7 Hotel Marketing Lessons I’ve Learned This Past Year
As I look back on a year of hotel marketing, podcasting, and pandemic life, so much has shifted. While recent TSA numbers prove what we all suspected—that travel would rebound quickly—the hospitality industry remains badly bruised. Despite the wreckage, post-pandemic recovery presents a distinct opportunity to build our industry back better than before.
In this past year, marketing—like everything else—became more challenging, and not just because travel halted to a stop. The bigger challenge was communicating through multiple crises. After a year creating marketing campaigns in the thick of pandemic life, and building relationships with non-traditional hoteliers on my podcast, How To Share, I’ve certainly learned some lessons—here are my top seven.
Lesson 1: Evergreen content does not exist in today’s world.
For years before the pandemic reared its head, we’d look back at last year’s marketing campaigns and duplicate them. It was an effective shortcut—not only could we see which campaigns drove web traffic and bookings, we also knew that the travel cycle would repeat itself. Of course, all of that changed a year ago.
Marketing isn’t nearly as simple anymore. Travel habits have changed, dramatically. Hotels that historically relied on city-wide events and conferences have completely shifted their marketing efforts from group business to transient.
“Set it and forget it” went out the window in favor of double and triple checking all of our content and updating it based on travel guidelines and restrictions, and to ensure our messaging wasn’t tone-deaf (ie. “the energy in our lobby is contagious!”)
Lesson 2: You can be contactless and thoughtful.
With evergreen content out the window, marketers were charged with writing lengthy COVID landing pages that outlined mostly contactless guest experiences. As a marketer and frequent traveler, I couldn’t help but wonder if we’d taken hospitality out of the hotel experience by removing all of the human interactions? Turns out, you can be contactless and thoughtful.
When hotels began to welcome guests again, certain outlets remained closed—spa, dining, and fitness centers—so we got creative to rethink these experiences, offering in-room spa kits, guides to outdoor dining, and even Peloton Suites for guests who prioritized fitness during their stay.
Lesson 3: Hotels aren’t built for everyone.
When the pandemic began, we learned some new language—Coronavirus, droplets, and mask-wearing. Toilet paper became a hot commodity, and grocery delivery became essential work. We started to Zoom, and haven’t stopped. With more time to pay attention to the world around us, systemic racism came into focus. Along with it came the realization that virtually all of the institutions in our country are built by a select few who benefit from generational wealth and white privilege.
Hotel ownership is one of those institutions, and as it turns out, hotels built by one type of person are intrinsically going to serve that one type of person. In my interview with Damon Lawrence on episode 13 of the How To Share podcast, Damon shared in detail the many ways he realized that hotels were not built with him in mind. He also recognized that people that looked like him weren’t represented in hotel ownership or hotel management. Damon set out to build Homage Hospitality, the first hotel group dedicated to Black culture. In its very first iteration, The Moor Hotel in New Orleans, Damon realized that by building something for the most marginalized, he built something for everyone.
Interviewing Damon set me on a journey to connect with, and learn from more non-traditional hoteliers in the industry—like Moniqua Lane, the owner of The Downtown Clifton and The Citizen Hotel in Tucson, Arizona, on episodes 21, 22, Jamila Ross, the co-owner of The Copper Door B&B in Overtown, Miami, on episodes 30 and 31, and Robin Staten on episode 35 of How To Share podcast.
I’d be remiss not to mention Davonne Reaves, a hotel consultant and investor who has set a goal to create 221 Black hotel owners in 2021. I interviewed Davonne on episode 38.
When we talk about building back our industry, let’s not forget the systemic barriers to entry, and let’s make room at the table for these voices to be heard.
Lesson 4: The OTAs are a necessary evil.
I’ve always dogged on the OTAs, but there’s this thing—this meta search thing—that’s a major factor when it comes to hotel bookings. We all know organic search comes largely from Google, but there’s a secondary search channel known as meta search—the listings within search results. Thanks to their size and volume, the OTAs dominate meta search, rank higher, and more often than not, win the battle for clicks.
Travelers are using OTAs as search directories, zeroing in on the best hotels in a given place based on rankings, price, and imagery, but knowing that booking through a third party comes with restrictions, savvy shoppers take what they’ve found on the OTA and paste it into a browser to poke through the hotel’s website. That moment is an opportunity to keep the guest on your site and convince them to book direct.
OTAs grant hotels the ability to be found online and may provide a small window of opportunity for direct bookings. From a marketing perspective, we can’t shun the OTAs altogether. It’s up to revenue managers to work that system by limiting the available inventory, and it’s up to marketers to ensure listings are optimized for search. For tips on driving more revenue to your properties, and managing the OTAs, listen to episode 25 with Sagar Bhakta.
Lesson 5: Inclusive marketing is not a quick fix.
Joey Hamilton joined me on episodes 23 and 24, and Sonia Thompson joined me on episode 37 to talk through inclusive marketing. It turns out that if you’ve been marketing to the masses, you’ve been missing out on niche markets.
Inclusive marketing is about figuring out who you want to include, and who you want to exclude. It’s about marketing to the niche instead of the masses. It’s about fostering cultural intelligence within your organization. Bottom line: people want to see themselves, and the people they love, reflected in your brand, and that takes work. If you’d like to learn more about inclusive marketing, listen to episodes 23, 24, and 37.
Lesson 6: Accessible travel is more than a checklist.
When I connected with Natasha Graves, the founder of Vacayability, on episode 41, I realized that as an industry, we’ve been doing the bare minimum when it comes to accessible travel. We’ve relegated accessible travelers’ needs to ADA guidelines.
Natasha Graves went down to Sedona for a week of doctor’s appointments at the Mayo Clinic. An avid traveler with accessibility needs, Natasha wanted to experience more than the hospital hallways during her time in Arizona, so she went online to plan her adventures. Hiking was the main attraction, and while some trails were marked as accessible, there was limited information as far as what “accessible” meant—after all, accessibility needs are extremely varied. Since she couldn’t find the information she was looking for, she ended up flying a bi-plane up and over Sedona, to experience what she couldn’t experience on foot. That trip inspired Natasha to create Vacayability.
Travelers with accessibility needs want to have experiences just as much as the rest of us. By providing the bare minimum, we’ve been limiting what they can and can’t do at our hotels and destinations. What’s more, accessible travel represent a $60 billion dollar industry. If you’d like to dive deeper on this topic, listen to episode 41 in full.
Lesson 7: Be an early adopter.
As marketing channels continue to evolve, our strategies need to adapt along with them. In the past year, as more and more people spent more and more time on social media—on channels like TikTok, Clubhouse, and Instagram Reels—hotels that continued with business-as-usual static imagery saw their engagement take a nose dive. Social media users are using social platforms differently than before, spending far more time engaging with content in video feeds.
With the algorithm shift to prioritize video content, hotels that haven’t been able to get on board with video storytelling are missing out on millennials and more. Hotels that are adopting these new technologies out the gate are able to engage with prospective travelers in ways that are proving to be incredibly effective.
Case in point: 40% of users on TikTok are moms, and we’ve known for years that moms, and women in general, are making 80% of purchasing decisions for their families. This isn’t about reaching the millennial population, it’s about reaching travelers where they’re hanging out online. If a picture is worth 1,000 words, a video is worth 10,000, maybe more. We’re seeing 10x the engagement on social video content than we are with static imagery. For tips on getting ahead of the curve when it comes to marketing on social media, listen to episode 36 with Austen Tosone.
Now I’ll turn it over to you—what lessons have you learned as a hotelier or a marketer this past year? I’d love to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Amy Draheim brings people to hotels, and hotels to people. After publishing her novel in 2008, which won a New York Public Library Award, Amy traded fiction writing for steaks, suites, and spas. In 2017, she founded ABD Creative, a marketing agency specializing in hospitality. She’s gained a robust portfolio of hospitality clients since then, from Bend to Belize, and from Manhattan to Maui. In the throes of the pandemic, Amy doubled down—she launched How To Share, a podcast highlighting non-traditional hoteliers, and Marketing In A Box, a monthly subscription service for hotels. In May of 2021, she co-founded Sauced Marketing, a 90-day marketing program designed for restaurants navigating pandemic recovery.