Independent hotels are stressing product, service and flexibility when competing for meetings with branded properties, and many see an upside to being brand-free.
REPORT FROM THE U.S.—Independent hotels are confidently competing head-to-head with branded properties for meetings business of all types and sizes, and in some cases, are even enjoying the upper hand.
With many meeting planners increasingly drawn to one-of-a-kind destinations and unforgettable experiences, independent hoteliers are selling their unique product and service offerings hard, and it’s working.
Sources said branded hotels don’t always enjoy the automatic competitive advantage they’ve wielded in the past, especially when it comes to booking meetings. Ultimately, meeting planners want to provide their clients with the best locations they can within their budget, so meetings hotels are mostly duking it out on the basis of product, service and pricing, rather than flag.
“I’m not sure that a brand helps you that much when it comes to groups, especially if there’s meetings involved,” said Mike Marshall, CEO and president of Marshall Hotels & Resorts, which maintains a mix of both branded and independent hotels. “It comes down to the sales effort and getting out there and beating the street to get people to come to you, and show them that your product and service is going to be superior to your competition. A lot of it comes down to pricing and service, at the end of the day.”
Many of the trends that are currently driving growth in the broader independent hotel segment also are affecting meetings and group business at unbranded properties.
But beyond that, there’s also now a greater level of comfort and security that many customers feel when booking independent hotels. Instead of needing a brand to ensure quality, as in the past, travelers can now simply read TripAdvisor reviews and look at Instagram photos, for example, to come to the same value conclusions.
“In the past there was a concern about quality control—and some people depended on the brands to be able to deliver that—but now with all the user-generated content and social media, it’s really easy to figure out how good the product is,” said Tom Faust, VP of sales at Benchmark Hospitality, which operates multiple independent hotels where meetings are often held.
“There was a time when the brand was your guarantee of quality, and you felt assurance, but you don’t need that anymore. There are so many ways to learn about a property now. We all trust user-generated content because it’s real. Who buys something without reading the reviews? I think that’s transcended the brand,” he added.
All is fair game
Independent hoteliers also said that the lack of a franchise affiliation at their hotels gives them advantages in how they market, plan and execute their meetings.
Without having brand guidance and standards to adhere to, independent hoteliers are free to do whatever it takes to satisfy their meetings groups, from the food and décor, to the team-building and offsite events that round out the itinerary.
“We’re not limited by any standards or rules the brand might have, so we can do what the customer wants us to do, and we can make that experience resonate at a higher level,” Faust said. “That’s what makes us very attractive, and it’s why meeting planners are seeking out an unbranded experience. That’s the message they’re trying to deliver to their team, and that’s what we market. They’re looking for something above and beyond, and that’s what I think independent hotels can deliver effectively.”
The freedom that comes from operating as an independent hotel also extends to marketing. By essentially writing their own playbook, independent hoteliers said they are free to try and out-hustle their branded competitors with strategies that favor opportunistic, need-driven promotions, which independents can quickly formulate and execute as needed, without needing to pass through as many layers of approval.
Erick Trachsel, director of sales and marketing for Riverhouse on the Deschutes, said he finds the customization level that comes with being an independent, such as when making ad campaigns, as a benefit. He can directly target the types of customers he’s looking for and even during a specific time period.
“Versus having to just opt-in to whatever a national chain has put together as their marketing campaign, which may not fit your needs. I really appreciate making those decisions in real time and identifying a need period or market segment to target, and then putting together a strategy to go after that segment which is customized to your property, and not a brand,” he said.
Always be closing
One place where independent hotels can typically suffer when compared to their branded counterparts is in marketing reach, where the big budgets and deep resources of a large brand often far outgun the weapons in an independent hotel’s arsenal.
So instead, independent hotels still focus on old-school relationship-based selling to keep the meetings flowing, according to Trachsel.
“It seems a lot of the brands are becoming more transactional when it comes to booking a meeting or group,” he said. “A lot of it you can do online, whereas we’re more focused on the long-term needs of the client and building that relationship and working with them for years to come.”
He said he has groups that have been coming to his hotel for more than 10 years, and he "really appreciates that type of loyalty and those long-term relationships with those clients.”
Independents are also seeing returns from investing in high-impact, low-cost digital tactics, like social media advertising, to compete with their branded counterparts. And while unflagged hotels may not have loyalty program points to offer (like branded hotels), they are free to dream up a wide range of other incentives.
“There are a variety of levers that we’re constantly pressing in order to be in front of the consumer, advising them of our availability, putting our special offers out there and providing them with incentives to book their groups now,” Faust said. “There are a number of things that we’ll offer as incentives, whether it’s experiential or concession-oriented. Our ideal customer is probably not looking for points; they’re looking for service, culinary, help with meeting content delivery and experiences. That’s what we think we deliver best.”