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The Stay’s the Thing

Lifestyle brands and independent hoteliers are vying for the business traveler’s heart

On Sept. 21, 2018, Aloft Hotels crowned the winner of their Project: Aloft Star Asia Pacific, a regional music competition. India’s Hanita Bhambri was the winner of the finals, held at the Aloft Seoul Myeongdong with journalists, musicians and last year’s winner, the Korean artists SAAY, all in attendance.

Music and hospitality might not seem like the most immediate bedfellows, but in today’s competitive landscape, brands have to stay relevant by tapping into the interests of their customers. The tidal wave march of the Millennials continues, altering business travel as we’ve known it in their wake. It’s more than a mere matter of exchanging wingtips and high heels for Skechers, or single-malt Scotch for craft beer. The changes wrought by Millennial business travelers are spawning whole new segments of the hotel industry. Chain-affiliated lifestyle hotels began to proliferate several years ago, as hotel brands responded to changing tastes. Today, the landscape is loaded with trendy properties with even trendier names like Vib, Tru, Moxy and Andaz, each seeking to leverage its own unique brand proposition in an ever more crowded field.

In the case of the aforementioned Aloft, the brand is hanging its hat on music. As Shu Ping Liang, director of brand and marketing, Asia Pacific for Marriott says, “Aloft Hotels has always been the brand for music makers and music lovers, with our hotels around the world hosting regular Live At Aloft Hotels events which bring intimate, live music performances to guests and music-loving locals around the globe.”

Marriott International with its staggering 31 brands following its takeover of Starwood Hotels is also localizing and differentiating among them. Herewith are some examples:  While Four Points by Sheraton touts their local craft beer program, at the Westin, it’s fitness and exercise that reign supreme. The W appeals to the moneyed creative class by collaborating with musicians, fashion designers and other professionals.

“Lifestyle brands are aimed at guests looking for more exciting, interesting and unique experiences than they get at the typical hotel,” says Kim Kearns, senior director for global hotel relations at travel management company BCD Travel. “For example, they may wish for their hotel to reflect the authentic characteristics of their destination city rather than a hotel brand whose Boston property is indistinguishable from its Santa Fe property.”

Hotel as Experience

These characteristics are generated from the aesthetic of today’s business travelers, according to Gary Steffen, global head of Hilton’s Canopy Collection. “When it comes to business travel, we are noticing an  increased desire for authentic, local experiences and have positioned Canopy by Hilton to appeal to a broad base of guests, including our ‘Modern Business’ traveler who expects a well-designed, contemporary hotel with services and amenities that support them in business and give them an edge.”

Another lifestyle brand in search of ways to differentiate itself is IHG’s EVEN concept. Billed as “the world’s first and only hotel wellness brand,” these hotels are putting on a full-court press when it comes to promoting healthy travel, with the spotlight on a menu of locally-sourced, healthy foods and multi-zoned gyms. The wellness focus encompasses the guest rooms, with sleep-inducing bedding, aromatherapy amenities and specially lighting designs.

In New York, the PUBLIC Hotel by Ian Schrager, which opened last year, offers a template for what today’s global traveler seeks. The hotel, which touts its ‘luxury for all’ ethos, includes a co-working space, Public Arts (a performance space) and two restaurants round out the offerings. The rooms are minimal, with floor to ceiling windows and no room service. In keeping with the times, guests will find 12 USB ports and 10 outlets all over the room.

At the time of its opening, Schrager said, “I wanted to create a hotel for my generation, not my parents’, and one that reflected my tastes and sensibilities as well as popular culture at the time. I was responding to cultural shifts that were emerging. I see the exact same opportunity now.”So public spaces, local cuisine and a focus on curated experiences are some of the ways that the new crop of hotels is attracting today’s social media savvy crowd. Themed premises, like Paris’ Hotel 1K offers an immersive feel and, perhaps as importantly, the chance for immersive Instagram posting opportunities.

Located in the French capital’s trendy La Marais neighborhood, Hotel 1K has a hidden bar, La Mezcaleria that takes the hotel’s Peruvian theme and combines it with a speakeasy for the kind of beverage experience that is, both literally and figuratively, building buzz. As Andres Munoz, the general manager of the property explains, “Guests today want to live different experiences and feel like they have made a ‘cool’ choice of hotel.”

Independent Minded

However while lifestyle brands are ascendant just now, the independent properties they seek to emulate still comprise the lion’s share of the global market. “We’re in an age of renaissance for independent hotels,” according to Lukasz Dabrowski, senior vice president for global hotel solutions provider HRS. “Many indie hotels that target business travelers have invested in their properties in an effort to stand out with travelers – in the lobby, room design, catering to electronic online connectivity.”

The result, according to DeeAnne Dale, senior vice president global strategy and consulting for corporate travel management firm Reed & Mackay, is a hotel stay that is uniquely responsive to the business traveler. “Independent hotels have the flexibility to customize their offering to a traveler persona more than the larger chains. Small touches like less standardized interiors can make the overall experience feel more personalized.”

Nonetheless, working against the pure independents’ overnight success is the powerful gravitational pull of the big loyalty programs. “The loyalty schemes offered by larger chains are a big deal for business travelers and so is the comfort offered by the brand standard,” according to Dale. “For some travelers, the consistency across hotels that a chain offers is a plus point.”

Experiences aren’t the only thing that guests value. The environment and social responsibility are two other pillars that younger customers are keen to know more about, whether it’s working to support the hotel’s local community or just in their use of environmentally friendly practices.

Looking on balance, Kearns says it’s the newly-minted lifestyle brands that “combine the best elements of boutique hotels – small, intimate and modern – and the advantages that only a chain can offer, like loyalty benefits, consistency and economies of scale. Lifestyle hotels are meant to be more affordable and accessible than independent boutique hotels.”

Dubrowski sums up the overarching trend this way: “Less standardization and more unique features can be a major advantage these days – just look at the many chains following this strategy with the launching of lifestyle brands.”