How to flex the advantage of
independence in a world of branded hotels
In a world of ubiquitous global brands, many consumers crave unique, independent experiences. Cloudbeds’ 2023 State of Independent Lodging Report found that the power dynamics have shifted in recent years towards independent lodging businesses due to a confluence of macro and micro trends in the tourism industry, including the ability to deliver distinctive, personalized experiences travelers are seeking.
There’s a lot at stake for hotel owners when it comes to going independent. It’s a bold decision to bypass the comfort and predictability of affiliating with a renowned brand like Marriott, Hilton, or IHG and instead vie with them for business. But for the right person, the rewards can be huge.
What are the advantages of operating an independent property, and how can you leverage them? And what qualities position owners best for long-term success? Here, we explore the ins and outs of owning an independent hotel.
What is an independent hotel?
An independent hotel is a lodging business that’s operated by individual owners rather than by a hotel group or management company. Whereas managed and franchised properties must follow standardized branding, design, and services, an independent hotel has the flexibility to create a unique brand, ambiance, and guest experience.
Is independent hotel ownership right for you?
One of the most important decisions hotel owners must make is the type of business model on which to operate the hotel. Should the property run independently, work with a management company, or be flagged as part of a well-known brand? The decision will have a lot to do with the owner’s personality and aspirations for the property.
Ideally, an owner of an independent hotel will have some experience in hospitality leadership (or be eager to learn) because the role can be very hands-on. Without the support of a well-known brand or management company, owners are left to their own devices. They must establish a distinctive brand, develop policies and standard operating procedures (SOPs) from the ground up, and find ways to generate awareness, bookings, and revenue.
Being an independent owner is an exciting venture filled with new opportunities and challenges. You can be sure that no two days will ever be the same. Taking this ownership route is best suited to self-motivated, entrepreneurial, strategic, creative, and competitive individuals.
If owners don’t possess these personality traits – or prefer not to be so hands-on – they will need to recruit a leadership team that does. Otherwise, they may be better off affiliating with a well-known brand.
Advantages of operating an independent hotel
With independent hotels, owners don’t have the advantages that come with a franchise or managed hotel, such as high brand recognition, a tried-and-true operating model, and economies of scale. But they will reap benefits that can make franchise owners green with envy.
- No franchise or management fees to pay
- More autonomy in decision-making
- Greater flexibility in the design of rooms and public spaces
- The freedom to create unique, authentic guest experiences
- Control over technology used throughout the property
- More agility to adapt to changing market conditions and guest preferences
- Time to connect with guests from all over the world
- The ability to make a difference in the community
The power of choice: 8 areas to exercise your freedom as an independent hotel
Above all, operating an independent hotel means having control over virtually every aspect of the property. This includes the freedom to make important decisions and act on them without waiting for approval from the corporate office.
But as the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility. Here are a few ways to exercise that responsibility to your advantage.
1. Develop your unique brand & vision
With franchise hotels, the branding and vision are conceived and managed by the corporate office and must be consistent across properties. As an independent property, you can develop a unique brand personality and vision of your own.
This provides an opportunity to infuse your ideas, interests, and style into a creative hotel concept, whether that’s creating a culinary hotspot, a showcase for local artists, or an eco-friendly lodge with a net-zero mission.
No matter what you want to accomplish, the door is open to make it happen. This type of freedom is only possible as an independent and will be a main draw for travelers when choosing you over big-name brands.
2. Gain better control of costs
A common complaint of franchise hotels is the many layers of fees they must pay to the franchiser. As an independent property, you won’t have to pay these fees and can channel the savings into other business areas.
You also won’t be bound by chain-wide vendor agreements or be obliged to use the franchisor’s internal systems. You can forge your own relationships and negotiate agreements that avoid unnecessary costs and improve your profit margins.
With these cost savings, you can:
- Hire people who understand and fit your brand vision
- Build a tech stack that works for your property (we recommend an integrated hospitality platform)
- Invest in a digital marketing solution to grow your online presence
Remember, going independent doesn’t mean you have to do it alone. It just means you have the freedom to build a team (through internal hires and vendors) that fits your business and gives it the best chance at success.
3. Reimagine the guest experience
Because chain hotels must conform to brand standards ranging from the design of staff uniforms to the delivery of service protocols, the guest experience often feels generic and impersonal. Independent hotels have more leeway to create a unique guest experience that’s more responsive to guest needs, more personalized, and more likely to surprise and delight.
This could mean offering virtual guest services instead of a traditional front desk or hosting weekly wine-and-cheese receptions in the hotel lobby.
The Pearl, for example, hosts weekly poolside movie nights, engaging guests and the local community.
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4. Cultivate a cohesive team
While large hotel companies may offer more opportunities for advancement, a larger staff body can feel bureaucratic and impersonal to employees. Smaller properties have fewer staff, making it easier to develop a close-knit, team-oriented culture more responsive to staff needs and concerns.
At an independent hotel, employees may feel more empowered to influence the personality of the hotel and more motivated to play a role in its success. This can work wonders for staff morale – and in this time of labor shortages, keeping staff happy and loyal is of primary importance.
5. Get creative with décor
Hotel brands often have strict interior and exterior design rules extending from the signage at the entrance to the artwork in the guest lobby. At an independent hotel, there’s more latitude for creative and artistic expression.
The owner can work with architects and designers to create inside and outside spaces around a particular theme or choose patterns and textures that complement the local landscape. The more distinctive the design, the more likely guests will be inspired to take photos and share them with others, which can have the added benefit of helping to spread the word.
The South Wind Motel chose to reimagine the mid-century motel experience by keeping the original charm but adding unique contemporary touches.
6. Be targeted in marketing & distribution
Branded hotels often have little say in marketing and distribution strategies. In some cases, they can’t even control the content on their own website. An independent property has full control over brand messaging and communications. Staff can choose the marketing and distribution channels to be active on and build a customized website and booking engine.
Rather than try to be all things to all people, independent hoteliers can be more targeted, choosing the guest profiles and market segments that best fit their property. They also own guest data and can use it to analyze spending behavior, evaluate guest satisfaction, and find ways to better serve their guests.
7. Provide amenities and services guests crave
Some chain hotels must provide standardized amenities and charge guests for wifi and resort fees, a bone of contention for many travelers. Independent hotels have more freedom to cater to guest preferences and decide which services to charge for and at what price.
This may mean bundling ancillary fees into room rates and experimenting with innovative amenities to keep the experience fresh and guest-centric.
The Canalside Inn has established itself as a pet-friendly accommodation in Rehoboth Beach – taking this to the next level with its pet-friendly amenities, including dog treats, leashes, waste bags, and towels. Using Whistle for Cloudbeds, they offer guests a variety of upsells like dog walking services.
Their unique offering has resulted in over 70 positive Google reviews specifically referencing pets. One reviewer said, “Loved the special amenities for the dogs and convenience of the dog waste station. They’ve thought of everything to make your stay easy, leaving you to enjoy the sights of the ocean.”
8. Be part of the fabric of the community
Whereas chain hotels often import senior managers from other cities and make decisions from the head office, independent hotels usually have homegrown leadership and strong community ties. This makes them well-positioned to partner with local businesses on guest activities and packages, support local charities, source local products, and introduce guests to local culture and traditions.
When designing Casa Cody, Co-Founder Caroline Schneider used the history of the building to contribute to the design of the space. As the oldest operating hotel in Palm Springs, there are stories of Charlie Chaplin performing on a stage, now part of Casa Cody’s Adobe House. Caroline has thoughtfully included small touch points and merch items that speak to the home’s history.
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Technology: improving efficiency for independents
Another area of great freedom and responsibility is technology. Chain hotel companies require member properties to use their proprietary or approved technology vendors. This means working with outdated, legacy systems that don’t integrate well with modern software solutions. Independent hotels have more flexibility to use a modern hospitality management platform that meets their unique needs and objectives.
An integrated hospitality platform offers owners a host of tools, services, and integrations within a single system, making it easy to run day-to-day operations and make strategic decisions based on one data set. With one system, your vendor can act as a strategic partner to guide your business to success, helping you optimize the platform for your ideal business outcomes.
In recent years, more user-friendly and affordable solutions have become available that are designed specifically for independent properties. By helping to streamline operations, optimize distribution, and personalize the guest experience, this technology has made the dream of operating an independent property much simpler.
Building the right business for you
When deciding if going independent is the right decision for your property, another important consideration is your long-term objectives. What are your aspirations for the property? Are you looking to grow your business, or are you more interested in cultivating a certain lifestyle?
Keep in mind that being independent doesn’t have to mean being small. Many owners achieve so much success with their property that they expand or replicate it with other properties, growing their business (and brand) over time. So, if growth is your priority, down the road, you too might find that your independent hotel has become the flagship property of a thriving brand.
Whether you go big or stay small, you’ll have the satisfaction of connecting with guests and providing the kind of unique, independent brand experiences so many travelers crave.
Find out why it’s a good time to be an independent hotelier in Cloudbeds’ 2023 State of Independent Lodging Report.