In its Element: This eco-friendly brand offers style & substance

BETHESDA, MD—In 2006, when Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide launched Element by Westin as a branded lifestyle hotel for the eco-conscious consumer, it was at the forefront of what a decade later is the overwhelming lodging aspiration: to be authentic and relevant for guests. Now under the umbrella of Marriott International in the wake of the mega-chain’s acquisition of Starwood last year, the brand is continuing to sprout hotels like so much new green grass.

At the time it was introduced, Starwood also was touting its newly minted Aloft brand, and industry observers—as if it was a race—were charting which brand was getting the most interest. Starwood even set up model hotel environments for both brands in a sprawling East Coast warehouse where developers and owners could experience the brands firsthand.

As Hotel Business reported at the time, Aloft opened its first hotel in Montreal in June 2008, but Element was first into the U.S., opening that July outside Boston in Lexington, MA.

In the past nine years, Element has continued to grow and evolve.

According to Marlon Whyte, global brand leader, Element Hotels, most of Element’s growth continues to be in North America, primarily in key urban markets with high visibility. “This year, we opened a 91-room property at Dallas Love Field, a 131-room property in Seattle near Microsoft’s headquarters and a 144-room hotel in Downtown Austin. We currently have locations under construction in cities such as Palmdale, CA, and Edmonton, Canada. Outside North America, we are increasingly seeing interest in Asia, particularly China, and in the Middle East,” he said.

For example, Element Chongli, owned by Chongli Taiwoo Tourism and Resorts Ltd., opened this summer in the ski resort area of Hebei, Northern China.

Whyte noted the extended-stay brand’s entrance into the Marriott stable has given both owners and guests a choice they didn’t previously have.

“We’ve been busy working with owners to gain efficiencies during the development and operations phases, and also to harness the power of Marriott’s global reach, including its loyalty program with 100 million members, which adds considerable value for Element customers,” said Whyte. “Since January, we’ve made solid progress to enhance the brand’s position with Gen X and Gen Y.”

Element currently has 32 locations, nine of which opened this year, and Whyte expects to triple the operating portfolio in the next three years, largely with new-construction hotels.

“Our plan to grow this brand involves work across the enterprise, from streamlining construction costs to identifying new ways to leverage Marriott’s size and scale to owners,” added Whyte. “In January, for instance, we unveiled some of our innovative ideas at the Americas Lodging Investment Summit (ALIS); after incorporating feedback that we crowd-sourced from owners during and after ALIS, we’re now on track to roll out the new guestroom prototype by early 2018. We’re exploring ways that we can incorporate wellness and mindfulness into our operations so that the experience is authentic and personal to each guest.”

Among some of the initiatives, the brand has rolled out a communal room concept that Whyte believes appeals to younger travelers, “who like to travel in groups and would enjoy gathering in their own living room, equipped with a kitchen, dining room and lounge area with a TV, instead of the lobby.”

The brand also has updated its breakfast to be more in line with the Westin focus on wellness, and is testing a tech-centric beverage concept: a portable wine cart in the lobby that pours wine when activated by a guest’s key card.

In characterizing Element guests, Whyte considers them to be what he termed “Healthy Actives,” individuals who are eco-conscious and aware but aren’t necessarily activists.

“They value being outside and engage in a variety of fitness activities. They believe in balance and healthy choices. It’s really a psychographic mindset versus a particular age demographic,” he said.

Finding the right locations that would be a good fit for the brand and where it would be embraced also is an evolutionary process. 

“In North America, we’d like to see Element by Westin hotels in the most high-value, high-visibility markets where there is a concentration of consumers and brisk demand for lifestyle extended-stay hotels,” said Whyte, who observed drilling down to discover the best “street corners” isn’t easy.

“So to help our owner community, we recently worked with a third party to create a predictive model. The software helps us identify the best unmet opportunities for owners interested in developing an Element by Westin hotel—right down to intersections. If they’re considering Silicon Valley, for instance, this predictive software lets them find where in Silicon Valley would be the best location. It lets them get down to street corners,” said the executive.

In 2015, Element launched a new design update to incorporate more of a Nordic design inspiration and also significantly reduced its cost to build for owners. Since Marriott took over the brand, the cost to build has been reduced by 10% to 12%, noted Whyte, who termed the move “a significant achievement the development community appreciates.

“We’ve been working to reduce some of the heavy construction costs and have also leveraged Marriott’s significant buying power,” he continued. “We overhauled the specifications for the hotel to remove expensive items that we didn’t feel were adding value to the guest experience and reinvested them in the areas our guests do care [about]: finishes and design of the public space.”

While Whyte considers Hyatt House and Homewood Suites by Hilton Element’s comp set, he commented there is “a sense of pride” among owners and developers that the brand offers a “unique” extended-stay product.

“They like the smart thinking behind the brand, leveraging the sustainability and healthy-living mindset to target our ‘Healthy Active’ guests,” he said.

And those guests favor the brand because it aligns well with their values around sustainability and healthy living, Whyte suggested. “They also love how seamlessly this mindset is integrated throughout the hotel: from dispensed amenities to our fitness studios that rival those of our bigger full-service hotels to our Bikes to Borrow program that allows them to explore their surroundings while keeping fit. We recently held a North America-wide initiative called the Element Exchange, which was a series of secondhand clothes pop-up shops that gave guests and locals a chance to swap, not shop, for their next item of clothing, and in doing so raise awareness about the environmental impact of fast fashion. The clothing donation bins we set up as part of this initiative will remain on-site in perpetuity at our hotels.” 

Asked what in Element’s relatively short history he saw being most transformative for the brand, Whyte pointed directly at Marriott’s acquisition. “Why? First, the owner community can now tap Marriott’s combined loyalty platform, which includes Marriott Rewards, Ritz-Carlton Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest and leads the industry with more than 100 million members,” said the executive. 

“Second, Marriott’s mission to evolve the brand brings the brand back to its roots: the lab. The brand was born in a lab under Starwood, incorporating rich feedback from stakeholders, and Marriott is taking that commitment one step further by talking and listening to stakeholder feedback… I think the development community is more excited than ever about Element,” he said.

As it continues to evolve in a lodging landscape that has seen any number of new lifestyle brands emerge—and some specifically aimed at sustainability—the need to remind guests as well as potential owner/developers that Element has roots was not lost on Whyte.

“Element by Westin pioneered eco-friendly design without compromising the guest experience, and it’s part of the brand’s DNA. That will not change, and will only be enhanced under Marriott International, thanks to the company’s size and scale, powerful distribution systems and deep expertise in the extended-stay segment,” he said. “We’re very excited about the brand’s future. We see tremendous opportunity around a lifestyle extended-stay brand, especially given the success we’re having both with TownePlace Suites and Residence Inn. The ability to give this brand a global focus right off the bat gives the brand huge worldwide opportunity. In North America, the fact that the extended-stay industry runs about 80% full versus the national average in the low 60% range further suggests there is a big opportunity and a growing demand for these products.” HB

2006: Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide launches Element as a branded lifestyle hotel for the eco-conscious, healthy, active consumer. Element Hotels was the first brand to mandate LEED certification when it launched.

2008: First Element hotel opens in Lexington, MA.

2009: Element hotels open in Houston and Dallas, TX.

2010: An Element hotel opens in Omaha, NE.

2012: The brand enters Florida with the opening of the Element Miami International Airport.

2013: Element opens northwest of Toronto in the city of Vaughn, its first of four hotels in Canada.

2014: Element debuts outside of North America with the opening of Element Frankfurt in Germany, followed later by the Element Amsterdam in the Netherlands.

2015: Element launches new design update to incorporate more of a Nordic design inspiration and to refresh the design color palette.

Element significantly reduces its cost to build to owners.

2015: Element debuts in China with the opening of the Element Suzhou, the first of four Asia-Pacific region openings.        

2017: Element is reintroduced to the development and ownership community with new, innovative room types and lower cost to build during the Americas Lodging Investment Summit (ALIS) in Los Angeles, CA. Element has 32 hotels open in six countries, with properties in Dubai, Bali and Tanzania slated to open in 2018, bringing the portfolio to 50 hotels.

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