve set a high bar to add historic, iconic or landmark hotels, which truly represent the individuality and personality the Trademark Hotel Collection stands for,” Bijaoui says.

There is no doubt in Hanson’s mind that many other hotel groups are set to follow suit. “This is an evolving trend that will continue and expand in the worldwide lodging industry,” he says. “There are so many mid-priced hotels, whether they’re boutique or lifestyle, that don’t meet the traditional brand standards of a 14×27ft room, or might have different public space configurations.

"For brands to grow, they have to accept hotels that might not have qualified under old brand standards.”