After Marriott purchased Starwood Hotels & Resorts for $13.3 billion in September 2016, a tough question emerged: What would Marriott do with all those 30 brands in its now expanded portfolio?
Whether the company needs 30 brands is another issue, and one that’s widely debated in the hospitality industry.
However, a little more than one year after the deal closed, we’re beginning to see what Marriott has done with those 11 Starwood brands it inherited, and one of the best examples of that is the company’s efforts to try to reinvigorate the Aloft and Elementbrands.
Investors and owners are still keenly interested in both of the categories these brands represent — select service and extended stay — and Marriott knows Aloft and Element haven’t scaled up to their potential. Marriott has opted to focus on revamping these brands while the cycle still has legs.
Aloft and Element owners essentially told Marriott that the biggest problems with both brands are construction costs, as well as property cost models. Marriott’s solution was to focus on smarter room designs and more streamlined food-and-beverage programs for both Aloft and Element, as well as a new floor model for Element that would appeal to groups.
Here’s a detailed look at the evolution of Aloft and Element, and what it says about the future of lifestyle extended stay and select service hotels.
PIONEERS IN LIFESTYLE SELECT SERVICE AND EXTENDED STAY
When Starwood launched Aloft in 2005, followed shortly by Element in 2006, the two brands were uniquely positioned for their time.
Aloft, marketed as “a vision of W Hotels,” Starwood’s wildly successful boutique twist on the traditional full-service hotel, was meant to follow a similar trajectory, but for the then very nascent, but growing select-service space. At a time when the boutique hotel movement was in full swing, tech-driven Aloft adopted a design aesthetic that was, at the time, very forward-looking — perhaps too much so. Think concrete floors and bright, vivid hues.
Element, by contrast, capitalized on the “eco-friendly” movement that was gaining momentum in the U.S. and worldwide; it required LEED certification, something the brand no longer mandates. It was an extended stay product, geared toward longer-stay travel, and it borrowed its design aesthetic from sister brand Westin.
“They were very innovative in their early launches,” Mark Skinner, a hospitality industry expert and partner in The Highland Group said of the two brands. “Aloft was more [innovative] in its design and was one of the early lifestyle brands. Element was also creatively designed” and was “very, very high quality.”
Ben Seidel, president and CEO of Ocean City, Maryland-based hotel management firm Real Hospitality Group, said what originally drew him to open his first Aloft property “was the hype.” He opened his first Aloft in 2009-2010 in Brooklyn, New York, next to a Sheraton, which his company also manages.
Today, Seidel is president of Marriott’s Owners Council for the Aloft brand. He has four Aloft hotels in his portfolio, with another Aloft and his first Element property on the way.
The Great Recession of 2008, however, took its toll and “it was hard to get off the ground something new that was coming to the industry for the first time,” he said.
At first, Seidel said, some customers weren’t sure about the Aloft experience. “Because of how strange the concept was for your typical frequent stay and loyal Starwood customer,” it could be a bit of a challenge, he said. “But once they got there they liked it.”
Seidel said he sees more repeat business at the Aloft New York Brooklyn than at the Sheraton Brooklyn New York Hotel next door, and the guests staying at the Aloft range from “young and old to everything in between.”
Although Aloft and Element were creative and unique when they debuted, they never grew to scale, said former Starwood CEO Frits van Paasschen, who led the company from 2007 to 2015. In the fall of 2016, just before the deal closed, van Paasschen told Skift, “With the exception of Sheraton, Starwood’s other brands are still sub-scale. With the proper investment, they have plenty of room to grow.”
Their growth pace lagged other brands.
“They didn’t grow at the pace of some of the other brands,” said Skinner. “The perception with Element was that it cost too much to build. Aloft was initially aimed at urban locations, which is limiting, and has subsequently moved into suburban locations.”
By the time Marriott purchased Starwood, there were 116 Aloft hotels and only 23 Element properties around the world, with 150 Alofts and 73 Elements in the global pipeline. In contrast, Marriott’s extended stay Residence Inn brand has nearly 900 properties in the U.S. alone.
Today, there are 135 Aloft hotels open and 32 Element hotels, and another 137 Aloft hotels and 76 Element hotels are in the pipeline. How they got to this place demonstrates where the lifestyle select-service and extended stay lodging segments are headed.
THE INNOVATION LAB APPROACH
As soon as Marriott and Starwood signed the deal, Marriott’s teams immediately went to work on integrating the Starwood brands. They chose the Aloft and Element brands as one of the first targets, said Eric Jacobs, Marriott’s chief development officer of select service and extended stay brands in North America.
The primary reason why Marriott decided to focus on these brands? “Because the cycle is still very hot, it was very important for us to jump quickly into these two brands when investor interest was still high,” Jacobs said.