|By Leon Stafford, The Atlanta
Journal-ConstitutionMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Jun. 14, 2007 - When InterContinental Hotels Group launched the Hotel Indigo chain in Atlanta more than two years ago, the idea was to create a brand that wasn't cookie-cutter.
IHG, which is based in London but has its U.S. headquarters in Atlanta, wanted to get away from the beige neutrality that many hotels adopt to appeal to a broad base of consumers.
But after opening the chain's second and third hotels in Chicago and Schaumburg, Ill., IHG leaders noticed something curious: They had duplicated the colorful, beachlike interiors of the Atlanta property in the new hotels, effectively doing exactly what they said they wouldn't.
"We were not cookie-cutter beige," said Jim Anhut, IHG's senior vice president of brand development. "But it was the same."
Addressing the interior duplication is just one of several changes IHG officials have made since opening the first Hotel Indigo in October 2004 on Peachtree Street across from the Fox Theatre.
The company -- operator of such brands as Holiday Inn and Crowne Plaza -- has also expanded its restaurant concept to include a full menu for breakfast instead of just a small sampling of snacks, added a large food counter for guests looking for something to eat on the fly, and added mixed drinks to its beverage lists.
"We opened as a beer and wine only facility, but that lasted only a nanosecond," he said.
In addition, IHG embraced calling Indigo a boutique hotel, a characterization it initially shunned in favor of the more ambiguous "lifestyle" destination.
"We were trying to stay away from that because we weren't sure we could combine a big company with a boutique," Anhut said, explaining that boutiques are generally independent hotels and not part of big multinational corporations.
The company also has exported some positives learned from operations at the Atlanta hotel. They are encouraging the other hotel employees to get involved in their communities like the Atlanta staff has.
The local hotel has connected with the Savannah College of Art and Design -- the school is displaying student work at the hotel's gallery. And the staff welcomes a different breed of guest: The hotel features canine cocktail hour, started by innkeeper Gabriele Webster, to engage Atlantans and attract guests with pooches looking for accommodations.
IHG has opened eight Hotel Indigo locations around the country and has several others in development, including a second in Georgia's capital.
Atlanta-based Diplomat Hotels plans to convert the circa-1920s Carnegie Building on Ellis Street into a Hotel Indigo. R.C. Patel, chief executive officer and principal of Diplomat, said the hotel should be ready for guests by December 2008.
Anhut said from the start, Indigo was to offer a product that could be refreshed and modified easily. That flexibility included the ability to change backgrounds in the lobby to reflect the seasons as well as scents and music. Wall murals are updated in guest rooms every four years.
But most of all, IHG decided it wants the hotels to resemble their cities. It recently launched Interpret Indigo, a program that instructs franchisees -- all the chain's hotels are franchised -- on how to create interiors that reflect the environment, whether they be desert wall hangings at the Indigo location in Scottsdale, Ariz., or birch trees in Ottawa.
"When you are building a brand, you have to find a way to connect emotionally," Anhut said.
The Indigo in the Carnegie Building will reflect the history of the area and the period in which it was built, Patel said. It has spent a lot of its life as an office building, and designers want it to have that business feel for conventioneers, with elements of a laid-back atmosphere to appeal to leisure travelers, he said.
"We are going to have to mix things up," he said.
Instead of the Adirondack chairs and seashell sconces found at the Midtown location, the Carnegie Indigo will have modern versions of wingback chairs and an accent wall mimicking a library shelf behind the front desk, said Michael Ferguson, senior consultant, design and plan review, for Hotel Indigo.
"The building itself has so much history and charm," he said. "We'll leave as much of the ceiling in the guest rooms exposed as we can like in a loft. There will be a lot of texture."
While Atlanta is not a beach community, guest Tom Johnson said it is the "beachiness" of the Peachtree location that convinced him to switch from his usual hotel digs -- the Marriott Marquis -- to Indigo.
"That really caught my attention before I experienced their hospitality, which is great," said Johnson, who stays at the hotel about 30 times a year. "It's all about making you wind down."
He so enjoys his stays there, and innkeeper Webster, that he named one of his Newfoundland dogs Gabriele.
Anhut said although it may seem a no-brainer for a chain to mix it up a little, it's a lot tougher than one would expect. It's OK to be edgy here and there, but customers and franchisees only want to be challenged so much.
"You have to be cautious in a franchise community," he said. "You have to settle down."
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Copyright (c) 2007, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
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