The first order of business for this independent-minded offshoot: reflagging the James Royal Palm of South Beach.

By Nikki Ekstein
April 16, 2015
Credit: Courtesy of Starwood

Who says you can't stay at an independent hotel and still earn your big-brand loyalty points? Now you can, thanks to Starwood’s just-launched Tribute Portfolio. The new brand—a group of upscale, independently owned four-star properties that complement its existing (and more high-end) Luxury Collection—debuts today, with the re-flagging of the James Royal Palm in South Beach, or as it’s now known, the Royal Palm South Beach Miami, A Tribute Portfolio Hotel. That’s it above.

Joining it in the next 12 months are another nine properties, a mix of conversions and new builds. Already on the lineup are the Noel Place Hotel in Nashville’s Printers Alley, a new build in Savannah, GA, and the Vandre Nouveau Hotel in a former bank building in Asheville, NC. How they’ll form a unified portfolio? The SPG loyalty program will offer one connective thread, as will a focus on hashtag-driven social media campaigns and subtle logo branding—otherwise, hotels will retain their individual spirit.

A major driver for the creation of the brand, says Starwood’ SVP of Brand Management, Dave Marr, was one recurring comment from SPG members: that on leisure vacations, independent hotels often lured them away from their otherwise fervent Starwood loyalty. So as a “tribute” to their fans, Starwood responded, not just with a brand for independents but with locations that members were demanding. To that end, Starwood will be expanding Tribute Portfolio to include global capitals like New York, London, and Tokyo (where their concept brands already have a big presence), Scandinavia, Caribbean resorts, African safari lodges, European ski retreats, and Southeast Asian beach destinations—100 properties in all by the time 2020 rolls around.

But the “tribute” is also being paid to independent hotel owners, who can benefit from an enormous loyalty network or get Starwood’s support for design, distribution, or other needs, while still retaining their original vision. In other words, Starwood is planning to simply open up access to independent hotels, not apply a standardized formula to each new Tribute property they absorb into the portfolio.

It’s interesting that Starwood—the company that created the branded boutique hotel, and whose success has been built on easily recognizable brands—is investing in one-off concepts while its competitors (Hilton, Marriott, Hyatt) focus on millennial-oriented, themed lifestyle brands (Canopy, Moxy, and Centric, respectively). And it also begs noting: the company that created the oxymoronic concept of boutique brands is now pushing forth the even more oxymoronic concept of an independent brand. But hey, if anyone can make it work, Starwood can.

Of course, Starwood isn’t the first to try to string together a network of pearls. Leading Hotels of the World, Small Luxury Hotels, and Preferred Hotels all have curated portfolios of lovely, one-off hotels. What these competitors all lack are the perks of a good loyalty program—and that distinction is all it’ll take for Tribute to stand out from the rest.

Nikki Ekstein is an Assistant Editor at Travel + Leisure. Follow her on Twitter at @nikkiekstein.