[author: Alex Cabanas]
In recent years, the topic of "brand versus independent" has become increasingly popular. Every industry conference has a panel titled the same, numerous articles - and blogs - are being written on the topic by every publication, HotelNewsNow recently launched a newsletter dedicated to independent hotels, the inaugural Independent Lodging Congress took place in Philadelphia in late 2013 focused on gathering the owners and operators of independent hotels, and if that were not enough, numerous high profile "de-flagging" lawsuits have certainly highlighted the topic. While it is hard to attribute the peaking interest on this topic to only a few things, clearly owners are questioning the cost/benefit of a chain affiliation, internet distribution and marketing have dramatically leveled the playing field over the past 10 years, customer loyalty is not what it used to be and consumer preferences are certainly evolving.
Despite all of the hype and attention, very little has been written on this topic from the perspective of an independent operator. Clearly, independent operators are a little biased on the topic, but they are also overly discounted by many because of years of bias in the financing community and media in favor of chains. So, here's some perspective to consider through the eyes of an operator of independent hotels.
First, a few points of clarity to set the right mind frame:
Let's focus on upper-upscale and luxury segments. Based solely on the prevalence of independent brands in the two upper chain scales, it makes sense to think mostly about these types of properties.
Let's use the word "chain" not "brand." When describing the major hotel brands such as Marriott, Hyatt, Hilton, Starwood, Wyndham, Intercontinental, Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons. These are the major "chains" that are of a size and scale to warrant a term of their own. The reality is that every hotel name is a "brand". Benchmark is also a brand - we just don't put our name on the hotel like many other larger independent operators like Destination Hotels & Resorts and Noble House. And smaller name brands such as Kimpton, Loews and Omni with a few dozen hotels and resorts don't really qualify as a "chain" based on size, compared to the major hotel chains.
Let's understand that the word "independent" is not really a fair representation in all cases. Because most publications use the word "independent" and seem to conjure up images of a single General Manager and his or her team trying to run a property all alone with no management company support. While that still happens in our industry the fact is that there are a number of very well established independently branded management companies. Therefore, generic comparisons between "chain" and "independent" don't really do justice to the capabilities offered by third party managers specializing in smaller brands and independents.
Now that we are of right mind, some thoughts to share on various topics that are typically included in the "chain versus independent" debate - again, from the independent operators perspective.
Larger third-party operators have support systems and "standards" too, but we are willing and able to customize by property. Independent operators should not be discounted by a generic assumption that we don't have support systems and standards. Now, do we all have specific product and design standards like a chain - no. But that can also be a liberating fact. We do have support systems, best practices and policies and procedures across all disciplines. In fact, the flexibility and customized approach of an independent or smaller brand, with a system of procedures and policies is arguably more effective versus the chains that run everything by a manual and don't customize by property. Especially given today's growing consumer preference towards unique experiences and products where authenticity trumps "standardization".
Location, Product, Service, Experience, Distribution and then "brand", in that order! In any hotel market, a hotel is either stealing demand from the competition or inducing new demand - a simple way to look at it. So a hotel's location, product, service, experience, distribution (sales & marketing) capabilities are all valuable in positioning the property for success. If you think of these factors agnostic to the hotel name, you get a true sense of the property's inherent ability to succeed - regardless of the brand name on the building. At that point the appropriate question becomes what is the incremental benefit of the name compared to the incremental cost of that name. Since most chain affiliations are more expensive than independent, the hurdle of incremental performance is higher. That is not to suggest the benefits of a chain are not worth it sometimes - but the value add is not always worth it.
It's not the size of your pipeline that matters, it's how you use it. So many articles and comments are made about the "distribution" and "reservation systems" of the chains, and there is no question they have large distribution networks. Unfortunately the question of distribution efficacy and incremental contribution is rarely asked. For example, Marriott may have very strong demand sources in the Atlanta market, but is that demand driven specifically by the Marriott family of brands enough to fill the myriad of supply Marriott has in the Atlanta market. A hard question to answer and one that is usually never asked. The generic assumption is big pipeline must mean big impact. And what happens when Marriott introduces a new brand like Autograph or AC - does the demand for Marriott product grow enough to support it? Now, independent operators clearly can't claim broader distribution compared to the chains - but we don't really care or try to match them. We only care about the distribution we need to fill our one, may two or at most a handful of hotels in a given market. So do we need millions of loyalty program members - no! We only need and only market to what is needed for that hotel - and we only spend the owner's money for that hotel. An independent hotel marketing budget is targeted and focused at impacting that one hotel, compared to a chain environment where substantial dollars are focused on promoting the chain. Lastly, in today's world of electronic distribution, what do the words "reservation system" mean these days - surely not many are calling the 1-800 number for a room.
The value of loyalty and points is not what it used to be. The most influential part of the chain is the loyalty program and there is no denying its presence and influence. But the question that should be asked is...how much demand is truly driven by the consumer's desire for points and/or chain loyalty? And is that incremental demand enough to justify the incremental cost of a flag? These are not easy questions to answer but here are some relevant quotes about the condition of loyalty programs today:
"The best-case scenario is that hotel loyalty programs as they are constituted today have either little or no impact on travelers' purchase decisions, and, worst case, these programs drive undesirable brand-switching behavior."
The above certainly brings into question just how much demand is truly driven by loyalty programs - especially as the very proprietors of those programs are devaluing them. And to the extent that they do drive incremental demand, independent operators now have several plug and play options such as Stash Hotel Rewards and iPrefer to evaluate at a lower cost.
Don't be a lazy underwriter - give the independent brand model an equal chance. The fact is that many lenders and investors simply prefer chains. The old adage of "nobody gets fired for hiring IBM" drives a lot of decisions. For those willing to dig in a little deeper, the value proposition is worth it - lower management fees, more flexible contract terms, more nimble operations, typically unencumbered upon sale and more flexible sale options. So for you lenders out there reading this blog post, give us a chance and give us the audience. You won't be disappointed.
After all of this, you can easily assume that this blog post is an anti-chain rant. That is not the goal. The goal is to level the underwriting playing field and dissipate the clear bias towards chains based on generic statements about "distribution" and "loyalty programs" and "standards", rather than digging into how the industry has evolved, how consumer preferences have dramatically changed, and how independent third party operators have grown and been able to compete - proof positive competition, not dreaming. Every professional independent operator can show numerous case studies that prove our ability to perform equal to or better than the chains. And at the end of the day, performance speaks for itself in all cases - "chain" and "independent". And equally important is for any operator or brand or chain to act in the best interest of each owner every step of the way.