COVID-19 has potentially changed everything—ushering in the possibility for brands to disrupt the disruptors.
Predictable and boring amenities and designs shared by brands ushered in independent boutique hotels, allowing for unique experiences and celebrations of local culture and art. High costs ushered in Airbnb, allowing travelers in the millennial generation access to neighborhoods and travel that they never had access to previously. Now with demand at historic lows and health and hygiene being the ultimate goal, brands are uniquely positioned to put a large number of these competitors out of business.
A lot has happened since the tides shifted away from brands with their investment in new flags, design, technology and management philosophy that answer the needs of a changing consumer. Independent hotels have continued to stay relevant and Airbnb has continued its market growth unchecked.
With a global pandemic, the tide has changed. I’m sure you’ve heard that in cities across the country, Airbnb units have been listed for sale. Owners not able to make the payments on them while empty has forced these small business owners to exit completely while the real estate market can still support it.
This COULD be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Brands are rolling out standard operating procedures worldwide, giving predictability and confidence back to its guests. As independent hotels and individual unit owners consider keyless entry, digital check-in is part of the global app experience at most of the larger brands. Heightened communication, more lenient cancellation policies, universal collateral communicating heightened cleaning procedures to guests are giving consumers of big branded hotels the confidence they need to keep coming back. A safe, well-thought-out and executed cleaning experience awaits them at the next hotel they visit.
With a mixed response from different Airbnbs and unclear rules at independent hotels, it isn’t clear for guests what the experience will be or if the hotel has made any changes whatsoever. This gives the branded hotels a massive lead in the consideration phase for the next stay, especially on last-minute and corporate transient business. Its easily conceivable for large companies to mandate a certain brand to protect its employees from the potential dangers of COVID-19.
Since Airbnb took flight, brands left reeling have been slowly building their technology stacks. They’re working with major players to develop fully integrated experiential technology with serious analytics on the back end to improve their offering to hotel owners and developers. This investment was likely outmatched by Airbnb, but independent hotels continue to struggle to keep pace with technology as more and more partners come into play and its PMS systems and GDS connectivity partners restrict disruption. As brands were quietly building their platforms, independent hotels were hoping to find stardom on social media platforms, only for the vast majority to fall flat or become a source of embarrassment having posts from several months prior or even years.
While most independent hotels hope to be able to send automated emails and the occasional promotional email, branded hotels have created a platform that recognizes guests from email, to their app, to logging in on the computer and calling their help desk. Accomplishing this is not overly costly, but it is time-consuming and offers limited return on investment for standalone properties.
Ease of booking
Brands have made detailed agreements with online travel agencies like Expedia that stop OTAs from changing their prices. Pricing is consistent across websites, and the benefit of booking direct is clear, as consumers can earn loyalty points and rewards.
Independent hotels continue to be bullied by OTAs, changing prices without consent, offering rates well below direct booking rates if users login and the ease of accruing loyalty at any hotel in the world.
Airbnb offers a terrifying number of options and choices that make deciding on an option, dizzying. Their ideal traveler has enough time to digest all of the options, read through all of the reviews, decide if they think short-term rentals are even allowed in the building they’ll be visiting before clicking on the “book now” button. It’s simply easier to live in a branded box and find the flag that you like closest to the area you want to be in.
Brands have been looking to meet the appetite of consumers seeking experiences through the creation of new and exciting brands as well as creating collections of hotels that are allowed to be special and unique. The creation of Autograph Collection by Marriott and Curio Collection by Hilton, for example, are pinnacles in the industry for boutique flavor with branded benefits.
Many of these hotels were developed by brand hotel investment groups who don’t necessarily understand why these hotels are special and particularly have difficulty in delivering in those special “surprise and delight” moments. They lack the branding thought leadership required for those properties, so therefore independents still maintain an edge in curating a truly unique stay. As they seek better partnerships for those future properties and learn how to better support them, experience leaves the last bastion for independent hotels and Airbnb to truly stand apart from their branded counterparts.
If brands are offering incredible technology, a reliably safe experience, ease of booking with digital check-in and continue to improve their execution of special and unique experiences, they will be on their path to taking market share away from both Airbnb and independent hotels worldwide.
For many of us, this is a new situation and the first time we’ve experienced mandatory face masks, social distancing rules and grocery stores with one-way aisles. Most people have yet to stay in a hotel since the pandemic began. You need to let them know what this looks like, what you expect of them and what they should expect of your employees.
We as hoteliers are a different breed and this is where we can shine. We want people to feel welcomed, comfortable and safe while they are staying in our hotels. This is the communication playbook for what to do today to get ready for guests.
Step 1: Do your work and take a stand
What are your state and local laws? Are you going to go further? What are the laws for your guests on property? How will you enforce this? Are you ready for the repercussions, either way? When does the second reopening phase come? Write down these answers and share every expectation with your entire team. Set expectations and enforce them.
Step 2: Pre-stay communication
I applauded the early work of Hilton and its Hilton CleanStay with Lysol protection as a brilliant PR move. Not only did they get that message out early, but they found two incredible partners, the Mayo Clinic and Lysol. They did the work and they let you know what it looked like and when it would be implemented.
Create your COVID-19 statement
Are you open? What are the laws affecting your hotel? This is also a great place to mention any work you are doing to support your workforce and the community. Also mention any changes in your cancellation and rewards policies.
Share that statement wherever applicable
Your webmaster or brand can add a notification to your website for critical updates for your hotel. For branded hotels, there will be many policies dictated by the brand, but states and local governments are reacting to this differently. Owners are reacting to this differently. Put up YOUR message covering how your property is responding.
Third parties, like Google my Business, are an additional way to share temporary closures, openings and special restrictions in place and can be easily adjusted. Make a list of these locations and post them wherever possible and adjust as restrictions change.
Create the pre-stay messaging campaign
Most hotels send a pre-stay email a few days prior to guest check-in, and this is your opportunity to remind them of what to expect and what is expected of them. You’ve walked into a friend’s house before only to realize you are the only one with shoes on. Don’t make a guest feel put out; explain the experience.
Here’s an example: “We look forward to your stay on DATE. Please remember that masks and social distancing are required by law here in CITY. If you don’t have a mask, we are happy to provide you one before entering the hotel by calling our front desk at PHONE NUMBER. We have updated our employee policy; you will see that all of our employees will be wearing masks at all times, a screen in between you and the front-desk agent will be in place at check-in and we’re taking extra precautions by asking employees to wash their hands every hour. They will be disinfecting our highest-touch areas and won’t be operating any buffet breakfast options.”
Connecting with your guest before they arrive is the most critical point of communication, and always remember to ask if the guest has questions.
Step 3: Design on-property messaging
Hotels can be large, confusing places and we are already pros at wayfinding. All you need to do is make the small decisions for guests easy. For elevators, state max capacity clearly and determine a communication plan. State your mask policy outside before people enter the property. Place hand sanitizer in entryways. Communicate clearly any closed areas around the hotel. Don’t use white printer paper, call your local sign company. I promise they will design something nice and at reasonable cost quickly.
The guestroom is a key space to communicate what extra steps you’re taking for guest safety. Remove the guesswork. Let guests know what was done and what isn’t being done.
Step 4: Post-stay communication
The worst thing we can do is assume we know what people want or how they perceive our actions. Survey guests after their stay and beg them for their feedback as early and quickly as possible, whether it’s by phone or email. Ask whether they felt comfortable at the hotel, and whether any part of their stay made them feel uncomfortable or unsafe. Then fix it. We don’t know what the new normal is. We don’t know if guest cleanliness expectations have forever changed. What we do know, though, is how to dazzle our guests. This will be the main focus for the next 12-18 months.
Once you have done all these things, your employees, guests and potential guests will see you as a leader and a trusted partner in travel. I bet they will come back to you when things clear up, too.
COVID19 – It’s Time to Build Trust in Your Brand Through Communication
Clear Communication to Customers
This time we are in is unprecedented. No one knows what the new social norms are. The small things we’ve practiced our entire lives are now out the door. How do you even make a payment in a social distancing world? A six foot barrier around one another is impossible to practice in a line for the cashier/front desk, right? For those of us who are older, who have risk factors, who know someone who was severely impacted or even have lost their lives, the stakes are high in these simple transactions. It is our job as business owners to facilitate transactions from people to us. Let’s talk about what that looks like.
Checklist of items to communicate:
Employee health and welfare
What exactly are you doing to make sure the people the customer interacts with and interacts with the surfaces, food, linens, clothing, etc are healthy? Customers want to hear, are you taking temperatures for everyone coming into work? What is your sick leave policy? What steps will be taken if someone is found to be sick? Who is wearing masks and who isn’t? Darden Group, parent company of Olive Garden, sped up its sick leave implementation across its restaurants ensuring that if an employee is sick, they can afford to take the day off.
What steps are being taken to make sure the business is clean? Will there be a nightly cleaning? Hilton has done an incredible job of communicating how they will change in order to meet the new demands of customers in a marketing push called Hilton CleanStay. Some of the changes they have made include a visible seal to the room to indicate no one has entered since the cleaning took place and a detailed account of exactly the surfaces that are disinfected before your arrival.
What am I supposed to do?
Most Americans haven’t stayed at a hotel in a post COVID-19 world or eaten at a sit down restaurant and many of them probably haven’t even ordered delivery or takeout. Don’t treat them like they have, make sure they are informed about what the experience will be like BEFORE they walk in the door or place an order for delivery. Let them know, are they supposed to wear a mask? Are there options to finalize a transaction before walking in the door? What does delivery look like? How am I supposed to tip? An early leader in communicating expectations was Dominos who perfected the American COVID19 delivery first, or that’s at least what it seemed like in their instructional contactless delivery communication and early advertisements. Before ordering, customers understand what is expected of them and what is expected of the driver. Ensure the guesswork has been removed from your customer.
Am I allowed to walk in or is this a curbside only venue? Are masks required? Has ordering changed, where am I supposed to stand to make an order? Again, these are interactions that don’t have a social norm anymore. There isn’t a blanket approach to this, most Americans have had to venture out to the grocery store but may have opted for self checkout, this could be their first direct interaction with a stranger. Every store has taken a different approach. Let customers know how it is going to work either through visual or verbal communication. I want those I interact with to feel comfortable as much as I am seeking to be comfortable. Let me know what the expectations of the customer are.
What are you communicating by how service is being executed will matter most. In a recent secret shopper exercise, Mark Cuban went through a list of mandatory and suggested protocols at the Dallas re-opening weekend and found abysmal results. It is imperative that above all, you walk to the talk. There are people out there that don’t care and feel invincible, but the vast majority of Americans are scared. This means managing entrances, creating disposable menus, staff avoiding physical interaction or quickly washing their hands following a guest interaction. There should be a visible effort to manage high touch areas, enforcement of social distancing, efforts made for contactless payment and of course, effortless communication.
It is time to communicate to your customers about expectations, how they are being protected and how they are supposed to interact with your employees. If you do this, then customers will feel confident returning again to your business and you can start to rebuild your business in this new environment.
THIS photo. This is the photo where it all began.
OK, no, that’s totally not true. I uprooted my family to work on a mixed use development project in Dallas. I moved away from the most beautiful place I’ve ever lived, with a newborn, my 5 year old son and my wife with her business humming along. Fast forward a year later, I am just another number of the unemployed Americans. For a day or so I was mad at what seemed like a betrayal to my massive commitment. That’s just the thing though, I’ve never made any progress wallowing.
Since the beginning of the Covid19 crisis, I had the unbelievable feeling of wanting to do something. I am not a billionaire that can start a massive new non-profit, I have small children at home so it makes it incredibly hard to leave the house for a long period of time to volunteer time with a spouse who is also trying to keep her small business going. So, I just focused on work, made donations where I thought it would help the most and tried to keep those around me positive and safe.
This all changed when I suddenly was gifted with a bit more free time. Realistically, my industry that I’ve spent the last 13 or so years is in shambles. It might be awhile before I can get a new gig. So until that time, I am dedicating some time to helping businesses get back on their feet with free marketing advice, links to great free tools and hopefully, a place where I can connect with others who want to lend a hand to others in an effort for the global community to get back on its feet. So, stay tuned for articles that I hope to share with you in the coming weeks. Let me know if you have any article ideas or areas you need some help with. I am here. We’ll get through this, together.