I once hated this Marriott boutique brand — here’s why I now like it
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Frequent travellers love to share stories from the road.
One of my favourite tales involves a work trip consisting of nine domestic flights in a week and stays in four different hotels. Waking up Friday morning, I couldn’t tell what city I was in but I knew that I was in a Hilton.
That was nearly a decade ago.
More “boutique” hotel options
Today, hotel brands are offering more and more choices that don’t feel so cookie cutter.
These independent hotels have their own feel, story and design while still hitting certain standards that we’ve come to expect from the big chains. Plus you can earn and burn points at the hotels and get recognised for your elite status.
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At first, I was very sceptical about how these properties would fit into the larger chains — I mean Marriott has 30 different brands — and what the quality would be as the hotel companies scrambled to sign on as many locations as possible.
And not to single out any one property, but there were some rough additions initially.
But in the past year — before the pandemic — I found myself staying at more of these “soft brands” and eyeing others for future trips.
Marriott launched Autograph Collection in 2010. There were just seven properties at the start. It would take another six years for Autograph to hit the 100-property milestone and today there are more than 180 hotels in 30-plus countries and territories.
This was going to be a big year for hotel openings. Especially for Autograph, with more than 35 hotels slated to join the collection before the global pandemic, including the Mesm Tokyo and the brand’s first hotel in Finland. There were also to be new properties in Greece, Switzerland, Belgium and Italy.
(More recently, Marriott jumped into the home rental market popularized by Airbnb. As my family looked at new vacation ideas for the summer, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, home rentals suddenly seemed appealing and Marriott had some decent offerings with a very flexible cancellation policy. Plus you earn elite-qualifying nights and Bonvoy points.)
As I think about returning to my pre-pandemic travel patterns, the independent-felling hotels that are part of the big chains will probably be on the top of my list.
And this isn’t just with Marriott.
The Madison Beach Hotel, part of the Curio Collection by Hilton, is a great option along the Connecticut coast. Hyatt’s partnership with Small Luxury Hotels has opened up some great options, like the Topping Rose House in New York’s Hamptons and it’s Unbound Collection has some gems like the Holston House in Nashville.
As the world’s largest hotel chain, Marriott has the benefit of using that heft to build up the largest of these soft brands.
So here are four properties that won me over to the Autograph Collection.
The Press Hotel, Portland, Maine
I’ve spent more than two decades as a journalist, starting my career in at a New England newspaper whose offices looked very much like this hotel.
That’s right. The Press Hotel is the former home of the Portland Press Herald. While I’m sad to see that the newspaper can no longer fill such a large building, the hotel won me over.
My wife and I escaped there in August of 2017 to celebrate a milestone birthday. (Well, it was the first of several trips.)
I used points to book the room during the expensive summer season and we got free breakfast each morning thanks to my Marriott elite status.
And that was the end of the connection with Marriott. Everything else felt local and unique. Plus, I really enjoyed the little touches like the newspaper-inspired artwork inside.
The Notary Hotel, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
This hotel shows how design can dramatically alter a stay.
It recently re-opened under this new name and the Autograph Collection but days before checking in, I realized I had actually stayed at this property when it was first converted into a hotel about 15 years ago.
Back then, it was a Marriott Courtyard. I was impressed with the lobby and the building but, back then, the rooms left little to the imagination.
When I stayed at The Notary in January, it was a completely different hotel. (The bathroom still had the old Courtyard layout but I was probably the only guest to realize that.) The rooms felt modern, there were nice local touches and there was an energy to the building that didn’t exist when it was a Courtyard.
The location between City Hall and the convention centre is ideal for most travellers. And if you still want a chain feel, stay at the Marriott or the Residence Inn by Marriott on either side of the hotel. But don’t.
Cotton House Hotel, Barcelona, Spain
This is really the hotel that won me over to Autograph Collection.
The Cotton House Hotel is the former headquarters of the Cotton Textile Foundation. It takes over a spectacular 19th-century, neoclassical building that is now a landmark. But nothing feels old about it.
This TPG review of the Cotton House raves about how great it is. I couldn’t agree more.
The breakfast was spectacular, the rooms were comfortable and unique and the location was central to everything but just far enough removed that I didn’t feel like a tourist in one of the world’s most over-touristed cities. It’s also made our list of reader favourite points hotels that, well, don’t feel like point hotels.
The Cosmopolitan, Las Vegas, Nevada
Ok, so this is a giant hotel on the Vegas Strip. Calling it “boutique” isn’t fair.
But The Cosmopolitan isn’t your normal Vegas hotel. The rooms are bigger, the vibe is different and Marriott elite members are treated like semi-VIPs.
My favourite perk is that Bonvoy Gold members, and above, get access to the “Invited Guest Line” for check in and check out. And anybody who has ever been to a Vegas casino knows how priceless this can be. The full benefits can be found here.
Big chain hotels still feel like big chains. But they are getting better at it. Hilton, Hyatt and Marriott have each made great improvements in the past decade.
I used to laugh at these properties that couldn’t find the right balance between their own independence and the standards of the parent company. But these days I find myself booking more and more of these hotels to give myself a sense of place when spending a night — or a week — at a hotel.
It will take hotels a few years to recover from the pandemic and the related recession. I’m confident that as they return more and more properties will try to break out of the mould and provide travellers what they really want: a sense that you haven’t been here before.
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