Starwood sues Hilton in battle of 'lifestyle hotels'

On Thursday, Starwood Hotels and Resorts sued Hilton Hotels, including two former employees who now work for the massive chain. Starwood's claim is that Hilton has stolen confidential information that it intended to use in the launch of its new Denizen "lifestyle hotel" chain.

Traditionally, hotels have tried to offer a relatively generic experience. The basic hotel room, ideally, contains all the comforts of home with none of the personality. Clean sheets, boring furniture, inoffensive art and relatively soft towels give the weary traveler a blank slate that is neither challenging nor confusing, offering him or her a safe place to rest.

The "boutique" market, however, replaces generic blandness with distinctive personality. In this approach, hotels are transformed into luxury experiences, in which travelers relax into a plush lifestyle that is idiosyncratic. In many ways, the hotel becomes the destination.

Boutique hotels have done quite well in recent years, spawning an emergent "branded boutique" or "lifestyle hotel" market. In this formulation, large chain hotels combine their economies of scale with the personality of boutique hotels, spawning a seemingly contradictory mass-produced personality. On a basic level, these unique personalities are composed of numerous infinitely replicable details: things like certain types of furnishings, a certain quality of bed linens, and so forth.

However, according to Starwood at least, they are ultimately more than the sum of their parts, and the development of a lifestyle hotel requires a significant investment, both in the broad initial philosophy and in the accumulation of the endless details. As companies spend millions of dollars to develop these unique brands, they create something that is attractive to industrial spies -- and to other companies.

Starwood is one of the world leaders in lifestyle hotels, and has invested millions of dollars in the development and testing of their brand. Its argument seems to be that Hilton's theft represents not just the swiping of secrets or imitation of preferences but, in a very real way, the theft of a personality.

If the courts rule in Starwood's favor, it could suggest a newly emergent perspective about what, exactly, can be trademarked. In the grand scheme, a proprietary identity may be the agglomeration of the devilish little details.
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