Online marketing emerged as the central concern and focus of most of the 176 attendees at the 2nd Annual Caribbean Sales & Marketing Strategy Conference held in Miami recently. In addition, many speakers, from the keynote addresses by Chip Conley, founder and CEO of Joie de Vivre Hospitality, and Vincent Vanderpool-Wallace, Secretary General of the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO), to several panelists throughout the two-day event, focused on the importance of the guest experience in the success of any hotel or destination.
The conference, one in a series of on-going industry strategy conferences by the Hospitality Sales & Marketing Association International (HSMAI), was created and produced in conjunction with the Caribbean Hotel Association (CHA) for Caribbean hoteliers and tourism officials.
Chip Conley, founder and CEO of Joie de Vivre Hospitality, set the tone for the conference by recounting how he built his hotel chain beginning with the conversion of a seedy motel in San Francisco to become one of the most successful boutique hotel companies in the world.
He shared his thoughts on operating and marketing the company with the attendees at the conference noting first that he spends less than $50,000 on advertising and has built reputations and success for each of his hotels relying on travel writers’ articles about the uniqueness of the hotels and word of mouth from happy guests.
Conley said: “Independent hotels need to be different to compete against the chain hotels and the only way to do this is to focus on the experience. Hotels are an intimate choice and can be a reflection of how people see themselves.
“Each one of our hotels has a different personality built on the concepts derived from major magazines as our defining principles. We looked at magazines such as Rolling Stone when we were designing the Phoenix Hotel in San Francisco and found the adjectives that describe that magazine such as funky, hip, young at heart, irreverent and adventurous. We then designed the hotel using those same adjectives and marketed to the readers of that and similar magazines.
“The Hotel Rex used the New Yorker Magazine as its model for worldly, sophisticated, literate, artistic and clever.
“If you can market to your customer on a psychographic level rather than demographic you can be different and successful at the same time.
“We are in the business of creating lifelong memories so we have something to promote with our marketing.” He told the attendees, predominantly from the Caribbean, that “culture is your most valuable asset” and “the number one key to profitability and stability is employee morale.”
He added: “We are taking care of people away from their homes and making them feel good. People are looking for very personalized products. Customers have graduated from looking for predictability.”
He also challenged the Caribbean to come up with “an on-line symbol to help consumers search and find specific destinations for the kind of vacation they are best suited for. Someone or something has to help them make heads or tails of all the choices and technology can help.”
Vincent Vanderpool-Wallace, CTO Secretary General, in his keynote remarks to the audience reminded everyone that “it is the experience that counts with today’s consumer and we need to have a better focus on making the experience work at every level of the tourism infrastructure. The power of our Caribbean diversity is the variety of experiences we offer in different places.”
Vanderpool-Wallace also noted that the right people are required in all aspects of tourism and that “personality is a skill in tourism and it can’t be taught.” He reiterated the repetitive theme that quality service helps make the experience work and “quality service is when we anticipate the needs before the person knows that they need the service.”
In discussing the branding of a destination, he said: “A brand is mostly a reputation; a reputation for the consistent delivery of a positive product or service experience at or above one’s expectation.
“For the Caribbean, that reputation is a blend of sunny days, white sands, clear blue seas, lush mountainsides, cool rivers, exciting cultural experiences, music, coffee, rums and friendly, welcoming people. It is our diversity that gives the Caribbean its intrigue and value.
“Our brand, our reputation, comes from the visitor experience so our mission is to make it increasingly easier to create, sell and deliver satisfying vacations, satisfying first of all to the people who live and work in our countries, satisfying next to our investors and finally satisfying our visitors.”
He quoted from the Financial Times of London, October 2005 which stated “Materialistic pursuits are not a path to sustainable happiness, rather spending on experiences rather than possessions appear to make people happier. So to increase happiness concentrate on experiences—diving, safari and concerts—rather than possessions—new house, fast cars, flashy watches.” Concluding: “The evidence is clear. Experiences add more to our happiness than possessions”
All this leads Vanderpool-Wallace to conclude that “Life does not need a new Ferrari, life does not need another house, life does not need another fancy watch, life needs kindness, life needs nature, life needs memorable experiences, life needs the Caribbean.”
Peter Yesawich, Chairman and CEO of YPB&R, conducted a panel interview and discussion on the importance of the public and private sectors working together to market the destinations.
On the role of the public and private sector in promoting the destination, Yesawich said: “In my experience, the ministry has been responsible for image and information and the private sector for implementation of the marketing and booking the vacationer.”
Vincent Vanderpool-Wallace said: “It is important that a plan is developed by both the public and private sector and then decide on the talent to assign what they will be responsible for.”
Warren Binder, President of Creative Travel Consultants, added: “The only way we can work together is if there is a spirit of cooperation and communications.”
Jorge Pesquera, President of the Aruba Hotel & Tourism Association, said: “We need flexibility and agility and I think governments are better at some things, but the private sector should be charged with the execution of the marketing.”
Vanderpool-Wallace added: “People in the public sector are seeking to make a difference instead of making money. People in the private sector are primarily interested in making money.”
Yesawich then asked the question “When the destination is successful in getting the vacationer to come to the Web site, who should actually take the booking?” A controversy followed.
Binder said that “Tourism ministers should be preparing the consumer to come to the destination, but the people who are best qualified to take the bookings are the hotels and tour operators who already manage the booking process.”
Pesquera agreed, adding: “But they should be partnering with the public sector on this, too.”
Vanderpool-Wallace noted that while he did not fully disagree, he said: “People want it now and the opportunity to buy should be available when they are researching the destination.”
On the issue of resources for the marketing of the destination, Vanderpool-Wallace noted: “I have always made the argument that the departure taxes collected by governments should come back to me so I could promote tomorrow’s tourism.”
Pesquera added: “We should become more formalized and have the private sector working with the government to generate funds and use those funds to drive marketing while the government should use their general resources to improve the infrastructure for tourism.”
The opening keynote was followed by a series of breakout sessions covering everything related to sales and marketing from on-line techniques to the relevance of revenue management and crisis communications.
A dedicated group of hotel owners, managers and sales directors attended the series of revenue management seminars and panels under the direction of Barb Bowden, Corporate Director of Revenue Management for Peabody Hotels and Past Chairman of the HSMAI Revenue Management Committee.
Bowden and her panelists predicted that “In the future, revenue management disciplines will include ‘one-to-one’ revenue management where each guest will be seen as its own market segment and systems will forecast revenue spending per visit as well as for the lifetime of the guests.”
Key issues discussed by the group and the attendees focused on identifying the most profitable demand streams and considering the total revenue spend and lifetime value of the potential guests.
It was also strongly suggested that hoteliers consider the guest experience when determining pricing strategies. “Overall discounting is not something that gains visitors to your destination,” she noted.
Cindy Estis Green, Managing Partner of the Estis Group, began the session on Best Practices in Internet Marketing warning attendees that the most common pitfalls include “not optimizing a Web site” and urged delegates “don’t isolate on-line marketing, but integrate it into the overall marketing plan.”
The audience in her session was looking for direction for their on-line search engine optimization (SEO) marketing and to a certain extent wanted to know what it would cost.
C.A. Clarke, Director of Electronic Publishing for Miles Media, suggested that hoteliers research the “terms that people use to find the destinations and hotels” and use those words to drive searches on-line.
Sal Dickinson, CHME, Chief Executive of Dickinson & Associates and former HSMAI Chairman, noted: “Everyone wants to be on page one of the search. But don’t think that you can do it yourself. Either find the talent within your own organization or hire a firm to do it.” Dickinson noted that costs could range from $5,000 to $100,000.
Karen Nasuti of Nasuti & Hinkle urged hoteliers to “enhance your relationship with existing customers and build new customers with effective e-mailing.” She added: “When you confirm a booking by e-mail, upsell with on-line pitches of on-site services and amenities such as spa treatments.”
C.A. Clark noted that good Web site content “is not just written word and photos, it is the experience that is conveyed. I don’t care about the room or how many people live in the destination. I want to experience through stories about the destination and photos that demonstrate the experience. Photos without people don’t work.”
Loren Gray, Director of E-Commerce for Ocean Properties, headed up several sessions about Internet marketing including one titled “Where to Start - Developing a Strategic Hospitality On-line Marketing Plan.”
Jon Schepke, President, Strategic Internet Marketing Partners, said, “10 percent of the marketing and sales budget should be devoted to Internet marketing.”
He also suggested “40 percent of the marketing be directed to page search marketing, but not just going out and bidding on words, rather as an integrated plan of action including on-line public relations.”
Loren Gray concurred and offered that “geo targeting strategy should look at what your feeder markets are and create customized landing pages for each market. Why not go where the big fruit is hanging and target campaigns to the markets that have worked.”
Henry Woodman, President, ICEPortal, urged attendees to get more visual so that the potential guests experience the hotels and destinations on-line. He gave examples such as a Travel Impressions visual tour that takes people on a virtual tour of Aruba and the Manchebo Beach Resort. “In one month, 19,000 unique visitors signed on at a cost of only $100 in ICEPortal.
Gray noted that “there was a time when Web sites had to be all things to all people, but today the sites must be as helpful as possible to direct business.”
Lynn Nugent, Senior Producer for TravelZoo, said that a booking functionality needs to be on every hotel and destination web site at the top left of the home page where people will look for it.
She also noted that direct communications should be urged including getting the customer to sign up for e-mails and newsletters. “Hotels should also have a mechanism for people to talk to other potential guests. Have a laptop set up in the lobby where people should be urged to say good things about the hotel.”
In another session on Internet marketing, Richard Stokes, president of AdGooroo, noted that “most people do not know their on-line competition. Focus on three to five competitors and consider each market separately such as the U.S., Canada and Europe. Then consider each search engine separately and further consider pay per click and organic searches separately.”
Ryan Bifulco, President of TravelSpike, predicted that “podcasts are about to become huge climbing 145% with a projected revenue of $327 million by 2010.” He urged attendees to “create a digital interactive strategy with public relations, newsletters, E-zines and advertorials.”
Mike Wylie, Founder of Standing Dog Interactive Media & Marketing and former head of the HSMAI Internet Marketing Committee, suggested that hoteliers “post a manager’s response on Trip Advisor to counter any adverse publicity.” He also urged hoteliers to “make sure that your call center knows everything that is being put on-line about your hotel so they can effectively close the sale.”
Wylie also noted that hotels “should factor in everything in their marketing including occupancy demands and revenue management to drive marketing.”
Loren Gray ended that session urging: “Regardless of your size, how could you not afford to try something. All the brands are moving on-line, brochures are no longer a viable means of getting messages to customers, understanding how it works is a start.”
Four sessions were held in the Communications Management track, with industry experts giving timely tips on public relations, crises management, integrated marketing communications, and new communications tools. Session highlights include:
“Promoting, Positioning and Profiting - The Power of Public Relations” moderator Nina Zapala, Partner, Fareed & Zapala Marketing Partners, opened the session with the observation that “Public relations is the communications tool that delivers credibility by targeting the influencers.”
Johnson Johnrose, Communications Director, Caribbean Tourism Organization, said that “the best approach to take is to think about who you are, decide what is most important about your message, research who you are targeting with your message, and rehearse what you are going to share.”
Veronica Stoddart, Travel Editor, USA Today, offered the following Do’s and Don’ts when communicating with the media:
“Do study and understand the publications you are targeting, do find the hook to your pitch that makes yours a good story, do find out if your news is part of a trend and don’t be afraid to give examples of others who are doing something similar to demonstrate the trend, do send e-mails to press people (not phone calls, faxes or mail) and make the subject line interesting.”
Her list of ‘Don’ts’ included: “Don’t send unsolicited press kits, don’t send gimmicks or goofy gifts and don’t say ‘go to our Web site for more information.’”
The “Disasters and Tourism: Managing Crises or Managing Risk?” session gave conference participants an overview of the products and tools developed to assist the industry to prepare and respond to hurricanes and other adverse issues in small islands and developing states.
The session also identified initiatives underway to mainstream disaster management in tourism planning. A case study of post-Hurricane Ivan recovery was shared as Jeremy Collymore, Coordinator, Caribbean Disaster Emergency Response Agency, led the session and observed that, “Unfortunately, Caribbean reality has been anchored in reacting to events, rather than taking a proactive approach to risk management.” He added that “Disaster management strategies must be in place for the consumers to have faith that it is safe to travel there.”
“Winning Case Studies in Integrated Marketing Communications” was led by John Fareed, Partner, Fareed & Zapala Marketing Partners, who stressed the importance of having one message across all markets, and stated “Mass marketing is dead. It’s all about micro-marketing today.” Fareed laid out the following process to achieve integrated marketing communications:
Identify target markets based on your attributes;
Determine your communications objectives to increase awareness, which leads to consumers considering you, which leads to the purchase;
Design (craft) your message to highlight what makes you different
Choose the media you want to target
Collect the feedback
Be sure that public relations leads the way, followed by direct marketing and advertising
The final session in the track was “The New Communications Tool Box: Managing Consumer Driven Content & Communication On-line.” This session focused on real simple syndication, blogs, video podcasts, and more, and asked the question “why should travel companies care about these evolving mediums?” The answer from Ryan Bifuco, President, TravelSpike, was, “They allow travel marketers to create content that is personalized for consumers,” which brings it all back to the experience.
Fran Brasseux, Executive Vice President of HSMAI, closed the conference by summing up the gathering reminding everyone that “marketing and selling the experience is crucial to success” and she urged everyone to “think differently.”