Soft Brands: Cultivating Authenticity Through Architecture & Design

By Michael Suomi Principal and Vice President Interior Design, Stonehill & Taylor | November 06, 2016

The hospitality market has seen an explosion in the number of Soft Brands in recent years, and yet the concept is not at all new. How then do we account for the sudden resurgence and success of this decades-old model? A new generation of soft brands emerging today coincides with a major shift in the demands and desires of travelers: one that places an unprecedented premium on authenticity and originality.

No longer motivated by standardized offers wherever they go around the world, travelers want to be immersed in their destinations, and favor excitement of discovery over the tried-and-true comfort of familiarity. They are also more sophisticated than ever, with a worldly sense informed by forces of globalization and digital media. Travelers today are able to easily discern between what is original and what is imitation, what is authentic and what is contrived, having been exposed to the world like no other generation before.

This shift in demand is guiding the way we, architects and designers, create new destinations. In today's market, hotel brands place location and individuality at the forefront. With this brief, architects and designers are able to work with greater freedom in the design process, establishing more significant connections to a location from conceptualization to fabrication. When brand standards and guidelines are relaxed, designers can engage with local history, culture, and organizations in a bigger way, and in turn make a bigger mark locally.

At Stonehill & Taylor, we look to a hotel's individual location for inspiration, with the aim of imbuing each design with meaningful references to history and culture. We believe this type of narrative-based philosophy makes for the most interesting projects, and has been key to the firm's success with independent boutique properties. Recently, this approach has been equally in demand by larger brands, leading us to develop several soft brand properties, and signaling a new standard for the way hotels are being designed today.

Evolution of Soft Brands

Soft Brands were traditionally focused on individually held properties that fit into a niche; Historic Hotels of America and Small Luxury Hotels of the World are two examples of this. The first soft brand launched by a major hotel chain known for its "hard brands" is Starwood's Luxury Collection, which opened 21 years ago. Starwood targeted prestigious, and often historic, luxury level independents for this brand and also sought development of new properties as well.

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