Looking to lure what hospitality industry executives like to call the "next-gen traveler," Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, the $14 billion hotel corporation, has launched Tribute Portfolio, a new chain of hotels.
"We clearly are focused on millennials," Dave Marr, Starwood's senior vice president of brand management, told BuzzFeed News at a launch breakfast on Thursday, held in a bright Flatiron District loft. The messaging was laid on thick, with an indie-folk duo serenading a crowd of reporters who were seated on Scandinavian mid-century modern sofas, or huddled in front of "idea boards" on which they could pin whimsical postcards that represented independent travel.
"It's great hotels in great locations, neighborhoods like here, or Soho, or Greenwich Village, for people who love to try out independent hotels," Marr said. "Food and beverage has got to feel very authentic, and we hope to attract not just guests, but people from the neighborhood. Another thing that's really important is picture sharing on social media."
To promote Tribute Portfolio, especially among its target demographic, Starwood teamed up with Instagram, becoming the first travel company to use the photo sharing service's new "Carousel" ads, which let users swipe through a series of images. It's also launching an #OurLikes campaign that hopes to inspire "next-gens" to share what they like about staying at Tribute hotels. The Tribute brand is the company's 10th in total, and its first new hotel collection in nine years.
The first Tribute Portfolio property, the Royal Palm South Beach, recently opened in Miami, and Starwood plans to open four more hotels in Asheville, North Carolina; Nashville, Tennessee; Savannah, Georgia; and Charleston, South Carolina. Starwood does not have an ownership stake in any of the properties, most of which will be conversion projects, with some being built from the ground up. The key to Tribute, according Starwood interim CEO Adam Aron, will be that the design and feeling of each property will be up to their independent owners.
"We're not going to be as prescriptive with our brand standards," Aron said at the breakfast, noting that in the next four to five years, Starwood hopes to have 100 Tribute Portfolio properties, at which Starwood's loyalty program members can still earn points. "This is a way so guests can wander a little bit but stay in the family."
Starwood has lagged its hospitality peers in the "select service" segment of hotels that are more affordable and lighter on service and amenities, and fell behind on its goals for its Aloft and Element chains. Shares of Starwood have had quite a tumultuous six months, spurred by the sudden departure of CEO Frits van Paasschen in February.
One industry analyst said in jumping into the "independent lifestyle" sector, Starwood is not so much trying to make up for its missteps with Aloft and Element, but trying compete in the "soft brand" space currently dominated by Marriott's Autograph Collection, Hilton's Curio, and IHG's Kimpton brands.
"All are collections of independent hotels with their own style and design," Ryan Meliker, a senior hospitality analyst at MLV & Co., told BuzzFeed News. "This is something that Starwood has been working on for some time, and frankly is a little late to the game on."