Mr & Mrs Smith is a travel publisher and hotel booking service specialising in boutique, individual and luxury hotels; co-founder James Lohan says that in order to survive, hotel brands must be fully in tune with their customers and take advantage of the new marketing possibilities
Things ain't what they used to be. Fashions change, technology changes, customer needs evolve, and the same old marketing strategies and customer relationship management techniques just don't cut it any more. For a hotel brand to survive, it has to both stay in tune with the needs of a developing market, and take advantage of the new raft of marketing possibilities that are now available.
Owning and running a boutique hotel is hard work, a balancing act of maximising room revenue, maintaining occupancy levels, and ensuring you're attracting the right customers. People are not only looking for value, they're seeking unique experiences, and there is a lot of competition in a diversified market. Creating a distinct proposition is crucial: but once you've got the basics right, how do you ensure you get the right people interested in your property? And then how do you keep them coming back?
Who are the new generation and what are they looking for?
When Mr & Mrs Smith came about, there were no guides for discerning couples wanting to visit genuinely fabulous hotels for a weekend away. Our books aimed to provide sophisticated, time-restricted couples with hotel inspiration and guidance, ensuring they booked the best rooms, ate and drank well during their time away, and squeezed the most out of the local area.
Mr & Mrs Smith customers are, in the main, classic Generation X-ers, in their late thirties or early forties. Fifty-five per cent are female, and the majority are well-travelled, cash-rich, time-poor city folk, although there is an expanding group of style-aware over-fifties (whom we call, tongue-in-cheekily, ‘GrannySmiths') keen to take advantage of midweek offers. For some ‘occasion couples', boutique hotels are the natural choice for stylish breaks with wow-factor.
This generation of travellers is internet-native, price-savvy and accustomed to comparison. For many, social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have a strong influence on their booking cycle, and user-generated review sites such as TripAdvisor can make or break a booking decision. Peer recommendation is a strong force, peer discouragement an even stronger one.
What makes the perfect boutique hotel?
It's a combination of style, quality, first-class service and individuality, as well as the attractions of the destination itself. ‘Boutique' is a hugely overused term, but that's why we're here to help navigate. When we select a property to add to our collection, we consider it as customers would, asking ourselves whether we'd want to spend a romantic stay there, if it's a restaurant with rooms, a high-end spa hotel, or a tiny rural B&B.
More and more chains are now riding the boutique bandwagon, so it's more vital than ever to distinguish the wannabes from the credibles. A property may have a glitzy website but customers don't want to turn up and find it's actually some corporate behemoth.
Dead giveaways include cookie-cutter design, signs for conference facilities at reception, name badges on staff, hangers fixed to the rails, biscuits in wrappers and all-day buffets. Self-consciously trendy wallpaper, vases full of apples and Molton Brown bath products are also becoming all-too-common shortcuts to supposed 'boutique hotel' status.
Giving the customer what they want
Jaded by old-fashioned B&Bs and anodyne chain hotels, we crave quality and we love quirk. But most importantly, we don't want to waste a minute of our leisure time or a penny of our cash on places that are just mediocre.
This is not only about upscale luxury; boutique hotel customers demand different things at different times. On some occasions, you might be after a lavish country-house hotel blowout, however, if you're looking for a quick weekend getaway, you may find a revamped coaching inn or a stylish farm stay more appealing.
No matter what sort of place you stay at - whether a three-room bed and breakfast, a luxury hotel, a vacation rental or a rock-star villa - the one thing it should make sure is that you feel special the moment you step through the door.
Style is integral: generally, boutique properties have an overarching design concept that enhances the impression of being somewhere inspiring. This can cover a pretty broad spectrum: they can be contemporary, designer or antique-filled, traditional but still stylish. Featuring fascinating fabrics, showcasing original artworks, adding the right floral accents, and perfecting the 21st-century lighting scheme can all contribute to creating the ideal boutique-hotel environment.
The best hotels seamlessly blend colour, texture, textiles, music, ambience, lighting, taste (exhibited by everything from minibar contents to room service menus) and service to create a defined experience. They should retain their individuality, creating a memory that can't be adequately rated by stars, diamonds or rosettes.
Attention to detail makes all the difference: guests need to leave with the impression that a hotel has thought through the whole guest experience, and considered every element of presentation and usability. You don't want gimmicks for the sake of it, but thoughtful treats and unique touches can be impressive - especially when they're also practical. Some of the things to consider include:
â- A wine-choosing cellar visit with the sommelier
â- A picnic prepared and served anywhere in the grounds
â- Taking the owners' dog for a walk
â- A candlelit turndown, instead of chocolates on pillows
â- A weather forecast and activity ideas to suit
â- A bottle of water and home-made flapjacks for the trip home
Six ways to maximise your marketing
There are no magic bullets when you are marketing boutique hotels to the new generation; you have to approach them from all angles. Don't jump on bandwagons unless you have something to say and a genuine point of difference, but consider different platforms - such as social media, direct mail, customer events, viral marketing - to refresh your relationship with customers and create a buzz.
1 Integrated marketing Ensure your core brand messages and product offering are clear. Communicate this to every staff member and make sure they're personally invested in the success of your hotel brand. Think through every touch point and keep this consistent across all product offerings and marketing communications. Every detail counts: from the tone of voice in your eâ'newsletters to the amenities you choose. Mystery-shopping your property is a great way to check your message is consistent and your staff engaged.
2 PR Invest in professional, high-resolution photography, and make sure you have a PR team that is quick, connected and knowledgeable. Cultivate online publications and specialist blog sites as well as traditional offline press.
3 Web visibility Is your website as optimised as possible? Are your Google Webmaster tools set correctly? Are your key search terms listed at the top of Google? High natural-listing results are vital to ensure people find you, and click-through to your site.
When they get there, does it load quickly? Does it tell visitors everything they might need to know? Are your photos up to date? A slick Flash site may look impressive, but if Google can't find it and if it doesn't convey clear information about your property, it's not doing its job. And, while we're on the subject, does it work on a mobile?
4Social media Social media has transformed travel planning and has opened up new possibilities for guest relations. The Smith Twitter feed suddenly has thousands of followers asking for advice, making recommendations, looking for offers and giving feedback on their stays.
Five minutes social-media research might tell you that a guest is looking for antique furniture and interested in local sushi restaurants during their stay with you - imagine the power of having a printed list of suitable local outlets ready when they check in.
5Your customers Get the guest experience right and you'll have a customer for life - and they'll recommend you to all their friends. Get it wrong and they'll be even more vocal!
How do you communicate and how often? How well do you know them? Profile the guests so you know what they like and when they tend to travel. Do you have a record of their birthdays, anniversaries? Send them time-specific offers, invite them to events or operate a loyalty scheme to encourage repeat booking.
6 Market your destination Often, hoteliers don't sell their area effectively. Location is a key reason to visit. Guests love to feel they know a place like a local, so tell them your favourite spots: from the best fish and chips to a fun place to take the kids. Is there a great walk where you can you stop for a pie and pint? Where's the perfect picnic spot? This may sometimes take revenue away from you, but guests will have a better experience as a result and are more likely to return.
In short… Put yourself in the customer's shoes - not the shoes you think your customer should wear. Be creative, original, and push the boundaries. Never rest on your laurels. There's a new boutique hotel opening three times a week - so stay a step ahead of the Joneses.
WHO ARE MR & MRS SMITH?
Mr & Mrs Smith is a bestselling travel publisher and award-winning hotel booking service that specialises in boutique, individual and luxury hotels.
The Mr & Mrs Smith concept was born in 2003 when founders James Lohan and Tamara Heber-Percy (pictured) had a disappointing hotel experience after taking a traditional guidebook's advice. Spotting a problem worth solving, and determined no one need share their bad luck, they launched the first Mr & Mrs Smith guide, a beautiful book of boutique properties guaranteed to provide guests with a memorable stay, this time for all the right reasons.
Now with offices in London, Melbourne and New York, the company has published eight books under its Spy Publishing imprint, formed a unique three-tiered travel club and launched a dedicated online reservation service where travel lovers can access evocative anonymous reviews, check availability and book hotels at guaranteed best rates. Mrandmrssmith.com is now one of the most visited boutique hotel sites, featuring more than 700 hotels and 120 stylish rentals - all rigorously researched, visited and then reviewed anonymously by Smith's team of travel detectives (including Cate Blanchett, Stella McCartney, Philip Treacy and other style connoisseurs), who are invited to road test the recommended romantic excursions for two.
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