Independent hoteliers discuss what they learned in 2017, what challenges are ahead in 2018 and what’s on their to-do list, which includes accommodating more foreign travel and improving loyalty programs.
REPORT FROM THE U.S.—This year’s top challenge for independent hotels is much the same as it has been in years past: Staying unique and true to their identity.
To stay viable and competitive, independents have to give guests what they don’t get from the hotel brands.
But that’s becoming increasingly challenging, especially with the addition of soft brands to the picture, said Matt Marquis, CEO and president of Aliso Viejo, California-based Pacifica Hotels, which operates a portfolio of 30 boutique hotels.
“If you look at our sphere, there is a lot of invasion from the brands in the independent hotel (market) through their soft brands,” Marquis said. “Their soft brands are extremely competitive because they are allowing operators and owners to come in with a unique product, which is resonating with guests today.”
Kerry Cooper, VP of operations and development at L.E. Hotels, said it’s more important now than ever for independent hotels to provide unique, special experiences that make the guests want to come back.
One way L.E. Hotels is doing that is by concentrating more on social media to learn about and cater to guests’ desires and expectations, he said.
“We’ve got a lot of things that we’ll be launching in the second quarter (of 2018),” he said.
Alternative accommodations and OTAs
In addition to new hotel supply in a market, independents also have to be on guard against alternative accommodation providers that are moving in, looking to claim guests, said John Richardson, GM of the 320 Ranch in Gallatin Gateway, Montana.
Richardson said his market is heavily dominated by second home owners who rent out the properties through alternative-accommodation sites, and he’s seen an influx of that in the last 18 months.
One of the ways he’s looking to combat that this year is by listing a small amount of rooms inventory on online-travel agency sites, he said.
“We recognize that there is a larger percentage of the population that’s not going to branded websites. … They’re looking for those shared-experience websites,” he said.
In addition to driving bookings through the OTAs, Richardson said he’s looking to boost advertising for the 320 Ranch.
Marquis said Pacifica Hotels’ properties are also taking a closer look at OTA relationships, which is an area that brands usually do better with.
Staffing challenges also are top of mind for independent hoteliers going into 2018, sources said.
To overcome a high turnover rate for staff, independents need to invest in their employees, said Denny Fitzpatrick, GM of Willows Lodge in Woodinville, Washington, which is in Benchmark Hospitality’s Gemstone Collection.
Within Benchmark, Fitzpatrick said 2017 was focused on reemphasizing a “be-the-difference” culture of empowerment throughout all levels of staff, encouraging employees to have decision-making powers.
“We want to have one of the lowest turnover rates in the whole industry. We don’t restrain ourselves from telling our staff we love them, we care about them,” he said. “They need to hear that.”
Pacifica Hotels has seen some success in the last few years with the development and expansion of its in-house training development program, which Marquis said he wants to continue to make a priority in 2018.
“We continue to build and promote from within our organization, and that helps in a very tight labor market,” he said.
New year, new to-do list
Marquis said the safety and security of guests at Pacifica hotels will continue to be a primary focus in 2018, adding that “do not disturb” policies will be one thing the company looks at.
Another item on his to-do list is to continue driving Pacifica’s loyalty program, he said.
“If there’s not a solution out there that’s going to help with the independent brands, we need to do a really good job on our own, (making sure) guests needs are taken care of and they’re not giving up things by staying at our properties,” he said.
The 320 Ranch has seen an increase in group travel, including international guests, Richardson said, which will be a focus for 2018.
To better accommodate Chinese travelers, particularly, the hotel has installed electric tea kettles in each of the rooms and revamped its breakfast menus, he said. Going into 2018, Richardson said the hotel will continue to be nimble in responding to the needs of foreign travelers.
The Willows Lodge’s major to-do for the year is the renovation of its restaurant Barking Frog, expected to be done in February.
“Our food-and-beverage revenues are higher than our rooms revenue, and in the hotel industry that’s very unusual. We had a real tired kitchen … that’s why we’re renovating,” he said.
The hotel is also undergoing a remodel of its spa to keep up with local demand, about 65% of which is from locals, he said.