For years, Indies felt like the only way. But what good is coloring outside the lines if everyone's doing it?
I’ve lived 49(ish) years in a world bound by binaries. You’re either male or you’re female. You’re gay or you’re straight. We place broad strokes into buckets to live life at a 3rd grade reading level.
We’re open to change philosophically, just as long as it doesn’t exist on our front stoop. We want to help, but we’re not sure how, so we stay in our lanes and donate quietly to the causes that raise our pulse. What we’ve learned in recent months—and what I myself have woken up to—is that two facts can be true at the same time.
No, this isn’t me coming out of the closet, but I have switched on the lights. Things look different from where I stand today.
THE GOLDEN AGE OF INDIES
To give you a complete picture, let’s look back over the last decade, when we could take a building, stick art in the lobby, crank some good music, scout a local roaster, and send it off into the world.
We had the Internet, mostly, to thank for our customer base. In the years before the Independent boom, something shifted. Sophie, who was on business in San Antonio, stayed at the Marriott and after a long day of travel, she didn’t even want to think about what she’d have for dinner—TGIFridays was what she knew, and oh look, they had Southwest Tortilla Soup. She was in Texas, after all.
On her return trip to San Antonio the following year, she’d heard the whispers, the murmurs. She was on Instagram, she’d downloaded Tripadvisor to her phone. She knew there was this other place—The Hotel Emma—and its restaurants looked downright amazing. She’d convince one of her co-workers, who was normally a Broccoli & Cheddar soup guy, to come along with her. Both of their minds were blown (and yes, I’m still talking about what they ate for dinner).
We used to travel for comfort, now we travel for experiences.
Thank you, Internet. Thank you, Instagram. Thank you, Snapchat. TikTok, I still don’t understand you, but I’ll be thanking you next year. Clubhouse, nice to meet you. As much as you drive us crazy, thank you Yelp, too. Guest reviews, in all their forms, have led consumers down experience-driven paths. They’ve led travelers to Independents like nothing else can.
87% of travelers trust a review from a perfect stranger over advertising.
In recent years, scientists have studied the effects of the Internet—particularly consuming social media—on the brain. We went from YOLO to FOMO, and independent hotels went LOLing all the way to the bank. This new word of mouth advertising left travelers with insatiable appetites for Independents. Guests came flooding through our doors in pursuit of the same Instagrammable moments friends and perfect strangers were having without them.
What happened next? We bent—and nearly broke—to make our spaces more sharable, more consumable, while we ourselves were consumed with creating an unrealistic experiences. Our chefs began putting quail eggs on chocolate ice cream for its shock and awe, we turned up the lights in our lobbies, filled them with plants, and projected social feeds on our walls.
Meanwhile, I could sum up the brands in two words—Marriott beige—I’d say, sipping on the bourbon living somewhere underneath a giant ice cube. Brands were everything I never wanted to be. We were having a field day while the brands lost market share. Independents were in the driver’s seat.
“I’ll think about a soft brand, if you show me how I can break even,” I’d bark over Bluetooth. Kessler was doing it in Orlando, and I was intrigued enough for a phone call. They couldn’t show me the numbers.
We, the Independents, were vindicated.
Our hotels were the it-thing. We’d be foolish to pay a commission when we were doing so well on our own. I was too busy sipping on that ice cube to notice that the brands got smart.
The brands grew up. They realized that cookie cutter wasn’t turning out the best cookies. They fine-tuned soft brands to appeal to this new breed of guests.
ALONG CAME 2020
My giant ice cube finally melted in 2020—around the same time the world stood still. The last 10 years were shrink-wrapped into a thought I still can’t shake:
We, the Independents, had become a brand in spite of ourselves.
In these last years, we haven’t been so independent after all. The hard truth is that we’re in bed with the OTAs. The harder truth? The brands will always have three things we do not—size, money, technology—and the ability to drive bookings. We’re too proud to soft brand ourselves, so we wake up next to the OTAs. There’s soggy room service at the foot of our door, along with a $19 ironing fee.
It wasn’t just the OTAs, and I’m not pointing fingers. In our quest for independence, we were all working from the same play book. We’d built our own mold, and we were still too proud. We were lemmings.
We pay 25-30% commissions to OTAs, so what’s the difference? Why not pay the brands, take advantage of their size, money, tech—and remove the friction in our time of need?
Last year, I threw my rig into reverse and looked back. Nothing about the world exists in binaries, why should hotels? There’s growth when we see grey. There’s growth when we coexist. The same is true for hotels.
When the Indies took hold, we rendered the brands useless. When the brands went soft, we laughed. Instead of keeping a finger on the pulse, we drank our own scratch-made Koolaid (one part vinegar, and a heaping scoop of paleo powder).
Maybe I was young and foolish. Maybe the playing field has changed.
Today, I see brands differently. Brands have become more sophisticated, and they’re equally as good a choice as flying solo.
The Autograph Collection came knocking, 10 years later, and it wasn’t Marriott beige anymore: it was a mirror. I took a good look.
Brands have caught up. The offer to relinquish our independence is off the table. We have the Internet to thank for democratizing that process. Brands have realized the value of Independents, and now we must realize the value of brands.
Whether you flip open your laptop and there’s a glowing Apple inside or a Windows icon, doesn’t matter. They’re both powered by the best processor in the business: Intel. There’s intel inside of hotel brands, too—Hilton, Marriott, Accor, Intercontinental. We can stay behind the wheel of our own cars and continue waking up next to the OTAs, or we can adapt.
Today, brands bring their might to the table—loyal customers and top of the line technology—and they remove the friction. All my WTF hotel problems? Solved. Best of all, they leave our souls intact.
The time has come. Binaries exist in our world. We don’t have to be a brand or an independent, not anymore. Look, I’ll always be an Indie guy at heart, but I’ve woken up. I’m hoping my fellow Indies will wake up, too. I see this as a big step forward for our industry—to be less fragmented, and more united—working together to remove friction. Indies, brands, soft brands—they each have a place, situationally. We can both be, and we can be both. We can have our occupancy and our Stumptown coffee, too.