— Travelers looking for a little bit of home away from home this year are about to get a new place to hang their hats. Set to debut Feb. 3 in Fayetteville, N.C., Home2 Suites is both the newest brand from Hilton Worldwide and the latest addition to the extended-stay market.
Almost three years in the making, the brand is designed to compete with other mid-tier extended-stay hotels, including TownePlace Suites by Marriott and InterContinental Hotels Group’s Candlewood Suites, and to complement Hilton’s existing Homewood Suites brand.
“Homewood is more upscale residential — like a nice condominium,” said Bill Duncan, global head of brand management for Hilton’s extended-stay hotels. “Home2 Suites is more like a cool first apartment.”
Settling in and saving money
Although targeted primarily to business travelers, extended stay hotels are also proving to be a viable option for cost-conscious leisure travelers. Suite-style units offer added space at minimal cost; in-room kitchens cut down on restaurant expenses, and complimentary breakfasts are almost always included.
“You’ve got everything you need, so you don’t need to leave,” said Melanie Jones, who became a fan of extended-stay hotels during a recent, weeklong visit to Henderson, Nev. “We brought our own books and magazines and even a personal blanket to make it feel more familiar. You get that feeling of ‘I’m home.’ ”
It’s a feeling that appears to be resonating with travelers. “Demand is growing at record levels,” said Mark Skinner, a partner at The Highland Group, which tracks the extended-stay segment. According to Skinner, occupancies at extended-stay hotels rose from 66.4 percent to 73.1 percent during the third quarter of 2010. By comparison, the lodging industry as a whole rose from 57.2 percent to 63.9 percent during the same period.
Such numbers must be especially encouraging for Hilton, which had the seeming misfortune of unveiling its new brand during the depths of the recession. To counter the headwinds, Duncan and his team kept costs low (under $10 million per property), sought input from would-be franchisees and even built a model lobby and guestroom in Hilton’s corporate office in Memphis.
“It was a collaborative process,” said Duncan. “Owners [of other Hilton brands] came to us and said they wanted us to get into the mid-tier segment.” As a result, what could have been a troubled birth has evolved into the fastest-growing brand in Hilton history with six properties under construction and 77 under contract.
Fake lobby, real feedback
Walking down a hallway at Hilton’s corporate office, Duncan opens an unmarked door and invites a guest into what appears to be a fully formed hotel lobby. It’s actually a mock-up of the Oasis, the reception area/public space/breakfast nook that defines the Home2 brand.
The space is anchored by a large, two-sided couch; a long, raised breakfast counter with 18 seats, and lightweight chairs and tables that can be moved around to handle a variety of guest needs and preferences. According to Duncan, the open layout and flexible design were conceived to create a sense of community.
“What we learned, though, was that our customers’ definition of community was very different than ours,” said Duncan, a self-proclaimed “lobby lizard” who travels up to 50 weeks per year. “A lot of guests want to be part of a larger community, but don’t actually want to engage. They just want to know what’s going on around them.”
Conversely, says Duncan, guests want their rooms to be more of a secluded haven that they can customize to their tastes and needs. The typical Home2 property will feature 108 studio and one-bedroom suites marked by neutral colors and a so-called “working wall” that spans adjustable closet space, an entertainment/work area and kitchen space with microwave/convection oven, dishwasher and full-sized refrigerator.
“People said, ‘We like the colors in the lobby, but our suite is our haven,’ ” noted Duncan. “They like to make their space their own.”
That’s especially important because the brand is geared primarily toward guests who stay 10 or more nights; many are government contractors, military personnel on temporary deployment and others on long-term assignments. (It’s no coincidence that the first properties will open in Fayetteville and Jacksonville, N.C., and Layton, Utah, which are near Fort Bragg, Camp Lejeune and Hill Air Force Base, respectively.)
But according to Duncan, even leisure guests get the urge to personalize: “The first couple of nights, people act like transient customers. They’re in, they’re out; they don’t use the room much. But from nights three or four onward, they start moving things around.” Adjustable shelves, wheeled furniture and spaces that can be configured based on personal preferences further enhance the comfortable, home-like ambience — all at average daily rates starting at around $90 per night.
It’s a combination that Duncan believes is especially pertinent in these as-yet-unsettled times. “People still love to travel,” he said. “It’s incumbent upon us as an industry to make it easier for them to do it.”
Providing a home away from home would seem like a good start.