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Retailers look to build brand loyalty with experiential travel


Branding by experience

’The pop-up Get Away Lodge in northern Sweden was a joint venture between Volvo and Tablet, a booking engine for ‘experiential hotels’ based in New York.

Volvo joins Tablet to create a new getaway, the latest in a string of partnerships looking to create branded experiences

Last month, Kafi Freitag, a columnist and life coach based in Zurich, got into a Volvo V90 Cross Country at Ostersund Airport and sped through the bleak mountain wilderness of northern Sweden. Arriving in the ski resort town of Are, she followed a snow-shovelled driveway to a dark-stained log cabin. Settling into her white-walled surroundings decorated with Danish modern chairs and sheepskins, she lit candles, poured herself a bowl of muesli, settled into a chair by the floor-to-ceiling window and started Instagramming.

The pop-up Get Away Lodge was a joint venture between Volvo and Tablet, a booking engine for "experiential hotels" based in New York. Designers hired by Volvo renovated the cabin and Tablet made it available on its website for six (sold-out) weeks in late winter. For a nightly rate of $550, guests such as Freitag got free use of the all-wheel-drive V90, which Volvo is currently rolling out in Europe.

That, Freitag says, went a long way toward creating brand loyalty "not only to Volvo but to Sweden. Driving around in that rough climate for three days made me really appreciate the clean, minimalist design."

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We've seen fashion and hospitality brands partnering up for nigh on two decades now. Armani and Versace have teamed up with developers across the Middle East and Asia; Bulgari and Marriott collaborate on gleaming spaces from Paris to Tokyo. Karl Lagerfeld is planning a new hotel in Macau with Dutch hotelier Brandmark Collective. And Thierry Mugler recently announced a partnership with architecture consultancy +Cassia that should net a 600-room hotel in Saudi Arabia. These make perfect sense – fashion designers earn more from brand extensions such as fragrance and sunglasses than the clothes themselves. And hotels are just another extension.

"We've been partnering with fashion brands for years, because they understand hospitality, like clothing, is more than just a commodity," says Laurent Vernhes, Tablet's co-founder and chief executive officer. "They're both huge industries, they're both necessary and they both drive innovation."

But Get Away Lodge, though undeniably fashionable, is one of a slew of new hotel collaborations outside the fashion sphere.

Though you might not instantly think "good night's sleep" when you look at a Volvo, you just might think "safe, hardy, functional, with an element of luxury."

With Get Away Lodge, Tablet has designed a brick-and-mortar embodiment of the Volvo brand: tough on the outside, quietly luxurious on the inside. The bonus test drive made a weekend in Sweden's great white north an alluringly hands-on proposition.

Vernhes reckons car and hospitality companies make natural bedfellows – a fit that's long overdue. Brands outside the fashion world have largely been slow to catch on, however. Possibly, he says, because they still see hospitality as a commodity with a star-rating system representing a checklist of amenities – a system Tablet and its customers reject as meaningless.

Still, with street shopping eroding against the might of online, retailers are increasingly desperate for consumers to sit down with their product.

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And while they've got your attention, you might as well sleep on it.

The nature of these brands means their collaborations are more touchy-feely than a fashion hotel. The blingy Palazzo Versace in Dubai has Donatella's Midas fingerprints all over it, but the closets aren't stocked with runway samples – unless you've bought them yourself. At a West Elm hotel, however, you'll drop your purse on the retailer's Geo Sculpted console, lounge on the Denmark loveseat and, naturally, lay your head at the Grid-Tufted headboard.

In two years, West Elm Hotels will have five properties in second-tier cities such as Detroit, Minneapolis and Savannah, Ga. Managed by veteran hospitality managers DDK, they'll be designed in-house with own-name furniture, getting the product face to face with the customer.

Efforts to stay competitive in markets smitten with home-sharing sites such as Airbnb have made hotels more distinctive and more neighbourhood-y – places where locals and guests alike can drink coffee, work remotely and lounge with a cocktail. Travellers want home-away-from-home comfort. And West Elm Hotel should deliver, for a certain type, the fantasy version of home.

Will consumers go for it? You'd be surprised, says Patrick Lorentz, strategy director of the O Group, a luxury branding and design agency.

"Brands have really rampant followings and West Elm is no exception. For people travelling, whether for business or pleasure, a hotel is just an extension of the lifestyle."

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He cites another example: Equinox, the chain of luxury fitness clubs opening its first hotel next year in New York's Hudson Yards.

"Fitness is something a lot of travellers look for," Lorentz says. "There are a lot of gyms in New York, but Equinox is whole lifestyle, a community."

Other hotel-homeware collabs appear to be thriving. The Baccarat Hotel, opposite MoMA in New York, packs 'em in nightly because it delivers what you'd expect from Baccarat: crystal. Everywhere.

At the other extreme is the budget hotel chain Moxy, which started pushing foosball and brunch to cities across Europe a few years ago.

Parent companies Marriott and IKEA are so pleased with the response, they've started rolling out more across the States – Moxy Memphis, Denver, Nashville, Seattle, New York and Richmond, Va., are all launching this spring. With IKEA, Marriott was able to craft a younger, hipper version of itself – something that West Elm, the younger, hipper version of parent company Williams Sonoma, can understand.

"Moxy is interesting for Marriott because there are so many competitors, yet having a name like IKEA, which everyone knows is reliable, is something they could leverage with a startup chain," Lorentz says.

Nobody's expecting West Elm guests to schlep home the marble side table they admired in their room, or even buy it online.

But in markets outside New York, where retail isn't quite so alive and well, "brand extension makes sense to reinforce the tenets of the brand and keep it afloat," Lorentz says.

If it works, he says, Restoration Hotels – currently struggling to obtain permission for an "RH Guesthouse" in New York – may be next.

"And frankly I'm surprised Starbucks hasn't happened yet."

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