Hotel marketers have more knowledge, data and technology than ever before, but pinpointing how consumers are likely to spend and long-term value remains an ever-shifting business, according to a panel of experts.
NASHVILLE, Tennessee—It is time to finally place the tag “millennial” in the bottom drawer when it comes to discussing, analyzing and planning hotel development, marketing and distribution, according to hoteliers.
But that does not mean hotel marketing strategies have become any less complicated.
During a panel at the recent Hotel Data Conference titled “Life stage, not age: Demystifying guest psychographics,” hoteliers said consumer behavior is far more about where the guest is in their life, how much they are willing to pay and how they identify themselves.
That is all well and good, but hoteliers still need to find those guests and provide something they want.
Dave Rubin, VP of marketing at San Francisco-based Greystone Hotels, pointed out one humorous pothole.
“I remember one analyst asking an audience to try to pinpoint what a 69-year-old with two kids would look like and then showing us photos of Ozzy Osbourne and Prince Charles. You cannot make assumptions,” he said.
Robert Arnold, president at digital travel marketing firm Vizergy, said the hotel industry “needs to do a better job at analyzing demographic data.”
That’s particularly true for independent hotels, added Jeff Senior, VP of marketing at KSL Resorts.
“The independent sector has to be better than what the brand guys are doing,” he said.
It might be music to most ears that pigeonholing is being abandoned, but panelists said marketing will always aim at something—whether it’s called segments, labels or demographics.
“Segment and target, a strategy of reaching a segment of one,” said Kathleen Hodge, manager of guest experience, analytics and strategy at Hilton.
Senior said it starts with asking what might be missing.
“Initially, there is a whole universe of people, then perhaps there is this generational thing, and then you start building down. The Holy Grail is the individual,” he said.
A somewhat vicious circle exists that puts consumers in groups and then makes hoteliers market to them, which makes those groups real, panelists said.
“When academics coin a term, journalists jump on it and social media cements it,” Senior said. “Then you need mobile strategies, as having only one does not work, and then you have little niches all over the place. But when you think about the term, baby boomers kind of works, but millennials, no.”
More data, not less
Panelists said data and technology must be applied at even greater lengths to help eradicate assumptions about different generations of travelers.
Technology is becoming cheaper, more sophisticated and available at the property level, not just the chain level, panelists said. But hoteliers need to do more than crunch the numbers.
“We’re looking at social forums that go beyond data,” Hodge said. “People now interact in a different way. It is definitely an art as well as a science, with larger, more powerful databases that can develop models and test numerous variables.
“But with so much data out there, it’s hard to find what truly is meaningful.”
Senior said the process must start with what the asset or brand stands for and what it offers the target customer.
“That often gets lost,” he said. “Then design comes in to the picture, and then you say, great, but has anyone found the customer yet? I am a real fan of knowing what you already have. We have to have (key performance indicators) on everything, and we have made some of those up. Measure your success again and then test from there.”
Rubin said Greystone’s investment in technology allowed the company to bring more data, but that’s only one side of the equation.
“Then we ask some untraditional questions: What are your favorite TV shows, favorite magazines? Because in most hotel questionnaires, the questions are similar,” he said. “Then you have to ask who exactly it is who decides on the hotel.”
Trails to Holy Grails
The notion that an increase in data is leading to an increase in segmentation and brands is also complicating matters.
“The industry now is building hotels that match a certain process, and that is a 180-degree change. That’s amazing,” Arnold said.
Senior added: “This reaches right to the heart of what brands are today and allows brands to take on life.”
The sharp lines of data analytics are regularly blurred by factors such as guests who do not look like the target audience but might feel an affinity to that offering, panelists said.
“Chasing trends can be bad,” Rubin said.
Arnold added: “We can find so much about customers. It is all doable, but it is not inexpensive, although the logic suggests perhaps it should all be getting cheaper.”
Tech-generated binary data, however, doesn’t negate the need for anecdotal understanding and intuition, panelists said.
“Now we need to go out and dig deeper beyond the binary data point, which is the qualitative data, and I think everyone is doing that. Keywords are getting more expensive,” Senior said.
He added a key consideration for hoteliers is how to “use your finite bucket of cash in the most efficient way, to find that clarity around social tools, which are getting better with every day.”
“Everyone has access to the same tools, so the strategy you decide upon is what will determine the winners from the losers,” Senior said. “I do look for blue space that will give me some wiggle room for some period of time before my competitors see that, too, and then I move on to the next one.”
An automated revenue-management system is an investment all hoteliers need to make, he said, as “they provide another layer—that is, booking.”
Rubin added “anything that narrows down the data is useful.”
The future is more tech, more data and the need for more hotelier-guest touchpoints, panelists said.
Data will be pinched more so that it results in a closer alignment with targeted customers that provides long-term value, they said.
“It will all lead to a culture of being more agile and touching customers more via numerous channels,” Hodge said.