When Hilton Worldwide announced its new soft brand Curio – A Collection by Hilton at the NYU International Hospitality Industry Investment Conference on Monday, the hotel Twittersphere blew up, as hotel wonks do any time a big chain makes a major announcement.
My first thought upon the news was: Slow down Hilton, you’re making the rest of us look lazy. Hilton is having a very busy year. The company went public in December, launched Curio a couple of days ago, and is planning to launch an accessible lifestyle brand in the fall. But it’s Curio that is on the minds of hoteliers and guests.
Curio, “created for travelers who seek local discovery and authentic experiences,” is a soft brand for Hilton and will help the chain compete with others, like Marriott International’s Autograph Collection. Hyatt, too, recently entered into the game by acquiring the storied Driskill Hotel in Austin, Texas with plans to invest in the property but not rebrand it to a Hyatt.
And who can fault well-known chains for seeing an opportunity with independent properties and running with it? This is partly due to a strong Millennial contingent. In our May issue, I wrote about how this “fickle” Millennial is dictating design trends, but the group is also expecting an authentic experience when they travel, for work or pleasure.
“They crave distinct, authentic experiences that bring in and capture the sense of place and local flavor,” Jim Holthouser, executive vice president of global brands for Hilton told me over the phone yesterday. “They do like hotels that are off the beaten path, in cool places, that take on local character and flavor.”
Independent hotels have a loyal following, he says, and curating a collection of smaller properties is another revenue stream for Hilton. Although travelers may still want to stay at a Hilton Garden Inn on business or host their wedding at a Waldorf Astoria, guests want access to unique hotels when they’re traveling. Curio “helps us offer more to our customers, and it introduces new customers to our existing brands,” he says.
Curio will target 4- and 5-Star independent hotels around the globe that offer guests a unique experience while also utilizing Hilton’s sales-and-marketing engines, loyalty program, and distribution arms. “We have the scale, and we can leverage that scale to their benefit,” Holthouser says.
Curio has already enlisted five hotels to its portfolio, including: The Sam Houston Hotel in Houston, Texas; Hotel Alex Johnson in Rapid City, South Dakota; The Franklin Hotel in Chapel Hill, North Carolina; and a hotel in Portland, Oregon anticipated to open in late 2016.
Another amongst those is the 1,600-room SLS Las Vegas, set to open over Labor Day weekend. A year and a half ago, Hilton and SBE, which owns and operates the SLS, started working together. Amongst the many benefits of this partnership with Hilton, it’s the chain’s group and convention network that provides Arash Azarbarzin, president of SBE Hotel Group, with the most excitement, especially in Las Vegas, which has struggled since the Great Recession to stay afloat as a destination city.
Additionally, Azarbarzin says it’s now a trend for a big independent property to partner with a well-known chain. In Las Vegas, for example, The Cosmopolitan is affiliated with Marriott’s Autograph Collection, Caesars Entertainment properties are part of Starwood Hotels and Resorts, the Bellagio signed with Hyatt, and InterContinental Hotels Group added the Venetian and the Palazzo to its brand family.
Signing with a chain is “not a necessity for you to be able to compete,” he explains, “but it’s good to build that base business that you can stack on top of.”
Chains continue to diversify and are teeming with ideas to grab hold of different market segments. Hilton may not be the trailblazer in the soft-brand world, but it certainly knows how to make a splash.