Last week, I wrote about thought leaders at the LE Miami conference who reimagined the guest-host relationship in hospitality.
The presenters I focused on were either independent hoteliers or operating in areas tangential to hotel management. Their common thread was a belief that tomorrow's guests want to get closer to the community where they're staying but don't want a curated, highly structured version of authenticity. Instead, guests are beginning to view the places they stay as portals to meaningful experiences, with the staff (if there is a staff) acting as facilitators rather than as intermediaries.
At LE Miami, I also had the opportunity to sit down with the global leaders of two legacy brands, each owned by a hospitality behemoth, attempting to do, writ large, what independents are proposing, writ small.
In appearance, these brand leaders could be fraternal twins, separated at birth. Both are male, of similar height and bespectacled in fashion-forward frames. Each appears to have found indulgent corporate parents willing to give them waivers from the brand standards that have come to define success at large-scale hospitality companies. Being marketers, each is as likely to speak about customers as "targets," but to do so respectfully, even intimately.
Jonathan Frolich, vice president of global brand for Andaz, which is owned by Hyatt, has 12 hotels and is focused on orchestrating a localvore culture, beginning with the staff.
"Removing barriers between colleagues and guests has been a core value since inception [in 2007]," he said. "We design an unhotel experience. The target is telling us they want an experience like they're at their best friend's home."
Instead of a doorman, bell attendant and concierge, guests at Andaz are greeted by hosts. "It's unscripted," Frolich said. "We took away the checklists and hired for personality, looking for staff who could create emotional connections, ones who could convey 'Welcome to my home' rather than 'Let me check you in.'"
The staff-guest relationship was modeled on home entertaining. "What would you do when a guest arrives?" Frolich asked. "You offer wine, or coffee. So that's what we do. Check-in [with an iPad] is wherever the guest is most comfortable: in the lobby or in the room."
The focus on local includes the art on the walls. When it was discovered that one Manhattan host was also an artist, his work was put on display. He has sold 40 paintings since.
The barrier-free aesthetic extends to the restaurants and bars, where a bottle of wine might simply be left on a table or the chef comes out to serve food and chat.
"What we don't do is 'trendy'," he said. "That has a short shelf life. We want depth -- timeless, democratic and grounded."
I also met with Frolich's acknowledged competitor, Anthony Ingham, global brand leader of W Hotels. His approach has similarities, but his vocabulary differs, with repeated references to the flag's "DNA."
How does DNA differ from standards?
"We have a deep-rooted DNA structure, but a lot of freedom to interpret that in each market," he said. "You have to be relevant in South Beach, Hong Kong, the Maldives, Goa and Barcelona."
The DNA was relaunched this past March to reflect the ways that the thinking of younger consumers differs from what it was 10 years ago.
Ingham used the words "energy," "fun," "witty," "lighthearted, even frivolous" to describe aspects of the DNA. But, similar to Frolich's vision, his does not include "hip."
"The idea of launching a hotel as a cool place is a bit outdated," he said.
Ingham and Frolich's dismissiveness of hipness underscores a fundamental challenge that large-scale hoteliers face vs. one-off, experimental lodging concepts. Independents can be outre. They can fill rooms with a small slice of self-selecting consumers.
But Andaz and W must serve both corporate masters and consumers with lots of options, and it's a balancing act.
I was an early fan of Ian Schrager's boutique collection, staying at Morgans, the Royalton and Paramount as each opened in New York. But when the first W opened, also in Manhattan, I hated it, writing in a review for Star Service (owned by Travel Weekly parent Northstar Travel Group) that it "takes the fun out of funky" and reflected a corporate imagining of hip.
I eventually came around to W after the opening of its Mexico City property, which amazed me with its interpretation and incorporation of local touches (including a sweat lodge in its spa). It signaled a shift in W's DNA away from cold-hip to fun-cool, and it has by and large stayed true to this shift.
More than ever, I believe targeting must be tied to psychographics rather than demographics. Generational osmosis is occurring among millennials, Gen Xers, baby boomers and seniors. Technology has enabled trending preferences to bleed across generational borders as never before.
LE Miami founder Serge Dive observed that hotels cannot be all things to all people, and that's why, even within large hospitality companies, we're seeing a proliferation of brands.
Within their corporate portfolios, Andaz and W appear to have the most flexibility built into their strategies. And just as some generational behaviors are converging, we may see their approach to lodging leech into sister brands, and observe standards being replaced with visions, curation with platforms, rigidity with elasticity.