Are travel guides still relevant?
Are travel guides still relevant?
28 SEPTEMBER 2015 8:43 AM
Hotel marketers still see value in using ratings from AAA TourBooks and the Forbes Travel Guide as cornerstones of their marketing efforts.
REPORT FROM THE U.S.—At one time, AAA TourBooks and the Mobil Travel Guide (now Forbes Travel Guide) were the Bibles of the traveling public. The guides’ Star (Mobil) and Diamond (AAA) ratings were singular resources for consumers to determine which hotels to book.
And while the advent of the Internet and user-generated review sites such as TripAdvisor have largely usurped the role of printed travel guides, they’re still important tools for many travelers and hotel marketing executives.
“It might be old school, but we still believe it is an honor to be a Forbes Five-Star and a AAA Five-Diamond winner,” said Barry Brown, VP of sales and marketing at The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The 800-room resort is the longest consecutive winner of both the Five-Star and Five-Diamond awards in the hotel industry. “We leverage these honors on the professional side of the business, meaning travel agents and other professionals. It doesn’t take away from reviews on user-generated travel sites, because there is a lot of content that gets shared this way, but Forbes and AAA represent a professionals’ accreditation for us,” Brown said.
Lasting legacies
Steve Shaffer, media manager for Vantage Hospitality Group, agrees that AAA TourBooks are still relevant marketing tools for hotels, but he sees their influence waning.
“We do some marketing with them, but not as much as we used to do,” he said. Vantage does some advertising in the books on a corporate level and assists member hoteliers to place regional advertising in the medium.
“Travelers still use them as a resource, and (our members) still get leads from them. There is still a slice of the audience that is still using it. It is diminishing bit by bit every year, but for now it is still large and still important,” Shaffer said. 
Measuring effectiveness of the TourBooks as an advertising source is another issue for Shaffer.
“It’s difficult to track return on investment, and while online media has its issues, it’s still better than some traditional media as far as tracking goes,” Shaffer said. “We find its value is more anecdotal; some travelers will go to a hotel and mention they chose it because of the books.”
AAA’s travel program and TourBooks are an integral part of Best Western Hotels & Resorts’ operational and marketing plans, said Glen MacDonell, managing director of loyalty programs and partnership marketing.
“We look at our partnership with AAA as multi-faceted and multi-media,” he said. “Part of it is the TourBooks, which reach a sizable audience of leisure travelers. And while it’s not where we invest all of our money, it reaches a segment of the market we rely very heavily on.”
As part of its corporate marketing message, Best Western touts its designation as the AAA/CAA Hotel Partner of the Year for each of the past six years. The brand offers its members special volume pricing to place ads in AAA TourBooks and provides templates members can use to create their ads.
“We encourage properties in certain markets—especially high-compression markets where they need to be represented—to take a serious look at advertising. It all goes back to the marketplace in which they operate. In a lot of places if they’re not visible they’ll be missing out on business,” MacDonell said.
For Todd Moyer, GM of the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Sioux City, Iowa, his property’s Four-Diamond designation has advantages beyond marketing.
“We feel it will be a great recruiting tool for the hotel,” he said. The 54-room property opened in August 2014 and last month received its Four-Diamond award. “The best employees want to work with the best teams, so this AAA designation tells prospective team members we have a great product that is run by great operators and great trainers. That’s an environment a lot of people want to work in. And those that feel that’s not an environment for them probably won’t apply to work here.”
It’s in the Stars or Diamonds
Origins of the AAA TourBook date back to 1917, and today the company publishes 33 regional books covering the United States and Canada. The books, along with other travel assistance materials, are available to 55 million AAA members in the U.S. and Canada. The 2015 edition of the TourBooks included 121 Five-Diamond winners in the U.S., Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean.
Mobil Oil launched its travel guide in 1958 as a way to sell more gasoline and to help Americans navigate travel choices, said Gerard Inzerillo, CEO of Forbes Travel Guide. In recent years, the Forbes Travel Guide has expanded beyond North America to Mexico, Europe the Caribbean and Asia. Its most recent listings included 115 Five-Star hotels, the most in the guide’s history.
Both guidebooks employ inspectors to visit and rate hotels. Those inspections lead to the Star or Diamond designations. Only inspected and approved properties are included in the guides.
“Best Western requires all of our properties to be AAA-approved,” MacDonell said. “It’s one thing to have a (quality assurance) process, which all major brands do, but this provides an additional endorsement for our member properties.”
Michael Petrone, director of AAA inspections and diamond ratings at AAA, said AAA updates its inspection guidelines about every five years and relies on member surveys and input from hoteliers to shape changes. Similarly, Forbes maintains a 24-member standards advisory committee that includes hoteliers, restaurateurs and spa operators to review changes in inspection criteria.
Who uses them?
The demographics of users of printed travel guides tend to be older, and MacDonell of Best Western embraces that fact.
“As one would expect, it is the traditional 50- to 65-year-old demographic,” he said. “But in the hotel business, on a year-in and year-out basis, that’s a really important segment. These are folks who travel not only during the summer but off-peak as well, which is very important for us.”
Moyer of the Hard Rock Sioux City said the AAA imprimatur carries weight in many demographic groups.  
“The AAA brand is the most recognized and trusted travel brand in the country, and even people who aren’t members or might think of it as something their parents might join still know, appreciate and recognize AAA and the Four-Diamond logo,” Moyer said. “They know it means something real and has been around forever. It means something both on the physical side as to what kind of amenities and size and comfort of the room, but they also know it stands for service.”
Brown of The Broadmoor believes travel guides play a role in decision making for all age groups.
“I’m not so quick to dismiss millennials as non-believers when it comes to these guides,” he said. “When people of all ages are looking for vacations, many of them don’t have a clue of where they want to go. They’ll check 20 sites before they book, and the fact is (The Broadmoor) will bubble in a list of Forbes or AAA ratings, and that gives us credibility.”

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