Starwood Hotels usually holds its press events at — where else — Starwood Hotel properties. Except for Thursday's launch of Tribute Portfolio. The announcement of the new brand is a very big deal, but the event, at which CEO Adam Aron presided, happened in a very sub-rosa raw space done up like a boutique hotel, on the fourth floor of a generic building on 18th at Broadway in New York.
It was totally apropos: Starwood's first new hotel brand in nearly 10 years does not actually involve Starwood hotels. With the new project, the company is partnering with independent, four-star properties like the Royal Palms in Miami's South Beach in an arrangement that is way too complicated for me to quite understand, but the main idea is that it's a partnership, not an ownership stake.
We are talking about independent hotels, or at least hotels, some of which are being built now, that are independent of any of the major holding companies. Starwood wears something of a sales channel/consultancy vestment in the arrangement. Starwood, which owns nine brands, including W, Le Meridien, and St. Regis, realizes, clearly, that if you can't beat the off-beat, indie hospitality renaissance, join it. Join, not own.
The company's own research shows that almost 90% of its Starwood Preferred Guest Advisory Community members want to stay in independent hotels, particularly for leisure travel and special occasion trips to unique destinations. And about 70% said they have already stayed at an un-branded hotel property.
Aron, who pointed out that about 50% of “upper upscale” hotels in the U.S. are indie, and that 60% of these four-star hotels around the world are also unaffiliated, said the goal of the Tribute Portfolio is to create an upside for Starwood stakeholders, customers, and of course the owners of the Tribute properties.
The partner properties, he said, “will be curated, high quality, aspirational, intriguing.” For Starwood guests, he said, “There will be more opportunities to earn points, and more places to stay.” The company said it is offering SPG members up to 10,000 bonus points for stays at Tribute Portfolio hotels through July 15. Starwood shareholders benefit because Tribute will become a substantial part of the company revenue five years from now.
Mark Vondrasek, Starwood’s SVP for distribution, loyalty and partnership marketing, says that the time is right partly because the social web has helped independent hotels get a much bigger share of the market thanks to the trust factor. “The TripAdvisors of the world have helped; peer reviews have authenticated independent hotels to a great degree. So we definitely see a trend of people being more willing to try out independent hotels.”
Actually, social media is a big part of the marketing campaign for the new brand, which will be marketed under a “Stay Independent” banner, a campaign that started on Thursday with full-page ads featuring the South Beach property in USA Today and The Wall Street Journal. As Aron pointed out, it is clearly a message directed both to independent hoteliers and to consumers.
Vondrasek, meanwhile, says the global Tribute Portfolio campaign, which includes event activations in key global markets, includes an #OurLikes storytelling component, where travelers are encouraged to create visual moments that evince the independent, unique quality of the Tribute Portfolio properties. With that campaign, Starwood becomes one of the first brands to use Instagram's new ad carousel format.
Members of Starwood's loyalty program were also asked where they'd want to see Tribute Portfolio hotels: Florida and the Caribbean were big, as were California wine country, Las Vegas, and markets like Savannah, Ga., and Charleston, S.C., where the next properties are being built. Globally, SPG members want to see Tribute Portfolio properties in Alpine ski markets, African safari retreats, Southeast Asia resorts and Northern Europe, especially the Nordic countries. And in South America, Rio, São Paulo and Buenos Aires are big. After Miami, the next four properties will be in Asheville, N.C.; Savannah, Ga.; Charleston, S.C.; and Nashville, Tenn.