Euromonitor International Interview Series: Amanda Altree, the Senior Director of Global Marketing for Autograph Collection

Euromonitor International is pleased to present an interview about Marriott International Inc’s Autograph Collection. Euromonitor International Travel and Tourism Research Manager Michelle Grant spoke with Amanda Altree, the Senior Director of Global Marketing for Autograph Collection, about the brand and its future.

Can you please give an overview of the Autograph Collection brand?

Autograph Collection is a new business model for Marriott. What we are doing is lending the power of our sales and marketing channels to independent hotels.  These hotels have a great experience to offer to travellers around the world, but do not have the global reach that a big brand, like Marriott, can offer. It’s a nice marriage because we love the fact that the independent hotels have such a rich experience to offer guests and we can now offer more choices to customers. Independent hotels win because they get access to a global marketplace and become incorporated into our industry-leading channels, like Marriott Rewards, Marriott.com and our reservation systems.

The Autograph Collection reached 56 outlets in 2013, following its launch in 2010. What drove such strong growth?

We are the fastest full-service brand launch in the history of the lodging industry. There’s definitely demand from consumers who love hotels with interesting decor and personality, if you will. A desire for something more than just a hotel room — these hotels are perfect.

I think it’s that we are offering owners the best of both worlds. They get to keep their own brand identity but they have the strength and channel power of a big brand. That proposition is very appealing to a lot of independent hotel owners who feel very strongly about the experience that their hotel offers but don’t necessarily want to do a conversion to be part of a marketing engine. We’ve had a lot of positive word of mouth from existing owners within the collection so that has done a lot to keep our pipeline as full as it is.

Is this brand geared more for international market where independents dominate?

Europe is perfect for the collection. There are so many independent hotels so we expect growth to continue. We have 19 outlets in Europe and 35 in the US. We have also just opened a hotel in Sydney, Australia. We have three new hotels in Asia, including a new one in Tokyo. It’s really just the beginning of our growth in Asia. We have a couple of outlets in Latin America. It’s really taking off around the world. In the US, there has been a lot of demand — we are so well known here. The power of our channels is well established in the US and it’s getting that way in Europe. We do expect a lot of growth in that area.

What do you look for in a potential hotel for the brand?

We always look for a hotel with an element of distinction — something about it that’s going to be memorable. We ask ourselves “does this hotel offer an experience that our guests are going to want to tell their friends about?” It has to be a superior quality hotel as well. We expect the hotels to have a bit of personality. Something that will leave an imprint on guests who stay there.

It’s becoming a more crowded place for consortia brands (this year, Carlson announced its Quorvus Collection, Millennium & Copthorne announced the Monogram Collection and Hilton is expected to unveil a new consortia brand). What differentiates Autograph Collection from existing consortia brands and newcomers?

First and foremost, it is the strength of our channels. We have the strongest sales and marketing channels in the industry. We have a best-in-class loyalty program with Marriott Rewards. We have the largest retail website in Marriott.com. Our reservations and sales systems are leading the industry. Those factors put us in a different position. It’s also the hotels in the system. We want to celebrate independent hotels and their individuality. We are really the only collection that puts the independent hotel before our own brand. The independent is the hero in our marketing efforts. We want to celebrate what makes a hotel unique and special and what that experience is. We strive to offer a variety of choices – in design, location and vibe – in the types of hotels that we bring to customers.

Do you get pushback from other owners of other Marriott brands?

No.. When we launched Autograph Collection, we assumed that we would work with a lot of new independent owners – owners that had existing independent hotels – but what we found was that we were getting a lot of interest from owners that we were already doing business with and who always wanted to have an independent hotel. They wanted the flexibility to do their own branding. I have not heard any negative comments from existing owners, only positive comments from owners that want to try it.

Who are your target guests and how do you reach them (any examples of successful campaigns)?

Our target guest is really someone who “owns the road less travelled” as we like to say. They are people who have an adventurous mind-set. They are confident and knowledgeable about their travel. They do a lot of research about where they are staying and they really want the hotel to be an integral part of their trip; it’s not just a launching pad for what they will do at their destination. The hotel is a really important part of the journey. It’s a more curious mind-set that really appreciates the stories behind each of the hotels that are in the Autograph Collection. Our guests are probably split 50/50 between business and leisure. It’s really destination driven. We have hotels in leisure destinations, such as Colorado and New Mexico. Those are squarely designed for the leisure traveller. It’s really about a mind-set of guests, not demographics anymore. It’s about people who want to have an experience that they want to tell their friends and families about. It makes them more interesting because of the experiences that they’ve had. These hotels are appealing either for business or leisure because they are more interesting and somewhat unexpected.

El Monte Sagrado (Autograph Collection hotel): Geared towards leisure travellers

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The Carlton Hotel (Autograph Collection hotel): Geared toward business travellers

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Your website is very visual and organised by experience. In fact, you have to click to get to a reservation bar. It’s very different from other hotel websites. What is the thinking behind this set up?

When we launched Autograph Collection, we wanted to make sure our website showed the uniqueness of the Collection by selling our hotels differently. We needed to create a booking experience that was different than Marriott’s and most others in the lifestyle space. We wanted to make sure that if people were finding us, even if they were finding us through Marriott channels, that they understood that this is a very different hotel stay. Whatever you may have experienced at a Marriott brand, this was going to be very different. As a result, we needed the shopping experience to be different. We also knew that we needed it to be experiential and show the breadth of experiences that these hotels offer. Each hotel is so different. We have a subset in urban centres, near bars, restaurants, theatres and shopping, while those in leisure destinations offer serene, remote experiences. We wanted to make sure that we were displaying all of these experiences at an Autograph Collection so that you may research other hotels if a different experience catches your interest.  The architecture is set up to encourage exploration and generate demand as well. We’re going to continue to evolve the website, and it’s time to refresh the website. We are going to stick with experiential ways of sorting our hotels, but it will probably be different later this year.

How do you look at social media?

We have really put a stake in the ground around social media because of the nature of our hotels and the storytelling aspect of each of them. Each of them has a rich story of its own. We really thought that social media is the perfect medium to allow our guests to tell us what they love about the hotel as well as their peers. Almost 50% of our guests are “millennials” and they are much more likely to trust feedback from their peers and on review sites than when it comes from a brand. We always knew that a really important part of promoting the Autograph Collection would be from peer-to-peer reviews and the experiences that people had at our hotels. We knew that social media was going to be the best way for us to get as many advocates as possible from the brand’s launch.  We’ve really looked to be relevant on social media, either through Facebook, Twitter or Tumblr; we’re the first Marriott brand to launch on Tumblr. We were one of the first hotels brands to launch on Tumblr, in fact. It’s such a beautiful way to bring content to life on our hotels, so we are putting more and more content about hotels on our Tumblr page.

What do you see in the future for Autograph Collection?

I’m really excited about the future. We’ve got much interest in the collection from both owners and consumers. Our pipeline is brimming. We’ve already opened four in the first quarter of 2014 and we probably have another 15 hotels to open this year. We’re going into markets like China, India and Africa. The potential for the brand is so bright. It’s a fun brand to work on. I love these experiential hotels so it’s great to have such a diverse collection of them.  If you liked one, you can stay at another enjoy a completely different environment but still expect to have a great experience too.