Here’s a little article I wrote today based on our lessons from Zebras Crossing to help other lodge owners, hoteliers, bed&breakfast entrepreneurs and AirB&B operators in the quest to grow their businesses and become sustainable.
Hope it helps.
The proliferation of choices for travellers has grown exponentially in the last years. There are millions of hotels, bed&breakfasts, resorts, safari lodges and corporate rentals available in the market, and thanks to intermediaries such as AirB&B the availability of places to stay has probably doubled as owners start to realize that owning a building is not a guaranteed investment if that building doesn’t earn a return. This is great news for the travellers and holidaymakers as more and more choices are flooding the market, but it does bring about a whole new set of challenges for owners of destinations, specifically on how to stand out from the crowd. And make no mistake: if you don’t stand out it won’t be long before you will not be around anymore due to lack of bookings and corresponding revenue.
So to stand out in such a competitive world, what are the realistic options for owners of lodges, hotels, resorts etc?
Here I list a few ideas for consideration. What I won’t list is just throwing money in a marketing pot or tool such as facebook, google, Instagram etc in the hope of generating bookings. This is a tactic that does work from time to time but it is expensive and the closest you get to a rat race, with no end in sight.
Idea 1: Location location location.
This doesnt mean that if you don’t have the best address in town you won’t be succesful, but rather means understanding what you are close to (e.g. concert venue, public transport, nature, major construction sites, big businesses) and then shaping your marketing strategy accordingly.
For example, we own a safari lodge 2 hours easy drive from Johannesburg that has giraffes, zebras, etc but no big 5 (lions, elephants, etc). For many years we were trying to win the customers who booked the Big 5 reserves until we realized that we were the perfect complementary product to the big 5 resorts, namely the perfect destination to come to after an overnight flight from the USA/Europe to South Africa to come and rest for 3 nights surrounded by beautiful wildlife in a upmarket surrounding before going to your 4 times more expensivesafari big 5 destination (where relax is a bit more challenging as you generally go on game drives at 5am for 3 hours or more and again in the evening).
Now we are focusing strongly on being the first stop for international guests rather than the ultimate destination and our occupancy grew by an additional 19% in 14 months.
Idea 2: Your website
The reality is that most websites really suck. For smaller players what usually happens is that they get a WordPress template and then customize it accordinly. For the biggest players you get some impressive landing pages and a complicated jungle of site navigation options. Our experience (which is by no means definitive but has yielded a substantial increase of clicks on the “Book” buttons) is as follows:
– Landing page is an overview of the whole hotel / lodge / location (see our website as an example (www.zebrascrossing.com ). That way the guest can immediately get an overview of the whole place which also translates also into a subtler feeling of transparency. It shows the prospective guests that you are not trying to hide anything as well as giving the visitors a quick way to understand spaces, location, views and where everything is. If you are a town/city venue then you could start with a zoomed in image of your main building and give the visitors the option to zoom out to see the location.
– Describe the rooms and facilities in a clear way. By all means use majestic language (“we use satin sheets made from only the finest textiles, etc” but don’t use marketing bullshit to dress it up more than it is. Tell the visitor if this room is lake facing or not (as an example). Describe the gym and opening hours, the facilities the hotel has, etc. The visitors wants you to tell it how it is and not to be bullshitted. If your hotel is designed as as perfect place to stay while attending conferences at a nearby conference venue, then describe it for what it is (e.g. we are a perfect budget friendly destination 350 meters walk from the XYZ conference facility. You are close enough to walk to the conference yet far enough to be able to switch off at the end of a long hard day and put your feet up by our pool or chill areas).
– Do not underestimate “What others say” about you. Most visitors don’t believe the marketing stuff that people who design websites write so using previous guests references is absolutely crucial. A tip: you can also use good reference (and not just perfect ones). Another tip: incentive your guests to leave a reference (e.g. tripadvisor) with something physical, perhaps at the hotel itself (a voucher for a massage, a free bottle of wine at dinner, etc) as a thank you for taking time off their stay to review your place. Don’t expect guests to invest their time and brainpower to rate you out of the goodness of their hearts (generally speaking)
Idea 3: Social media (the cheap way)
From the outset I must admit to not being a big fan of spending money to advertise on facebook, Instagram or google. We tried it a couple of times and the tech giants informed us our posts were doing well but we saw no impact on our bottom line. In my personal view, advertising on Facebook and similar is money thrown out. BUT that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t engage with someone to help you (unless you are good at it – we are not) set your presence on Google Business, Facebook Pages and Instagram up correctly the first time.
The reality is that each tool (facebook, pininterest, etc) requires you to use it in different ways. Let me give you a practical example: being a game lodge we have thousands of amazingly cool pics of animals as well as from behind the scenes of what happens at the lodge. So instead of creating a Lodge Instagram account to just show off the beautiful side of our lodge we created a page that actually shows what goes on behind the scenes (we show the good side as well as the difficult moments – such as when something breaks down). I am not sure if it increased the bookings rate, but it certainly increased engagement. We use social media more as free tools to reinforce booking decisions that actual booking channels. Am sure there are hotels out there with different experiences, this is just what we are seeing.
Two tips here:
1. Have a well designed and photographed library of the core elements of your offerings (e.g. all rooms, interiors, kitchen, lounges, pool, etc) pics are taken by the same photographer so it shows you invested to make the place look professional.
2. Have a big library of random photos which you upload 1 each day to your social media channels with a nice human comment (no marketing speak please). Humor works well.
Idea 4: Call to action
Ensure that whatever you do – be it email, WhatsApp Business, Instagram, Twitter – you carry with your a easy to find call to action. It should be obvious but not too obvious. As simple as a big “Book Now” button or link will suffice. In a sort of subtle way you are wanting to help your visitors decide what the next step on your site is so the booking button is helping them make a decision. All other links/pages on your profiles / websites / email communications are really about creating a funnel towards a call to action.
The easiest tip I can give you is to go to wisestamp.com and create yourself a really cool and attractive email signature: email signatures are your cheapest marketing tool and often the most underused one (look at yours now and honestly tell me if it is a call to action or just a description of your status in the company and contact details).
Idea 5: Pricing and discounts
There are always examples of customers who don’t have a limit to what they are willing to spend, but my sense is that those days are nearing an end. We have been incredibly privileged to be visited by exceptionally financially successful individuals and families over the years and all of them looked at the value proposition of our offering and compared it to others.
You can always try and sell the highest price to a guest, but then the repeat business is going to be low. Our approach is that we prefer to make a smaller margin but have guests come again and again and again over the years without them having to worry about budgets. We have adopted a flexible pricing approach where we publicise our rates but if you wish to stay longer periods or come with bigger groups we will actually offer you discounts before you even ask. I am always amazed that hotels don’t offer as discount for booking directly (instead of booking.com, etc).
Also offer guests an additional discount if they pay via bank transfer (your credit card fees alone means you could offer between 3.5% and 5.5% additional discounts if they skip credit cards). Be transparent in your communications: guests will appreciate it (we had guests that prefer paying by credit card because they accrue miles and have travel insurance – that is fine, but at least we offered the discount option for direct payments).
Idea 6: Don’t be pizza and try and please everyone.
Although we welcome individual couples since our 20 years in business, our core focus is on families, friends and special occasions where the guests want to be able to book the entire safari lodge to themselves so that they can experience what it is like to own their own safari lodge. Understanding that no all families and friends have big budgets, our approach is to offer a Whole Lodge Bed&Breakfast&GameDrive option for those families and friends who are budget conscious as well as a Whole Lodge FullyCatered option with all the bells and whistles.
Of course none of the above will fix your hotel/lodge/venue if the experience the guests have once they visit you is a shitty one. We are blessed to have the most amazing team running the lodge (the lodge manager started at our lodge 20 years ago as a brick layer) and we do everything (including profit share) to make sure the team is happy. A happy team that understands that without happy guests there is no lodge is a good business.
I hope the above helps. It is a lot of work but it is worth it. The point is that you need to work on your business offering to the world to really make it stand out. Sometime you will be able to do it yourself and sometime you need the help of experts. But please do make a point to go out and ask for help. You can’t do it alone. In our case we knew what we wanted but had absolutely no idea how to make it a packaged reality (e.g. the website) so we enlisted the help of experts.
This is where the Africa VR team (www.AfricaVr.co.za) who combined virtual reality, 360 interactive videos, drones and indoor photo technology to create a totally inclusive virtual experience of what it is like to visit our safari lodge. The end result is absolutely amazing and am sure it won’t be long before most resorts/lodges and hotels adopt their approachbut for now we are enjoying our little competitive advantage 🙂
Oh and before I forget…Here’s the link to booking out lodge 🙂