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If you’re a hotel marketer in 2020, you’ve become pretty familiar with the term ‘crisis management’.
This isn’t a year of growth – this is a year of pure survival, with government assistance, border re-openings and customer loyalty the only things keeping the hospitality industry afloat.
Some hotels will collapse in the next six months. That’s a given.
International travel won’t resume, even in limited form, until at least 2021, and domestic spending will be impacted by a lack of consumer confidence.
Here in Australia, it’s widely predicted that a sector-wide collapse will occur if government support isn’t extended until well into next year.
Three things will separate the survivors from those who go under:
- Extensive cash reserves.
- Ruthless cost-cutting.
- Great marketing.
It’s too late to build a financial safety net, and virtually all hotel brands have started shedding non-essential expenses.
Marketing is the one thing that you can do differently right now to bring in guests and stave off more cuts.
To that end, I’ve put together five things every hotel marketer should be doing during and after COVID-19. And, no, these don’t involve throwing thousands of dollars you don’t have at expensive campaigns – these are low-cost initiatives designed to work in with your existing strategy.
1. Manage customer expectations
A post popped up in my LinkedIn feed recently, a solid paragraph of text lambasting customers for not having more patience with hotels in the wake of COVID-19. Why weren’t customers being fairer, the poster lamented – didn’t they understand how difficult it was in hospitality at the moment?
As someone who’s spent time on the frontlines of review aggregators, scrolling through furious TripAdvisor rants and past unintelligible 1-star Google My Business reviews, I can sympathise.
But the marketer in me thinks: when are customers ever fair?
That’s not a complaint. It’s recognition that people who are paying for a product or service aren’t happy when they feel it’s not up to scratch. After all, it’s not their problem – it’s ours. Businesses exist in response to need. It should always be our aim to solve the problems of our customers, even the ones we might feel are being difficult or unreasonable.
So when something like COVID-19 happens (where we don’t really have a choice about closures, social distancing and the rest), it’s up to marketers and PR practitioners to manage the expectations of our customers.
Reputational crises emerge when there’s a disparity in stakeholder expectations and reality – a customer thinks they’re getting one thing, the hotel serves up something different, and, voila, the customer isn’t happy.
If we can help our guests understand exactly what their stay will be like in a post-COVID environment, we can help avoid disappointment on both sides.
If a service is closed (spas, restaurants, pools, et cetera), make it obvious throughout the booking process. I’ve seen a number of complaints recently where customers booked accommodation, only to find out on arrival that the thing they booked for wasn’t open.
“But, Duncan,” you’re probably thinking. “We have a disclaimer on our website already – surely the customers noticed it?”
No. Probably not. Most people scan, not scour. You need any closure announcements to be specific and unmissable, preferably somewhere on the booking form; if bookings are made via phone, make sure your staff reiterate it.
I’m not saying you want to dissuade your customers from booking. You can spin it however you want (“our pool might be closed, but it’s the perfect time of year to visit the beach!”). Just make sure your guests have all the information, or you risk losing a repeat customer and getting a negative review in a time when hotels need all the help they can to simply survive.
2. Constantly monitor customer touchpoints
You know what scares people more than anything? The unknown.
That’s especially true when we’re in the middle of a constantly evolving situation like COVID-19, where hotspots, lockdowns and government regulations are changing day-to-day.
Customers need reliable information, and they’re looking to their service providers to give it to them.
Here’s some key information you want to be reiterating to people:
- What the current government regulations are in your geographic region (particularly whether people from other states/countries can travel there)
- Whether you’re open for business, and, if so, your current hours
- What social distancing and hygiene measures you’ve implemented
- Anything else that’s relevant to a guest staying at one of your properties
All of this should be easily visible on your website and booking platforms. But, even if it is, you’re still going to get questions from panicking guests who are really concerned about their holidays.
With that in mind, you need to be fast on the draw when it comes to Facebook Messenger, Instagram DMs, FB Page comments, emails, automated chats, phone messages, Google My Business and any other communication channel you have.
The faster you respond, the safer people will feel. The safer they feel, they more likely they’ll be to book with you (instead of one of your competitors).
Quick responses to customer queries should be standard anyway, but it’s particularly important during a crisis.
Set up an FAQ page
Typing out individual responses to customers is a waste of time, particularly if you’ve cut staff and/or budgets. To make things easier, set up a COVID-19 FAQ page on your website and keep it updated. You can then easily redirect customers to it, or just copy-paste the answers it contains.
The most commonly asked questions should be at the top of the page, and then flow down in order of popularity. Use an accordion table to make navigation easier for users.
3. Use content to inspire customers
So we’ve covered keeping existing guests happy, and helping leads become bookings. But what about all the people out there who aren’t ready to book yet?
Think about them – they’re not the avid holidaymakers who turn up every year without fail, or the nonchalant wanderers who view COVID with a ‘she’ll be right mate’ attitude.
No, the majority of your guests are probably average Aussies who enjoy regular holidays with their families. They might have kids. They most likely have mortgages. And they’re probably pretty worried about what’s coming later in the year (a second wave, the end of JobKeeper, the economic ramifications, et cetera).
They’re already unsure about spending all that money on holidays, and the complexity of organising a holiday when a lot of places are shut or have limited hours is overwhelming.
It’s our job, as marketers, to speak to them. To reassure them. To help them remember that holidays aren’t just a change of scenery – they’re an invaluable way to bolster our mental health, to restore balance to our lives, to bring our respective families closer together.
We can do that through content. Nothing’s changed, except people are actually now in need of a holiday more than ever before (whether they realise it or not). So, to solve that problem, we can create itineraries, guides, practical pieces that help address their concerns.
Here are some key areas to focus on:
- Advice on travelling safely. Respond to conscious and subconscious fears about catching COVID-19 with research-backed content.
- Drive-to itineraries. Show people how they can have an enjoyable holiday without the cost (and risk) of air travel – creating an itinerary makes it easier for them to visualise their own holiday, even if they choose not to follow the exact layout.
- Reminders about the outcomes of booking a hotel stay (not features or benefits). Creating memories, bringing families closer together, better mental health, greater work productivity and experience-based learning are all outcomes of holidaying.
- Money-saving travel tips. Tap into trending concerns about job security and economic collapse by examining ways to travel more affordably – a holiday doesn’t have to mean throwing away your financial safety net.
- Attractions and itineraries which prioritise wide, natural spaces. Social distancing is still in place, so visiting national parks or natural wonders is a great way to both follow the rules and combat months of lockdown-induced cabin fever.
If your budgets have been cut and your team’s tied up with other tasks, think about hiring us to produce content for you. We can work to briefs or conceptualise original ideas on our own – check out our content writing services here.
4. Change the focus from fear to opportunity.
Hospitality – and other sectors of the economy – have been devastated by the coronavirus. Many employees have lost their jobs. But, in some industries, the past few months have been a time of opportunity. SaaS companies, health supplies manufacturers and fresh produce vendors have all enjoyed a massive growth surge.
People are in a similar position when it comes to travel. On one hand, destination choice has become limited to domestic locations (with the possibility of a travel bubble in the future). On the other, hoteliers and airlines are offering big discounts, making it the perfect time to book highly affordable holidays.
Point this out across your marketing. Even if you’re not offering discounts on accommodation, share cheap airline tickets on social media. Highlight special deals on travel experiences. Put out a message of positivity – there is opportunity here, so come and seize it, and don’t let your fear hold you back.
5. Seize the opportunity to differentiate yourself from OTAs and home-sharing services
If you’ve worked in hospitality for even a short time, you know that two of the biggest threats to hoteliers are OTAs (online travel agencies) and home-sharing services like Airbnb.
There have been a number of high-profile ‘book direct’ campaigns over the last few years, orchestrated in response to OTAs, which typically take between 15 and 30 per cent of a guest’s booking fee and chew into hotels’ profit margins at an almost unsustainable rate.
Airbnb is harder to combat, mostly because there aren’t sufficient government regulations in place to manage how and where its host houses operate. Many travellers view Airbnbs as more authentic than hotels – they’re normally also cheaper.
In my opinion, neither OTAs nor Airbnb can truly replace hotels – OTAs were once in symbiosis with hoteliers but are now essentially gatekeepers demanding ever-increasing tolls, while Airbnbs generally can’t match the comfort, security or service that comes with more traditional accommodation.
But both are having a serious financial impact on accommodation providers, which is exactly why hotels need to seize opportunities like COVID-19 to distinguish themselves. In the middle of a crisis, showcase those traits which make you better.
Travellers will be looking for accommodation with two primary qualities (in addition to whatever they normally want): cleanliness, followed by affordability.
Emphasise your rigorous COVID safety procedures. Make it clear to guests exactly what extra steps you’ve taken to keep them comfortable and healthy. A campaign focusing on this will help draw bookings while still differentiating you from house-sharing services (and other, less meticulous hotels).
At the same time, consider implementing a ‘book direct’ campaign – explain to travellers the benefits they’ll get from booking with you over an OTA, and emphasise that the money spent via direct bookings goes into supporting local businesses and keeping their fellow countrymen employed (versus going into the deep, deep pockets of multinational conglomerates).
Got any tips I’ve missed? Anything that your brand is doing well right now? Let me know in the comments.