By Amy Draheim Founder, ABD Creative
A lot has changed in 12 months. A year that began with hotels competing for Instagram-worthy moments is finishing off in a much different space. It's a space that's double disinfected, a space where contactless guest experiences are the new normal, and a space where even the most adventurous travelers are thinking twice about going somewhere over the holidays. Despite its challenges, some silver linings have emerged out of the chaos.
1. We've Pulled Back the Curtain on Housekeeping Prior to the pandemic, housekeeping was an element of the hotel experience that wasn't meant to be seen. The bulk of housekeeping was completed prior to arrival, post departure, and between guest use. During the day, housekeeping would navigate hotel corridors like magicians, popping in to tidy a guest room and vanishing just in time for a guest to return.
The unexpected shift to bring housekeeping staff to the front of house is important for a number of reasons. The change to make housekeeping more visible came as a result of needing to disinfect high touch and frequently used guest areas more regularly. With cleaning efforts now front and center, hotels unwittingly shined a spotlight on these historically hidden employees whose role has never been more critical.
2. Ad Budgets Shift Almost Exclusively to Drive Market and Meta Search As airlines struggle to convince travelers to book flights, and as frequent flyers shift away from in-person meetings to video conferencing, target markets are shrinking. We're seeing paid search campaigns, which until recently included targeting based on factors like airline data, now focused within local and drive markets.
With road trips and staycations becoming the preferred method of travel this year, it's not surprising that hotels have tightened up their advertising spend. Smart hotels aren't pausing paid advertising completely, they're simply reallocating.
Update PPC ads with keywords that speak to today's travelers. Many prospective guests are seeking out hybrid vacation experiences, stays that incorporate remote work space for grown ups, remote learning space for students, and an atmosphere that allows them to unplug when the day is done. If you're able to offer a hybrid staycation, make it known.
Meta search is another great place to allocate budget, according to Sagar Bhakta, an e-commerce expert, meta search encompasses search engines within search engines including online travel agencies (OTAs). like Expedia.com and Booking.com. Many travelers begin their search for hotels on these sites because of the convenience of an aggregated list to comparison shop. Love them or hate them, OTAs are a part of your marketing mix, and you can use the billboard effect of OTAs to your advantage. In fact, hotels often have OTAs to thank for a portion of their direct traffic. Prospective guests visit OTA sites to narrow their search before returning to Google to review their short list and with any luck, book direct.
Whatever you do, don't write off OTAs just yet. Expedia TravelAds may well be worth the spend to not only be featured first, but also to drive direct traffic to your hotel website. Entice your new website visitors with an offer they won't find on the OTAs: your flexible cancellation policy.
3. Dropping Rates Won't Convince People to Travel Aditi Verma's a hotel revenue expert who's been working on overdrive this year. Aditi joined my podcast to reflect on the recovery period after 2008 and to talk revenue management strategies in the current climate. It took years to come back to pre-2008 room rates, and this time around, Aditi says it's the one mistake revenue managers are making in 2020. If you drop your rates by 30 or 40% now, it will be that much harder to get back to pre-pandemic rates.
Besides, we're dealing with a different animal this time around. Lowering rates isn't going to convince a person who is afraid to travel, to book a trip. This downturn is different. COVID-19 is the reason people aren't traveling at the same pace. COVID-19 is what's crushed our economy and threatened our industry. While the gut reaction to loss of business might be to drop rates, dropping rates won't convince people to travel. Prospective guests aren't price shopping, they're holding out for a time when travel feels safe again.
Hold strong to your rate and instead focus on adding value to the guest experience. Guest reviews have never been more important as prospective travelers weigh perceived risks with the rewards of vacation time. Instead of spending marketing dollars trying to find new customers, reach out to your past guests who know what to expect, and will be more likely to rebook. When it comes to guests who've recently checked out, ask for reviews on Tripadvisor, Facebook, Expedia, even Instagram. These testimonials will serve you again and again. Word of mouth advertising is a powerful tool.
4. It's Good to Be Small Across the country, we've seen a major shift away from tourist traps and city center destinations to off the beaten path experiences. Travelers are choosing country drives over interstates, longstanding city dwellers are migrating to the suburbs, and high rise hotels are grappling with an uncertain fate. Meanwhile in less populous areas, particularly where the outdoors is the major draw, independent hotels are facing a much different outlook: more interest than ever, sold out shoulder seasons, and extended stays. Small hotels in upstate New York are hosting intimate weddings and welcoming travelers at rates they'd never seen before. Jackson Hole had a record fall season, and it's impossible to find a place to stay on the Oregon Coast for under $250 per night, nearly double last year's rates. With fewer places to jet off to, small towns and National Parks are breaking records.
Regardless of location, independent hotels are poised to navigate these tricky waters more easily than the big box variety. With fewer levels of management and brand standards to meet, independent hotels are adapting quickly, rolling out packages, updating outlets, and creating content that speaks to the moment. Look to independent hotels in your neck of the woods to lead the way. 5. The Rise of Micro-Influencers With marketing budgets slashed as a result of lower occupancy and traditional media outlets unsure of the travel stories worth sharing, smart marketers are turning to social media to reach their audience with little cost and decent returns. We're talking about influencers. While the name itself connotes a certain distain, influencers are proving their value during these uncertain times.
When it comes to influencer partnerships, it's important to find partners with real influence over your target market. Influence that extends beyond social media channels. If influence is limited to Instagram, while you may see an uptick in followers, you can't take followers to the bank. It's clicks to your website you're after, that is if you want to put heads in beds, so choose an influencer who's willing to write and publish a blog post with links to your website.
While mainstream, well-known influencers command thousands of dollars per social media, post, a new crop of influencers, known as micro influencers, are ideal partners for independent hotels. Their following is typically smaller but more engaged, and their focus is typically more defined. Choose a micro influencer that speaks to, looks, and sounds like your target market. The influencer will come to your property, stay with you, deliver on the agreement, and share the experience across their social and digital channels.
When it comes to influencer agreements, don't be afraid to ask for what you need. Many influencers are skilled photographers, writers, or graphic designers, and micro influencers in particular are eager to show value. Lay out the deliverables in your agreement, and provide examples of the visuals and content you hope to receive in return.
While big influencers don't typically work for trade, micro influencers are more willing to negotiate. Set aside a small portion of your marketing budget in 2021 for influencer marketing. Be sure to track and measure the effectiveness of these campaigns as you would any other marketing program.
6. Hotels as Remote Workspaces With meetings and events postponed or cancelled for the foreseeable future, hotels had to rethink their group sales strategy. With more business travelers working remotely, hotels began offering workcation and schoolcation packages, opportunities to get out of the house and enjoy the flexibility afforded by remote work and schooling.
Hotels began responding to travelers' needs by bringing additional desk space into guest rooms for travelers who needed to work remote and stay connected. Hybrid staycation packages grew out of this simple idea, and it wasn't long before hotels began to reimagine their unused meeting venues.
Some hotels have repurposed their meeting venues as classrooms for teachers and student pods to learn in a safe space with reliable WiFi, A/V technology, and space to practice social distancing. Others have reimagined meeting venues as co-working space, complete with desks available to rent by the day with the added benefit of hotel amenities and cleaning protocols.
What's Ahead It's pretty amazing to look back at all the ways our industry has adapted in the wake of the pandemic. From pulling back the curtain on housekeeping, to shifting advertising budgets to drive markets, from holding strong to rates, and by harnessing the power of word of mouth advertising, hotels continue to beat the odds. The ability to respond to guests' needs has never been more important, and it's positioned small and independent hotels as the ones to watch.