BWH Hotel Group places more emphasis on soft brands

All hail the soft brand as one of the most important development mechanisms found in franchisor’s toolkits over the past dozen years.

One of the original soft brands was created by Best Western, today known as BWH Hotel Group, a truly unique industry membership model that has also always operated as a guest-facing brand. It started in 1946 when Founder M.K. Guertin offered informal links between properties recommending each other to travelers. The “referral system” consisted of phone calls from one desk operator to another.

BWH Hotel Group has grown to become one of the biggest hotel brands in the world, ranking 11th in HOTELS 2021 ranking of the biggest hotel companies with some 364,000 guest rooms at the end of 2020. The global network boasts approximately 4,700 hotels in over 100 countries and territories worldwide with some 18 brands across every chain scale segment.

Hotel Eastlund, Portland, Oregon, is a member of BW Premier Collection

Over the past 10 years BWH, along with so many competing brands, has created more growth opportunities by offering its own set of seven soft brands, growing exponentially in 2019 when BWH acquired the long-standing Germany-based soft brand, WorldHotels. Among the soft brands are SureStay Collection, BW Signature Collection and BW Premier Collection.

Currently, the company boasts approximately 500 active soft brand hotels and resorts  worldwide, with more than 110 new properties in the global pipeline. Additionally, in the previous four months through January 2022, the company activated more than 30 soft brand hotels around the world.

Through expansion, new launches, and acquisitions, BWH Hotel Group soft brand options now range from economy to luxury, and Senior Vice President and Chief Development Officer Brad LeBlanc does not see it slowing down.

“Many soft brand properties have been fortunate to have weathered the pandemic better than their branded counterparts because these hotel options are becoming increasingly more appealing in today’s environment – developers seek more independence and creativity in their hotels, while travelers look for more authentic travel experiences,” LeBlanc said. “As a result, soft brands will continue to be a focus for BWH Hotel Group in the months and years ahead.”

Gleddoch Golf & Spa Resort, Langbank, U.K., is a member of WorldHotels Collection

HOTELS recently spoke to LeBlanc to learn more about BWH’s plans in the popular soft brand space.

HOTELS: What has led to the success and growth of your soft brand pipeline?

Brad LeBlanc: Soft brands have been increasing in popularity with hotel chains like ours that are looking to expand their footprint with unique properties that attract younger hotel developers and, ultimately, meet the needs of today’s travelers. For some time now, BWH Hotel Group has been allocating resources and shifting focus to developing soft brand hotels that will entice guests to experience these properties and, so far, we’ve excelled in the space.

H: What is your competitive advantage or point of differentiation versus the many other soft brands available to owners and developers?

BL: It’s the BWH Hotel Group difference. Today, you’ll see there are three to five properties of the same hotel chain on most street corners. Affiliating with us provides owners and developers the unique opportunity to stand out from the current market saturation. Additionally, we do our due diligence and familiarize ourselves with each hotel interested in joining our portfolio to determine which BWH Hotel Group brand suits that property best. We don’t rush the process and are strategic in how we grow with each soft brand hotel.

H: What is the timeline for the 110 properties in the pipeline?

BL: The great news is each soft brand collection is the vision of each owner. And in that light, the soft brand collection hotels have typically shorter entry timeframes than a new build. We expect all of these to be open within six months and that the pipeline will be flush with new, unique hotels set to open.

H: Beyond these 110 properties, what are expectations for soft brand growth over the next 12 months?

BL: Over the next 12 months and years ahead, we anticipate our portfolio of soft brands to continue to grow. In recent years, we’ve seen a massive generational shift in hotel owners and the type of brands they want to associate themselves with is soft brands. Young developers in the business are seeking the gratification of successfully operating and developing an independent hotel that’s backed by a well-established company – especially during times of turmoil like we’ve seen in the past two years. Moreover, these hotel developers and owners look to embrace the local market they’re operating in and create a modern and eclectic space representative of the city.

“Soft brands have been increasing in popularity with hotel chains like ours that are looking to expand their footprint with unique properties that attract younger hotel developers and, ultimately, meet the needs of today’s travelers.” – Brad LeBlanc

With millennials and Gen Z prioritizing travel more than other generations, it’s also important to cater to their needs. Today’s travelers are more likely to book with hotels that have social spaces, a variety of trendy food and beverage offerings, and more unique and individual guest experiences.

H: What is the biggest challenge to further growing your pipeline?

BL: Upscale and boutique developers that have never done business with us are seeing an opportunity to diversify their portfolio. I’d say the biggest opportunity for us is generating awareness that our soft brand collections span from luxury to economy.

H: What are owners asking for most?

BL: Owners are seeking a global distribution system for independent hotels that allow them to maintain vision and the power to deliver services at a local level. The other “must have” from developers is help with revenue management.