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THE PATH TO RECOVERY FOR BOUTIQUE HOTELS

Travel was certainly among the industries hardest hit by this crisis; hotels were shuttered, flights were empty and international travel was banned. It is no surprise that it will be a climb back out as travel slowly starts to pick-back up again. Boutique hotels in particular face additional challenges without the support of large brand initiatives and marketing campaigns focused on making guests feel safe. This isn’t like past recessions, where the hotel guest’s experience was similar to what it was in a booming market, but just carried a lower price tag. In today’s world, hotels are having to redesign the experience to guarantee safety. While value continues to be a factor, there are added considerations that consumers are seeking.

Now as we, at least in the US, are well into our third month of staying in place and living with the impact of COVID-19, many of the world’s leading hotel brands are already taking firm steps forward. Hotels in Asia are beginning to open up with the expectation that Chinese travelers might soon be ready to venture out again. We should take cues from those hotels, especially those that operated under risk of SARS and Bird Flu, and have been the first to come through on the other side of Coronavirus closures. Boutique hotels may not have the same marketing power as large brands, but they can learn from these bigger properties and find ways to leverage their strengths: their personality, uniqueness, and their ability to be nimble.


Start by Doing the Right Thing

The first path to making guests feel safe, is to actually take the proper precautions for safety. Now is the time to overhaul your SOPs and make sure you have a plan of action for how to create and maintain a sanitary environment. There are many practical resources available for how to follow these guidelines and recommendations. Here we’re going to focus on how you communicate these efforts, once you have them in place. Communication is critical to make your guests feel safe, comfortable and inspired to travel with you again. Some governments are launching new “clean and safe” certification programs, which may be effective where offered.


We’re not suggesting you email all your loyalty members a detailed list of all of your new SOPs; but we do suggest you are completely transparent, and that share this information with your guests. Create a new page on your website that highlights the changes you have made, and share that in an email that also highlights a new experience. Use email, your website, booking sites and social media as opportunities to share your commitment.


Don’t forget the power of partnerships. Hilton Hotels announced a partnership with Mayo Clinic, which gives tremendous credibility to Hilton’s new sanitation procedures. Consider how you are developing your new procedures. While you may not be working with a brand as recognized as Mayo Clinic, perhaps you have brought in an expert from a local hospital or university to consult on your process, or maybe you are using a different cleaning product line or technology. Look for opportunities to highlight the details of your process and find ways to use trusted brands to help tell your story.


Where guests might not have asked in the past if you washed the comforter between turns, now they will - and you have to be prepared to answer. The guest room, of course, is not the only touchpoint, though certainly the biggest. Your lobby and check-in procedures will surely change as well.


Once you have determined the new protocol you need to communicate them outward as you never have before. Now your guests want to know your cleaning schedule! They also need to know where to stand and how to follow social distancing protocols. Don’t assume people will know exactly how to sit in your lobby or queue for check-in. Communicate in advance so guests know what to expect. No one wants an unexpected surprise, and we’re all going to be faced with situations we don’t expect as we get used to a new normal. You will certainly see this when it comes to mini bars, breakfast, amenities, all of the things that guests once took for granted and that have since become risky touchpoints. Let guests know what to expect in advance to set expectations accordingly.


Show & Tell

Seeing is believing. It isn’t enough to say we’re cleaning our hotel daily with enhanced and approved cleaning procedures. Once relegated to overnight and off hours, now cleaning can and should take place regularly throughout the day, in full view. You can explain to guests what you’re doing and why, and how often it happens. Imagery on your website should reflect these elements as well, in your brand style of course.


Look at how you communicate that something was cleaned. It could be a seal on the door, a remote control in a plastic bag or sealed pouch, a paper band on silverware.


Some Opportunities:

  • Are you allowing time between room stays? Add a seal to the door communicating this to guests. Be sure to use this photo on your website and on social media as well to communicate this to potential guests.

  • Have you taken extra pillows out of the room? Explain how to request them, if needed.

  • Is there no stationary or pens on the desk? Perhaps in their place, housekeeping leaves a dated note that explains this and let’s guests know that these items can be available upon request.

  • The same tag that once asked you to hang your towels up if you want to reuse them, may now tell you that those towels were sanitized at 180℉ and that if you want them changed they need to be placed in a provided plastic bag and put in the hallway.

  • Consider customized mini-bars filled only on request. Email guests before their stay with a menu of items that may be available for their mini-bar, but only upon request in advance. You could even put a dated sticker with the guest’s name over the fridge to seal it to show them it was filled for their use only.

  • Perhaps the in-room coffee pot is available on request when you check-in and guests are asked what type of coffee they would like, as opposed to being provided a selection that won’t be used

  • Launderable duvet covers (or sheets folded to act like one) are common in Europe. They are easy to wash and press, and can be sanitized between guests.

Food & Beverage

Even if you don’t have a full-service restaurant, food and beverage safety should be on your mind. Do you offer self-service coffee in the lobby or in-rooms? How can you replace these amenities? Without delving too deeply into restaurant regulations here, (check our Restaurant & Bar Resources for more) you will probably need to readjust your meal offerings. This is not the time for a self-serve breakfast buffet. You might also want to reevaluate menus that encourage shared plates. Consider offering a take-out option for those more comfortable eating in their rooms, this can be either instead of, or in addition to, room service.


Seek to Inspire

Now is the time to highlight the aspirational aspects of your property. On your social media channels and in any email marketing, find messaging and content that makes guests WANT to travel and visit you. The early days of staying in place were the time to be posting virtual tours, drone videos and beauty shots. This style of inspiration and aspiration should continue and evolve until travel bans are lifted, and your destination has been declared safe and open for business. Content should be highly visual: exploring nature, personal connection, rest & relaxation.


Most travel will be much more regionally focused for the rest of 2020, with stay-cations and near-cations, with short regional travel by car replacing long-distance travel plans. This means that now is the time to revise your marketing plan and the budget you have allocated towards specific guest segments. In light of this, consider re-visiting all of your advertising targets and location-based marketing channels. (Recessions are a powerful time to invest in marketing, your dollar will go further and you have less competition.)


Digging into Your Niche and Their New Needs

If you deal a lot with large retirement group tours, consider revising your plan, messaging and outreach. What else can you offer? If, instead, your main guest is a younger adventure traveler who is hiking, biking or rafting, you are in luck, as they are likely to return much sooner. Look at each of your target market segments and ask what are their new practical and emotional needs? How do you provide those? Are they looking to escape, how do you foster that feeling? Or maybe they are “redoing” a postponed event like a honeymoon, anniversary, graduation or birthday. Maybe it’s just getting “back to business,” but how do you do that safely and with the utmost of ease?



What can you do to entice each of those segments? For example, realizing that vacation travel will be much more locally/regionally focused this year, consider:

  • 3 day weekend packages or promotions to incentivize a long weekend

  • Weekday work from home hotel promotions highlighting free high-speed internet, comfortable workspaces, and quiet areas

  • Can you partner with other local businesses to create a special offer: a self-led hike a with a picnic basket, bike rentals and an outdoor tasting at a winery

  • Are you in a city where parking is an issue? Can you include parking to help capture drive market travelers?

  • Can you offer a belated quarantine birthday package with a surprise room full of balloons and streamers, with a customized birthday cake from a local bakery and a bottle of champagne?

  • Perhaps you can support a local restaurant and offer belated anniversary package with flowers, dinner at the restaurant and a bottle of champagne.

Business + Bleisure

Business travel is expecting a slower rebound than local consumer travel, but will still be necessary for some. Boutique hotels can take advantage of this. Focus your efforts on your past guests. Remember, many can work from home now, or a hotel, or beach, or... so don’t forget about bleisure - the traveler who is combining both business and leisure. They need a comfortable workspace, with high speed internet, of course, but may also require the relief of sightseeing visits, relaxation or outdoor recreation.

Virtual conferencing is now here to stay and destinations will need all the necessary equipment not to mention staff trained to troubleshoot.


While large conventions may be postponed, maybe some local businesses could still use your facilities for summits or smaller conferences and events. Your meeting & event planners should be making outreach and building relationships as your region begins to open up again. Flexible cancellation policies will go a long way towards helping planners keep on track in these uncertain times.


Use Your Database, But Wisely

While it’s important to continue to use your online booking channels and other third-party marketing, this is a very good time to really dig into your guest database. Those who have trusted you in the past are most likely to look to you now.

Email is a great place to advertise special locally focused weekend offers and promotions. Many travelers will be value driven and looking for local or regional trips in the immediate to near future. Segment your list so you guests get messages targeted especially for them. Invest some time and energy into differentiating your email from all the rest. Bring your brand to life in a playful and creative way that brings a bit of your brand’s experience home to your potential guest.


Social media is great for staying top of mind, sharing aspirational photos, convincing guests that you are worth a visit. Travel brands on social media are inherently aspirational, so be sure to use this channel to inspire. We’re excited about the potential in the just launched Instagram guides, which has the potential to be a natural place for hotels and destinations to show off different sites, amenities and opportunities to discover.


CONCLUSION

After three months of staying at home, we all went to get out. There are numerous consumer insights reports that confirm this. But, these insights also show that this impulse will be tempered at first with risk analysis, which will vary greatly based on a person’s age, personal health, family status, economic security, personal risk aversion, whether their home area was greatly affected by coronavirus or not, and countless other factors. The most important task right now is to ensure and communicate a safe environment while at the same time highlighting the rewards and enjoyments your property offers. The balance between safety, pleasure and value will be different for each segment. Especially after these stressful and challenging events, people will be looking for comfort, relaxation, and connection - even if it is from 6’ apart.

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