Marketing experts warn against ‘going dark’ digitally
Marketing experts warn against ‘going dark’ digitally
15 APRIL 2020 8:17 AM

Despite the current demand slump, hoteliers should be marketing now to future guests, as well as those still able to travel, experts said on a recent HSMAI webinar.

REPORT FROM THE U.S.—Marketing costs might seem like an easy target for hoteliers looking to control costs during the current crisis, but going digitally dark right now is apt to have negative effects on a property that will linger once guests are ready to travel again, experts said.

On a recent webinar hosted by Hospitality Sales and Marketing Association International (HSMAI), Dan Wacksman, principal at hotel consulting firm Sassato and chairman of HSMAI’s marketing advisory board, said hoteliers should rethink the “instinct to slam on the brakes” with their marketing campaigns.

“When the financial tide is low like it is now, the inclination is always to cut costs as deeply as possible. Clearly we’ve been seeing this in the industry with layoffs (and) hotel closures. In many instances, this may be the right decision, but … this is not always the smart thing to do,” he said.

“Going dark can have long-term negative implications. You really should leave enough gas in the tank to prepare for the recovery so you’re ready for when demand starts picking up. You really don’t want to be in a position where demand starts picking up and you’re not in a position to capitalize on it.”

Building momentum for that future demand must start now, said Stuart Butler, COO at marketing firm Fuel.

“Think of this as almost an opening of a hotel. You don’t start marketing the day you open the doors; you start six months before. You’ve got to get momentum. You can’t just switch on a faucet and expect demand to show up,” he said.

Tammie Carlisle, head of hospitality at marketing firm Milestone, said hotels might not be marketing at the same levels as before, but creativity and very targeted messaging will be needed.

She said that starts with serving those who are and can still travel and buy hotel roomnights, from long-haul truckers to first-responders, and capitalizing on different needs—for example, offering businesses day rates for office-use rooms.

“No one has a crystal ball. We don’t know when demand is going to come back. But the ones who stay ahead are going to do better in the next six months,” Carlisle said.

The experts highlighted three areas of focus for hotel marketing during the COVID-19 pandemic: messaging, tactics for managing channels and partner/vendor communication.

Butler said in some sense, with messaging to potential guests, “it doesn’t matter so much what you’re sending; it’s more about an emotional connection.”

“People will remember how you treated them during the darkest times,” he said.

As such, a hotel’s overall approach, he said, should be sincere, helpful, optimistic, reassuring and empathetic. But messaging also must be informative, timed appropriately and on-brand, he said.

Changes to policy due to the health crisis should be “front and center” on a hotel’s website “to answer guest questions and concerns,” he said.

“Don’t bury it. This isn’t the small print at the bottom of a contract. This is information people want to know,” Butler said.

Hotel messaging should also:

  • focus on future stays or niches;
  • acknowledge and address fears;
  • provide value;
  • offer hope and inspiration; and
  • filter to specific audiences.

Tactics and channels
Now is also the time for hoteliers to examine all their marketing channels to ensure they are accurate and “ahead of the curve” for the recovery, Carlisle said.

That includes updating your hotel listing and info on social channels and on Google, she said.

Google won’t penalize hotels from a search-engine optimization perspective if the property is listed as temporarily closed, she noted.

“Come up with a game plan for when we come out of this and grow,” she advised. “It’s about who can be faster to market on the recovery side.”

Wacksman, whose experience includes a stint as SVP of marketing and distribution for Outrigger Hotels and Resorts, said hoteliers who don’t advocate now for continued marketing spend are likely “to be playing catch-up” with their competition and the online travel agencies.

“Your old strategy and tactics are not likely to work in this new reality. Many of your competitors might not be ready, but I can guarantee you, the OTAs will be,” he said, noting that after a crisis, there tends to be a shift in share away from direct-booking to booking on OTAs.

Partner/vendor communication
Hoteliers rely heavily on their marketing partners and vendors, and must be attentive to that relationship during a crisis, Wacksman said.

“It’s a good time to be talking to your partners,” he said.

In addition to a wellness check, that conversation now should include an assessment of key contracts and agreements to determine the current need for the partner or service, as well as the preferred outcome.

“That could range from canceling a contract to business as usual or something in between,” Wacksman said.

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