NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
Unless he knows about it, the Palacio de Soņanes is the sort of place a typical traveler might miss.
It's in a mountain village called Villacarriedo, a speck on the map of northern Spain. To get there, you lumber up switchback roads, pass miles of orchards and vineyards, and endure a few "which way now?" car fights between driver and navigator.
The Palacio (see gallery), however, is worth the journey, if you're the sort of person who wants to live like a king in your very own castle in Spain.
I found the place on a recent vacation, by happenstance not research.
The independently owned property is part of a relatively young marketing group called Rusticae, which represents 100 or so distinctive hotels throughout Spain, Portugal, France and Latin America.
Rusticae is no chain: it doesn't own any of the properties it represents. Rather, it's a consortium of like-minded hotels. Rusticae markets them, but the hotels themselves maintain their independence and individuality.
A dozen or so major consortia around the world (and many more little guys) cobble together independent hotels in this way. Besides promotion, they offer reservation services, joint advertising, and economies of scale that individual, small hotels cannot muster.
But unlike owned-and-operated chains -- which often impose mind-numbing uniformity as a branding exercise -- the marketing groups see individuality, not conformity, as a virtue. For the traveler, that can mean a much more rewarding lodging experience.
"Our customers want to know that if they're staying at a hotel in Paris, they're going to wake up in a hotel that feels like Paris," says Karen Preston, a spokeswoman for Leading Hotels of the World, one of the oldest and biggest groups. "It's not going to be a case of, 'If it's Tuesday, this must be Milwaukee.'"
Targeting discerning travelers
All of the groups share certain traits. Foremost, they all aspire to represent unique, well-run properties in popular destinations. While they all boast hotels in city centers, they often have expertise in the countryside -- the Loire Valley, say, or Caribbean islands.
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Relais & Chateaux is the most famous and one of the biggest with some 450 properties, most in Europe, but scattered across five continents. Its hotels range from French chateaux to Japanese ryokans (a kind of bed-and-breakfast, though the one Relais promotes is decidedly upscale). The group puts a particular emphasis on food in its offerings, and likes properties that come with serious restaurants attached.
Relais, a 52 year-old, $1.3 billion company, is always ranked highly by luxury travelers. But it has plenty of competition, raging from Leading Hotels of the World (founded 1928) to upstarts like Rusticae or the 12-year-old Small Luxury Hotels.
The downside of staying at an independent hotel is that if you've never been there before, you may not know what to expect when you book it. That's where the consortia come in.
All the groups perform regular, anonymous inspections. They're rigorous, too. The appraisal form for Preferred Hotels, for example, contains 1,600 individual line items. Small Luxury Hotels inspectors must invent a problem to judge how the staff deals with it.
"There's no global police force for hotel quality," says Lanny Grossman of Small Luxury Hotels. "Consumers know that someone's done their research for them."
Quality is a relative term, of course. In the SLH network, you can find sleek, boutique hotels like the Iroquois in New York City, or an eco-resort on a private beach in Mexico. It has no electricity but extraordinarily personalized service. The other groups offer similarly diverse ranges.
Valuing the experience
Travelers who seek out hotels like these tend to be discerning, because they've been around.
"These people are frequent travelers. They travel a lot on business, as well as for pleasure," says Michelle Woodley, vice president at Indecorp, the parent company of Preferred Hotels and Summit Hotels, two luxury marketing groups.
"They really want a hotel that can offer them a truly local experience," she says. "The individuality is very important to them."
To be sure, most of the hotels represented by the marketing groups aren't for the budget-conscious. But depending on the property and location, reasonably priced accomodations can be found within any of the associations, without lowering standards.
"Our customers are not so price sensitive, but they are very interested in personalized service," explains Grossman. "They're also very sensitive to the perceived value they get out of an experience, whether that means being called by your name or getting five extra pillows or knowing what wine you like."
The Good Life is a weekly column that chronicles products, people and trends in luxury consumer goods, travel, and fine food and drink. Write to: firstname.lastname@example.org.