How awareness strategies can help independent hotels
How awareness strategies can help independent hotels
28 SEPTEMBER 2016 12:22 PM

Independent hoteliers often don’t have the marketing dollars to compete with the OTAs and metasearch engines when it comes to SEO. The answer, it seems, is to adopt smarter—and cheaper—online awareness strategies.

REPORT FROM THE U.S.—Independent hoteliers looking to build and maintain online awareness are frequently turning away from big-ticket channels like TripAdvisor and Google AdWords, which are increasingly dominated by cash-rich online travel agencies and metasearch providers. In cases like these when the “awareness game” is a steep pay-to-play proposition, many independents are simply forfeiting the match.

But some hoteliers are redirecting their energy toward finding more level playing fields by getting creative and taking matters into their own hands and nurturing online awareness organically through methods that combine digital-age tools with textbook, old-school one-to-one marketing. These hoteliers are finding that a world-class website, rich content, email marketing and social media are all budget-conscious, yet highly effective digital promotion methods.

“We are not doing as much with AdWords this year as we have in previous years because of the change in how meta searches are buying up all the key locations on general search engines,” said Randy Griffin, EVP of sales and marketing at Marshall Hotels & Resorts. “The top four OTAs spent $3.5 billion in marketing and advertising last year. Marriott’s top line global room revenue is $3.8 billion. There’s no way the brands or an independent hotel can compete with that kind of marketing buying power. The OTAs own no brick and mortar, own no obligations to keep the hotels; they’re commoditizing it and leveraging us against ourselves.”

The answer, according to sources, is to invest in relationships with the OTAs and metasearch sites, make those the starting points for potential guests researching trips, then drive those “lookers” toward a hotel’s own website, which should offer deeper content and information on the property than what is shown on the intermediaries’ pages. This allows hotels to use the massive presence of the OTAs and metasearch engines, without having to compete with them for paid searches. Paying for “re-targeting” campaigns through the OTAs—those cookie-based banners that follow you around after you’ve searched for something online—are also reportedly worth the extra expense when weighing the click-throughs they garner.

“The OTAs are clearly important for an independent hotel, because that’s where everybody’s going to,” said Tim Michaud, GM of the International Palms Oceanfront Resort & Conference Center in Cocoa Beach, Florida. “We firmly believe they’re going to go to our site and check it out afterward, so how do we keep them afterward, to book into our site directly? Maybe it’s a package you don’t offer anywhere else that makes them want to book with you. We want to fight the OTAs, but it’s not realistic sometimes.”

Hoteliers are also shying away from paid placement on TripAdvisor, which some say is also becoming cost-prohibitive. For many independents, the focus remains on the free aspects of participating in the site, while being sure to diligently manage guest reviews and complaints.

“TripAdvisor now is near $1,000 a month to list with them, and that’s a lot of money when you’re talking a small property,” said Ann Maletzke, owner of Spur of the Moment Ranch in Mountain, Wisconsin. “From a cost effectiveness standpoint, it didn’t work out for us.”

Social media, on the other hand, is proving to be quite cost-effective for independent hoteliers like Maletzke. She said she personally makes a regular effort to communicate with repeat guests via Facebook, while also keeping her property’s page updated with localized content of interest. This same approach also holds true for larger independents, some of whom have made social media content an organizational priority.

Kathryn Jones, director of digital & marketing strategy for Hospitality Ventures Management Group, said social media has been a focus at her company.

“Each hotel has a social media champion on the property, and that person is working with our social media agency to feed them information about what’s going on at the hotel and in their market,” Jones said. “They’re sending pictures, and then the agencies are doing the actual posting, so they’re scheduling the posts, posting and responding to reviews. If it’s positive they just respond, but if it’s negative they’re going to reach out to the social media champion and request a response on how to deal with that. The agency’s kind of running everything, but there’s someone on property actually sending them information.”

Sources also emphasized the continued importance of email marketing, which may seem an ageing strategy, but one that still reaps rewards. Many independent hoteliers are building and tapping into their own customer e-lists, and when possible, buying email leads from local providers. Griffin said that his company’s Grand Hotel & Spa in Ocean City, Maryland, maintains a database of 50,000 customer emails, while also using a massive database of 350,000 names owned by the Ocean City Chamber of Commerce.

“When we need to promote a need period, we go to our own database, sort it out based on some parameters and kind of find the ideal customer from our past guests. That’s turned out to be very successful for us,” Griffin said. “We also buy access to the chamber’s database four times a year. By going to the chamber list, we’re reaching customers who have not stayed with us, and we’re exposing those customers to our hotel with book direct special offers.”

When independent hoteliers do invest in SEO and AdWords, many rely on third-party agencies to advise them on how much to spend per keyword and what times of year make the most sense to bid on those keywords. Beyond just the problems of competing against cash-rich OTAs and metasearch engines, for many the AdWords system is simply too complicated, and potentially expensive, to manage themselves.

“You have to nearly be an IT person to understand the whole thing, and you have to be very diligent about watching it every day and knowing where you’re putting your money and what words you’re doing,” said Maletzke. “That is like going to a casino for me. I can only afford to pay the penny slots, and that’s not how it works.”

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