This Hotel Collection Offers Drool-Worthy Independent Hotels
A pandemic is not the best time to launch a hotel business, and yet this is what Curator Hotel & Resort Collection found itself doing in November 2020.
A year and a half later, the business is thriving, with more than 90 hotel members and awards under its belt. What’s best, the collection is helping the independent hotels in its portfolio thrive.
Far & Wide spoke to Curator’s President Jennifer Barnwell about the experience of surviving the pandemic as a travel-adjacent industry, upcoming travel trends and what makes independent hotels perfect for this new age of travel.
If you prefer unique experiences over cookie-cutter brand hotels, read on to find out more about this hotel collection — and get a glimpse of some of its best properties.
Far & Wide: The first question that probably everybody has is, why did you decide to open this hotel collection during the pandemic?
Jennifer Barnwell: Well, the truth is we didn't mean to launch during a pandemic. So, the background of Curator creating this collection — which kind of in its simplest terms is both an expense savings platform for independent hotels, but also, a way for hotels to enhance the value of their property — is with Pebblebrook Hotel Trust, which is our main founding member.
When we got to a certain size, we thought that should give us some leverage in trying to bring our costs down. The end result was that we saved multiple millions of dollars on an annualized basis for ourselves. And the majority of that was within the independent hotels that we owned.
We love independence. So, we thought, “Maybe we can turn this into a business, where what we've already done for ourselves, we can do on a much bigger scale to benefit independent hotels.” The timing just ended up being what it was.
FW: Were there any benefits to launching during COVID?
Barnwell: We were already trying to figure out if we could create Curator and roll it out publicly before COVID hit. But we didn't want COVID to slow us down because it was perhaps even better timing to launch something like this when times are a whole lot tougher, and everyone is looking at every penny that they're spending.
So, I wouldn't say we were happy by any means, but it was already in the works before the pandemic hit, and I think we've gotten a pretty good reception and perhaps maybe even more interest than we otherwise would have gotten.
FW: Can you tell us more about the challenges of it launching in the pandemic?
Barnwell: The maybe only singular positive would be that it was a good time to put something together that can help people retain as much cash flow as possible.
The downside to it is the pandemic hit the hotel industry perhaps harder than any other industry, which means that a lot of hotels were actually closed. So, trying to convince a hotel owner who has a closed hotel to want to join a collection and make some changes and eventually pay fees is perhaps a very tough proposition.
FW: Can you explain how the model works?
Barnwell: Yes. From a traveler's perspective, what Curator means is that you can expect a certain kind of hotel: certainly independent, certainly high quality, interesting, unique, experiential.
So, if anyone wants to go down that path and do some discovery related to independent hotels that have great offerings, that's part of what our website presents. Guests can search and look for independent hotels.
But behind the scenes, we're meant to be a resource for these hotels, to help them with all the contracting they need to do, so they can have more time to spend on the experience with their guests. Like focusing on their guests, focusing on their operation, focusing on the design of the hotel, the amenities of their hotel, everything that's 100 percent guests facing.
FW: So, since you're working behind the scenes, does that mean owners are still able to apply their vision, which is what makes them unique?
Barnwell: Yes. And also, it's very meaningful to owners to have more profit and, therefore, have the value of their asset continues to increase.
We love independents; we think they're a crucial part of our industry, so we love to keep independents independent. And curator is also owner-centric from the perspective that it's extremely flexible. So, nothing is dictated or mandated by us. Ultimately, the hotel owners are the ones who pick and choose what works for them.
Our goal is just to save the money and get them some recognition by being part of our collection, which will hopefully translate into more travelers discovering them and wanting to book with them.
FW: What is the criteria that you use when choosing what hotels gets to be part of the collection?
Barnwell: I’ll let Jennifer Parks, director of membership and communications, who is on the call, answer that.
Jennifer Parks: I think our whole goal with Curator is to champion independent hotels, and through that, our process is very inclusive. We want hotels to be at that 3.5 to 4.5 online ratings.
And really what unites all of our hotels is how unique they are, how they celebrate their destination. They’re authentic and maybe a little unexpected or art-forward. So, those are really the pieces of criteria that we're looking at to make this collection of inspired hotels.
FW: Yes, we love that. And this really shows in your website. It doesn't feel generic at all.
Barnwell: Yes, and we like to say we don't have a checklist. We don't have to go inspect a property and make sure it needs some kind of generic hurdles or bars or anything like that.
It's all about, are you truly independent? And, can we help you?
FW: Yes, of course. But how do you make sure that the hotels are places people will be happy to book?
Barnwell: I’ll go back to what Jen said. We believe the focus should be on what the guest thinks. So, that's why we put the requirement about the online rating.
The hotels have to be at this certain average for their online ratings, and if they drop below it, they're in this short period of time in which they either have to fix it or, if they don't fix it, then we can terminate them out.
We find that we should focus on what guests think, maybe more so than just having a generic standard that comes directly from us.
FW: You both are obviously experts in this industry. What are some of the trends that you think we should be looking out for?
Barnwell: In the grand scheme of things, there's room for everybody. I mean, I have a friend who only cares about her Marriott points.
And that's OK, but there's no doubt that there definitely has been an increase in demand for something — I don't want to overuse the word — but something that is more curated, something that's a little bit more unique, something that is definitely not cookie-cutter.
FW: Definitely. Can you give some examples of the unique amenities guests can expect?
Barnwell: People want hotels that have multiple amenities, like fun and different things to do.
An example of that would be Skamania Lodge in the Washington River Gorge. We've added treehouse accommodations, ax throwing, a putting course and a pavilion outside where you can have these amazing weddings or social events. And we're going to keep adding on to that because there's no doubt that people are looking for experiences and memories, more so than just owning things.
FW: That sounds amazing.
Barnwell: And then COVID put such a high value and focus on outdoor space, and I don't think that ever goes away. So, hotel owners are spending a lot of capital on making sure that they are capturing, or in some cases, repurposing their outdoor space to make it attractive and meaningful to whatever the guests want these days. In terms of trends, I think the word “discovery” just always pops in my mind.
There's a big part of the travel industry now where people want something interesting. They want to go discover what's out there. They want to stay somewhere different, not just in a branded hotel where you can totally expect it's going to look the same in Denver as it's going to look in New York or in L.A. And we value creating those experiences, whether it's through the design or through the amenities in both urban and resort settings.
FW: Are there any other travel trends you think might be on the horizon?
Parks: I would say a trend that we're going to see evolve is redefined luxury. Luxury travel has obviously been around for a long time, but it is becoming much more than just high-end amenities or concierge services.
It's much more about the experience and about feeling really immersed in where you're traveling to. Especially coming out of the pandemic, now when people are traveling, they really are more curious, they want to really understand the destination they're in.
FW: Yes, that's very interesting.
Barnwell: Sure. It'll also be interesting to see the combination of work and play and whether that has legs for a long period of time. Because before the pandemic, it was like go do your work trip and get back; just take care of business and that's it.
And now I’m always thinking about well, can I combine work and travel? And we've seen it in our hotels making sure people know that if they want to come work and play, we can facilitate that.
*Interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.
Curator’s Best Hotels
You’re probably now very excited about staying at a unique independent hotel that’s part of Curator Hotel & Resort Collection.
Follow Curator on Instagram and Facebook to see some of their hotels. But we’ve also chosen the most eye-catching hotels that you’ll definitely want to visit.
Gate Canyons Resort
Location: Gateway, Colorado
Find it: Online
The Marker Key West
Location: Key West, Florida
Find it: Online
Maui Beach Hotel
Location: Kahului, Hawaii
Find it: Online
Location: San Francisco, California
Find it: Online
Chaminade Resort & Spa
Location: Santa Cruz, California
Find it: Online