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Hotel marketing: craft your pre-opening strategy to generate excitement and business

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If you’re opening a new hotel, don’t underestimate the power of launching your marketing campaign as soon as the builders start work. There’s evidence a cleverly crafted pre-opening strategy generates excitement – and business. Rosalind Mullen reports

The Ned, Hotel Gotham, Hotel Football… Talk to anyone who has had a successful hotel opening in recent years and they will tell you their marketing campaign began as soon as the building works got the green light.

David Barrett, managing director of Pic PR explains: “When it comes to creating excitement about a hotel opening, marketing needs to come first – before the property is even built.

The brand, and the story, must be given highest priority. It’s no surprise that the hotels that do this are the ones we are talking about before they open and long after they’ve opened.”

To prove the point, Pic PR is about to build its own seven-bedroom hotel, which will open in Nazaré, Portugal, in 2021. “Already our PR campaign is under way,” says Barrett. “A few weeks ago, we announced our hotel news to the trade press. It has already helped create a buzz and position us as serious players.”

The next phase will be branding, followed by a teaser campaign that will include social media, a website and video.

In fact, Barrett says using video at an early stage is crucial to tell a story that generates interest. “Video is a huge marketing tool, but so often the client will say they can’t do video yet, as the hotel isn’t built. Wrong. Of course you can, and you need to. Teaser videos can showcase the dishes that will be on the menu, the cocktails that will be served, or even simply the location, with some clever play on words to help build anticipation and brand awareness.”

Pamela Carvell, president of the Hotel Marketing Association (HMA), says your campaign should start 18 months out and agrees that you can’t underestimate the power of video. “People want to see behind the scenes,” she says. “You can create a following by using a personality, or a hook. For example, a webcam on the roof can give updated videos on the building works. It enables you to get a million and one PR stories out there and you choose when and how. But you do need clarity on your objectives.”

Under the influence
To ensure your video reaches the right audience, you also need to engage with local events or influencers that have a social media following by, say, retweeting their messages.

“Immediately, you are reaching thousands of people,” says Carvell. “You can’t underestimate the power of people who have followers.”

What really grabs the public’s attention is a video with a personal or fun component. GG Hospitality, headed by former Manchester United footballers Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville, did this particularly well in the 18-month reopening
campaign for Hotel Football, which is also backed by players Nicky Butt, Philip Neville and Paul Scholes. Top of the initiatives was a video of those professionals playing a game of five-a-side against site workers on the rooftop of their half-built project.

It sealed the hotel’s success. The marketing team gave The Caterer and the Mail Online an exclusive to publish the video alongside articles.

hotel-football

It was then sent out to all social media channels and media, with embedded links to ensure maximum hits. In less than a week, the video achieved 80 pieces of coverage, more than a million views and garnered 2,500 enquiries.

To maintain momentum, the team attended international events such as IBTM World in Barcelona, which attracted £90,000 of enquiries, while its social media campaign acquired 7,000 Twitter followers and 2,100 Facebook likes.

As well as earning Hotel Football the Best Marketing Catey in 2015, the Countdown to Kickoff campaign drove the pre-opening revenue target of £1.65m up to £2.24m.

What’s more, by the time the 133-room hotel opened in March 2015, it had also solidified Manchester’s position on the map.

The New York Times cited Hotel Football as a reason to visit Manchester in its Top 52 Places to Visit in the World in 2015.

Know your audience
Of course, having access to the Class of ‘92 footballers is an advantage, but without a story people won’t stay interested, as Steve Lowy, co-founder and director at Umidigital, observes: “Gary Neville has four million followers on
Twitter and they have a good story because football reaches lots of different people. But building a social media following is only any good if people are following you for the right reasons.”

Kate Greville, head of PR and communications at GG Hospitality, the owner and operator of Hotel Football, adds: “Make sure you have an impact on the bottom line. Don’t just do things because it’s fun. It needs to have relevance and hit the objective, which is to drive awareness, enquiries, and ultimately sales. For example, the hotel video gave a clear call to action, driving pre-launch enquiries and traffic to the website.”

That’s a formula that worked for Bespoke Hotels, which created teaser videos and shoots in the 12-month run-up to opening 60-bedroom Hotel Gotham in Manchester in 2015.

Hotel Gotham, Manchester
Hotel Gotham, Manchester

“I have done so many hotel openings, but this was the most enjoyable. We were full straight away and have been full ever since,” says chairman Robin Sheppard.
The first pre-launch video channelled 1920s Manhattan. Shot in sepia in an empty Victorian building, it set the scene for the “theatrical” hotel. An old-fashioned phone rings incessantly and glamorous “characters” pose languidly with the call to action, “We are worth waiting for”, and the opening date.

“There was nothing in the building to shoot, so we based the six characters broadly on Colonel Mustard and Miss Scarlett. We wanted it to be theatrical,” says Sheppard.

The videos were aired on Twitter and Facebook and worked as a recruitment tool, garnering 1,300 applications. Notably, a ban was put on unlicensed photos so only high-quality official photos were published after opening. During the build-up, the team also unleashed a 1920s-style yellow van called Gerald that tootled around Manchester and published a PR sheet called Gotham Bugle, which was dished out at busy spots such as Manchester Piccadilly station.

Great expectations
What made Hotel Football and Hotel Gotham’s pre-opening campaigns so successful was that they delivered on their promise. Peter Chipchase, chief communications and strategy officer at this year’s winner of the Best Marketing Campaign Catey at the Ned warns: “Most hotel brands make the mistake of investing in pre-opening and presenting the space as one thing, only for the reality to be very different.”

The Ned, launched by Soho House & Co and the Sydall Group last year, avoided this by allowing the marketing process to evolve with the project. “It all started back in 2012, long before anyone even knew we had got hold of the building,” says managing director Gareth Banner. “Developing the DNA [of a brand] can be a long-winded and complex process.”

The Ned and Gareth Banner, managing director of the Ned
The Ned and Gareth Banner, managing director of the Ned

Illustrating the importance of authenticity, the 250-bedroom hotel, which opened in the City’s former Midland Bank headquarters last year, drew its brand identity from the building’s architect Sir Edwin ‘Ned’ Lutyens. Meanwhile, the dramatic spaces were ideal for what Chipchase describes as “a teasing and cinematic social media campaign” inspired by the launch of the Bond movie Spectre. “We wanted to launch the Ned like a film, creating a rolling thunder campaign that started two years out and culminated in a premiere,” he says. “We wanted something that was playful, but showed the spaces and the design in a non-salesy way.”

The in-house marketing team also targeted social media at key influencers, using Instagram as a brand-building channel to showcase design, food and events. The fact that the Ned was a new brand in a location not associated with tourism or culture makes it all the more impressive that they had nailed 43,000 Instagram followers within two months of opening.

“From 2015, we set out to build a family of influence around the Ned,” explains Chipchase.

“The pre-launch plan was focused on creating awareness and letting a select group of people ‘behind the curtain’ early on. They then became invested ambassadors in the project and the location, and could keep their followers and friends updated on the build.”

Along with other marketing initiatives, it paid off. The hotel has enjoyed an average 87% occupancy since day one. “I was shocked at how quickly we managed to fill the hotel on a regular basis,” says Banner.

The strategy also embraced the local community. “We are in this for the long-term so earning the trust and respect of the community was an important consideration,” says Banner. “We [also] needed to attract hundreds of staff as well as thousands of potential customers, so the way in which we talked
about the project internally was a huge factor.”

So what sort of budget do you need? Well, for the video it depends on the quality you need. An experienced video production team could charge a few thousand pounds, while freelancers charge less.

As for the overall marketing budget, Greville says: “Look at your targets and what you want to achieve. Work out your conversion rate if you can and then you will have an idea of what you should spend on marketing. The more you spend in the right way, the more you get, especially on digital marketing.”

Carvell at HMA suggests creativity is what counts: “It’s probably as well to employ a part-time junior who loves social media because they might achieve more than throwing £100,000 at it. It is about being creative, strategic and planning ahead.”

Lowy at Umidigital adds: “People won’t necessarily book until you are open. But they are your database. Brand power doesn’t have to be transactional. There is a lot of soft benefit to genuine social media interest. It sows the seed and makes you dream.”

Grantley Hall, Ripon, North Yorkshire – opening spring 2019
The Sykes family’s Grantley Hall may still be a hard-hat site, but that isn’t hindering the pre-opening campaign.

The four-year multimillion-pound transformation of the 17th-century Grade II*-listed property into a 47-bedroom five-star hotel with three restaurants, a wedding and banqueting suite and spa is expected to complete next spring, but general manager Andrew McPherson kickstarted the marketing campaign 18 months ago with a website, videos and social media.

Grantley Hall, Ripon, North Yorkshire
Grantley Hall, Ripon, North Yorkshire

“It’s been a challenge as we have no asset to photograph, so we needed to engage a creative team from the outset,” says McPherson.

While Mason Rose handled PR and digital marketing to create a vision for the hotel, Natural Selection was commissioned to film a series of videos to show the story unfold. One of the videos follows a bride and groom wandering through the faded grandeur of the unrestored house, then unexpectedly the bride picks up a drill and starts work. This creative thinking is reflected in other images, such
as the site workers downing tools to enjoy a five-star afternoon tea.

Interestingly, McPherson says his initial reason for starting the campaign early was to ensure that the project team, builders and engineers understood the owners’  vision for the hotel.

“Imagery is a good medium for that,” says McPherson. “It’s so important for three
reasons: to inspire the internal team and keep them focused; to build awareness and make sure the phones ring; and to attract and recruit the right calibre of staff.”

To reach the public, Tracey Ractliffe, director of sales and marketing, works with tourist organisation Welcome to Yorkshire, and recently networked at the Great Yorkshire Show. The hotel also started posting on Instagram 12 months ago and through working with locals, friends, consultants and business connections it
already has 1,000 followers.

“Social media is the fastest way to market,” says Ractliffe. “And we are very keen on video. It is the best practice to show lifestyle. But we constantly drip-feed using traditional and non-traditional methods.”

As the hotel is still a building site, McPherson has been building interest in  weddings and meetings by hosting events in London and attended the Elite
Performance Show to share information about the gym and spa facilities.

Although bookings for individual guests won’t open until later this year, the team have already received enquiries for larger bookings.

“We have four weddings booked for the summer from brave brides who did the hard-hat tour,” says Ractliffe.

“In the last four weeks we have had one enquiry a day, including a car launch next year. But for individual accommodation I want to hold off until we are sure of product and pricing.”

Top tips
• Start your campaign as soon as you do your business plan – if possible 18 months before you open.
• Identify your target market.
• Use video, website and social media to build up awareness so people know about you when you open.
• Use inhouse marketing expertise or invest in an agency.
• Creativity is key and can make social media effective even with a small budget.
• Tap into influencers who can retweet or re-post your feeds and vice versa.
• Get the dates of local festivals, conferences, events and media schedules so you can engage with them.
• One person can’t do social media 24/7, so appoint brand ambassadors and train key staff to post on Instagram.
• Ensure your ‘story’ reflects the end product.
• Consider smaller familiarisation events rather than a large opening bash.

The Stock Exchange Hotel, Manchester – opening spring 2019
GG Hospitality’s next project, a five-star hotel with 40 bedrooms and suites and two presidential suites, in the Grade II-listed Stock Exchange building, will open in the first quarter of 2019. As well as an events space and private dining rooms for 100 people, there will be two restaurants and a residents’ lounge.

Crucially, the team researched its values, tone, and the attributes and demands of the target market before work began. Head of PR and communications Kate Greville explains: “That feeds into the development of the listed property, such as the F&B offerings. From there, the team work out branding, logo, and brand colours to reflect the history of the building.”

Now, with nine months until launch, plans for the communications plan are hotting up. “The first stage is the website because this is where people will go first to look for information. Weddings and events will be a big part as people are
booking these now for next year. We need the website to tell a story, but we also need to create a mystery and not give too much away,” says Greville, who will use illustrations and original photos in the absence of the finished product.

“Digital marketing will be massive,” she adds, “and we will start to build SEO
and Google rankings, particularly to tap into the international market.”

Social media will be used for “coming soon” lifestyle content, with Instagram seen as vital. “We want [the hotel] to create an image and a lifestyle that can be brought to life online,” says Greville.

Closer to launch, they will curate a video to introduce the atmosphere and feel of the hotel to its target audience. “We will use people in the video as we want it to
be personal, intimate,” she stresses.

Her team is already starting to talk to local businesses and nearer the time will invite international influencers on familiarisation trips.

“We need to engage people,” she says. “A launch party is fantastic and creates noise, but I am not sure of its value in getting people through the doors long term. The best way is familiarisation trips in smaller groups as they experience the hotel properly.”

Traditional comms will also be used, including Q&As on-site with key people, hard-hat tours to attract media and get people onboard early. And once recruited,
F&B staff and chefs will do sneak-peek dinners with key media and influencers in the build up to the opening.

“Lifestyle media will be key for us, as well as business media and trade mags,”
adds Greville.

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