Trust the foundation of loyalty, hoteliers say
11 APRIL 2014 9:55 AM
Independent hoteliers can foster repeat visitation even without a brand-backed loyalty program, sources said.
GLOBAL REPORT—While they might lack the marketing muscle of their branded counterparts, independent hoteliers still can foster the kind of loyalty that keeps guests coming back year after year, sources said.
It all comes down to trust, said Bill Lacey, GM of The Sanctuary at Kiawah in South Carolina. It’s a lot like getting a haircut.
“You don’t go to a brand new barbershop every time,” he said. “You go to a place that you trust where the product and services are going to be good, and nine times out of 10 the same person is going to be cutting your hair.
“We really try very hard to develop that,” Lacey said.
The question is, how?
“It’s not rocket science,” the GM said. A clean room and great service trumps all.
At The Sanctuary, Lacey conducts weekly walkthroughs with each department head to address any issues and make sure the hotel is properly maintained. There’s a continuous churn of capital expenditure, he said, including a top-to-bottom cleaning and refresh when the property closes each January.
Exemplary customer service is just as important, Lacey said. That means going above and beyond the table stakes—things such as name usage and recognition that have become commonplace, especially in the luxury setting.
“We do a lot of focusing on kids,” he said, pointing as an example to the hotels’ passport program that encourages families to explore the island and collect stamps at various checkpoints along the way.
At the Unlisted Collection, which comprises boutique hotels in Singapore, London and Shanghai, staff takes note of guests’ likes and dislikes, said Mae Noor, head of branding and communications, via email.
“We cater personalized service, taking note of their preferences each time, greeting them by name and generally making them feel like they’re at home away from home,” she said.
The Sanctuary also tracks guests’ likes and dislikes to craft memorable experiences over time, Lacey said. A staff member could pull up one traveler’s dinner checks from a previous visit and call ahead to ask whether he or she would like another dining experience with the same vintage of wine, for instance.
“It jolts them right back to that memory of when they were here and that experience they had,” Lacey said.
Greasing the skids
“When it comes to the independents, the most important influencer of guest loyalty is a memorable positive stay,” said Michele Sarkisian, president and CEO of P3 Advisors, a consultancy specializing in customer loyalty.
Little surprises—bottles of water during check-in, a late check-out, free Wi-Fi—go a long way, she said.
Better yet is reaching out to a guest before they arrive. She used the example of a head chef reaching out to first-time guests pre-arrival to invite them to try the specialty at the hotel restaurant.
“Already I’m starting to anticipate that when I go to that property because an individual reached out to shape what my experience would be,” Sarkisian said.
Follow-up post-stay is just as valuable, she said. Instead of a typical guest satisfaction survey, hoteliers could ask the guest what he or she liked most about the experience. “Make a note of that for future stays,” she said.
“You have to be relevant, and the only way to be relevant is to learn what’s relevant to the guest,” Sarkisian said.
The Sanctuary maintains a similar level of contact pre- and post-stay, Lacey said. For instance, the hotel started a birthday club and sends cards to children throughout the year to keep the hotel top of mind.
The points payoff
The Sanctuary is a member of Preferred Hotels & Resorts and participates in the latter’s recognition program for amenities with preferred guests. The hotel does not, however, participate in any formal points-based loyalty program, Lacey said.
Neither do any of the properties in the Unlisted Collection, Noor said.
Recent research suggests they might be missing out.
According to a study from The Center of Hospitality Research at Cornell University, hoteliers who enlisted their property with third-party loyalty program Stash Hotel Rewards saw a nearly 50% increase in visitation from guests who also joined the program. Revenue per year per enrolled guest increased by a similar amount.
“Travelers don’t travel more because of Stash,” said Jeff Low, the company’s founder and CEO. “It’s an expression of share shift away from a chain.
“Stash is leveling the playing field,” he continued. “To many people, independent hotels are better. If I can give you the same price at this currency level, you’re going to go to an independent hotel.”
The Sanctuary and the Unlisted Collection reward frequent travelers in other ways, recognizing milestone stays every five or 10 years.
For a guest visiting The Sanctuary for the 10th time, he or she might get a special treat from the pastry shop, Lacey said. Higher milestones generate better rewards, such as a state-of-the-art tennis racket for avid players or an expensive bottle of Scotch. Each gift is personalized for each guest.
“Personalization is truly the best,” Noor said. “Every individual who steps in the property wants to feel uniquely special, and we want to give them that.”