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by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | June 30, 2011

Luxe Rodeo Drive HotelThe already crowded luxury hotel landscape has several new players all looking to hit the acceleration pedal and grab their share of the action. And they are betting they can do it by jettisoning brand conformity for the power and lure of individuality. Say hello to three new brands, flush with capital and eager to make an impression with the group market.

"People know us for our conference centers, but we are not just a conference center company," Alex Cabanas, chief development and strategy officer for Houston-based Benchmark Hospitality International, told me during a recent sit-down. Cabanas was explaining the launch earlier this month of Benchmark's Personal Luxury Collection, a group of 13 highly distinctive independent properties in seven states, including the Hotel 718, scheduled to open in Brooklyn, N.Y., this fall. According to Cabanas, the hotels add a nice complement to his company's impressive global conference center portfolio, because they offer an alternative for small groups looking for something outside the big flag path.

Don't expect to see Benchmark's name on any of its new hotels, however, or for any two hotels to sport the same name. "We are not creating a chain. We are creating a collection," said Cabanas. "It is a great advantage, because it is something our competitors cannot replicate." Well, not exactly. Starwood's The Luxury Collection is just that -- a collection of independent hotels, without the company tagline.

Meanwhile, if you haven't heard of B Hotels & Resorts, you're forgiven. This upstart company with the catchy name (I am told by their PR rep that the letter B was chosen after much discussion, because it is "the only active letter in the alphabet") opened its first property this January -- the 240-room B Ocean Fort Lauderdale, which features 8,000 square feet of meeting space called B on Top. The company quickly followed that up this month with the acquisition of the 250-room Continental Oceanfront South Beach Hotel in Miami Beach, which is currently undergoing a massive renovation. When that wraps up in late 2012, the property will officially join the B portfolio. "We don't have your typical brand standards like Marriott or Hilton, because we are more about individuality and ambience," says Chris Tompkins, B Hotels' corporate vice president, who added that the brand has an aggressive growth strategy in place that will be driven primarily by conversions.

Also looking to plant a flag is Los Angeles-based Luxe Hotels. Parent company Luxe Worldwide Hotels currently reps some 200 independent properties in 31 countries, but founder and CEO Efrem Harkham, a longtime hands-on hotelier and owner of the 88-room Luxe Rodeo Drive and its sister property, the 160-room Luxe Sunset Boulevard Hotel, believes the time is ripe to capitalize on the strength of the Luxe name. The 178-room Luxe City Center, part of L.A .Live, became the first branded member following a $12 million overhaul. Now, Luxe Hotels is scouting around for expansion options and is hoping to have 15 branded properties (typically with 120 to 150 rooms and four-star ratings) in gateway cities such as Chicago, San Francisco, Dallas and Boston. What's more, Luxe already is at work on a program for repeat customers. "We are not waiting for critical mass to build a loyalty program," notes Charles Harris, vice president of marketing for the new chain. "We are doing it now." Luxe's strength, he said, will lie in the uniqueness each hotel brings to its market. "That's what's unique about our brand, and that's what will give us a distinctive advantage with groups," he adds.