The Internet offers independent hotels an endless pool of marketing possibilities, yet some are costly, while others are dominated by the corporate-backed hotel chains with enough funding to crush the competition on every channel. Large hotel chains have powerful online presences on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and all relevant social networks. They invest fortunes in Google Ads, metasearch, Facebook and Twitter advertising, email marketing campaigns, and public relations. Facing the infinite possibilities of digital marketing, which are now expanding to mobile, can independent and boutique hotels survive and thrive? Those with a good mindset for change will.
The first thing independent hotels need to embrace is the reality that “if you build it, they will come” is no longer a viable paradigm. People simply don’t queue at a hotel’s doors just because it’s there. All hotels, no matter where they are in the world, already have competition, although sometimes it is not coming from big hotel chains. Airbnb is taking up a big chunk of the market – and beware of its newest plans for opening home-hotel hybrids and vetted homes are coming soon too. Besides Airbnb, Google has recently begun listing vacation rentals in its accommodation search results, available when users switch the “accommodation type” filter on. You can expect many other challenges for independent hotels in the very near future.
Be Open to Guest Expectations: Create and Promote Experiences
“Sixty-nine percent of travelers are more loyal to a travel company that personalizes their experiences online and offline,” says Jaclyn Loo, think with Google expert.
Being open to guest and consumer expectations is more than providing the basic in-room amenities to make their stays comfortable. The way people experience travel has changed. They no longer book a stay at a hotel to have a room to crush in at the end of the day. Guests now expect hotels to offer more than lodging: they want the hotel as an integrated part of their trip. Therefore, hoteliers now have to find innovative ways to fulfill that need. Addressing guest expectations means being part of the experience.
Many boutique hotels manage to impress their guests with design and service, but also through in-room amenities, business facilities, lobby areas, and dining. As you can see in the following infographic by The Ellis Hotel, boutique hotels have interior designs inspired by local history and culture and usually decorated with handmade furnishings by local craftsmen and artisans. These are some of the features that set them apart. Here are some concrete examples of individual hotels that market themselves intelligently in the digital jungle due to outstanding design and innovative technology.
The BOB Hotel in Paris is a first-of-the-kind in the City of Light. BOB is short for “business on board,” a phrase that summarizes the traveler experience here. The concept of the hotel is unique as it offers freelance workers who travel a place to work and connect with people the Parisian way. Lobbies and other public areas of the hotel become co-working places, where guests can work, relax, and connect in a stress-free, traveler-friendly environment. BOB Hotel is a concept by Elegancia Hotels; a company specialized in hotel design, assembly operation, project management, hotel management, and hotel marketing.
An entirely different concept, Olive Green Hotel in Heraklion (Crete) is Greece’s first 100% eco-friendly accommodation venue, addressing one of the fastest growing consumer trends worldwide: the request of environmentally-conscious lodging in urban areas. The hotel is also using smart technology to deliver a unique experience to guests interested in discovering some of the most beautiful sights of Crete. Every room has digital images of fascinating Cretan attractions, with QR codes that can be scanned to deliver details such as distance from the hotel and other destination details. Guests can control lighting, air conditioning, TVs, and other in-room amenities with smart tablets provided by the hotel. The tablets can also be used to order room service, and even to share your experience on social media.
New York's Library Hotel is another example of how independent hotels can design their interiors to deliver an experience like no other. The Library Hotel is already famous for its collection of more than 6000 books organized on ten themed floors according to the Dewey Decimal System: social sciences, literature, languages, history, math and science, general knowledge, technology, philosophy, the arts, and religion. For guests, the stay is an urban intellectual adventure. There’s even a reading room for guests, boasting unique views over Madison Avenue and Library Way, and featuring hundreds of books.
- Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore highlighted the importance of the “experience economy” as early as 1999 in their book, The Experience Economy: Work Is Theater & Every Business a Stage. According to the authors, “an experience is not an amorphous construct; it is as real an offering as any service, good, or commodity. In today’s service economy, many companies simply wrap experiences around their traditional offerings to sell them better.”
What worked in theory in 1999, is today’s economic reality for all business sectors, and more so for hoteliers, because consumers expect experiences. Research shows that travelers are now seeking once-in-a-lifetime experiences, adventure, and authenticity, and they value hotels with friendly, helpful staff.
* Infographic Credit: http://martinsoler.com
While hotels may not always be able to create immersive travel experiences between their walls, they always can become part of the experience by offering unique perks to their guests: wine tastings through partnerships with local wineries; gourmet urban adventures through deals with fine dining establishments; unique tours; and so on.
For example, many hotels in Greece have joined the Bike Friendly Hotel network to remain competitive on the market as the demand for cycling tours and routes grows in the country, following European trends. All hotels in the network offer parking for bicycles and safe bike deposit areas, but also free cycling routes maps, cleaning bike services, free bike toolset available at all times, daily bike washing and drying services, and so on. Another network that follows a worldwide trend, Vegan Hotels features hotels with an offer for vegan travelers. Any hotel that wants to appeal to this segment can create a special offer for vegan travelers and market it on the right channels to attract more guests. In another example, more and more hotels around the Globe cater to pet owners, some by allowing pet stays, others going as far as providing special grooming products, pet beds, and even pet daycare and grooming services.
Each hotel can take advantage of its location to create marketable guest experiences that attract bookings. Besides location, travel decisions are also influenced by cultural attractions, events, and even seasons. Each hotel can identify a unique selling proposition and leverage it to maximize ROI. All you have to remember is that people now prefer to explore destinations “like a local” rather than staying in line to visit museums. It’s the era of “experiential travel” and only brands that adapt will thrive.
“Commodities are fungible, goods tangible, services intangible, and experiences memorable,” - B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore.
Focus on the Individual: Segment-of-one Marketing
The big thing about surviving the digital marketing jungle is that independent hotels have to rethink marketing as a whole. It is no longer enough to design campaigns aimed at a large diversity of consumers. According to Google, travel-related searches for “tonight” and “today” have grown over 150% on mobile over the past two years. In the following graph, Google data from Jan 2014 - June 2017 in the U.S. shows how “flights today” or “hotels tonight" queries have increased, another user behavior signal to consider in building highly lucrative marketing campaigns and strategies today. And last, but not least, consumers tend to book hotels not only for planned vacations but also for unplanned events. It is therefore critical for hoteliers to understand and employ new strategies that take advantage of Google’s “micro-moments.”
Marketers can no longer afford a soulless discourse focused on sales. Hoteliers need to focus on the individual needs of the guests and to engage in a dialogue that will address these needs. There are several ways to accomplish this: with direct feedback on hotel websites, social networks, email, and hotel apps; but also, by monitoring and responding to hotel reviews on TripAdvisor, Google, Booking.com, Facebook, and many other sites where guests share their thoughts, likes, dislikes, and suggestions.
Hotels that take time to address the individual with care and consideration are more likely to thrive in the future. They have the unique opportunity to be the trendsetters of the new marketing paradigm, one that blends traditional techniques with the timeless principles of PR, putting the needs of the public back into the sales equation.
This happens mainly because with the advance of mobile technologies, consumers are back in control of their purchase decisions, but they also can influence how brands are perceived on a variety of digital channels.
“Mobile is unlocking consumer control, empowerment, and choice to an extent we have never seen before, driving a hyper-segmentation revolution,” explained Unilever’s Chief Marketing and Communications Officer Keith Weed in a think with Google editorial in support of his consumer segments of one idea. “As we move from mass marketing to massive customization—from focusing on averages to individuals—I believe that in the future we will build brands in segments of one,” he added.
This is not a new thing. The hotel industry has been doing a similar segmentation of the targeted audience by creating “guest personas.” This was an attempt to cluster data to “know” the customer, and it worked just fine for many businesses that had enough input to make a composite sketch of their audiences. But the guest personas were based on existing clients, not on desired ones. They were based on Google Analytics, Facebook Audience Insights, and other similar sources, including Google Search.
Consumer insights are still used to design the “segments of one” described by Weed, but they are only meant to aid marketers to anticipate and assist the needs of the “ones.”
“This means being relevant, tailored, and personal—a huge shift from when brands (especially CPG businesses like Unilever) tended to be built for the masses. And they need to do it all in real time, in context, in the language,” Weed explains.
In hotels, segment-of-one marketing should be the norm: greet your guests by their names, remember their special needs, deliver customized services when the individual guest needs them – like a birthday cake, rose petals and candlelight for a romantic date, surprises for the little ones, free hairstyling for business travelers, and the list could go on. This segment-of-one marketing is another way independent hotel can survive in the busy digital marketing jungle of the future.
No matter of what future technologies bring, hotels that focus on the individual will always survive and thrive. Because making the individual feel special and welcome will trigger the customer “viva voce” resulting in one of the most desired marketing effects: word of mouth. As a hotelier, you should always welcome word of mouth marketing for its authenticity, its power to drive qualified leads, and its obvious cost advantages… after all, viva voce is free. When you do your job right, guests will love you, and they will hack a path through the digital jungle for you.