Stereotypes based on generational membership are no more telling than stereotypes based on gender, race or ethnicity, and are causing major missteps in marketing and training within the hotel industry.
As an avid reader of a half-dozen daily lodging industry trade publications and several leading mainstream news sources, rarely does a day go by when I don’t see at least one new opinion article or survey talking about the characteristics of the so-called millennial generation. Marketing budgets are being deployed, recruitment plans are being devised, training rollouts are being designed, and hotel brands are being launched to target the theoretical psychographic needs of this age-based demographic.
I certainly recognize there is some value in looking at general trends on a macro level, such as for marketing and HR recruiting and training. It also makes a fun topic for conference presentations and blog postings, by the way. However, I think our industry has gone too far in accepting these stereotypes as absolute actionable facts.
From what I see personally in conducting about 75 frontline hotel training workshops throughout North America each year, many managers have become biased about all of the so-called “facts” about millennials to the point of being prejudiced against younger workers. Way too often during pre-training consultations, sidebar discussions and coffee breaks, I hear managers bemoaning younger colleagues with complaints that start out with “You know these millennials always …” or comments such as “Yeah, a typical millennial... .”
The worst example of generational stereotyping can be seen in a video skit called “Millennial Job Interview” on YouTube, which went viral almost overnight. In four months, it has more than 3.25 million views. Many whom I have spoken with find this video and these stereotypes to be hurtful.
From a strategic marketing perspective, generational stereotyping seems to be to be causing major hotel companies to dilute their core brands with too many ill-defined “lifestyle” offerings. Similarly, an over-reliance on generational targeting is causing marketing campaigns to underperform.
Instead, as hotel marketing expert John Fareed wrote in a recent article for HNN: “Today’s consumers are breaking free from expected demographic boundaries, making traditional profiling much less relevant. They are crafting their own identities more freely than ever, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, income, education, sexual preference, household makeup, or where they choose to live.”
From a training perspective, the largest hotel companies seem to be deploying all training via online learning these days in an over-reaction to this stereotype, having nearly eliminated all traditional, in-person training events. Certainly, some training can be very effective this way, such as training on technology, systems and well defined routine processes. However, it is difficult to teach intangible soft-skills such as leadership, sales and hospitality via online learning only. For me, anecdotal evidence of the value of such is handwritten notes on workshop evaluations from millennial-aged participants to the effect of “Wow, this was a really wonderful experience to attend something like this for the first time.”
It seems the term millennials was first coined by William Strauss and Neil Howe in their book entitled “Generations.” They are credited with what many now call the “Strauss-Howe Generational Theory.”
Most researchers in this school of thought attempt to classify all of us into one of five groups most commonly called: The Silent Generation, The Great Generation, Baby Boom Generation, Generation X and Millennials. Then of course we have Generation Z, also known as the iGeneration or as I prefer to call them, the Y2Kers, of which my own children are among the first to reach adulthood.
Once again, conducting research and reading the results of the analysis of these named generations has some value. On a macro level they might even provide some tangible evidence on cultural preferences, behaviors, attitudes and habits.
But we need to pull-back and recognize them for what they are; simply the imaginary creations to personify the psychographics and demographics of various and imprecise age groups. So how is it that the entire lodging industry, and for that matter consumer researchers everywhere, have put so much faith in one school of thought?
To me, it seems that the generational stereotyping has become so prevalent that it is leading to bias in many of the decisions being made. I believe that stereotypes based on generational membership are no more telling than stereotypes based on gender, race or ethnicity.
There are “generational stereotype busters” around every day at work and in our personal lives. For example, my older brother Dan, born in 1953 at the core of the Boomer years, is one of the most tech-savvy, early adopting personalities imaginable. My daughter Julia, born in late 1997 is also very tech-savvy, hates to take online courses and picked her university to avoid them. She also prefers to study from physical textbooks versus reading online whenever possible. When it comes to needing customer service assistance, she never calls—but she doesn’t text or email either—she prefers to go into the bank, pharmacy or airline counter in person whenever possible.
When it comes to recruiting, training and managing people, hoteliers need to keep an open mind and look at individual personalities, not stereotypes.
With marketing, hoteliers need to consider the travel experiences guests are looking for at that moment, instead of mass-marketing to imaginary generations. There are many of us Boomers who are young at heart and—having raised our kids and sent them off to college—prefer to stay at “lifestyle” hotels with unique character and authentic local flavor and a hipster vibe. Alternatively, there are plenty of leading-age millennials, now in their late 30s with blooming families they started late in life, who are looking for the travel traditions we embraced when we were raising our kids.
While traditional demographics still play into consumer segmentation, it’s much more useful to get a deeper understanding of why consumers are considering traveling to your hotel or resort. Are they seeking an escape or adventure, emotional self-renewal, traveling for business, wanting to reconnect with family, looking for romance, seeking a new cultural experience, or any one of a hundred different reasons?
As Fareed writes, “Rather than marketing to a narrowly defined demographic, hoteliers must embrace the new post-demographic landscape, and position their brands, products, services and marketing messages in a way that allows traveling consumers to express their individuality—not grouped in a pre-determined herd of sameness.”
So come on hoteliers, let’s not gobble up and digest everything we read about millennial stereotypes as if it was undisputed fact. Keep an open mind, talk to your staff and guests as individuals and avoid being biased by all these studies and trust intuition and instinct.
Doug Kennedy is president of the Kennedy Training Network, Inc. a leading provider of hotel sales, guest service, reservations and front desk training programs and telephone mystery shopping services for the lodging and hospitality industry. Kennedy has been a fixture on the industry’s conference circuit for hotel companies, brands and associations for more than two decades. Since 1996, Kennedy’s monthly training articles have been published worldwide, making him one of the most widely read hospitality industry authorities. Visit KTN at www.kennedytrainingnetwork.com or email him directly email@example.com. He is the author of “So You REALLY Like Working With People? - Five Principles for Hospitality Excellence.”
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