Industry Update
Opinion Article 7 December 2011

How well do you (and your team) know your competition?

By Alastair Stevenson

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Maximising your knowledge of your competitors' product is a vital tool in any hotel's sales and marketing efforts and investment decision making. However recent experience suggests that some of the basics are being forgotten.

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Today individual hotels, as well as large hotel companies, have access to more information than ever about their competitive performance and customer views. This comes from a wide variety of sources:

  • Web booking sites that make it easy to compare prices and availability "minute by minute".
  • Commercial performance/market share data provided on a daily basis.
  • Electronic questionnaires delivered to every guest after their stay.
  • National surveys of brand preferences and consumer behaviour.

No one would say that such information is not highly valuable, but experience tells us there is no substitute for actually talking to your customers. You need to hear their views of your products and services and those of your competitors directly. They are the ones with first-hand experience.

And there is no substitute for seeing and experiencing competitors for yourself.

Too often today management and staff find insufficient time for these two activities. I think it's time to "get back to basics".

What can you find out about the competition by talking to your customers?

  • Number one --- what real alternatives did the customer have for a particular occasion (a room for the night, dinner, conference/meeting, function, or just a drink in the bar)? This helps you to know who your real competitors are.
  • Why they have chosen you and not a competitor? Were you genuinely the preferred choice or was everyone else full?
  • If a genuine choice, what were the deciding factors? Were you just cheaper, or can you identify your real product or service strengths? This helps determine what you should stress to prospective customers in sales pitches and on your website.
  • If they are trying you for the first time, will they come back? Or have they found a weakness in you that a competitor does better?

Of course you can't corner a customer and reel off your list of questions. The whole management team (and others) need to understand the benefits of such knowledge and use opportunities when they arise to gain feedback from customers. Competitive insights must be an agenda item on regular management meetings so that knowledge can be shared and made use of to:

  • Ensure sales and other staff are aware of key strengths and weaknesses for each part of the product
  • Plan product or service improvements
  • Concentrate investment in areas that will contribute most to improving the hotel's competitive position

The other aspect of building competitive awareness is to get out and see competitors for yourself. This is often a particular weakness for those involved in on-site selling, including conferences, weddings, corporate accommodation contracts and other "big ticket" items where closing a single sale can secure very high levels of revenue. It remains common for staff involved in selling to be completely unfamiliar with what the competition has to offer and without that awareness, they will be very poorly equipped. Just being able to handle a show-round is not enough; staff must be aware of what it is about a product that makes it different or better than the alternatives a customer may be investigating.

It is not just members of a sales team that need to build up such awareness. Front Office, F&B and Banqueting staff are often the ones who have the greatest influence in closing a sale and they could all benefit from first-hand experience of competitors, be this a simple walk round, a meal, or an overnight stay. I believe investment in these activities is fundamental to success.

Internal and external activities such as these that build competitive knowledge, add a level of insight which complements hard data and questionnaire analysis. They are a vital part of making the most of your business.

Contributed by Alastair Stevenson

Alastair Stevenson

Alastair Stevenson established a niche hotel marketing planning consultancy, Marketing Planning Associates (MPA), in 1987. Initial projects included both marketing planning for major chains and individual properties as well as development assessment. Early clients included Forte Hotels, Whitbread, and Holiday Inn Hotels.

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