The Rise of Local in Hospitality

by Greg Oates + Skift Team - Oct 2013

Skift Research Take

Hotels are attracting the next generation traveler by engaging with their local communities to provide more authentic and immersive travel experiences.

Report Overview

21c Hotel Museum Hotel, Bentonville, Ark. Courtesy 21c Hotels

21c Hotel Museum Hotel, Bentonville, Ark. Courtesy 21c Hotels

The role of hotels has evolved over the last decade during the boom of interest in experiential travel. In response, many independent and branded properties promote themselves as a “travel experience,” versus merely a place to sleep, to a growing range of travelers defining who they are by where they stay.

The ROI for creating local, destination-specific travel experiences revolves around remaining relevant in order to attract the loyalty of the next generation traveler.

Moving forward, hotels are differentiating themselves in an increasingly competitive and complex market by promoting a more local travel experience. Or, what more and more travelers of all ages refer to as an “authentic” travel experience. This report will show the variety of ways that hotels are connecting with their communities to bring together guests and residents in the pursuit of localism.

While objective ROI is difficult to establish in terms of increased bookings and ADR, all of the hotel professionals quoted in this report state clearly that demand is continuing to grow across all market segments. In their words, the ROI for creating local, destination-specific travel experiences revolves around remaining relevant in order to attract the loyalty of the next generation traveler.

Executive Summary

21c Hotel Museum Hotel, Bentonville, Ark. Courtesy 21c Hotels

21c Hotel Museum Hotel, Bentonville, Ark. Courtesy 21c Hotels

The role of hotels has evolved over the last decade during the boom of interest in experiential travel. In response, many independent and branded properties promote themselves as a “travel experience,” versus merely a place to sleep, to a growing range of travelers defining who they are by where they stay.

The ROI for creating local, destination-specific travel experiences revolves around remaining relevant in order to attract the loyalty of the next generation traveler.

Moving forward, hotels are differentiating themselves in an increasingly competitive and complex market by promoting a more local travel experience. Or, what more and more travelers of all ages refer to as an “authentic” travel experience. This report will show the variety of ways that hotels are connecting with their communities to bring together guests and residents in the pursuit of localism.

While objective ROI is difficult to establish in terms of increased bookings and ADR, all of the hotel professionals quoted in this report state clearly that demand is continuing to grow across all market segments. In their words, the ROI for creating local, destination-specific travel experiences revolves around remaining relevant in order to attract the loyalty of the next generation traveler.

Introduction

In this hyper-connected world, travelers of all ages and socio-economic demographics are seeking a deeper connection with the destinations they visit. One of the major reasons for this demand is that guests are arriving to hotels with a wealth of information previously sourced through online research. Innovative hotel brands are answering that demand by introducing guests to a diverse network of people and places in their local community.

While hotels have always been gateways to a destination, the boutique/design/lifestyle hotel surge in the late 20th century elevated the urban hotel into a destination in and of itself. The idea of a neighborhood hotel acting as a community portal with a strong local following became a market differentiator for an exciting batch of new hotel brands.

Within the last decade, the large global hotel brands have jumped on the trend, and there’s also a new wave of mid-market brands reimagining the localism trend for middle income brackets and secondary markets. Now, throughout the hospitality industry, there’s widespread realization that delivering a more immersive, layered travel experience for today’s more educated and connected traveler is, if not a necessity, a competitive advantage.

Savvy hotel brands are becoming more local in a variety of ways. Some of the themes examined in this Trends Report include:

  • Hotels are partnering with area small businesses patronized by local residents to create a deeper, more personal relationship with a community.
  • Hotels are hosting and promoting more special events, on and off property.
  • There’s an industry-wide awareness of the importance of creative, destination-specific interior design to evoke a more local travel experience.
  • Hotels are communicating local travel experiences through sophisticated social media strategies and robust blogs.
  • This confluence of social connectivity, neighborhood partnerships, unique design and event programming is attracting local residents to the hotels, further immersing guests within the community.

The Rise of Local in Hospitality

Courtesy Kimpton Hotels

Courtesy Kimpton Hotels

In the beginning: Kimpton and Morgans

When Bill Kimpton launched his first Kimpton Hotel in San Francisco in 1981, and Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell unveiled their Morgans Hotel Group three years later in New York, they created the boutique hotel industry in North America.

These maverick hoteliers developed properties with a strong sense of place and individual identity. They soon became part of the community fabric because their creative design and local food and beverage (F&B) attracted a significant following of area residents.

Chip Conley, Head of Global Hospitality, Airbnb

Chip Conley was recently appointed Head of Global Hospitality for Airbnb, which in Q4 2013 has over 500,000 listings in 35,000 cities in 192 countries. Previously, Conley was founder of Joie de Vivre Hotels, which helped usher in the boutique hotel craze across California starting in 1987.

Conley spoke at the TBEX Dublin conference in October 2013 about his goals for Airbnb as a forward-thinking competitor in the hospitality industry.

“Airbnb has become the disruptive innovator just like boutique hotels were, but in a much bigger way only recently,” stated Conley. “There’s a lot of people out there who want to go stay and have a localized experience.”

Conley wants to curate and streamline the Airbnb online user experience by providing more customized search options based on the individual user’s profile. This is especially important in Airbnb’largest markets. For example, there are 20,000+ listings for Paris, making it time consuming to cull down so many options.

“You’ll be able to personalize selections based on what kinds of interests you have,” said Conley. “And also, here’s 10 things to do in Paris that fit your identity and personality, and no one else’s. Wouldn’t it be nice if a hospitality company did that? Marriott doesn’t do it, and Hilton doesn’t do it. We will be doing it.”

Kimpton, who suffered from depression, developed hotels that were an antidote to his melancholy and adverse reaction to monotony. He designed each property with a charming artistic flair similar to the small European hotels he had visited during his previous career as a financier. They were in stark contrast to the sterile, homogenous corporate hotels typical of that era in America.

Schrager and Rubell, meanwhile, had been successful nightclub proprietors in the 1980s. Following tax evasion charges and the advent of AIDs, the two men shifted into hospitality and brought their impresario skills with them. Their striking “design hotels” appealed to celebrities and social elites due to their avant garde art/furnishings, hip lobby bars and trendy music that spawned the concept of “lobby socializing.”

Most importantly, both Kimpton and Morgans designed and staffed their hotels to be kinetic social hubs in their particular communities.

“Throughout Kimpton’s history, our most important initiative is called ‘Like a Local,’” says Mark Jennings, regional vice president, hotel operations mid-Atlantic for Kimpton Hotels. “We are always providing our personal recommendations for our guests on all of the cool things that we think they may not know about. That’s what people want, whether they’re international, domestic or drive-in. They really want something they feel they’re not going to get somewhere else.”

To help facilitate that, each individual Kimpton hotel website has a page where staff members from different departments provide their favorite local hangouts in the city.

When asked if that type of updated online conversation helps drives business, Jennings says the goal is to keep people on the website, and keep them coming back to the website. “It raises our click-through rates, it improves our organic search, and it ultimately, hopefully increases direct bookings,” he explains. “Mostly, we do it because we want to create loyalty.” Kimpton operates two sub-brands—Monaco Hotels and Palomar Hotels—each with specific business models and design missions. “All of the rest are almost brands of one,” says Jennings. “Everytime we go through the initial design process, it is always with an eye towards, how does this tie in locally? What is important to this part of the city?”

Adding further to the destination-specific flavor, all of Kimpton’s restaurants are separate entities designed as standalone businesses.

“Over 80 percent of the business we get in all of our restaurants is local,” explains Jennings. “I can’t tell you how important it is to attract a local following. The local business and people driving in have kept us extremely busy.”

The creative class morphs: From exclusive to inclusive

While Ian Schrager influenced innumerable hoteliers, few people miss the arrogant vibe pervasive in his early hotels. There has been a systemic shift from an exclusive, “velvet rope” mentality originally designed to create a sense of scarcity, and therefore demand, to a much more inclusive sense of local community inspired by today’s more communal and connected travel trends.

In fact, Schrager’s new EDITION and PUBLIC hotel brands are a direct assault against the once haughty nature of design hotels that he himself created. They’re welcoming, approachable and aimed squarely at today’s creative professional versus fashionable party crowd.

Ian Schrager Courtesy LE Miami

Ian Schrager. Courtesy LE Miami

In summer of 2013, the inaugural LE Miami conference brought together for the first time hospitality suppliers and industry travel buyers under the aegis of “Contemporary Luxury for the Creative Class.” The founders of LE Miami are using urbanist author Richard Florida and his seminal book, “The Rise of the Creative Class,” to define an emerging class of educated, design-conscious travelers constantly seeking innovation in all aspects of their lives.

For the Creative Class, exclusivity and elitism run counter to creative collaboration. By defining this next generation traveler, LE Miami is creating a framework for conversation around the next generation hotel.

“The world’s most contemporary hotels today are acting like lifestyle brands more than travel brands, for both the leisure and business markets,” says Cj Holden, event manager and marketing director for LE Miami.

That emotional, visceral connection to the hotel experience today is derived from a customized local travel experience.

“All hotels need to connect and engage the people who visit the hotels with the people who live in the destination,” says Holden. “Whilst it used to be all about exclusivity, it’s now about inclusivity. It’s much more about creating a product that matches its clientele with a city, creating a partnership of like-minded people. And in order to do that, a hotel has to have an individual ethos that represents the city it’s in.”

Or as Brad Wilson, president of the Ace Hotel Group said during LE Miami 2013, “Experience hotels are the new design hotels… Ultimately, it’s about the community that you build.”

Starwood scales the community hotel

W Taipei Courtesy Starwood Hotels

W Taipei. Courtesy Starwood Hotels

No hospitality group has delineated multiple hotel brands as well as Starwood Hotels, including W, Westin, Sheraton, Le Meridien, Aloft, Four Points by Sheraton, Element, St. Regis and Starwood Luxury Collection.

W Hotels erupted on the scene in the mid-1990s and gained immediate international press based on two things it copied from the boutique hotel boom: design and local community. The design mission behind W is well known. The edgy look at each property celebrates the local destination through whimsical local art and custom furnishings created by local designers.

W is a perfect example of how the combination of local design and a loyal local fan base is a serious business driver in today’s hospitality sector.

Using design as a compelling backdrop, Starwood branded W’s residential-style lobbies as “Living Rooms,” attracting mainstream local clientele in large numbers, especially for special events. Meaning, W was the first major corporate hotel group to build a steady community following. The blockbuster brand has been so successful in fact, while evolving in terms of service and more upscale design, Starwood is now positioning it as the third luxury brand in the group portfolio, alongside St. Regis and the Luxury Collection.

“It used to be luxury was all about wearing the right clothes, being formal and polite,” said Starwood CEO Frits van Paasschen in Hotels magazine. “Your butler was like the butler in Batman and it was just a very serious affair. There is no reason why luxury can’t be fun at the same time, and that is what we intend and are already seeing with the growth of the W brand.”

Sensing they’re on to a good thing, Starwood has since morphed the lobby socializing scene and local ambience into their other brands. First, Starwood-owned Sheraton unveiled its Link@Sheraton office concept with computers, printers and free WiFi placed inside the communal hotel lobbies. That provided a chance for business guests to mingle with local business people during events like Sheraton’s wine-themed Social Hour.

“We used technology as an enabler but the focal point behind the Link was social,” says Hoyt Harper, senior vice president and global brand leader for Sheraton Hotels & Resorts. “W Hotels successfully transformed hotel lobbies into a destination…. We wanted to replicate that experience in a Sheraton voice.”

For mid-market brands Four Points by Sheraton and Aloft, Starwood is also focusing more on local experiences and building a local following through F&B and entertainment.

“The Four Points guest is often pressed for time on the road, with little opportunity to experience the destination,” says Brian McGuinness, senior vice president, specialty select brands for Starwood Hotels. “Best Brews & BBQ” gives even our busiest guests the chance to sample authentic local flavor in the form of a great craft beer and enjoy a short break with colleagues and other travelers without leaving the hotel.”

In 2012, Aloft Hotels introduced “Live at Aloft Hotels”—a global series of concerts inside the hotels designed to attract local residents and introduce guests to the local music scene.

“Recognizing that the new global traveler places tremendous value on authentic experiences, Aloft delivers live music in its W XYZ bar, featuring great local emerging artists,” says McGuinness. “Our annual Project Aloft Star competition is also a terrific complement to Aloft’s live music programming, which helps us discover new local talent for Aloft fans.”

The corporate lifestyle hotel: Andaz by Hyatt

The success of W Hotels spurred other corporate brands to develop lifestyle brands. For example, Hyatt’s six-year-old Andaz brand caters to young and ambitious professionals with deft event programming and social media. The 10 Andaz hotels are positioned as “upscale, boutique-inspired lifestyle properties that distill the best of their locale.”

Andaz has built its brand around human connectivity by bringing together local emerging artists with area residents and hotel guests during monthly “Andaz Salon” parties themed around food, music, art and fashion.

Artists have included graffiti/tattoo artist Mr. Cartoon at Andaz 5th Avenue in New York, who’s inked 50 Cent and Beyonce.

Andaz San Diego collaborated with J.U.I.C.E. (Join Us In Creating Excellence), a collection of aspiring pop culture artists who gathered with guests/locals inside the hotel’s Ivy Nightclub. Classical pianists perform at Andaz Napa; Sunset Strip bands play at Andaz West Hollywood; and a vintage clothing store owner operates a pop-up shop in Liverpool Street’s lobby.

Pop-up shop at Andaz Liverpool Street Courtesy Hyatt Hotels

Pop-up shop at Andaz Liverpool Street. Courtesy Hyatt Hotels

“The Andaz Salon is really the cornerstone of the Andaz experience,” says Cornelia Samara, GM at Andaz 5th Avenue. “It’s a forum for our guests and locals to get together, and that’s what the brand is all about. When guests come to our hotels, they experience what it feels like to be a resident in that particular neighborhood.”

In December 2012, Andaz Hotels launched andazsalon.com to promote its many community events and reach new niche markets, like members of Hyatt Hotels’ loyalty program.

“That’s how more and more people are finding out about the Andaz Hotels, through Hyatt’s Gold Passport program,” says Samara. “A lot of them are utilizing their points to stay with us, actually.”

Part of the original team that launched Andaz, communication director Rachel Harrison defines the benefit of a lifestyle blog to build community.

“It’s about establishing a dialogue with consumers,” she says. “A lot of times, it’s the opportunity to speak with them online, to interact with them, and figure out what they want and what they don’t…. So creating your own blog, creating your own journalism within the confines of the hotel online is a great way to meet the people who love you, and to meet the people who like you and have the possibility of loving you.”

Corporate hotels go local: Park Hyatt

From its inception, Park Hyatt Hotels has embedded its properties deep into their local communities by offering guests access to experiences they could not create on their own. For example, Park Hyatt developed what is considered the first food and wine festival in California in the 1980s, called The Masters of Food & Wine. It was also a precursor to the global “farm-to-table” trend.

Chef tour at Park Hyatt Saigon Courtesy Hyatt Hotels

Chef tour at Park Hyatt Saigon. Courtesy Hyatt Hotels

In 2011, Park Hyatt expanded the event as a standard offering at all of the hotels worldwide, taking place four times a year during each season.

For guests not visiting during the Master of Food & Wine events, Park Hyatt offers many other experiences. New programs created this year include an overnight excursion from Park Hyatt Tokyo to a Yamato tea farm in the Nara Prefecture just outside Tokyo. Guests learn every aspect of the fermented-tea process, from picking the leaves to fermentation.

Q&A with Tom Puntel, director of sales and marketing, Park Hyatt Beaver Creek

Skift: Are more guests seeking a local, authentic travel experience in the luxury sector? Is this a significant trend?

Tom Puntel: Absolutely. It’s something we have seen amplified each season, especially in concierge requests. There has also been a recent tide shift in what level of experience they seek out. Guests who used to request standard trail maps are now outnumbered by those calling in advance to plan their adventure to make the most out of their trip, such as local backcountry expeditions, fly fishing experiences and white water rafting tours.

Skift: What is an example of a specific program created by your hotel that provides a more local experience?

Tom Puntel: This summer season we created a ‘Summit @ The Park’ package catering ti guests looking for an authentic local experience. The package includes the opportunity to climb ‘fourteeners’ [mountain peaks exceeding 14,000 feet], which is definitely a true Coloradoan experience. Climbing these mountains is bragging rights among locals and natives, so extending this experience to travelers was something we felt we had to offer.

In September 2013, Park Hyatt Saigon took guests to the Grand Place Cacao Farm on the Mekong Delta. They learned about the life cycle of chocolate while touring the farm and facilities, before participating in a pastry-making class. And in February 2014, Ararat Park Hyatt Moscow will host an exploration of different vodkas, followed by a five-course, vodka-paired Russian meal.

Katherine Melchior-Ray, vice president, luxury brands at Hyatt Hotels, says “We have nurtured exclusive relationships with experts, influencers and tastemakers around the world through which our guests are granted unique access to our local communities.”

When questioned as to why there’s a growing trend toward more local immersion travel, Melchior-Ray says the days are gone when luxury meant a standardized experience that ultimately mutes the vibrancy and personality of a destination.

“We know that for our guests, intuitive service, exquisite linens, and curated wine lists are the common denominator, not the differentiator,” she explains. “Time is a luxury for our guests—they want to be sure that theirs is well spent…. Rather than seeking value in terms of deals or discounts, they consider whether price reflects the distinctive quality, craftsmanship and service that they expect.”

Is this type of programming a significant driver of business?

“Our strong relationships with local experts and tastemakers, and the authentic experiences we are able to offer as a result, are absolutely differentiators that make us attractive to the cultured and curious affluent travelers,” says Melchior-Ray. “Masters programming at our hotels around the world is popular among guests and locals alike, and due to the exclusive and immersive nature of these events, they often sell out months in advance.”

Business travel/meetings go local: Renaissance RLife LIVE

RLife Live

RLife LIVE at Renaissance Sanya Resort & Spa / Source: Marriott Hotels

The hospitality industry’s focus on creating local guest experiences is extending into the corporate travel and meetings space too. This has traditionally been more of a challenge, especially on the group side when there’s a large contingent to guests with different travel preferences.

The brand’s “RLife LIVE” events bring trendy musicians, DJs and bands to perform in the lobbies on various nights of the week. Renaissance has also rebranded its concierges—called “Navigators”—who are familiar with the more indie-style music, fashion, food and cultural scenes in their specific city.

“The new generation of business travelers are savvy; they expect more from their travel experience, and they see business travel as an opportunity to see the world,” says Dan Vinh, vice president of marketing at Renaissance Hotels. “So by partnering with local businesses, we’re actually helping to bring the local flavors into the hotel and make it easier for our guests to experience something truly local and indigenous to the area.”

In 2012, Renaissance morphed RLife LIVE into a new group-oriented program called “R.E.N. Meetings.” It’s designed to provide planners with three initiatives: Renaissance Sensory Meeting Experience, Entertainment/Networking with RLife LIVE and Navigator Services.

The Renaissance Sensory Meeting Experience focuses on deeper engaging group environments through creative tablescaping, music, scents, lighting and local F&B. The Entertainment component offers customized options for attendees to interact with both colleagues and locals during nightly events, ranging from concerts to live mixology demos. For the third phase, meeting planners work one-on-one with the Navigators to create unique city itineraries.

“With R.E.N. Meetings, we add value to the meeting experience by creating a stimulating environment to conduct business in,” says David Keamy, senior director of sales & marketing at Renaissance Hotels. “The more senses that you can engage in a learning environment, the more robust and memorable the learning experience will be.”

For example in Boston, the Navigators have created private group experiences in the Red Sox locker room at Fenway Park. Renaissance also creates city guides personalized for groups.

“What’s really interesting, we can create it to that special week and customize it to include any special events in the city, which really makes this a local experience,” says Keamy. “And then we’ll deliver that electronically to attendees before they arrive in the destination to start building excitement among the group.”

Vinh adds, “RLife LIVE is definitely a driver of business. It helps drive trial visits for new customers and provides incremental food and beverage revenue to the hotels…. It is [also] a differentiator for meeting planners. They love the turnkey networking events that enhance their attendees’ experience.”

Local insider experiences: InterContinental Hotels

InterContinental Hotels was the first major corporate hotel brand to position its hotels as community portals, through its “In The Know Experiences,” promoting places to visit in the local community around each property. It was also the first big brand to introduce iPad apps offering “Concierge Insider Guides.” These are short videos of concierges discussing what locals like to see and do in the destination.

Desert tour at InterContinental’s The Palace Port Ghalib Resort, Egypt Courtesy InterContinental Hotels

Desert tour at InterContinental’s The Palace Port Ghalib Resort, Egypt. Courtesy InterContinental Hotels

“We believe in sharing our local knowledge and helping guests enjoy authentic experiences that enrich their lives and broaden their outlook,” says Christopher Koleros, Atlanta-based area director of sales & marketing, Europe for InterContinental Hotels. “Travelers today are differentiated more by their attitudes toward travel than by basic demographics.”

For example, Pablo Agosti is head concierge at InterContinental Buenos Aires. On the app, there’s a four-minute video of Agosti visiting the various neighborhoods in Argentina’s capital, while recommending everything from specific restaurants to tango lessons.

“We all look for that local can’t-miss bar or restaurant rather than the most expensive,” says Koleros. “I find that customers are looking for more than consistent service and a luxury environment, they are looking for experiences that set them apart from their peers and help them feel more worldly, sophisticated and ‘in the know.’”

Koleros says the hotels are ramping up their promotion of In The Know Experiences. InterContinental London Park Lane, for example, publishes a 12-page guide seasonally that it distributes to guests. For the 2013 Christmas season, Park Lane staff recommends shopping trips to the same places where they shop, away from the tourism hordes, such as Marylebone High Street

In France, the InterContinental Paris Le Grand offers a vast array of In The Know experiences for corporate groups. A popular session is hosted by local fashion designer Eymeric François in his studio, where he shares behind-the-scenes stories of French fashion and tips on accessorizing.

The democratization of design: NYLO, ALT & 21c Hotels

A batch of new and affordable, design-conscious hotel groups are delivering fresh and edgy local design to mid-market guests across North America, while attracting a solid local following at the same time. NYLO and 21c Hotels in the U.S. and ALT Hotels in Canada are leaders in this sector.

NYLO Hotels, short for New York Lofts, have become popular local hotspots in Texas, Providence and New York. According to a 2013 story in Profile Magazine, NYLO founder Michael Mueller says mainstream hotel trends revolve around high value, social spaces, creative F&B, sustainability and location-specific design with an artsy appeal.

Fashion show at NYLO New York City Courtesy NYLO Hotels

Fashion show at NYLO New York City. Courtesy NYLO Hotels

“In the early 2000s, a chic phenomenon was spreading across the country,” notes Mueller. “Modern design was going mass market on everything from Apple computers to Chipotle restaurants.”

NYLO’s own LOCL restaurant/bar brand is especially interesting, stating clearly that a big part of the NYLO experience incorporates a strong local following.

Philanthropists and art collectors Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson are the developers behind 21c Museum Hotels in Louisville, Cincinnati and Bentonville. Their properties have evolved into cultural attractions in each of the cities for both residents and visitors due to museum-quality art, avant garde furnishings and open loft spaces. The hotels’ “lodgingallery” concept is further complemented by restaurant design stridently focused on local cuisine and local artists/designers.

ALT Hotels is a Canadian hotel brand promoting itself as the “ALTernative” hotel of the future, based on its mantra: “We Do Less.” Meaning, a lot of what is extraneous or disruptive in more traditional hotels has been stripped away to help people focus on their priorities and connections with other people. The brand’s overarching mission is: “The essential enriches the experience.”

ALT Hotels’ “no-frills chic” interior vibe is designed like a residential condo for busy young professionals on the go, who are tired of sterile boxes and high rates, and who want a sense of immediate connection to the city and the people they meet. As one ALT Hotels promotion states: “We don’t have a pool. We do have a pool table.”

ALT Hotels’ interior designer Karim Rashid explains the brand’s “We Do Less” ideology, stating, “Style is, I’m picking a floor covering and I’m picking a wall surface. But design is thinking about that kind of [social] experience. This is design. The real essence of design is to think about these new social human behaviors, and to work with them.”

Local food, beverage and special events

The farm-to-table movement has been one of the most prevalent trends in hospitality for the last half-dozen years. The focus on sustainability across North America is one of the factors putting pressure on F&B departments to source more local ingredients from within the region. Also, America’s profound interest in celebrity chef reality television has educated mainstream travelers about cooking trends.

Case Study: Grupo Habita Creates Essence of Place

Carlos Couturier is managing partner of the Mexico-based hotel collection Grupo Habita. Starting with Habita Hotel in Mexico City in 2000, the unerringly edgy brand has expanded from coast to coast south of the border. In September 2011, Grupo Habita made a big splash in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood with their first hotel in the U.S. aptly named Hotel Americano.

“A fun hotel can be built in a boring city; a boring hotel can exist in the most exciting city in the world,” says Couturier. “So what makes a hotel appealing? What makes a destination unique? Today, people seek specific essences in their travel, a particular point of view. They also seek a hotel experience reflecting this essence, choosing a hotel for its translation of place and perspective.”

In Mexico City, Condesa DF Hotel illustrates how a hotel with a strong and singular identity can be a community accelerator, it can, in essence, become the community. The 40-room hotel opened in January 2005 in the Condesa district of Mexico City, the Mexican equivalent of urban art and culture in 1980s Tribeca. Artists and designers were setting up shop in droves but with few places to gather.

“There was no neighborhood, there was nothing around it,” recalls Couturier. “But it made sense to create a social hub, a space that was the center of action where all of this diaspora of creative people will interact… and will meet each other. And this is what happened at this hotel. The whole experience was about the community more than the space itself.”

When restaurants in new urban center hotels such as Loews Atlanta and The Westin Phoenix Downtown started promoting themselves as farm-to-table a couple of years ago, it became readily apparent the corporate hotel industry’s move towards local cuisine was here to stay.

Farm-to-table is nothing new, of course. Celebrity chef Geoffrey Zakarian says, “I don’t want to become controversial here but I’ve been cooking farm-to-table for 33 years. I’d just like to let everyone know that food still came from farms 30 years ago, and I think that a lot of people have hijacked this term to make their food more interesting and appealing.”

The birthplace of farm-to-table cooking as a widespread trend in North America is Napa. Lucy Restaurant at the 62-suite Bardessono, one of only a handful of LEED Platinum resorts in the world, illustrates the leading edge of local, fine dining cuisine.

“We buy from local farms and farmer markets but we also have a culinary garden, which is almost an acre,” says Bardessono General Manager Jim Treadway. “So we grow our own produce and vegetables, and herbs and spices, and then we pair our produce with an appropriate entrée item. For example, we grow eggplant, and we dig it right out of the ground that day and pair it with something like a nice lamb preparation. Everybody does food and wine pairings, but we do produce and entree pairings as well, which is really interesting.”

At its Rendezvous 2013 global sales conference in New Orleans, Starwood Resorts brought together a panel with several restaurant chefs from around the world.

“We know that people meet today in a less and less formal fashion, and Starwood is trying to find a way to personalize that experience, from open kitchens to what people are eating in a more casual and social way,” said Jean-Luc Barone, vice president, global food & beverage at Starwood Resorts. “We also try to personalize the experience by explaining to people the history of the restaurant and where the food is coming from, the ingredients, and make it feel like a vibrant family-style experience.”

Also interesting, all of the chefs trumpeted the benefits of social media to attract local guests.

“Social media is not something you can ignore,” said Peter Lloyd, executive chef at Spice Market inside W London-Leicester Square. “We’ll tweet out a special dish or an upcoming party, which really provides momentum for local people to come into the restaurant.”

Neighborhood art, music and culture

With more travelers venturing down side streets off the mainstream tourism path, more hotels are partnering with local cultural attractions, independent shops and other community businesses.

The Washington Ballet Courtesy Capella Hotels & Resorts

The Washington Ballet. Courtesy Capella Hotels & Resorts

New York is a prime example where the local tourism organization is creating new initiatives to promote the destination as much more than Midtown Manhattan.

“We are working with the hotels to highlight all our neighborhoods now that we’ve seen more than 30 percent of hotel openings over the last six years in boroughs other than Manhattan,” says Christopher Heywood, senior vice president, communications for NYC & Company. “One initiative we are focused on is a new neighborhood effort called ‘Neighborhood X Neighborhood.’ Where appropriate, we highlight neighborhood hotels. We also have created travel trade toolkits in some neighborhoods such as Williamsburg, Downtown Brooklyn, Long Island City and Lower Manhattan.

On the hotel side, properties like the Capella Washington D.C., Georgetown are working with local museums and performing arts venues to provide their guests with special access privileges.

For example, guests can meet backstage at The Washington Ballet with Septime Webre, artistic director, to discuss the modern evolution of ballet. On-property, there’s a new series of fashion trunk shows curated by the property’s Resident Stylist and MyDCStyle.com founder, April Yvonne. The trunk shows introduce guests to D.C.’s thriving fashion scene with access to some of the capital city’s top designers and boutiques.

In Miami Beach, The James Royal Palms’ innovative Cultural Collection is a partnership with local arts and design groups. The Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami produced permanent art installations within The James, and guests of the hotel have VIP access to special events at the museum. Public School is a fashion line that made its debut at the 2012 New York Fashion Week. They designed all of the uniforms for the staff at The James, and they perform fashion shows at the hotel. Lastly, Miami’s New World Symphony performs recitals at the hotel, and guests have special access behind the scenes at the symphony hall.

The influence of digital

Morgans Hotel’s “Back of the House” website Courtesy Morgans Hotel Group

Morgans Hotel’s “Back of the House” website. Courtesy Morgans Hotel Group

There is presently a revolution in online hotel media. The traditional, static hotel website of old with lists of amenities is being supplanted by dynamic online platforms with custom travel content. Consistently updated content establishes a connection between the guest, the hotel and the local community before the guest arrives. That has major implications. Those connections take place at the all-important travel research phase when consumers are looking for hotel suppliers that differentiate themselves within a specific destination.

As mentioned in the Kimpton Hotels section, fresh content is the new SEO. It improves click-through rates, extends time-on-page and increases direct bookings. The online booking sites have known this for a long time, and they continue to ramp up the quality and quantity of both crowd-sourced and custom content.

A slick batch of smaller brands are equally adept at online conversation, and the big brands are catching up. It is only a matter of time before the corporate branded hotels rival travel magazines with professional content specific to the destinations where their hotels operate.

“The objective in the hotel industry is to connect with the guest throughout the stay, so that starts with the research for the trip, planning the trip, and then of course during the stay experience and on through post trip,” says Maryam Wehe, senior vice president at Applied Predictive Technologies. Previously an executive vice president for business strategy and development at Marriott, Wehe uses big data and predictive analytics to help brands test various strategies and determine how they’ll impact the bottom line.

She sums up, “What hotels are looking into is how do you reach the guest during the pre-stay part of that continuum.”

Likewise, LRA Worldwide is a consulting company helping hotels define their brands and measure the delivery of the brand experience. Skift asked John Roberto, senior vice president and managing director, quality assurance at LRA, if online content drives business.

“Hotels are making much more use of the destination, including more communication before you arrive,” answered Roberto. “Does this drive business? At LRA, we talk a lot about the emotional connection to a brand that drives loyalty. It’s about creating memories where you say, ‘I connect that memory back to that brand.’ So when I select another city, I’m going to choose that Marriott or Sheraton or W hotel or whatever, because I’ve made that emotional connection.”

In 2013, Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) unveiled a study highlighting the lack of cultural information on hotel websites, following a review of 168 hotels in Beijing ranging from 3-5 stars.

The evaluation report by PolyU’s School of Hotel & Tourism Management states:

“The rapid development of the online travel market has led to the Internet becoming what the researchers label an ‘essential tool’ for hotels to communicate directly with their customers. They note that ‘the first image of a hotel has now been transferred from its front desk to its website.’ Poor web design can thus result in the loss of sales.”

Digital case studies

These nine brands are bringing local experiences online in order to inspire guests to visit as well as using digital to continue to connect visitors with local experiences long after they’ve left the hotel and returned home.

FourSeasons.com

Marrakech market Courtesy Four Seasons Resort Marrakech

Marrakech market. Courtesy Four Seasons Resort Marrakech

Four Seasons unveiled a landmark, $18 million website redesign in 2012 that portends the future of hospitality. For each hotel, there is extensive destination information described with both editorial and photographs/videos, linked across multiple online channels. On the page for Four Seasons London at Canary Wharf, for example, the site features embedded content about different local attractions. There are also destination-specific stories linking to the Four Seasons Magazine website and another website dedicated to the Canary Wharf property: www.traveleastlondon.com.

The end result is a mix of different ways to learn about the properties and their local communities. Also, the many different channels and volume of information keep consumers engaged for a much longer time than industry standard. The Four Seasons blog also demonstrates that the demand for local community content crosses all age and income demographics.

“You have to shift from the dot-com vacuum to begin to think about the consumer journey as they go through the process of a vacation or booking a stay as a business traveler,” said Chris Cocca, head of global ecommerce for Four Seasons Hotels, at the Luxury Interactive 2013 conference in New York. “Brand experience isn’t just a website anymore, it’s a sum of all these platforms. If you just focus on the website, you may never get people to the website.”

WestinFinds.com

WestinFinds.com Courtesy Starwood Hotels

WestinFinds.com. Courtesy Starwood Hotels

Westin Hotels hooked up with AFAR Media in 2013 to launch WestinFinds.com, detailing cool travel experiences unique to the destinations where Westin operates. The new website features individual pages for each Westin hotel, complemented by a list of AFAR “Highlights” written by consumers based on their firsthand experience. Once you’ve chosen a specific hotel, you can customize the Highlights depending on who you are and how you travel.

For example, if you’re interested in bringing the family to The Westin Grand Munich, you will come across a Highlight about the Deutsches Museum Verkehrszentrum dedicated to the history of transportation.

“A hotel booking is often the starting point of a trip; it’s the first thing besides the flight that a traveler will research and actually book,” says Davina Baum, AFAR’s director of digital content. “So hotels should see that moment as the jumping-off point for a transformative travel experience that they can help provide. The potential there for hotels to capture travelers at those moments and offer them unique, curated and reliable experiences is massive.”

Morgans Hotel Group

The new morganshotelgroup.com Courtesy Morgans Hotel Group

The new morganshotelgroup.com. Courtesy Morgans Hotel Group

In fall 2013, Morgans Hotels updated both its primary morganshotelgroup.com website and complementary lifestyle blog, backofhouse.morganshotelgroup.com. Together they provide an immense amount of destination information about all of the various communities where Morgans operates hotels. The two most significant updates include the seamless integration of the two websites and nifty new Google Maps showing area attractions.

“Our vision for the new site was to create a user experience that is not only streamlined but also immersive and interactive,” says Kim Walker, senior vice president of brand/marketing and creative director at Morgans. “By integrating curated Google Maps, tailored local content and social media assets, our guests can not only make reservations with ease and simplicity, but they can further engage with our brands and culture throughout the booking process.”

Pullman Hotels

Operating 80 properties worldwide, Pullman Hotels just launched a new website and edgy iPad app with a colorful array of local destination information. The iPad app is especially innovative in terms of the quality and sophistication of content. For example, Thai director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang is one of Thailand’s most celebrated directors, with four Academy Award-nominated films to his credit. He created a short film called “The Last Night in Bangkok” in partnership with Lanvin that features moody hotel/destination scenes and a soundtrack by Moby.

The first edition of the iPad app also includes a profile of Paris fashion designer Martine Sitbon, who is redesigning Pullman staff uniforms. She discusses her feelings about growing up in Paris and her favorite parts of the city, making this a highly engaging local travel guide for Pullman guests.

For example, Sitbon discusses the area of Canal St. Martin in the 10th Arr where she listens to outdoor concerts on the Quai de Jemmapes.

Sitbon is also chief designer at the Rue du Mail fashion house, located behind the Place des Victoires in the 1st Arr, which is open for visitors to shop.

“That’s about as Parisian as you can get,” she explains. “It feels exclusive but everyone is welcome to make an appointment. You might say we’re playing off the ancestral memory of the great Paris couture houses where customers had to be invited before they could buy into the dream. We’re not doing couture, of course. We’re doing something much more modern but the dream is still there and it’s 100 percent Parisian.”

Independent Collection

The Independent Collection is a hip hotel group with bohemian-flavored properties in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Boston, Philadelphia and Washington, DC. They just launched an all-new website highlighting the neighborhoods surrounding the hotels, categorized by: Shopping, Culture, Eat & Drink, Getting Around, Neighborhoods and Landmarks.

The guides provide a good starting place to learn about the cities with info and links for both major attractions and in-the-know local experiences. So you end up with a range from Top 10 tourist sites like the Vietnam Memorial in DC to more local haunts like Wally’s Jazz Club in Boston.

“What’s interesting about downtown Brooklyn, what’s interesting about Tribeca, what’s interesting about Midtown Village in Philadelphia isn’t the most popular restaurant in these neighborhoods,” says Neil Shah, president/COO of parent company Hersha Hospitality Trust. “It’s the sense of discovery. We want [our guests] to savor what’s interesting about these neighborhoods. All of this art, culture and heritage all around us—that’s what makes you really blossom as a human being.”

citizenM Hotels

Rattan Chadha is the founder of citizenM Hotels located in Amsterdam, London and Glasgow, with new hotels opening soon in New York, Rotterdam and Paris. Chadha built his hotel company around the concept of luxury, style and affordability for frequent travelers “who cross continents like other people cross the street.”

In an effort to connect with those types of travelers, Chadha launched a lifestyle website at citizenMag.com to support the hotel info and booking engine at citizenM.com. Content on the magazine site includes a new Mobile Citizen Video Series that delves into the lives of creative, professional globehoppers. There’s also indepth storytelling about local restaurants, cultural venues and special events for each individual hotel.

“I’ve always been looking for something which was transformational, something creative, something conceptual which makes a difference,” says Chadha.

Generator Hostels

Generator Berlin Courtesy Generator Hostels

Generator Berlin. Courtesy Generator Hostels

Generator Hostels is completely changing what a hostel is and can be, with aggressive expansion plans in Europe and America. The industry-leading Generator blog is an excellent example of a hospitality group creating a robust sense of community by highlighting attractions and special events local to each hostel. Content is created by both Generator staff and guest bloggers.

“Our entire online platform with the blog and social media is a way of really building a brand voice and loyalty with our guests,” says Josh Wyatt, founder of Generator Hostels. “There is still a case for traditional marketing, but we know our target audience is making their travel decisions and doing their research online through our various social media channels.”

It’s especially interesting that the Generator blog focuses so much on the destination, above and beyond the properties. In fact, there’s already content about Paris on the blog and the Paris hostel doesn’t even open until late 2014.

“Isn’t it cool that a week ahead of coming to Generator, you can pop open the blog, go to Facebook, and find out what’s going on at the property?” asks Wyatt. “And very consciously, we also want people to know what’s happening outside in the city.”

Singita Game Reserves

Singita Ebony Lodge brochure Courtesy Singita Game Reserves

Singita Ebony Lodge brochure. Courtesy Singita Game Reserves

Operating luxury safari lodges throughout southern Africa, Singita Game Reserves are consistently ranked among the world’s top 10 hotels. The Singita website was revamped in 2013, resulting in one of the hospitality industry’s best designed online platforms, with an emphasis on photography and storytelling about the local communities around each lodge.

Especially interesting, Singita has gone to great lengths to work with local residents and protect the communities, while introducing them to visiting guests. Readers have a significant amount of potential information to explore during the research phase, adding to time onsite and consumer engagement. A wide range of creative content includes everything from Field Reports showing photos of new wildlife babies to field guides ruminating on the challenges of poaching. Singita also recently unveiled a series of beautiful new brochure PDFs for each lodge available for download on the website.

Rosewood Hotels

Rosewood Mayakoba Mexico Courtesy Rosewood Hotels

Rosewood Mayakoba Mexico. Courtesy Rosewood Hotels

Rosewood Hotels launched a gorgeous new website in September 2013 with a large amount of local community content for the hotels. Rosewood also contracted a group of celebrity “Rosewood curators,” ranging from Dr. Condoleezza Rice to Piers Morgan, who discuss their favorite local experiences in each Rosewood destination.

There’s a significant amount of information provided about both the individual celebrities and their travel opinions. Johnnie To, for example, is a legendary film director and producer in China. Rosewood provides a lengthy bio of To and a pop-up Q&A about Beijing, home to Rosewood Beijing. This is the future of hotel content marketing online because it’s engaging, educational and not sales-y. The content is as good or better than in many glossy travel pubs.

From the new website:

“Through their unique and distinctly personal perspectives, Rosewood curators offer fascinating insights into their locale. Respected as tastemakers and people of influence, the Rosewood curators give rare access into their world, and the culture and natural surroundings of each destination.”

Key strategies to boost community engagement

Fresh online content is the new SEO — Consistently updated online content will eventually become an imperative for all but the most utilitarian of hotels. Create a blog highlighting happenings both at the hotel and within the local community. Because of the potential cost involved to start, it can be something as simple as a calendar of local events. That helps hoteliers create fresh content and source professional photography quickly, and it begins a conversation with local small businesses, staff and guests.

New hospitality-specific website platforms created by companies such as Seattle-based buuteeq and Paris-based WIHP are making it much easier for hotel professionals to easily produce and update fresh content. The platforms also provide a host of analytics and they’re fully integrated with online booking services.

Partner with local suppliers/vendors/attractions — Create special “Local Insider” packages with different themes targeting experiences that guests normally couldn’t create on their own. The more customized they are specifically for hotel guests, the better. These should also be highlighted prominently on a hotel website with plenty of description and high quality imagery/videos.

Provide hotel-exclusive discounts to area attractions, and create customized walking and other style tours with local tour operators and city tourism organizations to explore the local neighborhoods. Shopping, nature and F&B-themed tours are always popular.

Create staff-sourced neighborhood guides in-room and online — Once a year or more frequently, create updated neighborhood guides based on staff recommendations. This is very easy and cost effective to do, but guides should be as indepth as possible with the best photography available. The guides should be formattable as PDFs so guests can download and print at home during the research phase.

Including short bios/photos of staff who recommended places on the guide is becoming more common to create a relationship between guests and the hotels before arrival. If that type of culture doesn’t exist within a hotel where multiple departments could be included, then bios/photos of senior executives is still valuable. Customers want to identify with whomever is giving them recommendations.

Create special events/pop-ups to attract locals — Special events themed around entertainment, culture and/or F&B are a proven way to attract local residents, and they offer good material for online content.

Promote both inhouse and off-property events, whether they’re organized by the hotel or not, prominently inside guest rooms and public spaces. Also feature aggressively on social media to create some local buzz before the event.

More and more hotels are working with emerging artists in their communities who are hungry for exposure. Create events where guests can meet and mingle with local artists, and possibly purchase works from the artists.

Create social media contests and conversations for locals/guests — All senior executives and front of the house staff should be familiar with the major social media platforms. Executives should be sure to at least follow the activity relative to both independent travelers and group business on a daily basis by the hotel and/or hotel group’s hashtag.

There’s a “Twitter hotel” in Majorca, “Facebook hotel” in Ibiza and “Instagram hotel” in Sydney. Hotels active in social media are inherently well connected to their communities. This is not the future, this is right now.

Leverage your hotel’s expertise with social media to create contests that boost engagement between the hotel staff, hotel guests and local residents in the community.