After a lull that kept consumers in their hometowns out of necessity more than desire, the world’s travellers are spreading their wings once again. Canadian hotels enjoyed a one-per-cent gain in occupancy to 64 per cent, a $3 ADR improvement to approximately $136 and a RevPAR jump from $83 to $87 in 2014 over 2013, according to the Ottawa-based Hotel Association of Canada. International travel grew by five per cent in that period, so there are now a billion tourists globally, adds the association’s president, Tony Pollard. Closer to our borders, the declining price of fuel and the flagging Canadian dollar is driving more Americans to take a trip north.
But, whether this is translating to an influx of heads in beds is another story. “It’s a completely different environment we’re operating in now than 10 or 15 years ago,” says Pollard. He adds that the growth of online travel agents, along with the trend of private individuals renting out rooms in their homes to travellers, is creating new challenges for hoteliers.
Success on this new playing field relies on cooperation. “The best experiences we ever have are when we all work together on promoting an event,” says Pollard. But that doesn’t happen enough, notes Philippe Gadbois, SVP, Operations, at Atlific Hotels in Montreal. “The amount of money spent by provinces and cities is impressive, but nobody seems to appreciate the [bigger picture], and it’s called Brand Canada,” he says.
Jon Mamela, SVP, Marketing Strategy for the Canadian Tourism Commission (CTC) in Vancouver, agrees: “Foremost, the Canada Brand has much greater recognition amongst travellers in our long haul international markets versus the majority of hotels/destination marketing organizations (DMOs),” he says. “The greater the alignment to Canada’s tourism brand through CTC’s marketing initiatives in our target markets, the stronger our collective voice will be in the competitive international marketplace.”
Gadbois believes individual hotels should band together and fund DMOs with a message that emanates from a Brand Canada perspective. “We’ve been talking about this for 30 years,” he sighs.But, during the last few years, while Canadians were “talking,” Brand U.S.A. has been marketed domestically and to Canadians, while the CTC has had its funding cut. Meanwhile, other destinations such as Australia are investing in tourism, taking their message on cross-country and cross-city promotional tours.
In Canada, the tourism sector has become overly reliant on domestic travellers. The Tourism Industry Association of Canada’s (TIAC) recently published study, “2014 Gateway to Growth,” reports that international travellers made up a 33-per-cent share of all travel in Canada in 2000. That number dropped to 19 per cent by 2013.
Michael Haywood, president of The Haywood Group, a Quebec-based tourism and hospitality consultancy, agrees there is a problem. “We’re just not excited about ourselves,” he says. “Canada doesn’t hit the news in the States. We’ve got to find the magic in Canada. That’s the trick. And we need creative people to start thinking of ways to get that attention.”
Royce Chwin, CEO of Travel Alberta in Canmore, Alta., is convinced the secret to attracting U.S. visitors lies in strategic affiliation. “Global competition is fierce, and it’s [important] that Alberta partner with the CTC and other Canadian regions to promote experiences under the Canada brand. Canada is what the international traveller knows first, and creating the right points of partnership and alignment under that is critical in order to compete for travellers.”
As such, Travel Alberta leverages the CTC’s investment in international markets and works with provincial partners on initiatives such as promoting Canada’s West (with Destination British Columbia) to showcase the region as a dual-province travel experience in markets such as Germany, where travellers are interested in road trips.
Beyond that, DMOs should cater to marketing channels that speak to special-interest groups. “We have to get away from the idea of mass marketing,” Haywood says, adding that collaborative initiatives should translate to hotels and the communities in which they reside, working together to create must-see destinations. That requires thinking outside the box and recognizing that a hotel is simply a commodity without the rich integration of its community behind it.
Such a revelation has inspired management at the Shangri-La hotels in Toronto and Vancouver to sell the Shangri-La and its local ambiance to visitors, says Alex Filiatrault, area director of Sales and Marketing at the Shangri-La Hotel Vancouver. For example, the Vancouver property has aligned promotions with The Forbidden City exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery; special packages include tickets to the exhibition, breakfast and a car transfer to the gallery, along with lodging. In Toronto, the hotel creates synergies with the Toronto International Film Festival and the Luminato arts festival. It has also introduced promotions to coincide with various exhibitions at the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Royal Ontario Museum. “It’s not just about putting a rate out there and buying an ad to promote the hotel,” says Filiatrault. “We’re also offering a chance to be part of something bigger. We become part of the story, part of the fabric of the city.”
Such efforts are critical now, as competition for travellers’ disposable cash takes flight. But the growing digital landscape is getting cluttered and expensive, particularly Google, “the mother ship” for trip planning, notes Alicia Whalen, the principal and founder of A Couple of Chicks, a Mississauga, Ont.-based digital marketing agency focused on travel and tourism. She notes that large properties are spending $20 or more per click on high-traffic words such as “New York hotels,” and the smaller independent hotels have been squeezed out of the Google search. In response, Whalen suggests advertisers consider alternative distribution channels, including TripAdvisor and the Bing Ads network, which, she points out, serve one-third of the search market.
Moreover, the travel system is becoming fragmented, with consumers scouring multiple devices for a single trip. They might launch a “Caribbean vacation” search on a mobile device, then move to a laptop, looking on TripAdvisor for reviews and visiting social networks for photos. “Hotels increasingly need to ensure wider distribution online,” advises Whalen. She suggests hotels and DMOs manage their online reviews, an imperative that tracks back to “good old customer service.” In other words, hotels need to answer all social-media comments, good or bad, and manage that space closely.Â
Beyond that, price is another challenge. The glut of digital travel players has heightened the customer’s desire for price transparency and value.
One trick to gaining customer loyalty is personalizing messages on social media to offer value and humanize a hospitality operation. For example, a hotel might send out an individualized mobile ad to a regular customer offering a special rate at the property, or a 10-per-cent discount at an affiliated restaurant.
Ultimately, Whalen sums up, whether travelling for leisure or business, consumers are keen to find a hotel that offers value, price transparency, convenience and an experience that will “blow the roof off.”