By Jessica Blotter
It’s not surprise that today’s boutique hotel brand must go beyond design as a differentiator to engage the new global consumer. Meaningful experience is the new design and it’s here to stay.
“The experience has to be the differentiator. Design is the price of admission,” says Niki Leondakis, CEO of Commune Hotels + Resorts (the parent company of the merger between Joie de Vivre and Thompson Hotels). “It’s about experiential programming—you have to have experiences that are memorable and lasting.”
And one way to create memorable experience, is to make it meaningful.
According to the Meaningful Brands Index (Mbi), the first global analytical framework that measures consumer perception and brands across 700 brands, 134,000 consumers, and 23 countries, in order for a brand to be meaningful, it needs to improve the quality of people’s lives in a tangible, substantial, and fulfilling way.
Consumers want brands to provide value to their lives—while also showing commitment to society and the environment. And whether it’s by positively benefitting their family, work, social life, or community, it’s today’s meaningful brand that is winning.
When the top meaningful brands are outperforming the stock market by 120 percent, and 87 percent of consumers globally believe business should place at least equal weight on business and society, the demand for meaningful brands has never been higher.
And what’s the reward for hotels? Stronger brand equity and consumer loyalty. Meaningful equals memorable equals sharable.
In October, the Boutique and Lifestyle Lodging Association (BLLA) hosted its second annual Boutique Lifestyle Leadership Symposium in Hollywood. Here, top CEOs from Virgin Hotels to Design Hotels shared valuable insights on the six qualities that drive today’s boutique hotel brand.
1. Help guests make every moment important
Just to prove a point, Virgin Hotel’s CEO Raul Leal opened the three-day conference at 9:00 a.m. with Bloody Marys for everyone. As a $22 billion dollar company with more than 60 million raving fans, Leal shared a glimpse into Virgin’s brand power success.
As a brand born out of questioning the traditional role of business, Virgin commits to “heartfelt service” to help guests make every moment important. Leal shares, “It’s about hiring genuine people with hearts…no scripted jargon. Everything we do says ‘we give a damn.’”
With a commitment to crafting “delightfully surprising” experiences, Virgin pushes the boundaries with design and service. Good enough is not enough.
By creating a culture that cooks smart, sensual, and delightful products and services—while at the same time committed to social responsibility—the Virgin experience is bound to make every moment matter.
Bottom line: Make moments important by asking, “Does it make you smile?”
2. Local integration as a force for social responsibility
“Local integration can equal corporate responsibility,” says Claus Sendlinger, CEO of Design Hotels, a collection of more than 400 hotels. He explains how curated, local neighborhood experiences become more and more important to the traveler.
Sendlinger describes how the whole goal of the Opposite House in Beijing and East Hotel in Hong Kong by Swire Group is to work with the locals. “They don’t want the Starbucks or chain retailers.”
It’s about being able to offer guests “a locals perspective” into architecture, food, design, and art to create meaningful experiences.
In response to this need, Sendlinger launched Made By Originals—offering travelers inspiration from the creative communities that support some of the most extraordinary hotels around the world.
Another example of local integration: 21c Museum Hotels, winner of the 2013 BLLA Best Adaptive Reuse of Historic Structure Award, contributes to local revitalization efforts by making art the staple of its brand. By sharing art in each of its public spaces, they drive both creativity and commerce through art. (Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RfWakGhmbDo)
3. Sustainability should be at the forefront of design
When tourism is reported as both a victim of, and contributor to climate change, hotels are increasingly being viewed as part of the solution or problem.
Sendlinger describes how consumers are now more responsible and aware. “Sustainability is a concern, while a dominant consideration is how resources need to be nurtured and controlled,” says Sendlinger.
“If hotels want to be part of the revolution, they need to focus on sustainability.”
To help reduce impact on the environment, Sendlinger recommends travel businesses work with EarthCheck. A global auditing program working together with 17 universities, EarthCheck helps the hospitality industry alleviate its impact on the environment while reducing operation costs.
Another environmental solution that is rethinking plastic water bottles in hotels: Whole World Water. Hotels can filter and distribute their own water while reducing carbon emissions associated with plastic. Proceeds go to funding initiatives that provide clean water to the 1 billion people who don’t.
4. Preserve heritage as a community-builder
When there’s an opportunity to preserve historical buildings and landmarks, there’s an opportunity to build community.
Originally built in 1918, the beloved El Encanto Hotel in Santa Barbara exemplifies how architectural preservation can shape deep cultural bonds. When a community gathers and shares a cultural bond over a valued landmark, the stage is set for a meaningful experience.
Awarded “Boutique Hotel of The Year” at this year’s BLLA Hospitality Awards event, Steven Upchurch, lead architect of Gensler, explains how before they even began restoration, they worked meticulously with the Orient-Express hotel group, the local community and the Santa Barbara Historic Landmarks Commission for three years.
A total of seven years later and $100 million in renovations, they fulfilled every promise to the community. Upchurch explains, “Today’s consumer appreciates what hotels can do for the community and may even pay more when they realize their dollar might go back into benefiting the community—it’s an added value.”
5. Know the psychographics of your community
With a strong international demand to license and a 20-hotel deal in China, sbe’s Katsuya newest addition is in Kuwait. But how does a hip, fashion-forward concept like sbe’s Katsuya go over in a conservative culture like the Middle East?
Afshin Kateb, CFO of sbe Entertainment/ SLS Hotels, says it’s important to consider the psychographics of your local community and adjust accordingly. As a venue traditionally driven by alcohol sales, placed in a city where you cannot have alcohol, they’ve changed the visuals, made it fitting for the particular market, and are offering unique non-alcoholic mixtures.
Sbe shows how it’s possible to take the socializing part of what sbe brands are known for (nightlife) and create a cool environment but with respect to the morals and ethics of the local culture.
6. Wellness as a tool for meaningful experience
There’s a never-before-seen desire for health and wellness—and hotels have the opportunity to support this. Whether it’s through changing menus to make them healthier or offering support of wellness objectives through the spa, wellness is at the heart of meaningful brands.
Spas offer the opportunity for people to, “Step off the treadmill of life and buy back a piece of the day,” says Lynn Curry of Curry Spa Consulting.
As a built-in generator of word of mouth, spas provide the perfect platform for meaningful—and sharable experience. “People come to spas because it offers an environment for them to create their own special experience – whether it be romantic or a girlfriend getaway,” Curry explains. “We don’t hug enough or laugh enough—these are things we need to bring back. Spas have the opportunity to offer this.”