Independent Hotels: New Opportunities for Travel Agents

Despite the growth of mega-brands like Marriott, Hilton, and AccorHotels, independent hotels have shown tremendous resilience in the marketplace as travelers increasingly look for a different kind of lodging experience.

That is why Andrew Benioff, a veteran hotelier, has organized an annual International Lodging Conference (ILC) for the past five years with the next one scheduled for Brooklyn, New York, October 17-19. While it might be a bit more challenging for travel agents to get to know independent hotels, Benioff believes it is well worth their while and is in the interests of their clients.

Independent hotels are unique, and each is one different, Benioff said, so if travel agents want to add the most value for their clients they should be up to date on individual properties and what they offer in each city. That is not something that most people, without a lot of effort, can ascertain. Therefore, that knowledge would go a long way in keeping clients loyal and happy.

The ILC, being held at the William Vale Hotel, will welcome 300-400 hoteliers to discuss what’s important for the industry and what is happening on the independent landscape. Benioff said agents would be welcome to register for the conference and would experience a rapid update on the industry and an opportunity to network with active players.

However, he added that agents interested in offering clients the independent hotel option can simply do as they always have: travel and investigate properties. Benioff said that he would choose certain cities or areas and try to stay informed – perhaps staying in a different place every night to get a feel for them. “When I’ve used agents in the past,” said Benioff, “it was that kind of personalized experience that really added value to our relationship.”

Benioff said he takes a broad view of independent hotels – which might be members of “soft brands” like Marriott’s Autograph and Hilton’s Canopy – to small “chains” like Viceroy and Ace where each hotel is very different.

Importantly, Benioff said, “these hotels don’t have to be ‘cool.’” He said his parents always want to stay in luxury hotels but not in branded ones. They chose classics like the Carlyle in New York City – “just as independent as, say, the Arlo hotels in New York.”

Agents might be concerned, said Benioff, that an independent hotel does not offer the consistency and standards of a Marriott or Hilton. But he added, “today an agent can do the research to find out about a hotel’s service and even whether it is clean and well designed. I have worked for large chains and being part of one doesn’t guarantee a certain experience.”

He also said a good way to get to know independent hotels is through networks of these lodgings – like Preferred Hotels, Small Luxury Hotels, and Relais & Chateaux – each different but each offering a channel to independents.

Benioff said agents should get to know a number of independents and develop relationships with them.

“You might be doing a little more work,” he said, “but you will be surprising and delighting your client when they find a little garden in the back or a personal welcome.”

As for compensation, Benioff said independent hotels are happy to pay commission or work with agents on another basis.

“It’s so much better than working with an online travel agency,” he said, and well worth it to the property. Also, he said, if agents establish a relationship with a general manager, “they will take care of your client, perhaps send them a bottle of wine.”

Looking ahead to his conference, Benioff said that as usual there will be speakers from outside the travel industry – an economist talking about success vs. luck, an expert talking about artificial intelligence and a movie producer talking about sex trafficking. He said that at many conferences, people are still “talking in a circle and not learning anything.” He said it’s important to evolve as an industry, to learn from other industries – and about the society and culture.

Different this year at ILC is shorter presentations – panels running about a half hour and individual speakers scheduled for about 18 minutes. Aside from the ILC, Benioff organizes smaller one-day “confabs” around the country – and is doing one next February in Miami. He also plans to hold the ILC on the West Coast next year in a location still to be determined.

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