To get the perspective of a veteran CEO, marketer and entrepreneur who led the transformation of a small company into a leader in travel technology, we asked Achiga’s President, John McAuliffe, what he believes it takes to achieve hotel digital marketing success.

Read this article to learn:

✔ The importance of and how to define your hotel’s story
✔ How to approach optimizing conversions
✔ How to drive more repeat or referral business

John McAuliffeJohn McAuliffe | LinkedIn
President
Achiga

Ali Naqvi: If I were new to hotel digital marketing, what would you suggest I focus on to be successful?

John:
I would say to think less about digital marketing per se and more about marketing. It’s important to get the fundamentals of marketing right and then align those with your digital and non-digital strategies. The way I see it, there are four strategic buckets that you should be focused on:

  1. Get the story right
  2. Focus on customer acquisition effectiveness and costs
  3. Optimize Conversion
  4. Build a community of repeat or referral guests (some would call this advocacy)

Ali Naqvi: Getting right to the first strategic bucket, why do I need to get my hotel story right?

John:
Think of your hotel’s story as the foundation of a house. Understanding the attributes and benefits your ideal guests derive from your hotel will help you write your hotel’s story. This story will drive how you “talk” in the market place, what you focus on in your marketing, how you present yourself and so on. It sounds simple but in reality, this is the hardest part of a marketer’s job.

Ali Naqvi: Are there any techniques that could help me discover my hotel’s story?

John:
To successfully discover your hotel’s story, you want to move beyond features and attributes of your hotel to the benefits derived from them. For example, saying “We’re a good business hotel” is not enough. Think about what makes you a good business hotel and how your hotel makes a business traveler’s trip more successful. Is it because they’re refreshed and well-rested because they sleep more comfortably on your tempur-pedic mattresses? They’re less stressed out due to the convenient shuttle from your hotel to their office? They feel more energized after spending time in your well-equipped fitness center?

To successfully discover your hotel’s story, you want to move beyond features and attributes of your hotel to the benefits derived from them.

There’s a technique called the Five Whys, which is an iterative interrogative technique used to explore the cause-and-effect relationships underlying a particular problem, that you can refer to that will help you be successful in finding your hotel’s story.

What it comes down to is that you need to invest the time to define your ideal guest and understand what value or benefit that guest gets from staying at your hotel that they are willing to spend money for. Think beyond the cursory features of your hotel to the real benefits.

Ali Naqvi: Moving on to focusing on customer acquisition effectiveness and costs, what would I want to do first?

John:
I recommend you start by figuring out what your costs to acquire a customer are. Once you understand this, you can invest your budget where its best spent, where it’s most effective and efficient. I recommend setting up a framework for acquisition effectiveness and acquisition costs for both direct and indirect digital channels even beyond digital to front desk, call center, etcetera.

It doesn’t have to be sophisticated but it does need to help you understand the value of each channel, where you’re spending your money and your return on that money.

Ali Naqvi: Is there an ideal direct versus indirect channel mix?

John:
I know that direct bookings are all the rage today but I think every marketer must look at their own hotel and determine the best mix of direct and indirect channels to maximize the effectiveness and cost efficiency of acquiring a new guest. By understanding what it costs to acquire a guest you can focus your efforts on those channels that are most effective.

Keep in mind that the customer goes through a shopping journey, which means that just because a channel may not be contributing on a “last click” basis, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t contribute value in motivating and influencing the shopper to buy.

You really need to let the metrics drive your decisions. It goes back the whole argument about whether marketing is art or science.

Ali Naqvi: What’s your take on it? Is marketing art or science?

John: I think that over the last few decades the balance between art and science has shifted—particularly for digital marketing. Digital is much more direct response oriented than brand oriented in nature so the science side of it is much stronger than the art side.

That’s why, especially as a digital marketer, you need to be metrics driven. You need to understand, what are these things we’re doing actually costing us? What are they doing for us?

It goes back to that whole “what gets measured gets done” so if you’re not measuring things you don’t know what to do, you don’t know what you’re trying to achieve.

The demise of any marketer is when the CEO asks, ‘What’s our return on marketing investment?’ And the marketer has a blank stare on their face.

The demise of any marketer is when the CEO asks, ‘What’s our return on marketing investment?’ And the marketer has a blank stare on their face.

Ali Naqvi: What would I need to do to “wow” my CEO instead?

John:
Since you’ve determined the right channel mix (which you should be continually monitoring and adapting), your next step is to optimize conversions. You want to maximize the effectiveness of how your hotel is presented on its most important channels.

On direct channels, you want to consider things like:

  • Is your story compelling?
  • Is there a clear path to booking?
  • What are your conversion metrics?
  • What strategies and tests do you have in place to improve upon those metrics?
  • Do you have a re-marketing program to motivate visitors to return to your website?

On indirect channels, look at:

  • Are all of your text descriptions complete and up-to-date?
  • Are your photos current and compelling?
  • Are you participating in the right programs to drive appropriate rankings?

Ali Naqvi: This takes us to your fourth strategy. Can you explain how I would build a community of repeat or referral guests?

John:
It goes without saying that the cost of acquisition for repeat or referral guests is much lower than new guests. Why not try to maximize the profitability of your guests by getting them to come back and stay with you again or encourage their friends to stay with you? The idea is to make it easy and beneficial for your guests to stay with you again or tell a colleague or friend to choose your hotel.

The cost of acquisition for repeat or referral guests is much lower than new guests. Why not try to maximize the profitability of your guests by getting them to come back and stay with you again or encourage their friends to?

Ali Naqvi: You said repeat or referral business. How do I decide which to focus on?

John:
The reality is that not every hotel is set up to cater to repeat customers. For example, a Caribbean resort is less likely to see repeat guests than a business hotel in Bethesda, Maryland. So it really depends on the kind of hotel you are and the type of ideal guests you have.

Take the business hotel scenario. Say Bob travels to Bethesda for business once a month. If it cost $25 dollars to acquire Bob as a first time guest and you can get him to come back and stay with you again by offering him a discount, a free glass of wine or breakfast (something like that) — that’s a lot cheaper than acquiring a new guest. You need to figure out how to get him to stay at your hotel every time.

A referral program makes more sense if you’re the type of hotel that isn’t conducive to repeat guests. Again, think Caribbean resort. For this type of property, you’re better off putting together a program that allows guests to refer their friends to your hotel and includes an offer for their referrals to take advantage of.

That’s why I say either repeat or referral business.

Ali Naqvi: What’s the best way to build a repeat or referral business program?

John:
Email is typically the most cost effective way to communicate with this group so it will likely be your primary channel. I defy any marketing person to say that email marketing programs don’t work. I highly recommend investing in a good email marketing tool that has solid analytics so you know your open rates, your conversions and your returns.

If you’re thinking of making social media part of your program, you need to understand which social channels actually make sense for you. You could be talking through Facebook as an example, but if nobody is listening then why are you doing it? Further, I would recommend you limit the number of channels you manage because managing social media could (and often does) become a full-time job.

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