Reality Check: 7 Questions for Your Hotel Marketing Agency
By Vikram Singh, Global Hospitality & Travel Strategist
Everything digital, including marketing, changes rapidly. Hotels know that online marketing is crucial, yet they take a back seat on innovations. Most of the hotel owners/managers I've met have been hesitant to do much more than hire an outside agency to handle all things digital. They lack the time, budget, knowledge or interest to get more involved.
Here are the 7 questions you need to ask to determine how well your digital revenue is being managed.
1. Who is doing the actual marketing work for my hotel?
This is the #1 question you need to ask. Is there a smart, experienced digital marketer looking at your campaign stats and strategy, or is your work being processed by interns in cubicles, or worse… by an automated system with no human oversight.
The large hotel marketing agencies use a factory style approach, which means that the Account Managers are handling several accounts. Your Account Manager is not conducting market research or studying your campaign stats. She is juggling hundreds of emails, chasing down questions and responses, and coordinating conference calls. Meanwhile, an army of task-oriented mass marketing drones report to her; their job is to execute the exact same "strategy" and tasks for every one of her clients. (Picture the factory floor of T- 800 in Terminator. Scary.)
Other than sounding pretty depressing, why does it matter so much to your bottom line? Because mass production cannot produce personalized strategies, and therefore can't help you compete in today's marketplace. Personalization has penetrated digital marketing in all industries. Only a thinking person who is setting up a custom strategy and implementing it for you can help you win.
I can't lay all the blame for this trend on the agencies. Hotels have demanded lower and lower prices, while giving less and less attention to what the agencies are doing. They practically forced the agencies to compete on price, which requires automation and economies of scale. A classic "be careful what you wish for" situation.
Now it's time to decide how important your online revenue is to you. If you're ready to take an interest, start by making sure that you another are not just another cog in the nameless wheel of online hotel marketing. Pay a little more if you have to. But keep going back to question #1 – make sure you know what you're paying for.
2. Are you using any proprietary technology developed by your agency?
If the answer is yes, this is a huge red flag for your online marketing future. There is no gentler way to put this: proprietary software developed by an agency kills innovation. Anything an agency designs and invests money in developing is always going to be focused on making the life of the agency simpler and more profitable. (See #1 above re: agency survival.) Agency software, such as their own content management system (CMS) or digital marketing system (DMS), is not going to help you be an outlier when it comes to online revenue optimization.
It is no secret that I am a huge supporter of WordPress and Google Analytics. As a hotelier looking to truly make a profit, you should be too! Set your priorities right. Build your own revenue, and not just the profitability of your online marketing agency. This is what your hired them to do…remember?
3. How many clients do you have?
Here is how to translate their answer into the level of attention your hotel marketing campaign will get:
• 10-15 – You have a decent chance of getting to work directly with marketing professionals.
• 15-50 – You have a slight chance of getting some personal attention.
• 50-100 – "Your hotel sounds familiar. Who are you again?"
• 100-500 – You are just an account number. No one knows anything about your actual hotel.
• 500-1000 – "Hello, this is Sam, your 14th new Account Manager. Thanks for continuing to send in your monthly check. We don't have time to talk to you, so don't even try calling."
• >1000 – "Hello Client 98765, we have been acquired by a billion dollar company and we really don't care what happens to you."
More clients = more employees = more layers = more automation = more mass produced marketing = lower revenue for your hotel.
4. How many clients do you have in my hotel's market?
Online marketing has a vast reach worldwide. In order for you to reach your full hotel marketing potential, your geographical location has to be a key factor. If your hotel marketing agency has even 1 or 2 other hotel accounts in the exact same market…guess what? The same team that is servicing your account is also working on your competitor's websites, promotions, packages, PPC and SEO initiatives. That means that everything that has worked for you (specials, packages, promotions, etc.) is going to be used to benefit your direct competitor as well. This "communal" marketing costs you profitability. There are plenty of fish in the sea, but your hotel marketing catch of the day is going to be shared with every other hotel that your agency is servicing in your location. (Yes, sounds fishy, doesn't it?)
5. Have you done anything other than hotels?
Working in multiple industries provides great learning experience. Throughout my hotel career, I took on interesting and challenging work from diverse sectors like health care, board games, web hosting, etc. If the people working on your account have never looked beyond the hotel industry (and perhaps never beyond their own agency), then you know that they are not going to bring anything exciting to the table.
Industry experience is great. But it's disturbing to me that hotels are so much more willing to be a nameless, faceless client with an "established" agency rather then give an industry outsider a chance to help them make more money online.
Choosing not to ever work with someone who has outside experience is going to be your loss entirely. I know hotel marketing sounds really complicated, but in fact it's not. It's okay to consider letting a specialist from another industry help you out or bring your fresh ideas. Don't fall for the "do you speak hotel sector language" trap. The language your agency needs to be fluent in is marketing. Besides, if they "speak your language," remember that they are recycling the same marketing hype to everyone in your industry.
6. Are you a full-service agency?
If the answer is yes, then most likely you are dealing with the Wal-Mart of hotel marketing agencies. Generally, a company's core competence cannot stretch beyond a few specialties. So how do you think they're pulling it off?
Agencies often inflate and add services based on the latest buzz in the market. I have seen overnight additions of "Meta Search Marketing," "Social Media Marketing," and "Millennial Marketing" on so many agency websites. Every new travel buzzword is promptly packaged into the "full service" offered by hotel marketing agencies. Why don't the hotels realize that they're really not getting anything special? Because so many in-house hotel marketing professionals are not only outsourcing the strategy and the work, but they are also being lazy about having to talk with more than one person! C'mon! It's only your must important revenue channel, right? Show it some respect and get yourself A-Team specialists in different fields, versus the average-performing C- and D-Team players that are conveniently housed under one roof.
7. How big (and how responsive) is your team?
This is the age of rolling out initiatives. Large teams do not translate into effective deployments. I have seen many examples where a 3- to 5-person team skated circles around big agencies. The bigger the ship, the harder it is for them to maneuver when the online market changes. Anyone who has ever dealt with a utilities company knows exactly why there is a phenomenon called "too big to care." Working with layers upon layers is always going to slow you down. Time, money and online revenue wait for no one. Speed is key, and your hotel marketing has a need…a need for speed.
Google and the Online Travel Agencies (OTA's) are gearing up for the next level of products: more ways for them to make a direct connection with your potential hotel guest. Also, with the cost of guest acquisition going up for hotels worldwide, it's crunch time for owners and their marketing budgets. Basically, it's time to start doing actual marketing versus having it served to you on a platter by a behemoth agency. Big agencies thrive in meetings, conference calls, and monthly reports…basically processes that streamline their lives and give you the illusion of work being done. Remember: Processes equals revenue for them, but not so much for you.
It's time to focus on quality work from quality people. I recommend that you start by revisiting the budget restrictions you have set for online marketing. Consider how much more revenue you stand to make if you invest a little more in the right people, the right strategies, and the latest technologies. It can't just be about the number in your expense column. It has to be about winning over your market, your guests, and your rightful share of the revenue pie. Make it about the future. Make it about getting promoted because you took the hotel into the next age of online marketing, and up to a new level of online revenue. Don't make it about fear of getting fired for spending a little more than you did the year before. Because the future is already here. And in this industry, you can still be one of the first to arrive.