Jazz Bovill of Arise explores how online marketers in the hospitality industry can accept the “new normal”, plan for the future and make the most of hotel closures during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the space of two months, the hospitality industry has changed beyond recognition. Following government guidelines on coronavirus, hotels, restaurants, pubs, cafes and attractions have closed their doors, some for the first time in history, with no clear indication of when they will be able to re-open.
It is important to reinforce that this transformation, however unprecedented it may be, is only temporary; it is one short chapter in the story of businesses and lives everywhere. While it may be difficult at present to look past this chapter and see the bigger picture, this is precisely what online marketers should do in order to create opportunities, maintain reputation, engage audiences and achieve success when the new normal arrives. The article that follows explores a series of digital strategies and advice to help hospitality marketers to welcome, plan for and inspire the future of such an essential and dominant sector.
Reacquaint yourself with your target market
Target audiences should be the core of every marketing strategy, and carry no less weight as a business necessity now than they did previously.
Whether they are actively and physically engaging with your hotel or not, the online interaction between you and your customers should remain an absolute priority if you wish to maintain their loyalty, engagement and advocacy. It is essential to acknowledge the difference between your audience’s needs while in isolation and their needs following the pandemic to define an adaptable, comprehensive marketing strategy for your digital channels. Take this time to renew your understanding of your current target audience and how this may evolve as the industry makes its comeback.
How to redefine or create target segments
The more you know about the interests, behaviours, desires, needs and backgrounds of your target audience, the more you can tailor your digital practices, creating valuable content which appeals directly to your audience.
Start by categorising your target customers, using data, analytics and interactions to inform your choices:
- Note the geography and demographics of your audience. Are they local? How old are they? How affluent are they? Are they male or female? Do they use online channels frequently?
- Consider whether the decision-maker acts individually, or as a group, as a family or couple may do.
- Question why each category of customer may come to your hotel.
- What benefits are they seeking from the trip? Outdoor adventure? Pampering? Fine dining? Explore (even hypothetically) their interests and mindset. How do they spend their free time? How do certain activities or actions make them feel? What do they see and do?
When you’ve gone into as much detail as you can, formulate your findings into personal profiles to give yourself a simple, clear example of someone from each customer category. If, for example, the three main target categories for your hotel and restaurant are romantic couples, local families and business travellers, you should create one profile for each.
Think of your profiles almost as a CV – a short but comprehensive presentation of who your customer is and how they are likely to operate. These profiles are known as ‘buyer personas’ or ‘pen portraits’, which aim to deepen an organisation’s understanding of their audience by turning data and tracked behaviour into ‘real’ customers with ‘real’ needs. Developing your knowledge of the people you target will help you to connect with and predict their buying patterns on a much more valuable level.
Remember that different circumstances, situations and environments spark different needs and desires. You may wish to consider creating a new buyer persona for those seeking celebration and travel after the pandemic.
Consider your strategy for now and then
We all hear plenty about the necessity of a marketing strategy, but do we ever truly have enough time to pause, reflect on our progress and make significant amendments without the pressure of day-to-day activity?
Use this time to evaluate your current strategy, or start afresh if yours has become a little lost. A strategy informed by your target market, your brand identity and what you want to achieve will help you to maintain focus and keep on track throughout uncertain times. Here are some key factors to consider when defining or redefining your strategy using PR Smith’s SOSTAC planning model:
Where is your hotel now? What opportunities for growth and diversification can you identify? Are there any threats facing your business? What levels of engagement are you receiving on your social media platforms, and how does this compare to industry trends? Which pages of your website receive the most traffic? You will be unable to determine where you want to be and how to get there without a knowledge of your current stance.
Set out your aims and objectives for the next month, three months, six months and year, or whatever time frames compliment your current situation. Ensure that the objectives are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timebound (SMART) so that you have clear goals and can measure your progress against them e.g. to grow following on Facebook to 10,000 by the end of August 2020 in order to increase audience reach in the period following the coronavirus pandemic.
Strategies, Tactics and Actions
These elements of marketing planning are about navigating from your current position to where you want to be. Using your situational analysis and objectives as start and end points, map out a timeline and explore all of the digital channels, techniques and budgets at your disposal before blending them into an integrated plan for your online activity. Examine which platforms work best for your hotel and the industry, and what will work well in combination to convey your message. The online and the offline should complement each other, though a heightened focus on online methods is certainly warranted in the current climate. Establishing your strategies, tactics and actions will also include planning content and campaigns, which will be discussed in further detail in the following section.
A digital strategy should never truly reach its end, but be monitored, adapted and expanded as time goes on. Set yourself KPIs (key performance indicators) to measure your progress against your objectives, see if you’re on track and make adjustments if necessary.
Optimise your content and plan for the future
While it may feel as though you have nothing to share, the users who follow your hotel are yearning for inspiration; a glimpse of normality, hope and celebration at the end of the tunnel. As businesses associated with escapism, leisure and travel, hotels are well-placed to replicate or appeal to these desires. It is important, then, to consider how this applies to your current audience, as well as the impact it will have on their behaviour as lockdown procedures come to an end.
Consumers tend to journey from awareness, through interest and desire, before taking action and making a final purchase decision for a product or service. This journey is termed the AIDA model and, though it currently seems as though the process cannot be completed by a customer taking “action” due to closures and uncertainty, the awareness, interest and desire phases are still as achievable as ever. Our advice is to gather as much of this engagement as possible over the coming weeks in order to catalyse action when it can be pursued.
The time we now have to evaluate, restructure and think ahead could also be incredibly beneficial for content planning and minimising overload when business begins to pick up. The ideas below are filtered into content for now and content for then, to help you prepare for and welcome life after coronavirus with ease.
- Create virtual tours through 360° images, guest photos or interactive maps of the surrounding area.
- With so many people looking to learn something new or take up a new hobby, try offering some form of teaching from within your hotel. This may be a cooking webinar using a favourite restaurant recipe, gardening tips for homegrown ingredients or even a course on the history of the local area/attractions.
- If you have the capacity to offer gift vouchers, or are providing a takeaway service, list and promote these features online wherever possible to give your audience a way to support you.
- Continue to share clear news and updates as you receive word and make decisions. Clarity is key, so keep communicating and make sure all information about your current position is available and accessible.
- If you have the space in your content plan to do so, keep sharing uplifting (but relevant) messages to add value to your audience’s online environment. The smile you put on someone’s face or the memory you reignite could make all the difference.
- Encourage mailing list sign-ups across all channels to build your audience, ready for when booking opens again.
- Stockpile blogs, not bread. Think about your customers, think about what questions they have or will have, think about how they might be inspired and write a series of blogs centred around your ideas.
- Planoly is a great tool for planning your Instagram feed in advance and scheduling content. Experiment with different layouts and formats to find the perfect aesthetic for your strategy.
- Look back at bookings from previous years and identify the quietest or most important periods. Use this to conceive campaign ideas and content, perhaps around offers, events or seasons, to begin to tackle these weaknesses.
One of the most important things we can say here is that your content should never lose focus on the identity of your hotel. Don’t stray from your identity just to take advantage of the current climate. Adapt your content to different circumstances, services and offerings, but ensure that your core message, values and character shine through.
If you are struggling to find effective marketing solutions while the country is on lockdown, don’t be afraid to slow down, get back to basics and build your strategies from the ground up. Though it may seem that you have nothing to promote, your brand and image are just as much a part of your hotel as the tangible services you offer. Keep communicating, keep creating and keep your hotel in front of your audience, ready and prepared for an imminent industry rebound.