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Country Celebrates 25 Years

The homey mid-scale chain was very different when it first debuted, here’s a look back at this classic brand.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012
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Believe it or not there was a time when midscale select service hotels were an oddity. Rare and far between, hotel development focused mostly on full service hotels or smaller economy type lodgings.

And back in the mid-1980s the folks at Carlson (now Carlson Rezidor) started tinkering with an idea. They realized there was a need for a mid-priced lodging alternative and noticed that other companies were thinking the same exact thing. So they started thinking and tinkering some more and created the world’s first ever County Inn & Suites, which made its debut 25 years ago in 1987. Well sort of. The hotel was originally called the Hospitality Inn, but that didn’t last too long.

Located in the Minneapolis suburb of Burnsville, MN the original Country Inns & Suites was very different than what guests experience today, yet at the same time had many of the homey characteristics that have become this brand’s main customer appeal.

“When we created that first one we wanted to come up with a design from the exterior to the interior that gave people a reminiscence of going to someone’s home,” explains Scott Meyer, SVP Midscale Brands Americas, for the Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group, who was part of the company back when this hotel concept was in its earliest stages of development.

Meyer says at that time the key architectural feature was an outside porch and all windows had shutters. There were hardwood floors and a fireplace in the lobby and some more now seemingly unusual features such as brass headboards, grapevine wreaths over the bed and floral wall paper boarder at the top of the walls. But as unusual as it was – remember Big Hair was popular too back then. If you don’t believe me check my High School yearbook—it was a play on current design styles.

“If you looked at homestyle magazines the thought at the time was this was a nod to yesteryear and it resonated with people. They felt as if they weren’t going to a hotel but rather someone’s home,” says Meyer. “Traveling is tough for anybody and any sense of comfort we could give them with a friendly hello, warm smile, good service and place they feel comfortable in, that was the thought. Back then everyone else was building what looked like hotels and we brought a little more of that residential feel and touch to it too.”

They even had free cookies and candy at the front desk back then; just because that’s the type of thing you’d get at Grandma’s house. The also served doughnuts and juice, a precursor to today’s big breakfasts, which is now served on real dining ware, something Meyer says guests feel makes the food taste better.

Of course the brand has completely changed the look and feel of its hotels since that time, but the company’s service culture and DNA have remained constant. Which Meyer calls a sense of home and the spirit of service.

“It is about treating customers as a guest in your home, like a family member coming to your home. That is still the essence of the brand,” says Meyer who notes that ethos is expressed in the company’s Be Our Guest service culture.

In the early 1990s the brand started chugging alone hitting 100 hotels in 1997 including Panama, Mexico and the UK. By 1999 that number was 200, which was quickly followed by its 300th property in 2000 and 400th in 2006. Today there are 483 Country Inns and Suites by Carlson around the world in 43 countries with another 250 expected to debut by 2015.

Now Carlson is getting set to debut its fourth generation prototype –expect that plan to debut early next year – with some changes that could include more emphasis on outdoors space and seating (fire pits anyone?), communal tables and a fresher more modern look and feel to mimic the design trends of this decade.

“We took the down home country look and contemporized it but not to the point of being cutting edge. It is modern yet still very approachable,” says Meyer.

They also are taking into account how differently people use hotels in today’s age. For example, fitness centers were not needed in 1987 but now it is something people demand, along with ways to connect to the internet and a place where they can be more social if they choose.

“A lot has changed in the last 25 years and we are laying the groundwork for the next 25,” says Meyer.

We look forward to seeing what’s in store, which we’re betting will not be the return of grape wreaths hanging over sleeping guests.
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