Help for branding small, independent hotels

Historic Park Inn Hotel Frank Lloyd Wright Mason City Iowa (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

The historic Park Inn Hotel designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, still operating in Mason City, Iowa (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

In the past it was always difficult for small, independent hotels to compete with larger hotel brands.

Over the past few years the tide has turned, and now unique, indie places are all the rage. Travelers are looking for standout experiences and have become much more selective regarding where they spend their time and money.

In our 10 years of training and educating tourism pros, we have worked with several small, independent properties and thought it was time to put together a marketing series just for this specific tourism partner sector.

This first installment shines a spotlight on branding small, independent hotels. (Part Two is about small hotel marketing through effective engagement, and Part Three is about hotel reviews.)

From birders to boaters, to history and hauntings, experiential travel is what we all want. Smaller hotels offer a much more intimate setting, and can help visitors immerse themselves in the overall experience of the area and the culture of the community.

Just how does the small, independent hotel stand out in the crowd? How does the property differentiate itself from its competitors? These are very important questions and we’ll help you answer them, all with the caveat that you must already know who your target guest audience is. Once you ascertain who your audience is, then….

It all starts with branding. The following are four items for you to focus on to help you successfully brand your property:

1. What is your niche?

What is it that sets you apart from your competition (“competitive set” in hotel lingo)?

Is it your location, is it a particular aspect of your service – most hotels talk about their “great” service, so when you think about yours be very specific or else you’ll sound like everyone else – is it the locally sourced F&B that you offer, is it the unique cocktails you have on your menu, or something else?

In order to compete you need to really drill down and be super-specific about what makes your hotel not only different, but one where guests will be willing to happily open their wallets and pay for what you offer.

Things to think about: Location, F&B, history of the property, history of the area, typical age of guests, type of guests, luxury vs. comfortable/casual, on-site amenities, etc. Think hard…. what kind of story about your property will your guests tell after they check out?

2. Focus on the experience

To keep your customers, you must provide an exceptional experience. Your focus is on the customer and their needs – nothing else.

Wi-Fi is something we hear a lot about when it comes to small hotel experiences. Solid Wi-Fi is a must; hard stop. Another complaint we hear regularly is about paper products. Does the experience at your property reflect what your guests want – i.e. real Kleenex®, not any of the rough, cheap knockoffs that most larger hotel chains offer. It matters, and they notice.

Your goal should be to surprise your customer. As a small, independent hotel, you have a wonderful opportunity to go above and beyond what your customer expects. Expectations are the starting point. How will the experience they have at your property go beyond expectations?

Your niche is part of the experience. If you’re located just steps from a bustling downtown, that’s part of the experience. If you offer locally sourced F&B, that’s part of the experience. If your focus is on wellness, that’s part of the experience, too.

Paint a true picture via your marketing material (both offline and online) of what the experience of staying with you is like.

A key element of branding rests on the shoulders of your employees, and their success with your branding depends on you. Your employees must be empowered to provide your guests with the experience you want them to have. If there is a problem, empower your staff to “do their magic” and provide fixes.

Branding small independent hotels like the Panama Hotel in old Japantown in the Seattle WA International District (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Entrance to the Panama Hotel in Seattle’s old Japantown, now the International District (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

SO many times, we’ve checked into a hotel room and found lights out or a leaky toilet, and thought, “Surely housekeeping staff sees this, too? Surely they are supported by maintenance and management in getting this fixed?”

Independent properties have much more flexibility than larger brands, so let your staff help bring your brand to life. Let them have fun making guest experiences exceptional. You need to provide your staff with a clear, concise written version of what your brand is, what you are promising the guest, and what your property represents. Once your staff knows and understands the tenets of your brand, give them the opportunity to showcase them to your guests and help you grow the brand.

Things to think about: First, be realistic about the experience at your property. Geographically, does the experience cater to more of a local/regional/state traveler, or is it global? Your brand reflects the wants and desires of your customer, so make sure the experience covers what your target audience is looking for. How consistent is the experience? It most likely starts online and ends at your hotel with your staff. From your website, to social posts, to printed material, to the actual stay – the experience needs to be authentic, so your guest knows what to expect when they stay with you.

Then, go the extra mile.

When guests are with you, you have the opportunity to surprise them with some extra touches. These don’t have to be anything extravagant; just little things to show that you value and care about your customer. It can be as simple as a monthly calendar of events in the room (use this suggestion as a starting point and then let your imagination soar.) Anything that makes a guest stay easier is a surprise. What are some things you can do to surprise your guests?

3. How do your guests see you? (aka “brand positioning”)

This is an incredibly important thing to know and surprisingly, many properties really don’t have it nailed.

Why don’t they know? Often because they aren’t paying enough attention to their online reviews, comments, and interactions. With a smaller staff, those things can fall by the wayside; management thinks it’s enough to just get some social posts up and that’s about it.

Branding small independent hotels means creating a welcoming experience like this Welcome Flamingo (photo courtesy Leslie McLellan)

A hotel’s Welcome Flamingo (photo courtesy Leslie McLellan)

However, in reality, that is not nearly enough when it comes to really “seeing” your property. You need to be listening to your guests both online and while they are with you.

Listening provides a reality check and gives you the opportunity to enhance, improve, or even change how and what you are doing to make clear what your brand is all about.

Knowing what appeals to your guest and what doesn’t is vitally important.

Recently a small hotel received a complaint about a perceived hard mattress via a TripAdvisor review. Luckily the staff was paying attention and was able to respond that all mattresses at the hotel were brand new, so perhaps that’s why it felt hard. Many things about hotels are subjective and rather than have that “complaint” hanging out there online, this property was able to turn the complaint into a positive and highlight a major upgrade that they had recently completed.

We can’t stress listening enough – here is some of our advice about responding to reviews.

Things to think about: Who does the listening at your property? How is the listening done – reading online reviews, responding to social posts, subscribing to a service like Revinate? Are there differences in how your guest views your hotel vs. how you do and if so, what are you going to do about that? How does your property respond to your guests?

4. Your Voice

Your brand’s voice is your brand’s identity. It helps your guests get a feel for what a stay/experience at your property is like. It brings your hotel to life.

Most of the initial interaction with your property will be via the written word, so your words have a huge impact on your branding efforts.

Branding small independent hotels matters to properties like the Gage Hotel in Marathon TX (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Bedside window in a Los Portales room at the Gage Hotel in Marathon TX (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Things to think about: The “vibe” of your property. Is it laid back or more formal? Your words, images, and video should match that. What is the age of your guest – that makes a big difference in how you will speak to them. Are you more family oriented, Millennial oriented, niche oriented? Where do your guests hang out online? How will you speak to them on each social platform? What is the focus of your brand?

Fun getaway, wellness centered, wedding venue – you voice would be different based on the niche you are trying to reach. Your voice needs to be consistent with your brand.

The Bottom Line

People want different things when they travel. Successful branding sets your hotel apart and allows your guests to see who you are before they set foot on your property. The bottom line with branding small independent hotels is that your community probably has several lodging options in the area, so you must figure out how to stand out.

The branding goal for your small, independent hotel is to bring your ideal customer to your property, rather than having them spend time at your competitor’s.

What do you think? Your ideas and feedback are welcome down in the comments.

PS. Our whole focus is teaching you and/or your partners – including hotels and other lodging – how to use digital destination marketing to bring more visitors to your town. Let us know if you need workshop or conference speakers, or would like some personalized coaching and consulting. If you want to bounce some ideas around about working with us, ping us through our Contact page.

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