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by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | December 1, 2011

Country Inn and Suites in MichiganNothing brings out a value-conscious traveler more than sustained economic uncertainty -- and, not surprisingly, the last two years have been good news for midscale hotel chains, also known as the limited-service sector. In an increasing effort to elevate their image and distance themselves from the budget sector, several brands have been busy adding muscle to  pre-loaded complimentary offerings such as free wireless and wired Internet, bottled water, daily newspapers and 24-hour business centers, and aggressively expanding their portfolios. With 2012 on the horizon, they are poised and ready to swoop in on business travelers seeking value.

"We have never been in a market like we are now. There is a conservatism about what 2012 will hold," says Steve Mogck, executive vice president and chief operating officer, midscale brands, Carlson Hotels, America, talking about Country Inns & Suites' business strategy. "Today's traveler is looking to maximize value. We asked ourselves, how will we stack up and stand out from the other chains? We decided to be the best at breakfast."

Indeed, after months of research, customer feedback and testing, Country Inns & Suites earlier this year broke away from the pack by overhauling its complimentary breakfast menu. Today, every hotel offers fresh oatmeal (not instant) with several toppings, such as fresh fruit, yogurt and raisins. Coffee is fresh brewed every four hours. And multiple hot items, such as waffles and eggs, are rotated so the same items don't show up on the buffet day after day.

Carlson plans to add another 250 Country Inns & Suites globally by 2015, which will increase the brand's portfolio to 736. Beyond the U.S. borders, Canada, India and Mexico will be the chain's prime expansion markets.

For its part, the Hampton Inn brand (part of Hilton) will up the breakfast ante by serving oatmeal, too, along with 12 toppings at all 1,850 of its hotels before 2011 ends. Beyond that, however, the brand's senior executives have begun mingling regularly with Generation Y members as part of an innovative business strategy called Trendair, during which these young customers are queried about their buying habits, media consumption and preferred cuisine. "To stay relevant, we have to take the time to step back and listen to the world outside our industry," says Phil Cordell, global head of focused service and Hampton Brand management for Hilton Worldwide.

Meanwhile, the ongoing project for 2011 for Hilton Garden Inn has been a lobby refresh initiative designed to bring home the brand's garden theme with live plants, art pieces and textured fabrics. The program, which rolled out this past June, costs owners anywhere from $50,000 to $300,000 to bring their properties in line with this new, fresh image. Currently, the brand is eager to get a foothold in Europe and has nine developments in the pipeline for Italy. The European prototype will feature smaller guest rooms, but a wider range of food and beverage options.

Don't expect the midscales to start sprouting trendy signature cocktails or flashy amenities any time soon, though, because value and consistency continue to be the bedrock of their growth strategy. The way Country Inns & Suites' Steve Mogck sees it, the hotel industry already is fully stocked with properties eager to play the "it" game. "We are the antitheses of a W," he notes. "We are not edgy, we are not trendy, and that's just fine with us. What we are is comfortable, sophisticated, with a residential charm that the guest can count on."