Country Inns & Suites by Carlson is shooting for star power as it attempts to remake its onetime gingham-and-grandma image into a light, bright, aesthetically pleasing product that appeals to millennial travelers without forsaking baby boomers.
Carlson has enlisted HGTV star Genevieve Gorder, a Minneapolis native and South High School grad, as a key consultant and camera-ready spokeswoman for the new concept.
“I’m here to bring attention to the design and that’s my job,” Gorder said in a recent telephone interview from her New York office. “Hospitality is something I care about deeply and Country Inns & Suites is a brand I grew up with.”
Courting the millennial traveler is akin to seeking the holy grail in the hotel universe these days. As a group it now rivals baby boomers in size and spending power.
“As baby boomers retire, Generation X and Yers are getting more established,” said Jan Freitag, senior vice president for STR Global, a hotel consulting organization that tracks supply and demand as well as provides marketplace analysis. “That’s the prize. Everyone wants to battle for them.”
Country Inns & Suites, a concept designed along the lines of the traditional European bed-and-breakfast model to complement the Country Kitchen restaurant chain, opened its first location in Burnsville in 1987. It celebrated its 25th anniversary last year and has been trying to distinguish itself in the mid-scale hotel category, most recently with complete self-serve breakfast offerings on real plates.
The newest concept, referred to internally as the fourth generation of Country Inns, is perhaps the most dramatic face-lift to date.
And with a string of popular home-and-decorating cable TV shows on her résumé, Gorder, 38, is the public face of the new look for Country Inns & Suites.
But the team behind the hotel overhaul, which has been 18 months in the making, is no less impressive and includes Carlson’s chief branding officer, Gordon McKinnon; the London design firm Imagination/Virgile and Stone; the Minneapolis architectural firm ESG Architects, and the Minneapolis ad agency Olson, which helped design the hotel chain’s first significantly new logo in 23 years.
If these are the worker bees in an attempt by Country Inns to take its folksy image to a new level, then Gorder is the Queen Bee who is supposed to seal the deal with Carlson’s franchisee owners and the traveling public.
“We don’t have a design reputation yet,” McKinnon said in a video for Country Inns & Suites owners earlier this year. “It’s important to get someone [Gorder] to endorse what we are doing and give us some guidance as well. … Our [competitors] should be shaking.”
Earlier this spring, Country Inns & Suites used Gorder in a “Pin It to Win It” contest on Facebook and Pinterest that allowed participants to pick previews of the brand’s new look that best fits their design preference. The prize? A weekend getaway at a Country Inn property along with $3,000 in spending money.
“This is not about going to Grandma’s house to find comfort,” Gorder said. “We lifted a lot of weight from the room. It looks open and light, clean and naturally lit. It’s casual contemporary with a rustic accent.”
Gorder, who still has family in Minnesota and visits here regularly, is the host of “Dear Genevieve,” in which she solves the design problems of write-in viewers and is a judge on HGTV’s “Design Star.” Her newest show in the upcoming season is “Genevieve’s Renovation.”
“This is a big deal,” Gorder said of the Country Inns & Suites launch. “We all see hotel rooms online. We have to satisfy the most tastes.”
The latest iteration of Country Inns & Suites is under construction in Springfield, Ill., and is scheduled to open in the fourth quarter of 2013. A number of other Country Inns have begun renovating existing properties. The conversion cost is about $7,500 to $8,000 per room.
The bulk of the renovation cost is absorbed by the franchise owners — who make up 98 percent of the 480 Country Inns & Suites in North America and India — with incentive programs from franchiser Country Inns & Suites and parent Carlson Rezidor to help defray costs.
The rooms are plainer in style, the lines in the furniture more linear. Tones are more neutral with splashes of color in a chair here and a duvet there. The bathroom presents mix-and-match tile that works as an ensemble and an elevated sink on the counter to offer a spa feel. Plug-ins for laptops, tablets and device chargers are accessible at desk and table level throughout the room.
“We want it soft and contemporary with residential color tones,” said Scott Meyer, the senior vice president of the Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group responsible for the Country Inns brand. “We want something that appeals to the new generation of traveler, age 24 to 39, with a design that won’t offend the boomer traveler.”
The lobby still features a fireplace but with less stone, more wood on the walls and tile floors. There’s a den area for business meetings and a help-yourself breakfast serving area. A veranda setting also is in the mix.
“We’re bringing the outdoors in and taking the indoors out,” said Meyer, a 26-year veteran of the 26-year-old chain.
For franchisees, the cost of refurbishing existing properties could be a concern.
“It’s exciting. From what I’ve seen so far, it’s a great new change for the brand,” said Bill Doyle, executive vice president of HVS Hotel Management, which runs a Country Inn in Greeley, Colo. “But you have to be able to compete with the other guys [brands] who are doing the same thing. The question is will it allow you to improve your average daily room rate?”
Meyer thinks the answer is yes. “Rates are driven by the market and this should help us drive our rates,” he said.
Yet, one of Country Inns’ biggest challenges in its upper mid-scale hotel segment is its size. It’s principal competitors — Comfort Inn, Hampton Inn and Holiday Inn Express — have two and three times as many properties.
But brand loyalty so often ascribed to the boomer nation is not so prevalent with the millennial demographic.
Indeed, STR’s Freitag said all hotels are moving into uncharted territory as they court the millennial traveler.