AUSTIN, Texas—Hoteliers are so busy managing the different sales channels that often times they can forget a key point in the distribution process: focus on the customer touch points and how you can improve your guest’s experience at those points.
There are seven stages of travel planning, said Robert Cole, CEO of RockCheetah, on a panel Tuesday at the Hospitality Industry Technology Exposition and Conference. He said hoteliers can gain a better understanding of how consumers prepare for travel by improving their guest experience at each of those seven major steps: inspiration, research, planning, validation, booking, travel, and sharing.
“Distribution isn’t technology; distribution is bringing your product to the guest,” Cole said. “You’ve got to be highly customized; one size doesn’t fit all. With the difference of hotel brands, obviously they should have different personalities.”
Cole said the hotel industry has some big challenges in understanding and adapting to customer travel planning behavior and it “doesn’t look like we’re executing very well.”
So the panel walked through the seven stages of travel planning from a customer’s standpoint to help the audience understand their customers and build experiences for them:
Great Wolf Resorts doesn’t have too many competitors in the hotel space, but the properties do compete against other family entertainment, said Alan Genin, corporate director of revenue management with Great Wolf Resorts. Therefore, the company feels it is a great candidate to use social media as an inspiration point for potential guests.
Pricing is difficult at Great Wolf properties, because they are dealing primarily with leisure travelers and not business travelers with a corporate card.
“People take more time in decision making when it’s coming out of their checking account,” Genin said.
One tool Great Wolf has introduced to reach the guest at the inspiration level is “Ask-A-Mom,” a panel of 20 moms who have stayed at various Great Wolf properties and will answer questions online for potential guests.
“We’ve worked to not only be present in those mediums but foster that conversation on GreatWolf.com (www.greatwolf.com),” Genin said. “We want to have enough photos and video submitted from the guest that the most content on our site is user generated. We are making our site the conduit for discussions.”
Genin said Great Wolf recently ran a breakfast promotion that was US$20 or US$30 over the going rate. At the same time, they also offered a breakfast a la carte option. The a la carte option sold nine times more, even though it was US$10 more expensive, Genin said.
“People want 100% control of what they’re getting,” he said.
At Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, much research goes into the different types of guests, and then the resort’s website is tailored to offer different experiences for each of those guests. Guests can login on the website to “MyMammoth” where they can track their progress around the mountain, such as how many feet and days they’ve skied.
“Our goal with MyMammoth is to communicate with the customer on a more personalized basis,” said Ran Weerasuriya, director of revenue management at Mammoth Mountain.
Thomas Patchin, senior VP of interactive marketing with Station Casinos, said his job is to ensure the guests are making the right choice by selecting Station Casinos (http://www.stationcasinos.com/). He said the company has introduced their own internal flash sale program, similar to Groupon, so they don’t have to pay the large commissions to other flash sale sites.
To improve the validation portion of a guest’s booking experience, Kurien Jacob, senior VP of revenue and distribution with Highgate Hotels (http://www.highgatecareers.com/), spends a great deal of time looking at guests’ actions on a hotel website. He’s trying to figure out at what point a guest gets turned away and decides to either do more research or book elsewhere.
“At every stage in the booking process there is a leak,” Jacob said. “The key is to find out where that leak is.”
By studying bounce rates from Google Analytics, Jacob said Highgate has boosted its conversion rates from 3% to 6%.
“You should have that data, not your webpage provider or anyone else,” he said.
Loren Gray, director of e-commerce for Ocean Properties, prides himself on the creativity of social-media campaigns that actually get guests to the hotel. He focuses on the hotels’ “hyperlocal” markets, or competitors within walking distance.
For example, teams at Ocean hotels will “steal” guests from the competitive set by viewing the competitor’s Twitter account, following all of their followers, hope they follow back and then give them something free.
On Foursquare, he recommends guests that “check in” for the first time should get something free, like an appetizer from the restaurant.
“It’s ground-level stuff at your hyperlocal market, but it’s what supports the foot traffic,” he said.
Panelists were in agreement that hoteliers can get all parts of the travel planning process right, but most importantly they need to deliver a valued guest experience once the guest is on property. It’s critical that hoteliers create unique experiences at their hotels if they want guests to return.
Tanya Pratt, executive director of customer information systems with Fairmont Raffles Hotels International, showed the audience different guest-facing tools and landing pages that Fairmont (http://www.fairmont.com/EN_FA/AboutFairmont/) uses to assist with travel research.
Fairmont offers the ability for past guests to share photos, video and comments within the brand.com website. She said the company was developing these tools in 2007 when Facebook and Twitter weren’t as prominent. If they were to develop them today, Fairmont would consider housing these tools within a third-party social media site like Facebook or Twitter rather than internally.