Soft brands got their start 10 years ago when Choice Hotels International launched Ascend Hotel Collection. Not long after, all the major brands launched their own versions, looking for gaps, differentiation and anything to generate more direct bookings to their distribution platforms.
GLOBAL REPORT—The existence of the soft brand was hardly known when Hotel News Now launched in 2008.
Online travel agencies weren’t as entrenched as they are now, and it can be argued that soft brands are one answer to the rise of alternative forms of room distribution.
Even before the creation of soft brands, hotel chains grouped their properties that did not either comply with their established brands or were deemed different enough to maintain a sense of individuality.
The Luxury Collection, for instance, is not a soft brand, but rather a collection of hotels that already were part of the Starwood Hotels Group portfolio before it was acquired Marriott International. The Luxury Collection was founded in Italy in 1906 as Compagnia Italiana Grandi Alberghi and has a portfolio of more than 100 hotels worldwide.
Today nearly every one of the global hotel companies has one, two or sometimes three soft brands, which allow a property to retain its independence and unique offerings but permit it to enjoy the branded and chain benefits of distribution, recognition, leverage, scale and procurement.
Here’s a look back at the hotel soft brands launched in the last decade.
2008—Choice Hotels International launches at its 54th annual convention a new industry concept that was coined “soft brand” with its Ascend Hotel Collection. The collection is described by Choice executives as “upscale independent, unique, boutique or historic properties with strong local brand equity that want to keep their own names and identities while tapping into a broader distribution channel.”
As of publication, Ascend, which sits at the top of the Choice brand pyramid, has more than 200 properties.
The idea of a soft brand, some experts say, most likely came out of the Great Recession. As well as competing against the OTAs, they contend with marketing alliances such as Leading Hotels of the World, Luxury Hotels of the World, Preferred Hotels & Resorts and Pride of Britain.
White-label management companies such as Interstate Hotels have lumped some of their assets together as what might be described as pseudo-soft brands, in Interstate’s case Intrigue Hotels & Resorts by Interstate, and, of course, soft brands also compete directly against 100% independent hotels.
November 2009—Marriott International launches Autograph Collection by Marriott, which, as with Ascend, focuses on upper-upscale properties, with the initial idea of signing 25 to 30 hotels before the end of its first year.
Two months later, Marriott announces Autograph Collection’s first seven assets in the U.S., all of which are owned by The Kessler Collection.
Within two years, Marriott drops its name from any branding connected with Autograph, with the exception of the soft brand’s website.
At press time, Autograph has more than 153 properties, with 77 in its pipeline.
February 2014—Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group—which is now known as Radisson Hotel Group—launches Quorvus Collection at the same time as it introduces fully branded Radisson Red.
Quorvus was introduced to the world as “individual hotels who understand modern luxury” and named for a constellation “where five of the brightest stars light the way,” according to Carlson Rezidor executives at the time.
June 2014—Hilton debuts Curio, A Collection by Hilton, as its 11th brand. Executives announce five hotels joining the collection at launch, which were the SLS Las Vegas Hotel & Casino; The Sam Houston Hotel in Houston; Hotel Alex Johnson in Rapid City, South Dakota; The Franklin Hotel in Chapel Hill, North Carolina; and The Porter in Portland, Oregon.
Rob Palleschi, then global head of full-service brands at Hilton, said owners aligning with Curio will pay a fee of 4% of gross rooms revenue—the same fee in place for the company’s management and franchising agreements.
Through the first six months of 2018, Curio has 55 properties open, but is set to grow quickly with another 65 in its pipeline.
October 2014—Best Western International unveils its soft brand, BW Premier Collection, along with another new brand, Vib.
BW Premier Collection’s selling points, according to CEO David Kong, are its social lobby areas and small guestrooms, reminiscent of the blueprints of many boutique and lifestyle properties. Appurtenances such as wardrobes will be removed, replaced by simple hooks, and the bed’s headboard doubles as a desk.
At press time, BW Premier Collection has 87 properties, with a further 28 in its pipeline.
April 2015—Starwood forms its own soft brand, Tribute Portfolio.
The pipeline of the brand—the first launched by the firm since 2006—is projected to be 100 hotels, executives said. The Royal Palm South Beach Miami is the first property placed in Tribute Portfolio, and former Starwood CEO Adam Aron announces the brand will be focused on North America and Europe.
At press time, the number of hotels in Tribute equals 29 properties, with a further 18 in the pipeline.
June 2015—AccorHotels unveils plans to include thousands of independent hotels in hundreds of markets on the French hotel firm’s own distribution platform. The included independents will be carefully selected so as not to cannibalize AccorHotels’ branded properties, according to executives.
Unlike its competitors, AccorHotels didn’t call this initiative a soft brand, but rather an exercise to educate guests to book direct whether they wish to stay at an AccorHotels property or not. Vivek Badrinath, then deputy CEO, said the plan was to add more than 6,000 of these properties to boost the firm’s distribution platform to 10,000 properties total.
But within two years, AccorHotels decides to end its project of opening its distribution platform to independent hotels. At the time of the announcement, only 2,000 properties are signed up for the initiative, according to sources.
March 2016—Hyatt Hotels Corporation announces the Unbound Collection by Hyatt. The “Unbound” part of the name, according to executives, refers to the fact that the collection would not be limited to hotels but might also include villas, river boats and jungle camps, among other lodging alternatives.
Its first four assets are spread around the world and includes The Driskill Hotel, Austin, Texas; Hôtel du Louvre, Paris; Carmelo Resort & Spa, Carmelo, Uruguay; and Coco Palms Resort, Kauai, Hawaii. At press time, Unbound has 13 hotels, and so far only hotels.
September 2016—Two years after its first soft-brand launch, Best Western International announces its second soft brand, SureStay Signature Collection by Best Western as part of its new franchising model.
At press time, SureStay Collection has 17 hotels, with 11 in its pipeline and most assets located in Europe.
January 2017—Hilton launches its second soft brand, Tapestry Collection by Hilton, which debuts with assets in Syracuse, New York; Chicago; Nashville, Tennessee; Warren, New Jersey; Hampton, Virginia; and two in Indianapolis.
Hilton’s push is to concentrate on the upscale segment, with president and CEO Chris Nassetta saying “there really is no (soft) brand established in the upscale category. We’re defining the category.”
At press time, Tapestry has nine properties, all in the U.S.
June 2017—Wyndham Hotels & Resorts announces The Trademark Hotel Collection, the company’s 19th brand and one that aims at “upper-midscale-and-above” hotels.
Executives say the soft brand will target the “upper-midscale segment, the largest segment accounting for 18% of rooms in the U.S.”
At press time, the soft brand has 98 properties.
January 2018—10 years after the idea of soft brands was launched, soft-brand rooms represent 0.7% of total U.S. inventory, according to HNN parent company STR, with that figure expected soon to be more than 1%.
May 2018—InterContinental Hotels Group CFO Paul Edgecliffe-Johnson says more color would be given later this year regarding broad hints of an IHG soft brand.
August 2018—Hilton announces it will assume management of three former Marriott International properties in Dubai and reposition them under a new soft brand called the LXR Collection that the U.S. company said will be launched later this year.
The three hotels showing there is lots of life left in the world of soft brands are the 234-room Habtoor Palace, LXR Hotels & Resorts; 356-room V Hotel, Curio Collection by Hilton, and 1,004-room Hilton Dubai Al Habtoor City.