December 06, 2023

Confused by All the Hiltons and Marriotts? Us Too.

Pop quiz: Which of these is not a new hotel chain?

A) Spark, B) StudioRes, C) Garner, D) Tempo

Trick question. All of them are brands introduced by big hotel companies this year. (Extra credit if you know which name falls under which corporate umbrella.)

Hilton, Marriott, IHG, Hyatt and Accor already offer lodging for every conceivable customer, but are thin-slicing the market into ever more pieces.

There aren’t just economy hotels anymore—there are now premium economy hotels. Looking for luxury? There’s classic luxury, distinctive luxury, cutting-edge luxury, all-inclusive luxury and lifestyle luxury.

Chains want to keep travelers and hotel developers loyal. But the proliferating offerings—and their interchangeable names—mean travelers face a “confusing sea of sameness,” in the words of Chekitan Dev, a professor at Cornell University’s hotel school.

The many flavors of Marriotts have inspired a bingo game making the rounds on Reddit. Its 32 brands include the apartment-like StudioRes coming next year. Hilton has 22 brands, such as premium-economy Spark and an extended-stay chain, temporarily dubbed Project H3. Accor has more than 40 brands, including a new collection of independent hotels called Handwritten.

Even seasoned travelers struggle to keep them straight. I mixed up Hyatt House and Hyatt Place this year when telling someone where I was staying. Don’t ask me to tell you how those are different from Hyatt Centric. What I do know is that I’ve stayed at all three this year.

“I think the practice is getting confusing, and they’re not putting enough thought into it,” Dev says of the multiplying hotel chains.

He sees a shakeout coming, with weaker brands disappearing. That’s bad news for travelers who have grown attached to a particular chain, he says.

Hotel executives say they know what they’re doing and insist each of the new hotels has a different “brand essence,” marketing speak for distinct offerings.

Spark, Hilton’s new budget brand, will feature newly renovated hotels previously operated under different names. Its first Spark, in Mystic, Conn., is a former Days Inn, and rates start around $100 a night. The chain says it didn’t have a budget offering like Spark before. Tru by Hilton was the lowest-tier hotel in the chain.

Hilton Chief Executive Officer Chris Nassetta said on an earnings call this year that he’s as excited about Spark as anything the chain has done, unsexy though it may be. The pool of potential guests is large, and at least half of them are younger, he says. Like a lot of big businesses, Hilton aims to own customers through their life cycle.

“The sooner you get them into the system and [start] building loyalty with them, the better off you are,” he said.

The big got bigger

The pandemic changed travel-booking habits, says Bruce Ford, senior vice president of Lodging Econometrics, a research and consulting firm based in New Hampshire.

A number of travelers who previously booked via online travel agencies like Expedia and started reserving directly with hotels for easier cancellation policies, cleanliness pledges and other factors.

Hotels seized on those new relationships and boosted the ranks of their loyalty programs, Ford says.

Now they want to keep travelers in the fold. One way to do that, Ford and other lodging experts say, is to have options for business trips, vacations, family and friend visits and, yes, bleisure.

The new brands are also designed to keep or lure hotel developers. Most major hotel companies no longer own the hotels bearing their names. They receive fees for brand or management deals. If a market has too many economy hotels from one brand, a developer might jump to another chain if there isn’t a suitable alternative, longtime industry analyst Bjorn Hanson says.

“The primary customer for a lot of these hotel companies is not the guest, it’s the owner,” Dev says.

Starting to blur

Robert Breckenridge travels frequently as a regional medical director for a chain of labs. The Texas resident and pathologist has platinum status with Marriott and sticks with the chain for business and personal trips.

He favors nicer brands when traveling with his wife, booking the Westin near the Champs-Élysées on trips to Paris. On business trips, he tries to stay under $150 a night in a location near one of his company’s labs. That typically lands him in a more utilitarian hotel.

Just don’t ask him whether that was a SpringHill Suites or Residence Inn he stayed at in Albuquerque last month.

“There’s not much of a difference,” he says.

For now, the new-brand parade goes on. Hilton has a new luxury brand on tap for 2024. The chain already has Waldorf Astoria, Conrad and LXR Hotels and Resorts at the high end. Nassetta says there’s room for more.

“Every room counts, and having more really high-quality products in the right locations we think continues to build our network effect,” he said on the chain’s October earnings call.

The chain says it will be a “luxury lifestyle” brand, a “very bespoke” thing. Whatever that means.

Copyright 2023 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved. From By Dawn Gilbertson.

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