TMC Hospitality will soon be opening Drift, its second brand in what it calls the social group space—one that has seen rising interest since the pandemic began.
“The reason we put that adjective ‘social’ in front of group is that, obviously, in the hotel industry when you use the word ‘group,’ usually people are thinking of some kind of convention-related travel,” said Philip Bates, CEO/cofounder, TMC Hospitality. “We are largely social and really trying to deliver a truly boutique hotel experience, emerging out of the space that Airbnb made popular. People have long been trying to stay in hotels with multi-bed, locked-off or adjoining-door room configurations.”
The company launched its first brand, Bode, in Nashville in 2018 with a focus on the social group traveler, who is traveling with two or more for leisure. “All of our hotels have regular hotel rooms, but we build two-, three- or four-bedroom suites,” he said. “We have kitchenettes, common areas, etc. to accompany that. We also build and design amenity and F&B space that are all to capture and enhance what we call the social group experience.”
When Bates first heard of the social traveler, it was viewed as a psychographic, but soon realized it was more than that. “When we set out, we thought that we would take Bode everywhere,” he said. “We were thinking that the social group traveler was a psychographic of people who like to spend time in this way. That can range from people who work together who just like to travel together, all the way to family reunions, wedding parties or just friends reuniting, etc.”
He describes Bode as a 3.5-star product, with rooms in the high $100s/low $200s. “We found for some guests, that was out of their price point,” he said. “We found with other guests, they just wanted more. We also learned the same from developers who would either have buildings or development sites that were inferior or superior to a Bode. As we started to look into the data, we realized that this psychographic is at every price point in the spectrum. In other words, people really want to be together, and we want to be the platform that caters to those people irrespective of the price point.”
Drift, which is scheduled to open three properties in the next few months, will reach that social traveler, but at a lower price point. “Drift is a very modern and minimalist Baja kind of feel,” said Bates.
TMC Hospitality has other brands for the social group space under development, including for a wealthier traveler. “The more you go up that price point, the more we can really invest in the experiences,” he said. “So, as you get into the 4-star brand, you will see much more intricate and involved experiences that we can offer to guests who really want to pay for that. We are seeing a great demand from affluent guests who have children or [grandchildren], and they are at the point in their life where they really want to spend time with the people they care about. To some degree, money is not the issue; they really want that time to be as precious as it can be.”
No matter what the brand, the hotels are designed to maximize the social interaction between guests, whether they are together or in different parties. “What we can do there is have well-designed hotels, but we tend to try to offer things that really cause you to connect with people,” said the CEO. “We try to have no TVs in the rooms. The idea is that you are here together. If you really need something, you probably can get it on your phone. When you are together, you should be together. We will only have one TV usually, and that is in the common area. For us, a failure would be if two couples went to go hang out together and both end up in their rooms watching TV.”
The F&B offerings maximize the social interaction. “Within our coffee shop, a lot of our furnishings and arrangements are designed so that a party of six or seven can pull up and can have breakfast together, or a few can work while others socialize,” he said. “It is the same thing with how we design our bars. We will also do crafted outdoor dining experiences for larger parties.”
The properties also offer coworking spaces in the lobbies, and they too are designed to encourage social engagement. “We felt like that is just a good offering to help energize the space and give our guests a place to work,” said Bates. “What we found is that locals started coming to work there, as well. It gives a good social energy to the overall lobby experience.”
The spaces are available at a very reasonable cost. “It is less about getting that revenue and more about activating the energy in the social environment,” he said. “We interview people who come, and when they are like-minded and tend to think of things a certain way, they tend to actually integrate with the guests and add energy to the property. We didn’t want the price point to be a barrier for those people to join us.”
It is all about creating that social atmosphere. “It feels like a very apropos way to use certain space in hotel lobbies when you can design it right,” said Bates. “I think everyone likes to feel like there is a buzz or an energy about a place when they are traveling. We really like the notion of integrating locals with guests. So far it seems to be working well.”
The cities where Bode and Drift are developed are also carefully considered before they are chosen, with the company using data to track where people are going in groups. “What we see in the data is that people start traveling socially to places that ultimately are what is hip,” he said. “That is how we found Chattanooga [TN] and Nashville. Chattanooga was a market that we never even thought about or looked at, and we started hearing people in Nashville talk about it when we were developing Bode Nashville. Then we started looking at the data and we realized that it fit our psychographic.”
He said that Bode was already attracting social group travelers, but the brand has seen a greater interest since the COVID pandemic began. “We saw it happen pretty soon into COVID,” he said. “The first few weeks, like every hotel out there, we were experiencing a massive drop in bookings an increase in cancellations. Then in late April, people still needed to travel for whatever reason, whether they were a healthcare worker who was being pulled into a city, or a parent with a child who needed to tour colleges and keep her life going. We saw occupancy shoot back up. Actually, most months last year, we were profitable.”
He said that the pandemic has given people a new perspective on life. “Now we are seeing it even stronger because I think something about COVID caused us to appreciate the people in our lives,” he said. “We are seeing that now when people want to travel again, they want to travel with friends and family…”
Bates sees social group travel only gaining more traction as things move along. “I think travel is just such a wonderful thing that we are only going to do more and more of it irrespective of things like COVID,” he said. “We are all evolving to a point where we realize we like traveling this way…We do want to be the platform that in five or 10 years, when someone thinks about traveling with their friends irrespective of their price point, they would think about TMC Hospitality brands as the gold standard for social group travel.”