Industry Update
Opinion Article10 December 2014

Experiential Marketing for Hotels

Leveraging the Trinity of Onsite Experiences, Advertising and Social Media

By Larry Mogelonsky, Managing Director Hotel Mogel Consulting Limited

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The world of hotel marketing is changing. Internet sites, OTAs, social media and other new channels hold the limelight while print advertising, radio, rack brochures and other 20th century staples fall out of practices. In these ever-evolving times, however, it would be folly to abandon the old ways entirely. Instead, an integrated approach works best via a circular strategy called experiential marketing, comprised of three broad components:

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  1. Onsite / On-Property Excellence
  2. Relationship Management
  3. Advertising and PR

Like a virtuous circle or a golden triangle, each equal part feeds back into and reinvigorates the other two. In order to understand and apply the principles of experiential marketing, you must be able to grasp how each component acts on its own.

Onsite / On-Property Excellence

While the latter two require some elaboration, the first item on this list should not. We are hoteliers and our ability to drum up future business is only as good as the products we offer. Package or glitz up your hotel in whichever way you like; if you aren't offering a hospitality experience that surpasses the competition (on more than just price discounts), then you will forever be fighting an uphill battle because of how much harder it is to gain new consumers as opposed to retaining existing ones.

So, what makes for a great hospitality experience? While I'm sure you all could write a 300-page manifesto to answer this question, let's boil it down to a few key points. At its most fundamental level, you must deliver a good night's sleep for each and every guest – clean, quiet rooms and helpful staff are a good start. Looking slightly beyond that, expectations pertaining to other operations (enjoyable amenities, clean rooms, quality restaurants and so on) must also be met.

But this is just the foundation. It's not going to win you any awards. What defines excellence is what you do to go above and beyond, from the property-wide scale to the littlest gestures of kindness and appreciation. These are the 'x factors' or 'wow moments' that consistently stir up happy emotions and irreversibly lodge themselves in consumers' minds.

They can be anything from an immaculate lobby with striking furnishings, frescos or statues to establish a strong sense of place right down to the personalized handwritten note a manager leaves in the room prior to a guest's arrival. It might involve a complete makeover of your premier restaurant's dinner menu, or it could be the addition of a colorful local ingredient or some culinary artistry to the dishes which makes patrons double-take before diving in with their utensils. Think vegetable and herb gardens near the eye-lines of passersby. Think effervescent staff with sharp, distinctive uniforms.

True hospitality isn't about meeting guest expectations, it's about exceeding so that you actually make an impact on consumers. And at the core of experiential marketing is just that – the experience. If you can't conjure something that consumers would suggest to their friends and relatives (let alone come back for a repeat visit), then nothing else matters. Keep your house in order by constantly asking yourself the question: am I exceeding what guests expect of my hotel?

Relationship Management

Guests need to be wooed, both in order to be satisfied by their onsite experience and, ultimately, to become pundits on your behalf. Building and managing relationships between customers and staff members represents the primary force for these two broader goals. You can have lavish décor and enough amenities to make any hotelier drool, but if these efforts aren't supported by an attentive and motivated team, then it's all for naught. Unlike many other products, emotional and lasting connections to hotels are formed through personal bonds, not just on features and amenities alone.

To put it another way, you need personnel excellence, not just material excellence. This relationship management occurs onsite and online, and it should not be confused with the human aspects which contribute towards a great guest experience. Rather, relationship management comes down to how you value each guest as an individual, whether that involves remembering and anticipating specific requests or exuding that same friendly, helpful personality on your social network pages as you would in-person.

The purpose of this second component is to facilitate the conversion of consumers into fans and fans into pundits who are willing and able to market your property on their own volition. After all, there's no better way of convincing new customers to vote with their wallets than through the face-to-face advice of a close friend or relative. In this age of constant media bombardment and audiences who are ever better at ignoring or seeing past impersonal brand endorsements, the oldest system of recommendation – word of mouth and by extension its internet cousin, word of mouse – reigns supreme once more.

To accomplish this – that is, to discover and build an organic and fervent fan base – you must deliver guest satisfaction. This we already know. Next comes two actionable follow-ups once you've discovered these new pundits laying in wait.

First, kindly ask them to spread the good word on your behalf. Ask and you shall receive is what the good book says, no? Permission cannot be granted if you don't request it.

Train your staff and social media team to think of scripts along the lines of, "We're so glad you feel that way about hotel! It would really mean the world if you would tell your friends and family about your experience with us." Try to instill the belief that they can genuinely help your brand through their actions (which is rewarding in its own right). I'd advise against advocacy incentives in most cases; you want to earn pundits who like you for the experience you provide, not those who are only galvanized by remunerations.

Second, you must give your fans a soapbox to broadcast their support. Social media should immediately come to mind here. Whether it's retweeting on Twitter, facilitating more activity on your Facebook fan page or writing warm replies to good reviews on TripAdvisor, your fans must know that their efforts are appreciated. Make your website the hub for this activity by putting up testimonials in addition to all the proper social media icons for easy access. Again, there's nothing wrong with asking your fans for a little help.

Advertising and PR

Many would argue that traditional advertising is dead. As an advertiser and marketing consultant, my opinion here is biased, but I must absolutely disagree with this statement. (I lump public relations into this decision because it is, generally speaking, a form of broadcast targeting many people at once.)

The proponents of this advertising RIP speculation often cite the rapid diversification of channel offerings as well as the rampant success of viral marketing, to name two. To the latter, I say that this is the exception not the rule. And to the former, this segmentation simply means that you must hone your tactics and distribution to highly specified demographics and psychographics. We are moving towards a world of endless niches, not one of several catch-all buckets.

To understand why advertising is still essential to any business growth plan, you must look to the tribal nature of human beings. Yes, you may have over a thousand connections on Facebook or LinkedIn, but how many of those are actual friends who you could call this instant and request a favor requiring serious effort? In actuality, we still more or less abide by the nomadic way of life where you can only really know and influence less than 50 people. And this is a conservative overestimate; many would argue for the 'power of seven' whereby we can only truly remember intimate details and care for upwards of seven people.

Even if you dominate your comp set at converting consumers into fans, eventually these relationship management efforts will run out of steam in isolation. There's a ceiling to how many friends and relatives one fan will influence without monetary incentive (that is, without the impetus to step outside his or her immediate tribe). You need advertising to breach new social circles, ones with little to no Venn diagram overlap with other social circles for which you already have pundits in place.

Advertising is the 'foot in the door' for new social circles. But looking behind this adage will give you a better sense of comprehending why such marketing tactics must be perpetual endeavors. After you get your proverbial foot in the door, you still need to be seated on the living room sofa and give your sales spiel before the customer makes his or her purchasing decision. Whatever traditional advertising channel you have been using as your 'foot in the door' vehicle, you will nevertheless require another dose as your 'hand on the doorframe' counterpart. In this sense, you can't expect a one-off effort to get you anywhere; advertising requires repeat alongside a commendable social media campaign.

Even though it's still indispensable, this does not mean that advertising shouldn't be adapted to the times. Outside of any social media integration, what we are seeing now is a move towards more interactive, less intrusive forms of marketing. These can range from something as simple as clear calls to action in all your one-to-many channel pursuits, to smartly programmed gamification platforms on your brand.com, loyalty program website or custom mobile application (oh yeah, mobile is the future in case you hadn't already noticed). The key here is to look for ways to seamlessly incorporate advertising into the user's content stream so that it builds on the overall consumer experience.

Putting It All Together

In a nutshell, experiential marketing is the process of using consistent and creative advertising to spur new customers to stay at your hotel, and then, once on property, overwhelm them with how good your product is to the point where they feel compelled to tell their friends and families about their outstanding experience.

One vertex on the triangle feeds into the other, from advertising and PR to onsite excellence, and then to relationship management or the triggering of fans to share your product details. This is not only a linear path, however, as your successes in the latter two will make others more receptive to your advertising campaigns as well as heighten their willingness to reveal constructive criticism so that you can improve at all accounts.

What's critical here is that you cannot think of any component of experiential marketing – or your whole operations for that matter – as isolated events. Every part aids the others and therefore they must all be considered as a part of the bigger picture, which is to drive revenues and occupancy through your own endeavors as well as through those of your fans.

Reprinted from the Hotel Business Review with permission from www.HotelExecutive.com

Larry Mogelonsky

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