Marketing your property during a downturn
Hotels need to retain that ability to pivot as circumstances change through a downturn. That’s been particularly true of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it remained so even as the picture started to look a little brighter midway through 2021. But, hoteliers have had to contend with the uncertainty that has accompanied the surging Delta variant, which has slowed the return of business travel and events in some markets.
“We need to be able to flex up and down,” Checchio said. “We need to be able to flex if it’s geographic regions, we need to be able to change messaging out that’s most relevant for guests based on the time that it’s being served, and we need to be ready. We need to be proactive. This is an ever-changing situation.”
At a time when fewer people are traveling and hotels are competing for every booking, it’s vital to laser-focus your messaging on what’s on the mind of the consumer. Rosie Karakan, area director of sales and marketing at Dream Hollywood, told us safety is still top of mind for the average guest. “The main goal for marketing during this past year and a half has been overly communicating to guests to take the guesswork out of travel,” she said.
One of the golden rules of marketing through a downturn is to resist the temptation to cut rates. Hoteliers have learned from bitter experience, and this time is no different. What you can do is use marketing initiatives to support rates. Wyndham Hotels & Resorts helped its franchisees to retain rates by offering deals like an extra night’s stay in return for booking a room for a certain number of nights. “By holding the rate over the last year, we’re now able to be back at 2019 levels or even, in some markets, at a premium,” Checchio said.
Hotels also can use these deals to secure the benefits that come with direct bookings. “The added benefit to these offers is that [guests]can only receive them if they’re coming through our direct channels, our lowest acquisition customer cost channels for our franchisees,” Checchio added.
At Dream Hollywood, Karakan said moving the needle on traffic to the hotel’s website has been a top priority. That could mean optimizing clickthrough rates and measuring how well social partnerships are performing. Capturing and leveraging customer data is also increasingly important, and an effective customer data platform can be used to deliver highly targeted and personalized messages through email and text.
All of the hoteliers represented here stressed the importance of “backyard business” during the past year and a half. Every hotel may have a different definition of what that means, but it could include staycation guests, local businesses, or guests driving in from within a few hours’ radius of the property. Checchio said those “backyard” customers have helped support midweek business for Wyndham properties, but Unscripted Durham General Manager Paul Mensi said staycationers can also be the difference that pushes weekend bookings up toward 100%.
Maximizing backyard business takes creativity and tenacity on the part of the individual property, as well as corporate support from the regional or head office level. Communication is critical. “This is really where the strong partnership comes in between our franchisees, our owners, and the brand,” Checchio said. “It’s a top-down, bottom-up approach to ensure that we’re capturing as many guests as we can.”
For sales and marketing leaders at the property level, a downturn is an opportunity to double down on your local network. If your database is looking thin, now’s the time to bolster it. Keep in touch with those contacts and make sure they’re up to speed on everything that’s happening at the hotel.
GET RIGHT OR GET LEFT
Mensi said the team at Unscripted Durham was prepared to hit the ground running when the current downturn hit. “I built up a database of about 500 different clients and prospects in the area,” he said. “Based on what’s happening or what that particular push is, whether there’s activations or safety measures, I’ll push those out myself, but it really comes from corporate, myself, and then getting together with our marketing manager to determine where we are.”
Creativity often thrives in a downturn out of necessity, so experts advise leaning into a test-and-learn mindset. Last winter, Unscripted Durham built private “igloos” amid a winter wonderland at the hotel’s open-air venue, The Patio. This was something we saw in other cities, but it was new for Durham, and local interest was so high that the hotel eventually used the igloos to drive room bookings. Mensi said the initiative had compounding benefits, as the hotel saw Instagram engagements soar during the period. “We put them up in November, took them down March 1, and had some of the best revenues we’ve ever seen,” Mensi said.
Keep a close eye on social media and listen to spot any potential markets that you’re not currently marketing to. Brands are dipping their toes into TikTok, by far the favorite platform among gen Z. Dream PMHollywood scored an unexpected success when the hotel’s delivery robot, Alfred, was featured in a user-generated TikTok video that received more than a million views. Karakan said the hotel is exploring the possibility of using TikTok more intentionally in the future after seeing the results of this organic traction.
Above all, the consensus among the experts here is to keep your ears open for what your guests and business clients want and need in this moment. “Just because we have XYZ ideas doesn’t necessarily mean that we have it all,” Mensi said. “Our clients really need to be the ones that are guiding us, too.”
It seems as if the industry will spend at least the rest of 2021 responding to the continuing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, with inflation also on the rise. These are uncertain times for sure, but after the past year and a half, America’s hoteliers can at least be certain of their own capacity for invention and resilience. “I will say this,” Mensi said, “regarding 2020 vs. 2021, and even where we are right now with the Delta variant, we feel very confident.”
Best practices for marketing new safety protocols
It looks like the COVID-19 pandemic is going to wax and wane for at least the rest of 2021, and that means hotels need to continue building their marketing campaigns around the message that safety is the No. 1 priority.
“If it’s important to our guests, and it’s important to our franchisees, then it’s important to us,” said Lisa Checchio, chief marketing officer at Wyndham Hotels & Resorts.
By now, every property and hotel group should have a safety hub on their website, but that messaging must be brought to life with a long-term campaign. For example, Wyndham’s “Count On Us” campaign distills the group’s safety protocols into an overarching promise that also appeals to guests to trust the brand to get it right.
Hoteliers also can introduce an element of fun or awe in introducing and highlighting new tech-powered approaches to safety. Rosie Karakan, area director of sales and marketing at Dream Hollywood, said the hotel’s touch-free services and delivery robot, Alfred, exemplify this. “If guests forgot a toothbrush or if they need extra towels, they don’t have to interact with our staff, they can just call up and we’ll have the robot deliver them,” Karakan said.
Marketing and programming also can emphasize fun and enjoyment that’s grounded in an uncompromising approach to safety. “There’s just a lot of programming that still can be considered very safe,” said Paul Mensi, Unscripted Durham’s general manager. The hotel has brought back a number of reimagined, safety-conscious events for guests, such as cocktail classes that have been scaled down from around 50 to 60 guests to no more than 15 to 20. “Make it more intimate, to where we have people that are learning how to make these cocktails from our mixologist who is masked behind the bar,” Mensi said.
While hotels obviously need to tailor their policies and their messaging to align with local regulations and circumstances, remember you’re not alone. Lean on your peers locally and regionally to share best practices, and seek out the latest advice from national industry associations and tourism bureaus. “This is where our partnership and the industry’s partnership with AHLA and AAHOA is so important, because they can help to guide us and to guide us as an industry,” Checchio said.