The pandemic has fundamentally changed the way consumers travel. As the hotel industry continues to grapple with the reverberating impacts of ongoing travel restrictions, it’s clear that catering to the post-pandemic guest goes beyond advertising hand-sanitizing stations in lobbies and promising masking protocols. From guiding guests through today’s more complicated travel landscape to bringing a fresh perspective to existing property features, hotels are adopting new sales-and-marketing strategies to attract COVID-conscious clients.
Many hotels are finding success in shifting the target audience for their sales-and-marketing campaigns. With many travellers hesitant about taking their first post-pandemic vacations, some properties are focusing their efforts on appealing to local guests.
“We’re well-placed to have international travellers and we will [eventually] have that reach but, in the immediate time, we have to look at those markets that are a little bit closer to home: New York, Toronto, Montreal,” says Patrick Kilvert, director of Sales for Halifax’s recently opened Muir, Autograph Collection. “Maybe they feel safer taking an hour or two-hour flight as opposed to an international flight,” he adds, noting that regional travellers have been the target of Muir’s initial digital ad campaigns.
Christine Mulligan, director of Sales & Marketing at Gladstone House in Toronto, says that local travellers are also a key post-pandemic audience for their property. “I think people are looking for that staycation, whether you’re driving from Montreal or you might even just be driving from Oakville,” she says, noting their focus on local markets in Ontario and Quebec in particular.
Ann Layton, founder of Siren Communications, a Toronto-based travel and tourism PR agency, has observed an increased interest in multi-generational travel, which may represent an untapped guest category for some hotels. “The grandparents haven’t been able to see the grandkids for two years and now they’re getting vaccinated and they just want to be with family,” she says as an example. “They want adjoining rooms or larger suites because of this whole idea of ‘let’s all go somewhere together.’”
Layton notes that one of Siren’s clients, Wymara Resort Turks & Caicos, built villas during its pandemic downtime in anticipation of marketing to this new wave of multi-generational travellers who want to vacation together in their family bubbles.
Other hotels are re-framing their existing features with post-pandemic travel in mind. David Kelley, general manager of Toronto’s SoHo Hotel & Residences, says his team has been highlighting the property’s small size more than ever before. “Our approach is to market our hotel for what it’s always been, which is a small hotel, but all of a sudden that’s even more desirable,” he says. “People don’t want to go to big hotels where you’re going to run into 100 people in the lobby.”
Mulligan agrees that boutique properties have an advantage in the post-pandemic marketing landscape. “The size of the hotel has always been really attractive in getting that feeling of exclusivity,” she says. “That’s always been favourable for smaller hotels and, post-pandemic, it’s still very much on point.”
Kelley says the SoHo has also been promoting an in-room element that he would never have imagined being a focal point prior to the pandemic: the HVAC system. Part hotel and part residence, the SoHo was originally constructed as a condo-style building with separate HVAC systems in every room. “We aren’t recycling air through everybody’s guestrooms. The air that’s in your room is only in your room because it’s a standalone unit, just like you’d have in a condo,” he explains, saying this feature has huge appeal for many SoHo guests.
Kilvert says that Muir’s current marketing strategy emphasizes the property’s inclusion under the Marriott umbrella more than it may have done in the pre-COVID era. “Communicating that we’re part of the Marriott brand may have come a little bit more to the forefront,” he says. “The [fact] that the Marriott brand has health-and-safety measures in place is top of clients’ minds. Marriott is a trusted resource with a commitment to clean in place.”
With travel restrictions and testing rules continuing to change almost daily, some hotels are highlighting how they can help simplify a potential guest’s travel experience. Perhaps the ultimate example of this is the Crane Resort in Barbados, which built a full-service COVID-19-testing facility on its property.
“One of the barriers to travel is the confusion around testing and the costs of testing. Say I’ve got a family of four, but PCR tests could take up to three days — do I have to quarantine in a hotel room with three kids? What’s the price?” explains Layton. “The Crane is a really good example of a hotel proactively addressing this issue. Its guests get their tests right in the room and they can turn around the test in under three hours — even a PCR test.”
Hotels are also promising potential guests a hassle-free experience in simpler ways. For example, Kilvert says Muir’s strategy includes a focus on the pre-arrival experience and providing guests with frequent communication about what they can expect on their journey to-and-from the hotel. “Guests are looking for us to be those experts in the travel protocols,” he says. “We really want to put guests in control of the experience so they can know what to expect.”
The promise of personalized service has always been a key part of the sales-and-marketing approach at the SoHo, but Kelley says COVID-19 has changed what that service looks like and how they advertise it to guests. The hotel is now promoting its app which, among its features, allows guests to communicate with staff and ask questions without in-person contact. “We still provide the same level of service, we’re just communicating in a different way,” explains Kelley.
Ultimately, however, Kilvert believes that while COVID-19 may have driven shifts in the story hotels tell their potential guests, the fundamentals of effective sales and marketing remain the same. “It always starts with the brand story and getting that message out there,” he says. “That’s no different regardless of the pandemic.”
Written by JESSICA HURAS