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Critical Mass

BITAC Panel Discusses How Luxury Sector Evolves In The Wake Of Soft Brand Movement

By Dennis Nessler | March 15, 2022

The importance of creating a unique, customizable experience for guests remains critical for luxury hotel operators looking to excel in an increasingly crowded marketplace as a bevy of soft brands or ‘collections’ continue to enter the space.

A trio of owner/operators commented on current conditions and challenges within the luxury sector during a panel discussion at last week’s BITAC Luxury Live 2022. The panel was entitled “Critical Mass: Hoteliers Make Luxury More Attainable For Wider Range Of Guests.”

Thomas Conran, Principal, Greenwood Hospitality—which currently operates some 30 hotels—offered some insight into what today’s guest wants.

“I think that the traveler today is looking for something that’s customizable, something unique, something they can talk about,” he said.

Conran pointed out that the company was among the first to be part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection, the luxury soft brand which he explained represented a departure from the mega brand company’s traditional “homogenous” approach to properties.

“They’re looking to create a memorable experience for the guest and it’s all about creating that story and then executing well against that,” he said.

Michael Marshall, President/CEO, Marshall Hotels and Resorts, and President, TPG Hotels, Resorts & Marinas—both of which just recently merged to create one of the industry’s 10 largest management companies—reinforced the point.

“At the end of the day I feel that today’s customer is looking for that experience; they’re looking for the unique travel,” he said.

Masudur Khan, founder/CEO, Khan Properties Group—which includes Seaside Lodging, LLC—detailed his company’s approach to luxury.

“We are looking for how we can personalize it and make a story for the guest,” he said.

Khan went on to tout the soft brand model stressing that he can feel “joyful and proud” of something he created on his own as opposed to developing the “same old buildings.”

He further added of the soft brands, “They don’t tell you what to do, they say what not to do so that’s actually a very good idea for the people who want to be creative and independent.”

Conran further emphasized that these brand companies ultimately deliver guests for owners, but explained that the decision on how to position a hotel has become more complicated.

“I think that the advent of all of the soft branded opportunities out there begs the question, at times, shall I go independent or should I brand? Based on the location of the destination you may be able to perform very successfully in independent space. We weigh that every time we look at an opportunity, should we look at a Marriott product, a Hilton product or potentially go independent?” he noted.

Meanwhile, labor remains a key challenge throughout the industry and Khan acknowledged that franchise companies can help with the ongoing “workforce issue,” particularly with regards to technology that can potentially alleviate staffing shortages.

“They’re streamlining your system. They’re giving you a lot of apps so you can actually spend your time not worrying about the back office and you can take care of the guest, which is what luxury is,” he said.

Marshall amplified the point, while emphasizing the challenges in front of luxury hoteliers.

“The technology has helped us be able to streamline a few of the operations, but at the end of the day the customer still is expecting that ‘wow’ factor. So what we have to do is figure out how to do ‘wow’ with less people and we have to do ‘wow’ with our managers kicking in and helping to support the line staff,” he said.

Conran also asserted that hotels will have to do more with less, at least for now.

“That’s the inherent challenge we have as an industry so it comes back to training and cross training.  it used to be we’d hire for a front desk agent, well that front desk agent is doing more than that. They may be a part-time concierge or they may be parking cars so you have to look across the spectrum and ask ‘if I have less people available to work how do I accomplish and create these guest levels?’ It’s a very difficult environment out there now. We hope that we get back to a more normal level of business and a more normal work force, but I think we’re several months away from that,” he said.

Of course, food & beverage represents another opportunity to enhance the luxury experience for the guest. Marshall, for his part, asserted that offering local favorites, such as shrimp and grits in the south, for example, is one way to make an impression.

“It doesn’t have to be fine dining, it has to be something unique to the area. So again we’re going back to the guest experience. You want people to go home talking about the experience whether they do it on social media or just word of mouth, which has always been the number one best-selling marketing tool for our industry,” he said.

For his part, Conran explained the food & beverage at many of Greenwood’s properties have what he and his partners refer to as an “overt personality” within their outlets.

“We believe that our restaurant spaces really create the overall position for the hotel in large part. Then there are ways to accomplish what you want. If you want to be the best burger in town, you create the best burger in town. You want to have the best sushi bar, be the best sushi bar in town. So it’s not all about fine dining and white tablecloths,” he said.

Dennis Nessler

Dennis Nessler is Editor-in-Chief of Hotel Interactive, parent company of Hotel Community Forum. Nessler brings more than 28 years of editorial experience to his position, including some 17 years in the hospitality industry. As part of his duties, Nessler not only covers the industry editorially but moderates various high-level panel sessions at hospitality events and frequently conducts one-on-one interviews with C-level executives.

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