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Thursday, October 27, 2016

Near my home in Austin, Texas, there is a great, old refurbished motel that I recommend to people when they come to visit our fair city. It not only is right on the famed Congress Avenue but also has a keep-it-real attitude that is expressed right on its iconic marquee: “No additives, no preservatives, corporate-free since 1938.”

The good news is that more and more businesses across the country are adopting this attitude, providing a buy-local, un-corporate, anti-chain alternative for customers. Food shoppers and restaurant goers, for example, have made a huge shift in recent years away from the likes of McDonald’s, Pepsi, and Taco Bell, preferring upstart, independent outfits with names like “The Corner,” “Caleb’s Kola,” and “US Taco Co.”

But uh-oh, guess who owns those little local alternatives? Right — McDonald’s, PepsiCo, and Taco Bell. Leave it to ethically challenged, profiteering monopolists to grab such value-laden terms as “genuine,” “local,” and “honest,” empty them of any authenticity, then hurl them back at consumers as shamefully deceptive marketing scams.

In Huntington Beach, California, US Taco Co. poses as a hip surfer haunt, with a colorful “Day of the Dead” Mexican skull as its logo. The airy place peddles lobster tacos and other fare at $3 or $4 each — very un-fast-foody. Nowhere is it whispered that this is a big-chain outlet, created by a group of Taco Bell insiders. They even usurped the enterprising word “entrepreneur,” stripped it of its outsider connotation, and twisted it into an ugly corporate vanity, calling themselves “intrapreneurs.”

Fast-food restaurants are not the only ones that play this profitable imitation game. As everyone who travels a lot soon learns, when you stay in the hotels of the big chains, it’s easy to forget where you are, since they are all so alike, offering all the charm of Noplace, USA.

This disorienting sameness has become even more dizzying in recent years as the chains have merged and conglomerated. Weary travelers might choose to stay overnight in one of the Residence Inn hotels, a Courtyard, the TownePlace Suites, or even splurge for a night in a ritzy Ritz-Carlton. In fact, though, whichever one you choose, you’re in a Marriott — the $14 billion-a-year combine that owns all of the above chains, along with 15 others. Marriott is among the world’s 10 largest hoteliers that have a combined 113 different chains in their crowded stable of brand names.

Naturally, as uniformity and conglomeration have taken over the industry, a consumer rebellion has erupted, with more and more travelers — especially younger ones — seeking out independent hotels, unique inns and local B&Bs. They prefer the un-corporate places that have cool names like the Moxy, Canopy, and Vib. But oh, crud, guess what. All three of those are chains of “hip” hotels that opened in the past year and are owned respectively by Marriott, Hilton, and Best Western.

Known in the industry as “lifestyle hotels,” these fake-independent lodgings are the hot new niche for mega-conglomerates trying to nab travelers in search of authenticity. “The big hotel chains are in the business of pretending they aren’t big chains,” says Pauline Frommer, editor of the well-regarded Frommer’s travel guides. “They want you to think they are boutiques.”

Sneaky, sneaky! But the real problem with these fabricators of corporatized authenticity is that reality will win out in the end. Small and local has a genuine feel and flavor that the imitators can’t sustain as they sprawl out into 1,000 and then 10,000 stores. And as they do that, it becomes obvious to customers that they’ve been duped — and that’s not a good marketing strategy. We dupes will not only quickly see that we’re being sold plastic “authenticity” but also be ticked off about it.

To find out more about Jim Hightower and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at 

Photo: Matt Weibo via Flickr

  • I hear you….hate those cookie cutter hotels….I have recently discovered AirB&B. I get to meet real people, share a meal with them, and stay in interesting homes. Love it! If I was traveling the world, I would do it all in AirB&B homes!

  • Kurt CPI

    I’ve seen this situation unfold many times (most recently to my own place of employment). A big company comes in and buys out a smaller, locally-owned, private company. They’re all smiles, assure everyone that the success of the current business model won’t be tampered with – everything will remain the same. Within 6 months local management is let go and their duties shifted to the corporate offices. The local phone numbers are re-directed to the corporate call center (probably in India). All of the familiar faces trickle away as soon as they can find new jobs. You can’t blame the small owners from reaping the rewards of their years (decades) of labor – we’d all do the same thing. But it is a shame.

    • tcburch

      Kurt…I noted with interest your second to last statement: “You can’t blame the small owners from reaping the rewards of their years (decades) of labor – we’d all do the same thing.” Sure I can blame the small owners…for their greediness. I believe that we cannot castigate the corporate “raiders” whilst holding up the virtuosity of the “small owners” as they are both equal on the greed scale. Both are on their individual missions of creating as much wealth as possible and the consequences of their actions be damned. You’re most probably correct when you say “…(the small owner) reaps the rewards of…their…labor-we’d all do the same thing.” But, as I see it, therein lies the problem. Mainly that we all want the greatest monetary/financial ROI we can possibly get, and if others suffer in the process we say to ourselves that they should have “prepared better for their future thereby letting us off the hook for their ultimate suffering and demise.” In my way of thinking this is what is inherently wrong with our approach to business, large or small, at this time. Perhaps it would behoove our society to change its attitude of “get everything you possibly can because tomorrow is never guaranteed.” Just my two cents…I certainly agree that “…it is a shame.”

  • Alvin Harrison

    If you can’t trust a corporation to play fair and honest, who can you trust?

  • hicusdicus

    The rich get richer and the dumb get dumber. Then they all vote for liberals.