The demand for the proverbial “local authentic travel experience” pervades every sector in hospitality and tourism. That demand is now driving large hotel companies to develop new brands and more sophisticated partnerships, new marketing and branding initiatives, and new business models to differentiate themselves and deliver experiences that immerse guests in local communities.
Within the last year and a half, almost all the major legacy hotel chains have brought new hotel flags to market under the “lifestyle” segment, which connotes a broader, more experiential kind of hospitality than the “boutique/design hotel” positioning that was popular from the mid-1980s through the 2000s.
In what is now considered a seminal exploration of the topic before it exploded into the mainstream, the Skift trend report—The Rise of Local in Hospitality—launched in October 2013. Back then, the idea that a hotel could serve as a portal into the local community, and be marketed as such, was ignored by the big box hotels. The concept was primarily the domain of a select group of trendsetting hotel groups, which has since proved to be the catalyst for the shift in hospitality strategy around the business value of localism.
Today, local travel is well on its way to defining all travel for all demographics. That is the primary hospitality industry shift in less than two years between the first Skift report and this one, where delivering a local experience in hotels has evolved from being innovative to expected.
The trend is further developing due to the reurbanization of major cities that are seeing aggressive redevelopment in their urban cores, fueled by rapid population migrations led by Millennial-age professionals. With that, hotels today have much more opportunity to partner with their local communities undergoing so much creative disruption and innovation.
However, if it is now considered the norm for hotels to position themselves as an integrated part of the local travel experience due to rapidly changing guest expectations, how does the hotel industry evolve from here? The answer is more storytelling and personalization. Moving forward, hotels are becoming more sophisticated and creative when it comes to customizing and promoting local travel experiences—based on their specific hotel guest psychographics—by partnering with more local community businesses and events targeting those guest preferences.
Introduction: Behind the rise of reurbanization
The global shift in hospitality to immerse guests in the local community is aligned with the shift in urban communities themselves. More people are migrating into urban cores every year due to increased economic opportunities, creating robust communities into which hotels can tap. According to the United Nations, 54% of the world’s population was living in cities in 2014, with that expected to grow to 66% by 2050.1
In the United States, Millennials are accounting for a disproportionate amount of that migration into inner cities. According to the March 2015 United States Census Bureau study,2 that “migration in the United States is largely driven by young adults and the children that accompany them.”
From 2007 and 2012, Millennials accounted for 24% of the total population in America, but they constituted 43% of population migration because there’s a decided preference among the age group to relocate in urban cores, much more so than earlier generations. Part of that is due to the time frame coinciding roughly with the Great Recession when Millennials began moving closer to their jobs within easier reach via public transportation.
The latest insight from the City Observatory think tank in Portland reads:
“Over the last several decades, well-educated young adults have become increasingly likely to locate in the urban cores of cities—those places within three miles of the center of each metropolitan area’s primary central business district. Some cities like St. Louis and Miami have more than doubled the number of talented young adults in their urban cores in just the last decade, with L.A., Baltimore and San Diego very close to doing the same.”
Because of this dramatic rise in creative professionals moving into America’s downtown cores, that’s driving significant economic impact and the development of more interesting local community experiences. There’s surging demand for independent regional businesses and more varied community events. Also, the migration is driving the reurbanization of previously distressed, post-industrial neighborhoods into new “startup communities” blending young entrepreneurs and cultural influencers living and working amid a mashup of trendy residential and commercial environments.
Therefore, it’s much easier for urban hotels today to offer more interesting local experiences because there are many more interesting local experiences available. This report examines how hotels are leveraging that by promoting and partnering with a growing diversity of local businesses and community events surrounding them.
This is helping drive the future of local hospitality where hotels are morphing into a destination resource—an innovative travel knowledge and experience hub that plugs visitors into different spheres of the local community. With more partnerships and connections, hotels have more opportunities to personalize and customize their travel journey, which has come to define the primary goal of the hospitality sector in the 21st century.
Gentrification, adaptive reuse & the value of local
There is now widespread acceptance and understanding in the hospitality industry around the business impact of attracting the local community to a hotel. It’s no longer just a nice thing to have. It’s no longer merely an add-on amenity. By catering to locals, hotels are creating a more authentic and enriching guest experience, so hotel developers are aggressively expanding where locals want to congregate.
For example, the Godfrey Hotel Boston opens this fall in the Downtown Crossing neighborhood of Boston which 100 years ago was once the primary retail district in the city. Like many central urban districts, the area devolved from the 1950s through 1990s into relative disuse. Today, Downtown Crossing is re-emerging with trendy new residential and commercial buildings due to its central location between Boston Common and the financial district.
The developer behind the project, Oxford Capital Group, is restoring the historic Amory and Blake buildings together to house the hotel in partnership with Boston-based Finegold Alexander Architects.
“The back to the city movement is clearly very real, and certainly it’s the case in the major cities where you have good locations and well-built older buildings that you can buy relatively inexpensively, versus doing a ground-up development,” says John Rutledge, president & CEO of Oxford Capital Group. “At the end of the day, you can end up reinventing those buildings and getting a location that you couldn’t get ground up, and many of those buildings with good bones need a transformation in visible locations.”
Rutledge adds that the company’s focus on buying and updating urban buildings with classical bones is something that’s been going on for decades in Europe, which have always attracted locals because they performed like the “living rooms of those cities.” But, he says, the trend is much newer in America, driven by consumer demand over just the last two decades for more local neighborhood experiences and adaptive reuse hotels.
Suburban wine country
Hotel Arista is the host property for the annual Naperville Wine Festival in August every year, which attracts over 10,000 visitors to the northwest Chicago suburb of Naperville. Arista is leveraging that to position itself as a launch pad into the local food scene and Illinois wine country just outside the city limits. “People have become more adventurous with wine and stepping away somewhat from Napa, for example, and looking more toward Oregon and the Midwest, as the wines in each are beginning to improve,” explains Mike Platt, GM of Hotel Arista.
About 20 minutes from the property, the Northern Illinois Wine Trail traverses through more than 30 vineyards. Hotel Arista has bulked up its wine selection with many wines from the trail, and it’s actively promoting pre/post wine journeys for business travelers and meeting groups. There’s also a series of Wine Lovers weekend packages, such as an Ice Wine event in winter when the hotel curates a special selection of Canadian dessert vines. Platt says, “The Naperville Wine Festival is a very exciting time for wine lovers in Chicago, but people can learn and talk about wine throughout the year at Hotel Arista. It is an area that truly differentiates us.”
That demand for renovated hotels in existing buildings with many layers of storytelling aligns with developers seeking to build in long-established urban districts where there either isn’t significant room for new-build properties, or it’s simply cost prohibitive for ground-up hotel development.
“Historically in America it’s been hit or miss, so something we say is ‘we go native’ so the hotel experience is inclusive and connects with a sense of place,” says Rutledge. “In order for a hotel to be as successful as it can be, you want it to truly pass muster for locals that are in the know. As we always say about hotels, you rarely can succeed on just the hotel customer alone. You have to become a place where the locals want to go to the lounge, cafe, restaurant and rooftops.”
Likewise, Rockbridge is a hospitality development company with over 330 investments across America in the last 20 years. One of its most recent adaptive reuse projects is Le Meridien Indianapolis, located in the city’s downtown core.
“We spend a lot of time in how we develop our model, and even though we’re a national firm, we want to be viewed as local, so we try to integrate into the community and understand what the community wants,” says Jim Merkel, CEO of Rockbridge. “We also want to enhance the experience for visitors coming into the community, which enhances the local economy. You’re really not maximizing the opportunity if you’re not connecting with the customer in a localized way.”
Adjacent to the hotel, the St. Elmo classic fine-dining steak house is the highest-producing restaurant in Indianapolis. Merkel says the Rockbridge team spent a great deal of time conceptualizing the type of hotel restaurant that would complement St. Elmo. The result of that is the trendy Spoke & Steele restaurant, defined by it modern, hip interior and focus on handcrafted cocktails and artisanal food. The restaurant is an experiential foil to the old-school St. Elmo and it occupies a significant section of Le Meridien’s ground floor.
“Spoke & Steele and St. Elmo are now a destination in and of itself,” explains Merkel. “We looked at this hotel as basically a ground floor restaurant with 100 rooms on top of it. We spent a lot of time and dollars redesigning the first floor to create an attractive destination for both guests and local visitors.”
Changing guest expectations: James & Jumeirah Hotels
James Hotels accomplishes that brand engagement in part through their Cultural Collection program that helps people discover what is unique culturally in each city. It’s a series of partnerships providing access to cultural institutions and events, such as The Drawing Center exhibition space in New York. The facility developed a two-year Open Sessions program as a “platform for artists to find new approaches for contextualizing and exhibiting their work through conversation, public programs, and gallery installations.” Some of that work will be featured in The James New York’s Urban Garden throughout the summer. The hotel is also teaming up with the Drawing Center for a “Drink & Draw” cocktail hour class showcasing the art of sketching.
The new Preferred portal
Preferred Hotels & Resorts unveiled a new website this year that pulls together all of the 650 hotels in the portfolio, across five collections of property verticals: Legend, LVX, Lifestyle, Connect and Preferred Residences. The portal allows travelers to search by preferences such as setting, style, price point and location, helping personalize the booking process.
“These collections represent every type of experience and style of luxury that our guests are seeking, and we designed them to help travelers more easily find the perfect hotel that suits their needs and preferences for each individual trip,” says Lindsey Ueberroth, president & CEO of Preferred Hotels & Resorts. “We understand that cultural immersion is a major selling point for travelers. When compiling hotel profiles for the website, we specifically highlighted the hotel’s proximity to local cultural highlights from museums to markets and art galleries upfront, and we are now expanding that destination and experience content to better inform and inspire our guests.”
“Those types of experiences allow us to engage with our customers beyond the traditional hotel experience, and more from an integrated lifestyle perspective,” says Lisa Zandee, senior VP of brand management for James Hotels. “These are smart, effortless options that allow people to discover new things and create connections on a more emotional level. I think guests today are increasingly looking to hotels as hubs in the community to connect them to these experiences, and when it’s done well and executed thoughtfully, it has the ability to transcend pure demographic or psychographic criteria.”
The Jumeirah Group is also actively promoting local cultural experiences near each of its hotels. Earlier this year, the company launched the #JumeirahJourneys hashtag campaign with the top 10 things to see in Istanbul. Ross McAuley, group VP brand, digital & loyalty for Jumeirah Group, says the brand is continuing ramping up its social media efforts to deliver more local content. He points out that the Jumeirah Group Instagram account has added nearly 5,000 new followers—a jump of over 50%—since the beginning of the year without any promotional activity.
“The key thing that has changed is that we’ve seen how guests want their experiences to be much more unique and personal to them,” says McAuley. ”The explosion of visual content on platforms such as Instagram, and the willingness of our audience to attach their location to it, shows us that they wish to have a strong local connection or bond with what they’re experiencing, whether it is our hotel properties or the local surroundings.”
The rise of the big-brand lifestyle hotel
Over the last two years, many of the legacy international hospitality companies have acquired or developed niche lifestyle hotel brands to cater to the surge of interest for a more local, design-conscious lodging experience. The list of brands is extensive, and they fall into two categories: new verticals within a parent brand, or autonomous members of a “soft brand” that share the parent brand’s sales, marketing and distribution channels.
Hyatt Centric is an example of the former. In April, the new Hyatt Centric The Loop Chicago was the first hotel in the portfolio to open, with Hyatt Centric South Beach following in May. The “Centric” moniker refers to the brand mission to provide guests with a central location offering quick access to the heart of a destination. This positioning is somewhat unique among the stable of new lifestyle brands because the focus is slanted more toward urban connectivity versus any of the recent trends—which are not really trends any longer—revolving around “design/boutique” hotels or “Millennial” hotel brands.
Those designations are quickly losing their value to describe the next generation of hospitality, because pretty much all new and newly renovated full service hotels place a greater focus on design, local F&B, communal social spaces, etc. And almost no hotel brand is positioning itself as a Millennial-directed experience because what that once meant has become more mainstream for all age demographics.
The next generation of hotel brand positioning like Centric is evolving beyond that to focus on seamless integration with the local community. Modern design and social spaces are still paramount for Hyatt’s new flag because that is expected today, but with Centric in particular, the brand messaging promotes the hotels as destination hubs rather than destination hotels.
“The guest experience at Hyatt Centric is designed to be simple to help what we call ‘Modern Explorers’ navigate the destination,” says Kristine Rose, VP of brands, Hyatt. “Our guests are very curious. They’re looking for us to be more modern, meaning more in tune with their expectations, and more central in locations to help them get out and explore.”
For example, the lobbies are not necessarily designed to be large social living rooms. Smaller in scope, the lobbies feature areas defined as “The Corner” with books and magazines that provide insight into the local destination. They’re purpose-built mostly for the hotel guests to give them a basecamp to prepare for their journey into the city.
The bars, meanwhile, are a primary focus for Centric where guests can mingle with locals. Rose says Hyatt Centric is actively working to attract locals, and their guests prioritize that type of space to have a drink or two before venturing out into the destination, and for when they return.
Based on Centric’s market research, the brand is developing materials that showcase local experiences for people who are time constrained. Still in development, they will be structured in different time allotments from two hours to half a day, and possibly more. The research also points to three types of travel behaviors today. They’re described as Planners, who research the destination intensively pre-trip; Wish-Listers, who want to experience a destination’s iconic activities; and Wanderers, who are completely spontaneous without specific itineraries. Rose says these new destination materials are geared mostly for the Wish-Listers, along with Wanderers to a lesser degree.
“With Hyatt Centric, we’re not really trying to create the hot spot where everyone can come in and hang out and drink coffee in the lobby,” says Rose. “We’re that central hub to help prepare people to discover new things.”
The future of the connected hotel
Hotels seeking to act as a connected central hub should look to Airbnb and other sharing economy companies for inspiration, says Gray Shealy, executive director of the Master’s of Hospitality Management Program at Georgetown University. He suggests that part of the popularity of Airbnb and other travel-related sharing apps is a closer connection to the social fabric of a neighborhood. Airbnb hosts always provide their guests extensive local insider input and maps, so Hotels can mimic that by providing more detailed information about hidden local secrets throughout their own neighborhood.
“I would argue that Airbnb actually owes a lot of its success to this notion of localized contextualism and the search and quest for authenticity, because what Airbnb allows a user to do is really have an accessible localized experience,” he says. “Everything’s rooted in this deeper quest for knowledge, for information, for education. We’re self-educating ourselves as we travel, especially to be more knowledgeable and open-minded about the world.”
Shealy goes on to say that hotels could begin partnering with apps like the new Detour walking tours in San Francisco, created by Groupon founder and former CEO, Andrew Mason. The app provides 90-minute narrated tours with a theme, such as the Beat Generation tour that explores Chinatown and the buzzy North Beach neighborhood in San Francisco where writers like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg congregated. The tour provides an in-depth survey of the back streets and directs participants to small local cafes and bars visitors would never come across otherwise.
Hotels could easily promote these tours on their websites, and employees could participate in the tours so they could describe them to guests based on personal experience. Feastly is another interesting online sharing platform where people can visit private homes for dinner, which hotels could also promote and share.
“I think some of the hotel companies have been so scared about the onset of the Airbnb that they’ve avoided it and thought about how it’s going to ruin their business, rather than maybe how they could take advantage of some of these applications themselves,” says Shealy. “I really think hotels, if they’re not starting to offer these types of amenities, they really should be thinking about how they are partnering with these next generation technology apps like Detour and Feastly.”
Mason says Detour will eventually be an open-source platform so hotel companies can develop their own walking tours. He is also envisioning potential partnerships with hotel groups who will eventually be able to customize the Detour platform and develop unique walking tours for their specific consumer base. As of now, people can use the app solo or sync the geo-location technology with a few other people to do group walking tours.
“We love that idea, we think Detour would be great for hotels,” says Mason. “Sometimes we’ll do events where we have 50 people get together, and then they’ll pair up into groups of two to four to do their Detour together, and they have a blast.”
Shealy says it’s only a matter of time until hotels start promoting these types of experiences to their guests.
“There’s got to be a point at which you have to be introducing your guests to those applications,” says Shealy. “So how could a Sheraton, for example, partner with a Detour? And then, how do you make it more integral to that particular property or that particular brand as an initiative that makes it unique to that one place? I think that’s what people are going to be looking for in the future.”
What local means: Hyatt Andaz & Destination Hotels
The challenge for emerging lifestyle hotel brands is that they’re new to market and there’s not necessarily a culture of localism embedded in their operational DNA. That takes time to develop. Some established brands that have focused on their local communities have developed a culture where each property inspires the others to build on creative ideas they’ve implemented in their cities.
For example, Hyatt’s launch of Andaz Hotels in 2007 broke down the barriers between staff and guests. Andaz was the first to forgo the classic reception deck in lieu of a lounge seating area where hosts check in guests in on an iPad. Also, bartenders pour drinks at guests’ tables, and the open kitchens are starting to be designed in the center of the restaurants.
“With Andaz, we want an energy, a quality, an experience that locals want to frequent,” says Jonathan Frolich, VP, global innovation at Hyatt Hotels. “It drives, not only this philosophy of this reduction or removal of barriers so everything will be much more free-flowing, but it also really hits on another tenant of Andaz, which is all about feeling like you’re in a friend’s high-end home.”
Stush in the bush
Half Moon, a RockResorts property in Montego Bay, Jamaica, offers a “Stush in the Bush” program to introduce the island’s culinary traditions to visiting hotel guests. Stush is a Jamaican word that infers living a good and wholesome life, as well as valuing what is important. Outside Montego Bay at the Zionites organic farm owned Chris and Lisa Binns, the facility is regarded as the embodiment of stush with 15 lush acres of fruit and vegetable gardens.
Chris Binn escorts guests on a tour of the farm while he explains how the plants are grown on property, how they relate to Jamaican culture and history, and how they’re used for both food and medicine. During the tour, guests will have the chance to taste, smell and touch the plants grown on property. Following that, Lisa welcomes everyone under a shady arbor where the group gathers for lunch around a rough-hewn tables while she shares her recipes for her vinaigrettes and marmalades.
Looking ahead, Andaz is playing with the idea of removing the barriers between the front of the house and some of the back of the house. The goal behind this is to open up even more conversation between guests and staff to drive home the local experience. Frolich says details are not finalized, but he asserts the more that Andaz can spur engagement with staff and guests, the more opportunity there is for personalized guest experiences, which leads to real business results and increased bookings.
“We’re seeing those financial results continually improve, and I can’t give you the exact numbers, but they’re continually increasing five to six percent every year,” explains Frolich. “That’s either the highest or the near highest of all of our brand portfolio.”
Destination Hotels, one of the largest independent hospitality marketing collections in the United States, places a priority on inspiring executives at the hotel level to develop entrepreneurial community initiatives. At the Embassy Row Hotel in Washington, DC, for example, GM Shawn Jervis says his goal is to present to guests DC beyond the famous landmarks while developing new business partnerships with local small businesses.
One way to do that is by partnering with the local startup community. Embassy Row works with the Union Kitchen Food Incubator, which supports about 200 new purveyors at any given time. Overlooking Dupont Circle, the hotel’s Rooftop Bar & Pool is used to create pop-up establishments for some of those young companies, and the Station Kitchen & Cocktails restaurant serves baked goods from Union Kitchen members.
“We bring in the local startups because they have so much passion,” says Jervis. “They’re cobranding in our space, like Compass Coffee, and they’re teaching our staff about what makes their products unique.”
Embassy Row is also working with another startup company to create tours of the underground train station below Dupont Circle. Jervis says the hotel’s assistance is significantly paving the way for the startup in terms of professional support, but it’s also good for the hotel’s bottom line.
“We want to feel good about what we do, and we want our guests to feel good about what we do,” he says. It’s a big deal for these startups. We need to reinvest in the community, it helps retain staff and guests, and it gives us a story to tell that differentiates us.”
Interview with Mike DeFrino, CEO of Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants
How is Kimpton Hotels & Resorts competing with new lifestyle brands coming to market?
Kimpton offers a unique experience that no other player currently offers in the same way through our genuine, personalized and unscripted approach to customer service and warm, playful amenities that appeal to both road warrior business travelers and leisure guests. We’ve got 34 years of experience under our belt, and as a boutique brand, we can be more nimble and autonomous in creating ridiculously personal experiences for guests.
Every Kimpton hotel is uniquely designed and concepted. We create establishments that serve the community as much as the travelers while also drawing inspiration from the city and building’s history and locale. Our hotels are meant to fit seamlessly into the city’s culture. And it’s not just the buildings themselves. Our employees are also experts in their cities who know every nook and cranny. They know what’s unique and off the beaten path and often share these tips with guests to create truly local experiences.
How do the hotels challenge each other to come up with more creative experiences?
Creativity starts with empowerment and our guest experience is directly impacted by motivated employees who can be themselves and feel happy in the workplace. We’re an empowerment-focused workplace culture, from the back-of-the-house to the front desk, and that’s what sets us apart from the pack.
There are unique Kimpton ways we encourage and spark creativity. One is an internal communication tool, Yammer, and we also happen to have a resident SVP of Inspiration & Creativity. Steve Pinetti’s been with Kimpton since our early days as a fledgling boutique brand. Nowadays, Steve is out there meeting and rallying all of our employees in the field to inspire, motivate, ideate and jump outside their comfort zones, all while tying it back into Kimpton’s unique culture of personalized care.
As a company and as team members, we communicate daily on Yammer, and it’s truly become a living, breathing organism. There are groups within groups, from hotel operations to guest experience and loyalty where employees organically share best practices, celebrate successes and support one another from one endeavor to the next. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen one hotel do something completely extraordinary, and then others will get inspired and follow suit.
How do all of the many Kimpton partnerships with local non-profits drive business?
All of our partnerships hit on core causes that our guests and employees care about on a deeply personal level. Many of these conversations happen organically, not from the top-down. For example, our support of the LGBTQ community has existed since our founding in San Francisco in 1981. Fast forward 34 years and we’ve built tremendous relationships in the community and in 2014, struck up a partnership with The Trevor Project at the suggestion of our employees. The idea of inclusivity and diversity of thought, beliefs, backgrounds, gender and sexual orientation is a shared vision, and we’re honored to help support this mission and raise awareness for crisis intervention for LGBTQ youth.
As The Trevor Project’s premier hotel partner, our goal is to spark community impact and bring awareness to their cause, and it’s not just a dollars and cents play. Guests who stay with us using the TRPR rate code receive 15% off our best available rate per night and an additional $5 donation per stay goes to Trevor, which is a win-win. At the end of the day, our guests share our philosophy of inclusion and proactively choose brands that are in the business of making people’s lives better. Other Kimpton partnerships hit on causes such as sustainability, like the Trust for Public Land and The Nature Conservancy, as well as women in need with Dress for Success.
How has the IHG acquisition impacted operations at Kimpton?
The acquisition hasn’t impacted our operational best practices, and our M.O. now is the same it’s always been—to be the best loved hospitality company. As the brand continues to grow and develop, we’re still laser focused on three things: guest satisfaction, employee satisfaction, and profitable results for our owners and investors. Our HQ is still firmly rooted in San Francisco and that’s where we’ll continue to grow and develop the boutique business.
We’re continuously developing and evolving hotel operations strategies, increasing profitability while maintaining the company’s industry-leading guest satisfaction scores, and upholding the unique culture that has led to Kimpton’s inclusion on Fortune magazine’s ‘Best 100 Companies to Work For’ list for six years.
How food & beverage drive the local experience
Local food and beverage is one of the most fundamental ways to create a local authentic hotel experience, compounded by the fact that homegrown F&B attracts locals to hotel restaurants and bars. The farm-to-table megatrend is now mainstream, but chefs are continuing to find more innovative ways to raise the bar by adding more experiential and sophisticated offerings.
For example, the Aspen Outfitting Company is based inside The St. Regis Aspen Resort. Guests can sign up for high-alpine fly fishing and upland elk and bird hunting where they can learn about the food production chain.
“The biggest trend we’ve seen in the last few years is, we’ve seen a more savvy customer looking for more authentic local experiences,” says co-owner Jarrod Hollinger. For the bird hunting excursions, Hollinger and his team teach the basics of shotgun use and they explain their code for responsible hunting that requires all harvested pheasant, partridge and quail never go to waste. The chefs at St. Regis Aspen prepare wild game meals in the fine-dining Chefs Club restaurant, or they can freeze the birds and ship them to guests’ homes for later consumption.
Foraging is the next generation of farm-to-table dining experiences where local chefs and farmers take guests into farms and forests to learn how to harvest edible food on the spot. Alan Muskat, for example, operates Wild Food Adventures in Asheville, North Carolina where he leads 3-hour foraging tours for up to eight people. Everyone is provided with baskets and knives to pick berries, mushrooms, herbs and other edible fruits and vegetables, which are then delivered to four restaurants in Asheville and one at the Omni Grove Park Inn. Aloft Asheville Downtown offers a foraging package where guests can team up with locals participating in one of the foraging events taking place 2-3 times weekly in warmer months. “My favorite reason for doing this is because this is an almost spiritual experience that really connects us to the earth and opens our eyes to the world around us,” says Muskat.
The area near Florida’s Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort is surrounded by lush woodlands and salt marshes. Executive Chef Daven Wardynski opened an aquaponic garden and private event space last year near the resort in an old dilapidated greenhouse that sat empty for almost two decades. There, he offers guided, weekly tours of various sprouting projects, and there are monthly dinners designed for both locals and hotel guests that utilize food grown in the garden. Wardynski says, above all, he’s always pushed for local ingredients and local dishes in the resort’s kitchens.
“As a chef it’s your responsibility to support the local community,” he says. “I’m a farm boy from Michigan and I’ve seen what happens when a recession hits and the importance of your farms becomes abundant. The really underlying tone of everything we do is about being true to who you are.”
During the chef tours, children are welcome and sometimes Wardynski brings his own kids. He adds that the local community living within the plantation spent over $2 million at the resort in 2014, so there’s a strong community vibe where visiting families can engage with the locals and their kids.
Omni Amelia Island has also been developing Fish-to-Fork Culinary Immersion Events during which guests, locals and local chefs hop aboard a series of fishing boats to catch dinner for the evening. Suitable for a maximum of 72 guests at six per boat, the event is unique in Florida, and it’s a great way to experience the destination from a behind-the-scenes perspective. Dinner is then served outdoors in a food and wine festival-style atmosphere.
“It doesn’t get more real than that, and it shows how important the food production cycle is,” says Wardynski. “As one of the largest employers in Nassau County, it is very important to us at Omni Amelia Island to make sure we are the hub of the community.”
At Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn in California, sommelier Paul Berg and his crew escort guests on private 4-hour tours through boutique private wine estates in Sonoma Valley. It’s unique because guests are traveling with a local who can customize the tours to individual guest tastes. Then those same guests can have dinner at the Fairmont’s upscale Santé Restaurant that night where 95% of the time, the same sommelier presents wines for each course. The dinner is a highlight because the wine experts have had so much time to understand their diners’ palates.
“I think this is the next step for people who want some structure and who want to book in advance,” says Berg. “The real value is the connection between the sommelier and the guest, and the chance to experience Sonoma like a local. It’s not like you’re another number. You’re going on a tour with almost like a new friend to take you places you would never know about.”
At Columbia Marriott Hotel in South Carolina, the busy Soda City Farmer’s Market takes place every weekend next door to the hotel. The hotel cleared out its gift shop to house Nest, the market’s brick-and-mortar retail space, which helps support up to 150 local vendors. In addition, Assistant GM Jeff Kaplan says they work with a local startup called Columbia Food Tours that brings visitors to half a dozen local farm-to-table restaurants in the downtown core, including Marriott. The Midlands’ Modern Southern Food Arts restaurant at the hotel is ranked as one of best restaurants in town due to the local mission and artisanal dishes often crafted from ingredients sourced at the market.
“Most people don’t sit around on a Friday night and say, ‘Hey, let’s go to the Marriott for dinner,’ but that’s what happens here,” says Kaplan. “We don’t serve typical business hotel food and that’s a pretty unique thing. It’s just a great way to capture local guests and create a captive audience that’s very interested in local food.”
The future of hotel programming
Other hotels are evolving their programming to drive engagement between locals and out of town visitors by developing events and programs that cater to locals. The potential here is endless, illustrated by the following examples ranging from motorcyclist parties to professional development events for women.
The Iron Horse Hotel in Milwaukee hosts over 40 special events every year in addition to a regular slate of weekly events. To keep things from getting stale, the hotel management team focuses on continually developing new partnerships with local influencers and purveyors that they can inject into the events. For instance, the property brings in one of the city’s most popular radio DJs to curate music a couple times a month, and the Thursday Bike Nights regular attract hundreds of local Harley Davidson riders.
“Our objective is, we want it to be a win, win for everybody,” says Kevin Robinson, COO and managing partner of the Aparium Hotel Group, co-owners of The Iron Horse. “Our partners have their own following, they have their own fans, so people come there to be with us, as well as, people come there because our partners are there. We both get some recognition out of it.”
Robinson and his team coined what they call “Translocal Hospitality” to describe the company’s emphasis on local community and hotel guest engagement.
“Translocal hospitality is something we use to describe our culture and our thinking process,” he explains. “As an independently branded and operated property, we have to immerse ourselves into a local market in so many different ways. The first priority that we have is to build up ambassadors within the local market.”
Apryl DeLancey, president of Social Age Media, promotes a variety of professional development events at Marriott properties in California. She says these types of events are growing in interest and they’re a great way for hotels to engage both visitors and the local community. The Los Angeles Airport Marriott, for example, recently hosted the “Branding For Women” event in April with a panel of entrepreneurial women who brought together other women for an evening of inspiration and networking. The event was free to participants and it’s one way that Marriott gives back to the community.
“Professional development is huge these days, so we wanted to put something together for women entrepreneurs in the area, and we hope to have quarterly gatherings to continue the momentum,” says DeLancey. “It also differentiates Marriott among a sea of hotels by becoming a voice for the community, so it’s really about trying to be a valuable information and resource hub in the Los Angeles area.”
On Florida’s Gulf Coast, the Loews Don CeSar Hotel in St. Petersburg is tapping into the demand for more educational amenities for hotel guests, especially those with families. The property partners with Tampa Bay Watch, a local organization dedicated to the protection and restoration of Tampa Bay, on a number of programs. The primary initiative is the St. Pete Sea Life Tour with 12 education stations around the property to help guests understand and appreciate the local habitat and natural resources.
A new partnership launched last year with the Humane Society of Pinellas is the “Cold Weather Foster Pet Program.” When the temperature dips below 50 degrees, the Humane Society reaches out to the hotel to see if any guests wish to foster a dog at the hotel as a part of the Loews Loves Pet program.
“Loews puts a big emphasis on connecting with the local community, so the experience here is really more about the destination, and our guests are expecting that,” says Jeff Abbaticchio, spokesperson for Loews Don CeSar Hotel.
Ralph Aruzza, chief sales & marketing officer at Belmond Hotels, says the company’s overarching mission is to “provide guests a truly authentic connection to each destination that reflects the essence of the local culture.” To that end, in TK, Belmond Hotel Cipriani partnered with the local rowing club Francesco Querini to offer a local wine-tasting experience aboard a traditional gondola, and Belmond Napasai in Koh Samui teaches guests about the art of Muay Thai boxing.
“In the United States, our guests at Belmond Charleston Place can select one of four different books written by local Charleston authors, such as Nicholas Sparks’ “The Notebook” or Sue Monk Kidd’s new novel “The Invention of Wings,” says Aruzza. “And then we engage our guests in a private guided tour around the city that inspired these great American authors. Local experiences like that are what create lifetime memories.”
Over the last few years, Mandarin Oriental Hotels has positioned itself more as a cultural curator of exclusive luxury destination experiences. Danielle DeVoe, VP of communications for the Americas for Mandarin Oriental, explains that with so much growing demand for local travel, hotel brands today are trying to highlight the uniqueness of a destination in ways that are aligned with their specific guest interests.
In New York, for example, the Mandarin Oriental developed an exclusive insider guide to the city, co-created with award-winning fashion designers Kate and Laura Mulleavy at the Rodarte label. The map and guide show a bevy of shops, restaurants and attractions selected by Kate and Laura that they themselves patronize and recommend to friends.
“This connects guests with the destination from a very unique perspective,” says DeVoe. “As local hospitality programs continue to evolve, we anticipate brands will be curating experiences showcasing local culture on a much deeper level.”
Another example of that, Hotel Lincoln in Chicago promotes five local dive bars within walking distance of the property. A new Dive On In package provides guests with a neighborhood map and Dive Bar Badge redeemable for deals and drinks at establishments like Marge’s Still or Twin Anchors, which both date back to Chicago’s Prohibition era. The hotel’s Elaine’s Coffee Call cafe serves a hangover breakfast. The property is also developing a package with the local Green City Farmer’s Market for the summer season, which will include a behind-the-scenes tour led by Green City Market’s executive director.
The rise of the hybrid hostel/hotel & upscale sharing apartments
The alternative hospitality industry—including sharing accommodations and the fast-emerging hotel/hostel hybrid model—is becoming less and less alternative. The Generator Hostel company in Europe is actively expanding its single room inventory in existing hostels and a batch of new products, such as Generator Paris in the heart of the bohemian Canal St. Martin district. This is changing the hospitality landscape in Europe because travelers who want a single room and affordable price in trendy urban accommodations with a strong local community connection now have a whole new hospitality segment to consider.
“Generator Paris is representative of our core ethos of bringing the city into our property, whether in terms of local partnerships, relationships or events,” says Josh Wyatt, chief strategic officer at Generator. “For example, we’ve teamed up with French record and fashion label Kitsuné to create a competition where emerging DJs enter their tracks using an online platform. The selected artist with the best track will win the chance to play a set in Generator’s Sound of Paris party.”
Wyatt says Generator guests are seeking a confluence of amenities that aren’t driven necessarily by money or brand economics, but rather a sense of inclusion. With comfortable rooms outfitted only with the necessities, and public spaces with vibrant social programming with local creatives, guests are naturally driven to engage on an emotional level with the hostel/hotel brand and the communities where it’s located. Most importantly, that is driving a wide range of consumers attracted to that sense of inclusion.
“We are unequivocally seeing a rise in guests that you might think would only stay in a three star hotel,” says Wyatt. “We are seeing corporate travelers, empty nesters and families staying in some of our properties.”
Randall T. Cook, CEO/co-founder of ROOST Apartment Hotels in Philadelphia, explains that his company offers apartment-style accommodation similar to Airbnb with several important and meaningful distinctions. Unlike Airbnb, all ROOST Apartment Hotels have 24/7 on-site concierge, on-site housekeeping, and 24/7 on-site/on-call maintenance. Cook’s plans are to expand ROOST nationally within the coming years, because he says the sharing economy has inspired business executives to seek more localized accommodations that offer a wider array of services.
“ROOST Apartment Hotel essentially takes the unknowns out of the equation as compared to a particular host at an Airbnb apartment,” says Cook. “For example, we have a 24/7 help desk if someone is having trouble getting connected to the Wi-Fi or Apple TV. We also have the added benefit of brand consistency and brand standards that can be seen anywhere from our high-thread count Italian bedding to black-out shades in all sleeping rooms.”
Cook worked with Morris Adjmi Architects to design a place that “feels like your friend’s well appointed flat that is equally comfortable and inspiring.” He wanted wanted a simple, timeless aesthetic that isn’t trendy and will feel good or even better as the years go on.
“We believe fundamentally that today’s business travelers want to mix business and pleasure as much as possible, and they’re seeking as much local culture as possible while they are away from home on business,” says Cook. “One of our core ideals is to establish a sense of place for our residents. Being on the road for a long-term work assessment can create a sense of isolation. So we’re seeking to mitigate this sense of isolation by creating a sense of place for our residents through regular resident receptions, where residents get to know us and other residents better.”
The evolution of hospitality content marketing
Like all industries, the hospitality sector has been experimenting with content marketing for over a decade, first utilized successfully with the stable of trendy boutique brands in the early 2000s, such as Morgans Hotels, The Standard, Kimpton Hotels and Ace Hotel. With these groups, content often covers local destination experiences deemed relevant to the design-forward crowd who rely on these hotels as gatekeepers into the local scene.
The larger global brands have never really adopted content marketing, other than via social media, nearly to that degree until Marriott International launched MarriottTraveler.com in March. The portal is being developed as a full online travel magazine with in-depth, locally produced content covering local insider experiences in major U.S. cities where Marriott operates. Presently, only New Orleans is now live, with Chicago and Orlando coming next.
“Our global content marketing strategy is built around what we call a ‘3C’ strategy—the first one being content, the second one being community, and the third one is commerce,” says David Beebe, VP, global creative & content marketing at Marriott International.”
The end goal is to build Marriott into a global media company, in the model of Red Bull or GoPro, to capitalize on the 45 million Marriott Rewards members and the brand’s many different communication channels. To do that, Beebe and his team are aware that the sponsored content must stand on its own with an authentic voice and real value equal to any other professional editorial travel content. The best way to ensure that value is by creating local travel content that helps guests explore the destination like a local, and which can’t be found elsewhere.
A good example of that is also the Marriott-sponsored “Gone” travel section on Medium.com. The Gone vertical is designed to be the brands’ more casual, travel blog-style content space, which opens it up to many different types of content. For example, the long-anticipated Marriott Port-au-Prince Hotel opened in February this year, marking an important turning point to bring international travel back to the French Caribbean nation. Marriott profiled some of the local people affiliated with the property in the story “Haiti is Open For Business,” emphasizing how the hotel is developing new local business partnerships.
By developing sponsored storytelling on an independent website, Marriott can communicate the individual spirit of this hotel in a more personalized way that aligns well with Medium’s audience.
Another story chronicles a girl dealing with a recent breakup by escaping into the anonymity of Washington D.C. coffee shops. In “Caffeinated: How a DC Cafe Helped Me Deal With Heartache,” author Alia Akkam offers an honest account of a woman’s inner dialogue following a romantic breakup, and it provides some great local tips about where to get a good cup of coffee when visiting Marriott in the nation’s capital.
Most of the other travel posts on Gone are considerably more upbeat. Some are better than others, but all of them provide travel options with local character in each Marriott destination, from the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa to a 1930s tobacco factory turned contemporary art mecca in Taipei.
In terms of the overall quality of storytelling on Gone, Beebe points out that the Marriott Content Studio works with professional writers and Gone’s own editorial team, helmed by Jamie Pallot, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and ex-editorial director at Conde Nast Digital. Beebe also says the content is not designed to always be light and fluffy like so much other travel content affiliated with the leisure travel and hospitality industries.
“Gone is really about owning the travel lifestyle and the entire journey, and consumers appreciate that conflict—that’s what storytelling is, and that’s why people connect with it,” explains Beebe. “We have a wide range of creative, so not every creative, whether it’s on Gone, a short film or a TV show, or whatever, is going to align with every consumer. That’s why we’re doing such a wide range of content to connect with multiple audiences.”
5 key strategies
Partner with local purveyors — Hotels are bringing the local community into the guest experience by sourcing food, beverages, furnishings and design items from local small businesses. This works best when there’s storytelling of some kind to introduce visitors to these small businesses, whether it’s a local farm, artisan or shopkeeper.
Promote and partner with local events — An easy way for hotels to immerse their guests in the local community is by showing them special events happening while they’re in town. This is incredibly easy to do with both print and digital content, but it needs to be somewhat indepth and updated consistently to work well.
Build up the local bar crowd — Forward-thinking hotels are using their F&B outlets to specifically attract local crowds via special promotions and marketing campaigns. Attracting locals to the hotel provides guests with direct access into the local scene, and it communicates to hotel guests that the hotel is more than a bunch of beds in a box.
Ramp up content marketing — This is still in its infancy for many hotels. Quality online content that highlights ways for guests to explore the destination and better personalize the guest experience offers on of the biggest opportunities to drive community engagement. Expect to see an increase in mobile-friendly parallax-designed hotel websites that showcase content much better than most hotel online portals today.
Promote visual content on social — Both owned and user-generated photos and videos communicate a more visceral hotel and destination experience. Visual content also needs to be horizontally integrated across all media platforms to cross-promote local experiences to best leverage social sharing to drive the most direct booking impact.
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