Arnie WeissmannBefore you read beyond this sentence and go on to the next, think about your favorite restaurant. Got it firmly in mind? OK, proceed. Is it a branded name? Odds are, it isnt.

Perhaps overwhelming odds. The question was asked to 450 people attending a panel session at the International Luxury Travel Market held Dec. 6 to 9 in Cannes, France, and only one person raised his hand. (He escaped before I could ask whether it was Taco Bell or Ruths Chris Steak House.)

The question had been asked by Richard Lewis, managing director of Indecorp, a collection of independent hotels affiliated with the Preferred, Summit and Sterling groups -- its John Ueberroths current project. Lewis was trying to draw an analogy between independent restaurants and independent hotels, saying that, given the choice, luxury travelers would probably be happier put into a one-of-a-kind hotel property than a branded one.

His analogy isnt exact, of course, because at the luxury end, branded hotels are not cookie-cutter operations. The Four Seasons in Nevis, Austin and Shanghai have less in common with each other than any three branches of Taco Bell. Perhaps the only quality these three Fours Seasons have in common is service.

And even if Indecorp properties were to make the same service claim, unless the name Indecorp becomes widely known -- that is, it becomes a brand -- the claim would lack a critical asset. Several speakers talked about the bragging rights that go with a luxury travel experience. If, for instance, you say you stayed at a Ritz-Carlton, you need explain no further. But when you stay at a great indie, you must first convince the listener youd recognize a good hotel if you saw one.

Still, its a great question as regards brand. Many of the best properties in the world are independent. Perhaps a better analogy than restaurants would be watches. Everyone knows Rolex -- its so widely known that a Rolex is likely to be among the first purchases made after someone wins the lottery. But old money knows that there are dozens of other watches equally good, and old money may even strive to distance itself from lottery winners by buying a less well-known luxury label.

I dont think Four Seasons or Ritz-Carlton will object to being compared with Rolexes, but Lewis point is well taken: When courting the upper classes, its not a bad idea to familiarize yourself with luxury properties which, while not necessarily household names, can deliver the emotional bond you feel with your favorite restaurant.

Another interesting point came up on a different panel. Two men who should know -- Matthew Upchurch, CEO of the upscale agent group Virtuoso, and Bill Fischer, travel agent to the rich and famous, both observed that what was needed in the luxury hotel sector was not accommodations that can be customized, but ones that can be configured.

Each was making the point that properties should offer flexibility in guest room configurations, just as a good meeting space can accommodate large groups or small. It has everything to do with families and large groups of friends traveling together. Each man spoke of the lack of inventory at high-end properties to handle travelers who want adjoining, if not communicating, suites.

If this isnt addressed by the best-known luxury brands, indies take note: Opportunity knocks, and sometimes it knocks on a communicating door.

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