Canoe Place Inn & Cottages, the hotelier in Hampton Bays, New York, was ready to resume renovations stalled by the pandemic when the CEO of its property owner realized something was wrong.
How a small agency is branding luxurious hotels across the country
“I could not shake the feeling that the branding group was not the right group for this project,” said Sarah Eustis, CEO of Main Street Hospitality. “They were just a little too commercial, a little too corporate looking.”
So the hotel turned to FerebeeLane, a 35-person ad agency in Greenville, South Carolina that specializes in helping boutique hotels develop a distinct look and feel for their properties. The 20-year-old agency is typically brought in six to eight months before construction begins to create a brand story that carries through everything from the uniforms employees wear to the scents of the rooms and the fine china.
For Canoe Place, FerebeeLane Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer Matt Ferebee sought to create so-called “micro experiences” for visitors, including teaming up with Jeep to use the automaker’s Wagoneer to bring guests to nearby beaches and vineyards, and coming up with the property’s event series called “Front Row.” Ferebee also designed a series of paths to highlight various parts of the property, and also brought in a series of boulders to create an environment that made visitors renting Canoe Place’s cottages “feel like they had their own village” on the grounds, Eustis said.
“He convinced the ownership to spend a lot of money on a beautiful rock outcropping. We call it Ferebee’s rocks,” Eustis said. “We have a train track that goes behind [the hotel]. It’s charming when the train goes by. It’s kind of romantic, but maybe not for everyone. At the back of the property where you’re spending $5,000 a night on a cottage, you’ve got the Long Island Railroad going by.”
(At press time, the price of the most expensive cottage on Canoe Place’s website for October was quoted at $2,000 a night, before taxes and resort fees.)
The agency also created a brand playbook for the hotel, which was originally built in 1922, that serves as a guide for employee training, restaurant service and how Canoe Place presents itself on social media, Eustis said.
The renovated property, which has 20 guest rooms and five multi-bedroom cottages, according to its website, was officially reopened last year.
Once properties are fully built, FerebeeLane’s hotel clients typically become traditional clients, with the agency retained for creative and media. Hospitality currently makes up one-third of the agency’s business—it also works with consumer brands including cookware maker Le Creuset, luggage marketer Tumi and grillmaker Kamado Joe, according to its website—and there are plans to build a dedicated hospitality practice within the agency, said Ferebee.
“This is not a departure from our industry,” Ferebee said. “In my mind, this is not us looking to have a different revenue stream. This is us enthusiastically letting the ideas that drive our industry be valued earlier and broader in the engagements we have with clients.”
Identity is ‘critical’
Brand identity is “critical” for the success of a hotel, especially if it is independent, said Matt Arrants, a 30-year-plus hospitality veteran and principal at hotel asset and management firm The Arrants Company.
Given a highly competitive luxury travel market, a hotel’s success “ties to the guest's desire for authenticity,” Arrants said. “If you’re traveling someplace and you don’t really care where you stay, then you’re probably going to pick a [chain] hotel because it's going to be safe. If it’s an independent hotel, you don’t know what you're getting. And so you need to define that through your brand.”
For this reason, those building an independent hotel should hire a marketing firm first, said Arrants.
While there has been a growing trend of hiring marketing firms at the beginning of hotel-building processes over the last decade or so, Tim Fryatt, a partner at architecture firm Marvel Designs, said it still only happens with 5%-10% of his firm’s projects.
“The higher-end development opportunities tend to recognize the value of bringing in somebody focused on identity and storyline early,” Fryatt said.
FerebeeLane’s process begins by developing a clear brand narrative unique to a property often before ground is broken. One of its first clients was Blackberry Farm, a 4,200-acre property in Walland, Tennessee, which was seeking a brand identity.
“The world couldn’t make sense of them,” Ferebee said of the property, which has 68 rooms and a one-night room rate north of $1,000. “[People] were like ‘Are they a bed and breakfast? Are they an Inn?’ We articulated a simple clear statement brand position for them, which was a classic American country estate. That became the touchstone for everything they did on the property.”
That includes Blackberry Farm’s 12,000-square foot spa called “The Wellhouse,” which led to Ferebee Lane being hired to help develop two Blackberry Farm related projects—Blackberry Mountain, which opened in 2018, and High Hampton Resort, a historic property in Cashiers, North Carolina that was renovated and reopened in 2021.
Ferebee recalled visiting the property that would later become the 5,200-acre Blackberry Mountain Resort in the Great Smoky Mountains. “It was just a mountain and had no roads and we're out four-wheeling and doing the vision work with the team to say, ‘What is it that this property wants to be? What can it be?'”
The brand expression then influenced the more granular details of the property, such as the way the signs look around the resort, the mountainous expression of its logo, the type of iron used to craft its front gate, the repurposing of a fire tower at the top of the mountain and more.
The agency has been involved in over a dozen hotel projects in total, said Ferebee, and is currently working on six more at the moment.
This includes plans for a Portland, Maine waterfront hotel set to launch in 2027 in which it is working with Fryatt. After spending time in the area and going through research, the team came up with the theme of the hotel being not just on the water but “of the water.” This led to design choices like using textiles made from recycled ocean plastic and building corridors with ocean views, for example.
“Architects and engineers can sometimes have the tendency to jump right into building,” Fryatt said. “What Matt and his team really did was force us to think about what it is like from the experience of a visitor.”
Once a brand vision was built, the agency continued to participate in the regular “architectural meetings,” to make sure the designs remained true to the original vision.
“That can be as subtle as the curves in the wall or the color palette of a hotel room or the type of fabrics in the furniture,” Fryatt said. “Does it feel authentically Maine? Does it feel a little too polished? Maine shore is a little rougher. It doesn’t mean it can’t be elegant and refined, but it does mean we are using natural wood and there's some grittiness to it.”
FerebeeLane is also working on multiple other projects, including converting a Four Seasons hotel in Dallas into a Ritz-Carlton, and repositioning a Ritz-Carlton and JW Marriott to be "unexpected destinations" in Grande Lakes, Orlando," according to Ferebee. The agency also helped renovate the Cataloochee Ranch in Maggie Valley, North Carolina set to reopen this year.
Ferebee said the agency’s hotel clients did particularly well during the pandemic since many of them were drive-to destinations, away from cities that many people looked to leave during the height of the coronavirus. With pandemic lockdowns in the rearview mirror, “we are now fighting hard to make back the lift in business that we saw happen during the pandemic,” he said, as luxury travelers feel more comfortable flying to Europe or taking a high-end cruise.
While the hotel industry as a whole hasn’t fully recovered to pre-pandemic levels, there is optimism for growth. In June, CoStar hospitality analytics firm STR forecast that the U.S. hotel industry will see a 5% growth year-over-year in revenue per available room in 2023.
“Through the first four months of the year, hotel demand improved 4.3%, with most of the gain concentrated in the upper upscale and upscale chains,” Amanda Hite, president of STR, said in June. These “segments most associated with business travel and groups are expected to lead industry demand growth for the remainder of 2023.”
Part of that gain has to do with the increase in room rates for luxury hotels. High-end consumers are spending an average of $1,700 per night on travel, according to a recent report from Virtuoso, a network of more than 20,000 luxury travel advisers. This marks a 69% increase from the summer 2019.
Boutique hotels also had a strong 2022 compared to the rest of the industry. Room revenue for boutique hotels surpassed 2019 levels by 20.4% last year, according to CoStar.