With metrics floundering and the economy softening, independents need to be savvier and more attractive both to guests and potential employees.
NASHVILLE, Tennessee—Operating without a brand in this age of slowing revenue-per-available-room growth and owners being lured in by both brands and soft brands is not easy, but good independent hoteliers still have a sufficient array of artillery to drive revenue to even greater heights, according to sources.
Speaking at a Hotel Data Conference panel titled “Independent but not unbranded,” panelists said the same weapons available to brands are available to independents. Revenue management—and the talent needed for it—is at the top of the list.
“There is more flexibility in independents to work with developing roles, but where independents find it really hard to adapt to is with technology,” said Wendy Norris, corporate director of revenue and e-commerce at Valencia Hotel Group.
Talent is needed, but so are the systems and processes to allow that talent to thrive.
“When we find talent, we hold on to it,” said Rhett Hirko, global VP of revenue optimization at Preferred Hotels & Resorts.
He added that interviews and continued education is thorough and makes sure that personnel will support the hotel and so that they have something to put on their resumes.
Purvi Panwala, board member of the Asian American Hotel Owners Association and owner of hotel management, acquisition and development firm Purvi LLC, said technology still plays a complementary role to the human decision-making process.
“You must have the tools in place, the software to help guide decisions,” Panwala said.
Norris said she is seeing far more synergy between departments in the independent space that helps grow top-line revenue and cut costs. Hirko added that while that is true for Preferred at the corporate level, it is inevitably less on the property level of his type of membership organization.
A great on-boarding process is required for all new talent, which should be followed by the training necessary to make them be empowered, Panwala said.
“You cannot be cheap about labor,” she said.
Panelists said another talent consideration centers on safety issues for guests—and much of the impetus for that comes from the airlines—on such subjects as training around sex-trade and slavery issues and terror incidents.
“If my employees want training, I will pay for that, as that keeps labor,” Panwala said.
Hirko said it is important to have staff attend conferences, study and obtain hotel industry certification qualifications.
“Keep an internal check on this, and relay that if they do not do what is necessary, it will hit their bonus,” Hirko said. “We love to reward, but we also have to keep up with staff accountability, too.”
Norris added that key performance indicators have to be analyzed during year-end reviews.
Market and direct
Hirko said one of the big conversations going on now in the soft-brand independent space is how to educate hoteliers on latest operations trends.
“(Corporate) brands can put the proverbial gun to the head of GMs and say, ‘You have to do this promotion,’ but that does not always work in independents,” he said. “You will have hoteliers say, ‘Well, I do not understand revenue management, but I understand an oven makes bread, so I will buy the oven.’ That is, rather than understanding that good revenue management will be able to buy you a better oven.”
Marketing, providing experiences, gaining direct bookings and creative distribution are other weapons in the independent hotel tool kit.
“We can be creative—something people still are clinging on to is to work with influencers,” Panwala said, who added hoteliers needed to do their homework to make sure these internet celebrities are strategic and credible.
“They can also give you the photography that sometimes it is hard and expensive for the hotels to get, but ask to look at them before use, as they might be as bad as they are good,” Norris said.
Hirko said his company is not interested in broad marketing.
“We target to see the return on investment,” he said.
Independent hoteliers need to take the reins in terms of marketing. Panelists said independent hotels speak for themselves, and customers come to them because they are looking for a curated experience.
“As soon as the guest gets to the hotel, they want to start experiencing the hotel or the city,” Panwala said.
She said the springboard for that experience is what the hotel has marketed, and the guest will book that hotel because of that promised experience.
“You have to show your standards through your marketing, as guests will already know what they’ll get with the brands, but not with you,” Panwala said. “Social media is even more important for independents, and you have to be savvy.”
Susan Spinney Corlett, VP of owner relations for Expedia Group, said independent hotels have to make sure they thoroughly know their guests because they might only get one chance.
Panwala said hotels that do not have a loyalty program probably do lose a little grip, but that there are programs out there that independents can hook into rather than launching their own.