Laboratory beakers are seldom featured in hotel rooms, but at the Dylan Hotel in New York they are standard bathroom issue.

These glass containers, which echo the building's previous life as a chemists' club, are just one way independent hotels are setting themselves apart from chain hotels as the battle for travelers heats up.

Lodging giants like Marriott International Inc., Hilton Hotels Corp. and Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc. have been using their scale and marketing muscle to squeeze the competition in recent years.

But independents hoteliers -- from sleek, urban boutique hotels to mom-and-pop roadside motels -- are fighting back with personalized services and exclusive experiences that are difficult for chain hotels to duplicate.

Not everyone wants to drink at Starbucks, said John Campbell, general manager of Colony Beach and Tennis Club in La Jolla, California. Sometimes, people want to do something different.

The hotel, for example, has a tradition of taking guests' children to the beach to pick up litter and have fun on the way.

Independents have been feeling the pressure.

Their U.S. market share in terms of total room revenue fell to 30.2 percent in 2006, down from 35.6 percent in 1997, according to data from Smith Travel Research.

While overall room revenue for independent hotels is growing, it lags chain hotels. Last year, independents took in $30.3 billion in revenue, up about 30 percent from 1997. Big chains took in $70 billion last year, up about 66 percent over the same period.

In search of more revenue, major hotel companies are even starting their own boutique brands, targeted at travelers that avoid the typical beige-box accommodations of chain hotels.

Intercontinental Hotels, which operates Holiday Inns, introduced boutique brand Hotel Indigo in 2004, while Marriott recently announced a partnership with Ian Schrager -- who invented the idea of the boutique hotel in the 1980s -- to start an as-yet-unnamed lifestyle hotel brand.

In their battle for survival, independents are focusing on the unique experiences which distinguish their hotels.

At the Dylan Hotel, for example, guests can request car service and their favorite wine to be ready for their arrival when they book online.

These little touches help the Dylan Hotel stand out in a sea of indistinguishable Hiltons, Marriotts and Westins, said David Chu, director of sales and marketing for Dylan.

We have to take better care of our customers to compete against the loyalty programs and familiarity that chain hotels offer, Chu said.


In addition to personalized service, independent hotels are also joining wide-ranging hotel affiliation groups such as Preferred Hotels and Resorts or Magnuson Hotels to remain competitive.

These groups offer online booking systems, marketing services and deals on hotel supplies that help smaller hotels stay competitive.

It's a blend between being a franchise and being independent, said Kirrit Bhikha, vice president of Alexis Inn and Suites in Nashville, Tennessee.

The mid-market hotel is part of Magnuson Hotels, which started in 2003 to help independent hoteliers compete more effectively against the chains' strong presence on travel Web sites and with corporate travel buyers.

By joining these groups, independents can get some of the benefits of being attached to a larger organization, without some of the requirements and higher costs -- such as mandatory upgrades to beds or bathrooms -- that franchise hotels face.

A brand tells you, 'You have to do this,' said Bhikha. Whereas with Magnuson, you have choice.

Some independent hotels can pass these savings onto their customers. The Alexis Inn is able to offer all the amenities a franchise would offer, but at a lower price, Bhikha said.


Independent hotels may ultimately be most successful at the high end of the market, where service and amenities play a greater role.

Destination resorts like The Broadmoor in Colorado and the Grand Hotel in Michigan, which have established their reputations over decades, are not as threatened by chains as smaller independents.

Stephen Bartolin, chief executive of the Broadmoor, said people have been looking for the demise of independents for years.

Many people wonder how independents survive, but you can, Bartolin said. There's a niche there.