Independent Travelers Put a Premium on Freedom of Choice

By Pamela Barnhill President & COO, IHT, IBC and IVH Hotels | March 08, 2015

I'm an experiential traveler, looking for different types of places to stay depending on the nature of the trip. I'm not brand-loyal. What matters to me is how the place I choose to stay in fits my needs, so service and distinctiveness matter to me more than familiarity. Community matters to me, too. I like to feel at home wherever I am. I also want to stay in a place that surprises me – pleasantly. I book trips different ways, too.

Which raises the question: Do brands matter anymore? Some, of course, stand for distinctiveness itself, like Apple – and, at least until very recently, Kimpton in hotels. Would Apple signify flair and independence if Sony bought it? Will Kimpton retain the magnetism and stylishness it's known for now that InterContinental Hotels Group is acquiring it? More on that later.

I want to talk about how we shop, in a world where social media and price rule. When I'm in the market for a dress, I want something different, something unique. Price matters. So do reviews. Above all, I know what I don't want: to wear a dress someone else will. I'm not totally against shopping online, though I prefer my research to be digital, trying the dress on in a store. Fit matters, after all. So does the personal touch.
That doesn't mean I buy custom-made. It does mean I pay attention to style more than brand, to what other people say and to pictures I can research on the web.

With social media influencing us 24/7, it's time hotels come around to this view of brand, too. Today's traveler wants something different, distinct, fresh, and local – something with personality. That's tough for a brand.

What hotel brands do – at least they used to – is serve up the familiar. Major brands build their loyalty programs on that concept, not to mention their buildings. You know what to expect from a Marriott product, an InterContinental hotel, a Choice hotel (Best Western? Not so much). And that's comforting, for sure.
But today's adventurous, better-informed traveler wants more, wants the total experience. Sure, brands provide standards: What you see is what you get – again and again and again. And there's the rub.
What is a brand today? A flag? A franchise system? A collection? Even the franchise systems are fuzzing the definition, generating soft brands to extend themselves and give them cachet.

Well-known hotel brands like Marriott, IHG, Best Western – the list goes on – are dependable, and you can't blame them for trying to corner the market with their soft-brand strategies. But that doesn't make them buzzworthy, especially when social media-driven sites like Airbnb are coming on strong. Airbnb, basically, trades on the notion of community. Its branding is based on experience, locale and individuality.
The adventurous traveler goes to the Airbnb site and looks around, seeing whether there are accommodations that will enhance the trip he or she wants to make. It's like wandering into a conversation among a group of friends; it's all about peer-to-peer interaction.

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