3 strategies for independent hoteliers looking to gain media exposure and a competitive edge
by NICK FORTUNA
Patty Baird, who owns the Cedar House Sport Hotel in Lake Tahoe, CA, with her husband, has grown accustomed to moochers requesting a free meal or a free night in her hotel. But as an independent hotelier competing with well-known brands, she doesn’t just dismiss such brazen requests out of hand.
In January, Baird was expecting a visit from several travel bloggers based in San Francisco who routinely leverage their tens of thousands of Instagram followers to fill their bellies. These Instagram influencers have carved out a pretty good gig for themselves. As long as they post a few good pictures of what they are eating, where they are staying, and write up a richly detailed review, they can dine like wealthy tourists and stay in the nicest digs.
Baird agreed to host these travel bloggers only after performing some due diligence online. They had indeed built large followings on Instagram, and their prior posts looked inviting and professionally crafted. If one free meal could put her hotel in front of thousands of eyeballs, then by all means, fellas, bon appétit.
“It happens constantly,” Baird said of requests from freeloading bloggers. “We’re always being hit up by influencers, so you have to make sure it’s worth it to give them a free night or two in your hotel to be seen by their followers. It’s a little tricky, but some influencers really do have huge followings, especially in the travel sphere. It’s a tradeoff. If they’re willing to come midweek, when I have more flexibility, then why not? The meal that I comp them will cost me maybe a hundred bucks.”
In the bygone era of thick newspapers and full newsrooms, independent hoteliers and other prominent local businesses had an easier time spreading the word about their events and milestones. But these days, with many newspapers floundering, effective media relations require more hard work and creativity.
Here are some tips for independent hoteliers about building a media contact list and using it to their advantage:
FIND OUT WHO MATTERS
Print publications might be few and far between, but there’s no shortage of media outlets covering the hospitality and tourism industries. Social media sites like Instagram allow users to tell visually compelling stories through pictures, and some people have turned that into a handsome living.
Take, for example, Kiersten Rich, who quit her job in corporate finance in 2011 to write a blog catering to solo female travelers named “The Blonde Abroad.” The blog features travel tips, packing guides, videos, and photos from more than 70 countries and has made Rich one of the world’s top 10 travel influencers, according to Forbes. With more than 566,000 followers on Instagram, her audience is larger than most newspapers, so giving her a free stay in exchange for some publicity sounds like a bargain.
By searching Instagram and popular travel blogs, independent hoteliers can determine whether it’s worth it to reach out to travel influencers. Hotels also should capitalize on social media when hosting musicians, authors, artists, and other newsmakers for events, said Barbara Malone, who owns the independent Hotel Sorrento in Seattle, WA, with her husband.
“Like everyone else, we’re chasing after followers on social media platforms and making sure that we’re aligning ourselves with people who can spread the word a little bit farther than us. If we can generate a few hundred more followers as the result of something we do, that’s great for us,” Malone said. “As an independent hotel, we just have to be tenacious, and through social media, you really can have access to influential people through direct messaging. If you have something interesting to say and you’re a respected property that’s known, you generally get a response from people.”
DON’T FORGET TRADITIONAL MEDIA
Print media still matters. Most newspapers publish a calendar of local events and attractions and have an email address where local groups and businesses can submit their news. But don’t stop there.
Determine which reporters cover hospitality and travel or write feature stories and which editors are responsible for those sections. Keep their contact information close at hand, reach out when you have something worth sharing, and interact with them on social media. With most newsrooms experiencing layoffs in recent years, review these publications regularly and update your list to reflect staffing changes. Journalists often move around to different publications or to different roles in the newsroom.
“Building that list takes a lot of effort because you literally have to go through each publication, and there are a lot of publications,” Malone said. “You just have to really focus on those where you know you’re going to reach the most people who could be potential clients for you.”
Local media can be a gateway to huge audiences since interesting local stories routinely get picked up by national media. That’s what happened for the Hotel Sorrento and its popular silent reading parties, held on the first Wednesday of each month. Visitors line up out the door to enter the cozy Fireside Room, with its fireplace and homey feel, and then devour books and adult beverages while enjoying the live piano music.
The events were first featured in the local weekly newspaper The Stranger, which led to mentions in the San Francisco Chronicle and Forbes.
If a rival hotel gets a nice write-up in the press, reach out to the same author and publication. Since freelance writers get paid by the assignment, they are likely to pitch their editor a story about your hotel if they are confident that they will have something good to write about.
BE ACTIVE IN YOUR COMMUNITY
If national media are working on stories about places they haven’t visited, it’s common for reporters to contact the local chamber of commerce, convention, and visitors bureau or destination management organization to get the lay of the land.
When writers ask these resources where they should stay in town, you want your hotel to be top of mind, so get out there and meet these people, and let them know you’re media friendly. Most respected media outlets won’t accept free rooms or meals for ethical reasons, but they typically will appreciate a discounted media rate, and some are just fine with a freebie.
Baird said independent hoteliers should consider hosting networking events for their chamber of commerce since those events may draw media professionals.
“A lot of towns have contracts with PR firms, so it’s a matter of forming those relationships and letting them know what your services are and that you’re available,” she said. “Often, the town itself wants media attention, and knowing that, they will contact you to help promote something that may gain media coverage. That comped room is peanuts compared to the possible media attention you’ll receive.”
To the extent possible, independent hoteliers should attend community events they know will draw media professionals so they can make those connections and build relationships over time, Malone said. Even better, become a part of community events like charitable fundraisers, which are likely to get local media coverage and could be picked up by larger outlets, Baird said.