NatGeo’s soft brand to market independents
NatGeo’s soft brand to market independents
13 JANUARY 2015 8:56 AM
National Geographic’s new Unique Lodges of the World affiliation program offers distribution and marketing services for hotels that match with a commitment to sustainability.
GLOBAL REPORT—The National Geographic brand has long been affiliated with travel, but the company is aligning more closely with specific hotels for marketing and distribution through its Unique Lodges of the World program, which launched last week. Member hoteliers say the alignment with National Geographic’s sustainability initiatives should help increase bookings for these properties, many of which are remote.
The initial class comprises 24 properties on six continents that range in size from eight to 45 guestrooms, said Lynn Cutter, executive VP, travel and licensing at National Geographic. Member properties will receive marketing and distribution assistance from National Geographic and will be able to display signage on-property.
Hans Pfister, president and co-owner of Cayuga Sustainable Hospitality, the Costa Rica-based development and management company that manages member property Lapa Rios Eco Lodge on the Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica, said membership benefits should help increase brand awareness and fill rooms during off-season periods.
“Our (guests) are National Geographic-type people, and we share a lot of the same values,” he said. “Our guests find us mostly by word of mouth, but we feel this branding will give our guests more confidence in booking with us, and it should help us fill rooms in the green season months.” 
Lapa Rios is located in a private nature reserve in Costa Rica’s rainforest, where ecotourism and wildlife are among the largest draws for tourists. 
That’s exactly the fit National Geographic is looking for, Cutter said. To be considered for membership, properties must meet what she called “the three pillars of sustainability”:
  • properties that enhance and support cultural heritage;
  • properties that work toward the conservation of biodiversity; and 
  • properties where the people and operations also support those sustainability goals. 
The membership process requires interested hoteliers to fill out an online application. Qualifying properties then undergo an on-site inspection led by National Geographic’s consultant for the project, said Costas Christ, editor-at-large for National Geographic Traveler magazine. 
Cutter said National Geographic has no set limitations on the size or scale of potential member properties. Most important are ensuring the property meets the company’s sustainability criteria while offering an outstanding experience with great service. 
“These lodgings can range from more affordable locations all the way up to luxury,” Cutter said. 
The company welcomes applicants who already belong to other marketing affiliations, and she said that while the current portfolio includes all independently owned and operated properties, it’s not out of the question for a branded property to belong, either. 
“We’re most concerned with identifying and showcasing properties that meet our sustainability criteria and offer top guest services,” Cutter said. “We’ve been in the travel space for a long time, and our goal is to be the go-to place for authentic, meaningful and engaging travel experiences.”
She said the goal is to have 50 properties affiliated with Unique Lodges of the World by the end of 2015.
Zita Cobb, owner of member Fogo Island Inn on Fogo Island, off the coast of Newfoundland, said National Geographic’s sustainability goals match well with those of the Inn. Those shared values should increase traffic, particularly given Fogo Island Inn’s remote location.
“Our property is not for everyone—no golf course, no casino, no shopping,” Cobb said of the 29-guestroom hotel that opened a year and a half ago on an island known for its wildlife and natural history. “People are weary from all the messages coming at them, so a trusted brand like National Geographic is an important way to help separate the signal from the noise. We are a relatively small property, so it is challenging for us to reach out to niche travelers on our own.”
“We’re promoting these lodges through a number of different channels and through our new line of private expeditions,” Cutter said, referring to National Geographic’s new series of trips targeted to independent travelers and coordinated in partnership with Virtuoso. Guests can book Unique Lodgings member properties through
National Geographic built the booking site and contracts out the customer service to a partner organization, Cutter said. National Geographic is not yet currently listing these trips on third-party booking sites as of yet, she said. 
In addition to the $250 application fee, hotels chosen for membership also pay an annual membership fee and a commission on sales of rooms booked through the National Geographic site. 
Cutter said the company built a payment structure that “would be affordable for small properties.” National Geographic populates the website but individual properties provide the pricing. 
“It’s not cheap,” Pfister said of the total costs involved in membership. “But we expect it to be well worth the investment. Ask me again in June or July of this year.” 

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