The Explosion in Soft Hotel Brands
What started as a trickle has become a wave. Yet another major hotel company has rolled out a soft brand, the industry term for a collection of independent hotels that want to retain their individual identity yet believe they can benefit from access to the major hotel company’s distribution systems, sales support, and loyalty program.
Stamford-based Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide became the latest entrant in the soft brand sweepstakes on April 16 when it introduced Tribute Portfolio, which will focus on independents that fall in the upper-upscale industry tier. The first to sign up for Starwood’s “10th brand” was the 393-room Royal Palm in Miami’s trendy South Beach.
Starwood’s move comes after the launch of soft brands in recent months by Hilton Worldwide (Curio Collection), Loews Hotels & Resorts (OE Collection) and Best Western International (BW Premier Collection). These, in turn, follow the debut of Autograph Collection (Marriott International), Alliance Resorts (IHG), Ascend Hotel Collection (Choice Hotels International) and Lexington Legacy Hotels (Vantage Hospitality) in the past few years.
Starwood itself already had a soft brand (Luxury Collection), launched 21-years ago, so Starwood (whose “hard” brands include Sheraton, Westin, St. Regis, W and seven others) could be said to be double dipping with Tribute Portfolio.
The point of distinction, of course, is that Luxury Collection focuses on deluxe hotels as its name implies. Starwood interim CEO Adam Aron says he expects Tribute Portfolio’s portfolio to reach 100 properties by 2020. In addition to the Royal Palm, the owners of four upcoming properties have signed up: the Noel Place Hotel in Nashville, Tenn., opening in 2016; the Vandre Nouveau Hotel in Asheville, North Carolina in 2017; and not-yet-named hotels in Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina, both opening in 2017.
The search for Tribute candidates right now is confined to North America and Europe. Next year it will expand to the rest of the world, according to Aron. Member hotels, while eager to retain their independent status, will likely add a “Tribute Portfolio Hotel” sub-brand to help build recognition for the soft brand or parent company.
A definite plus for owners is the connection to a frequency program, meaning guests can earn loyalty points at their hotels good for stays at any hotel in the Starwood, Hilton, Marriott (or whichever) system. Conversely, it’s an advantage for a frequency program to be able to offer its members the chance to redeem points for stays in a larger number of hotels.
It’s the lack of name recognition that’s problematic. Meeting planners and other travel buyers are already being asked to pay attention to a whole slew of new hard brands. (“Hyatt Centric,” anyone? How about “Canopy by Hilton,” Marriott’s “Moxy,” or IHG’s “Even”?) Add to this the latest litany of soft brands.
Meeting planners face an added challenge. Often they’re in a position of having to promote a site in order to build excitement for a meeting. This is especially true for incentive program planners. If they don’t know much about a soft brand, how can they expect their attendees to? On the other hand, if the hotel or resort is attached to a well-known and/or trusted name, it makes their job that much easier.
Photos: Starwood (Tribute Portfolio’s Royal Palm)