‘Good’ online marketing can enhance your property’s brand and boost your bottom line. ‘Bad’ marketing can have the opposite effect by diminishing your brand, which will negatively impact occupancy rates and profits.
‘Good’ means a clear, effective message using words, pictures and video that connects and engages with potential guests who share your brand values.
‘Bad’ means an unfocused and confusing message that fails to communicate what your property stands for, and why potential guests would want to stay there.
Hotels began life as simple pot-luck bed-and-board hostelries for travellers in the bad old days when getting from A to B was a long and arduous—and often risky—business.
Then came tourists, and everything changed. Simple became complex, pot-luck became fine dining, and bed-and-board became the full-service experience.
And then came the Internet, followed by OTAs, websites, social media—and growing pressure on hotels to define their brands and leverage their USPs across the full gamut of online marketing channels.
In this digital age, how you manage your brand values and USP online can mean the difference between success and failure
The drivers of today’s tourism and hotel industries are cheap air travel and—by far the biggest game-changer—the Internet. Online marketing has altered the world of hospitality beyond recognition.
In short, in this digital day and age when the message is the medium, your brand values and USP, and how you manage them both online, can mean the difference between success and failure.
Which has forced hoteliers to focus more closely on what their brands actually stand for, and what they have to offer that others don’t. In other words, what they are and, just as crucially, what they are not.
So what does your hotel stand for? What niche do you aim to fill? What is your target market? And are you succeeding because you got it right or failing because you got it wrong?
These questions should be asked and answered even at the best of times. And right now, when times could hardly be less best, leveraging your website and social media to promote and market your property has never been more important.
But many SME hoteliers, especially non-industry newcomers who jumped on the bandwagon to profit from the tourism boom, have been slow to accept—or even understand—the new reality.
The evolution of hotel marketing
Part of that new reality is that, with the collapse of bookings island-wide since the Easter Sunday hotel bombings, SME hoteliers might want to think about how they can benefit from out-of-house expertise to help them weather the storm.
For example, the Colombo agency eMarketingEye provides end-to-end digital marketing, social media, SEO (search-engine optimisation) and brand-management services for hotels around the world, including many in Sri Lanka.
Says CEO Rajitha Dahanayake: “With this existential crisis staring them in the face, Sri Lanka’s small-to-medium hoteliers need to radically revamp their branding and marketing strategies. To put it bluntly, they need to spend more. A lot more.”
Short-term recovery, he says, should focus on SEO and social-media, especially in the domestic market, with a blitz on special offers and promotions for rooms and restaurants.
Meanwhile, medium-to-long-term efforts to lure back foreign tourists should also focus on destination marketing and remarketing through the website and blog, while spending whatever it takes to boost posts, pictures and video clips on Facebook and Instagram.
The bottom line? Says Rajitha: “Invest at least $10,000 on a 6-month marketing campaign with SEO, social media and Google Ads, and $2,000 on blog content and destination marketing.”
His views are reinforced by advertising veteran Rajiv Menon, Chief Executive Creative Officer at Phoenix Ogilvy, Colombo’s affiliate of that eponymous global ad agency.
With 27 years in the business, he is in no doubt about what hoteliers, especially SMEs, must do now: “More marketing and brand promotion. Much more. Beg, borrow or steal the money if you have to. But do it.”
Menon also agrees on the importance of destination marketing. “Tourism is now a vital Sri Lankan strategic industry, so it’s not just the hotels themselves that are in trouble, the country’s trickle-down economy is also suffering.”
He says that even before the bombings, marketing and brand promotion were essential to a hotel’s need to continuously connect and engage with potential customers in its target markets.
On that subject, the Santani wellness resort in the hill country near Kandy and quirky south-coast The Owl And The Pussycat boutique near Galle, are good examples of contrasting properties that have cleverly leveraged their distinctive USPs to maximum advantage.
Identifying your USPs
Santani brands itself as “the first and only purpose-built wellness resort offering luxury escapes in Sri Lanka, designed according to the highest sustainability and eco-standards”.
“We spent more than two years searching for this pristine location,” it says, “because we understood humans heal and thrive most effectively where nature meets intelligent, sustainable design.”
Its website and online presence are handled by BenWorldwide, “a boutique agency which specializes in understanding selected clients and delivering impacting technologies solutions”.
The Owl And The Pussycat, on the other hand, “dreamed of a simple, fun and unpretentious place … with a sense of romance, food, and dancing in the moonlight. The place is tranquil, but social too. Every detail is lovingly restored and crafted by hand”.
It uses Simplotel, “a hotel technology company offering software-as-a-service (SAAS) to help hotels drive more bookings through all their channels—website, online and offline”.
Finding your unique voice
What these properties have in common—check them out—are websites and Facebook pages that clearly benefit from well-written, well thought out and engaging copy, and good pictures that illustrate and promote their individual brand values and distinctive ‘voice’.
Says Ogilvy’s Rajiv: “That essential ‘voice’ is a vital but elusive concept. Some might like it, some might not. Which is why it requires a lot of thought and empathy with the cultural preferences of your target market to get it right.
“Many Sri Lanka SME hoteliers have an ‘island mentality’ and are too emotionally involved with their properties to be able to stand back and take a dispassionate view of the best course of action.
“But this is a vitally important step in the process of branding and maintaining brand awareness, which is why it is sometimes best left to experts who have the experience and detachment to make the best ‘connect and engage’ value judgements.”
The take-away here is that, whether in-house or through an agency, effective marketing needs a clear strategy, beginning with ‘what is our message’ and ending with ‘how do we get that message across to our target demographic’.
If you manage it in-house, ensure that whoever handles the campaign knows what they’re doing and understands that every word, picture and video clip must create clear and compelling brand-value messages that potential guests can relate to and identify with.
Meeting your guests expectations while reinforcing your brand values, whatever they are, should be your number one priority.
So the last thing you want is for guests to feel disappointed and disgruntled because your hotel doesn’t measure up to the pictures on your website and social-media channels.
In fact, you should be aiming to exceed their expectations, to generate feelings of surprise and delight that the reality is actually better than they expected.
They say that a picture is worth a thousand words—but bear in mind that savvy travellers know how easily ‘fake news’ and Photoshop retouching can misrepresent reality, deliberately or otherwise.
The bottom line here is: an off-the-cuff smartphone point-and-click pic won’t do. Hire a professional photographer who specialises in showing hotels to their best advantage (while not misrepresenting the reality).
He—or she—will also know the best formats and proportions to use for the main social-media channels, including Facebook and Instagram.
The key here is—don’t overdo it. Hashtags play an important social-media role in putting your words and pictures in front of potential guests, especially on Facebook and Instagram.
But both channels are increasingly penalising blatant attempts to game the system. You’ve all seen it—a mediocre picture with a three-word caption followed by a slew of inappropriate or random hashtags.
Just as bad is a concocted and often irrelevant caption where every other word is a hashtag. This not only makes it difficult to read, it screams ‘desperation’, which will diminish your brand, not enhance it.
‘Key influencers’—professional travel bloggers who you pay in cash or kind to promote your property—can be a two-edged sword.
Their importance and value is underlined by the Cinnamon Hotels and Resorts Travel Bloggers Conference in Colombo, which every year hosts some of the world’s most influential travel writers.
However, there have also been many damaging public-relations fails when influencers have either gone ‘off message’ or otherwise landed the client in a Twitterstorm of protest about something they wrote.
The bottom line here is—research. Make a shortlist of potential bloggers, read their posts, make sure they are aligned with your brand values, and then create a detailed brief covering exactly what you want them to achieve.
They are like any other service provider, so treat them like one. Draw up a contract or MOU (memorandum of understanding), and make sure they stick to it.
Captions and SEO
Unique descriptive captions and metadata will help you achieve the best possible Google SEO rankings for your pictures.
Professional photographers know this, and will embed the picture caption and metadata keywords you provide when they process your pictures in Photoshop.
At the very least, these should include the hotel name and location, plus any information that Google will (hopefully) match to a search string.
For example: ‘A party from India enjoys the sunset at *Your Hotel* while sipping marguerites round the only salt-water pool in Galle, the historic fortress town on the picturesque south coast of Sri Lanka.’
Posting the pictures with targeted and appropriate #hashtags on social media, especially Facebook and Instagram, will help establish your brand and its values during a potential guest’s often lengthy ‘where to stay’ decision-making process.