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by Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua & Chief Marketing Officer, SITE

Global Chains v Independent Hotels – the debate continues

This week I found my mind exercised, once again, by the on-going debate around the merits and demerits of independent hotels versus global chain hotels. Our relentless contemporary pursuit of travel experiences that pivot around “authenticity” has led to a radical switch from the familiar homogeneity of global chain hotels to the exciting variety of independent properties. This well documented trend has led to the global chains themselves mimicking the independents by creating  “lifestyle” brands like Canopy (Hilton), JO&JOE (Accor) etc.



But is this customer preference applicable to leisure visitors only? Is it purely a B2C phenomenon that’s unlikely to impact anytime soon on the B2B channels where global chains have established deep roots and dominance? Somehow I don’t think so. While there’s often a delay in adoption levels between individual leisure and group MICE activity, sooner or later group activity catches up. You can see it clearly in relation to destination selection where 3 – 5 years after a new destination is “discovered” by leisure visitors, it starts to feature more and more in MICE programmes too. So I fully expect independent hotels to play an ever increasing role in meetings, incentives and conferences, taking market share from the global chains.



Independent Hotels – visibility & profile?

The challenge for independent hotels is, of course, visibility and profile. It’s virtually impossible for an independent boutique property in a new emerging destination like, say, Montenegro, to achieve anything like the profile of the recently opened Hilton Podgoricia. Chains have the resources, the budgets and, most importantly, the distribution to get details of new hotel openings out to the market quickly and efficiently. Then, once they’re launched, they have the brand recognition factor that gets them noticed while also validating the destination selection: “If there’s a Hilton there, then my conference delegates will be fine”.

So there’s an appetite out there for independent, boutique properties but most of them lack the resources to connect their property to the market need. Equally, other than the property’s online presence, which is hardly unbiased, the market doesn’t have any objective filter to validate or rank an independent hotel so the barrier to purchase remains high as there’s no well established, reputable brand image to help lower it. Or is there?



Independent alliances that do it well

There are, of course, alliances of independent properties and some of these have both deep roots and extensive profile in the meetings and incentives marketplace. These alliance vary in terms of their core purpose – some are marketing consortia, some are sales representation companies, some – like Leading Hotels of the World – bestow brand attributes on the membership. Associated Luxury Hotels International (aka ALHI), for example, is well established in the meetings industry with a very fine selection of properties  – some of which are also global brands like the exceptional Kempinski Ciragan Palace in Istanbul. Being a member of ALHI is, apparently,  more valuable than a 100 positive reviews on Tripadvisor! The power of a brand!



Perhaps more relevant in terms of this discussion of independent hotels is Two Roads Hospitality which has been making great in-roads (ouch!) in the Meetings & Incentives marketplace over the past short while. Inspired by the well known Robert Frost poem, Two Roads Hospitality is all about “the road not taken”, all about avoiding the tried and the tested, the familiar and well know:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Two Roads Hospitality brings together a number of classic independent / boutique organisations such as Destination Hotels,  joie de vivre  and  Thompson  to offer a single compelling global brand aimed at “today’s fiercely independent traveller”. And, of course, today’s fiercely independent traveller is tomorrow’s high net worth individual, conference delegate and incentive travel qualifier.



Enter Mr & Mrs Smith

This entire reflection came about as a result of an very engaging and intriguing conversation  in London this week with Tamara Lohan, the co-founder of Mr & Mrs Smith – “the Travel Club for Hotel Lovers”. I first encountered Mr & Mrs Smith over 10 years ago when I came across their first publication, a wonderful collection of eclectic hotel properties where style wasn’t equal to stuffy and service wasn’t equal to SOP manuals. At a time, when access to independent properties was about as easy as getting into North Korea, Mr & Mrs Smith offered expert curation focused on individuality, personality, maybe even a little eccentricity.



Roll on the years and Mr & Mrs Smith is now a global online presence with a team of over 120 in offices in London and LA. There are well over 1000 “hand picked” hotels in the family  and the company prospers on its seamless IT platform backed up by 24/7 “live” telephone support – this is a tech company that channels the human touch at all times.

Amongst the properties in the Mr & Mrs Smith portfolio are hotels such as The Soho Hotel, a property with all the characteristics of a great MICE hotel and, in addition, a confidence, swagger and cheekichappiness, not often found in global chain properties. In ways the Soho is a double whammy bringing to clients its own compelling brand proposition as well as that of Mr & Mrs Smith. In terms of guest room experience this is upscale luxury on a par with Mandarin Oriental, Edition or Four Seasons – king size beds, robes, separate shower / bath, double vanity, spaciousness. There’s also a highly curated contemporary art collection and the delightful, if weird, presence, in each guest room, of a mannekin!


The public areas, however, and the events spaces offer even more compelling appeal to a jaded MICE audience, long since resigned to the expectation of sumptuous but, ultimately, bland and beige experiences, around the public and banqueting spaces of 5 star global chain properties. The Soho Hotel lobby, bar and restaurant all interconnect in a cacophony of colour, contrasting textures and challenging art pieces. There’s a vibrancy and an energy thanks to the presence there of locals. Downstairs, meanwhile, the events spaces include two magnificent screening rooms (seating 45 and 100 respectively) as well as flexible, interconnecting meeting spaces perfect for networking, launches or private dinners.

Tamara and I discussed whether there might be an opportunity for Mr & Mrs Smith in the Business Events / MICE marketplace. My resounding response is “yes” – our evolving industry badly needs the style, authenticity and sheer fun so typical of the properties that make it into the family of  Mr & Mrs Smith.

Thanks to Goda from Lithuania for taking me around The Soho Hotel

Pádraic Gilligan, Patrick Delaney and Aoife McCrum run SoolNua, a specialist agency working with destinations, hotels and venues on strategy, marketing and training for the Business Events / MICE marketplace.







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