297 | Reply All: How hotels can use email to build back business

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READ ME: Hotels can use email to connect with both loyal and prospective guests as the lodging industry prepares to emerge from its COVID-19 quarantine, say experts.

Travel marketers should target inboxes to attract bookings from the coming pent-up demand, say experts

When the coronavirus pandemic first hit the U.S. lodging industry, Mike Schmitt, owner and chief executive at Clairvoyix, a digital marketing company in Las Vegas, advised in a blog that hoteliers communicate with past and prospective guests to shore up business ahead of the upcoming recovery.

Owners and operators may wonder what form should that messaging take; whom should they target; and how often should they reach out?

The most tried-and-true method of communication has proven to be email.

Clairvoyix has “always believe the trusted source gets the best response,” Schmitt said.

He advises hotel marketers who want to reach out to guests: “If they’ve done business with you before and they recognize the name in the email there’s a very good chance they’ll respond or open it or file it away for next week to look at, much more so than banner ads or mobile.

“It’s just something people are comfortable with, as long as they know the domain; as long as they say, ‘Yes, I’ve stayed at this property. Yes, I know this person. I feel very comfortable with that.’

“Just understanding that has served us very well. So, we’ve always been high on repeat guests and building loyalty through this constant communication.”

CLICK RATES: Researching retailers’ email marketing campaigns from January through April 2020, Omnisend reports charting “substantial email marketing click rate decreases due to COVID-19.” Email open rates increased, but there was more browsing than buying during that time. “Click rates eventually rebounded and improved to where they started the year,” reports Ominsend, noting that trend was not seen in 2019. “If our assumptions are correct, we should expect to see conversion rates increase.”

Capturing Demand

The whole point of email marketing is to drive revenue.

Though many people are not traveling during the coronavirus pandemic and the hotel industry is reportedly averaging 50 percent occupancy, Schmitt believes communicating with past and prospective guests is important as the lodging sector prepares for a comeback.

The more targeted the campaign, the better.

“We found over the years as social media came on strong that, for example, we’d send an email and then we’d back it up with a Facebook custom-audience campaign, using the exact same creative, using the exact same audience,” Schmitt said. “We found that to be incredibly effective.”

Most of the nation’s 57,000 hotels have remained open since the pandemic struck in mid-March, but are operating with skeleton crews.

“I think now, more than ever, with dwindling resources and money, email is the most cost-effective channel,” Schmitt said.

Revinate, a software developer for hotel customer relationship management, recently released results of a survey that gauges traveler intent. The company surveyed more than 10,000 people.

The biggest reason for the extreme slowdown in travel are government mandates that force businesses to close, restrict public gatherings and encourage citizens to shelter in place. As such, consumers with money to spend plan to travel post-pandemic to make up for what they’ve missed during the crisis.

Revinate’s survey found 68 percent of travelers who intend to stay at a hotel feel most comfortable booking one they’ve stayed at before. Domestic travel will rebound the fastest as 70 percent of survey respondents plan to travel within the U.S. And one-third or more than 30,000 respondents will book within the next six months.

Competition to capture that pent-up demand will be at an all-time high. “It’s the hotels prepared to appeal to the unique needs of the COVID-19 travelers that will win those bookings and succeed in rebounding,” Revinate’s report says.

REPLY ALL: Hotels can use email to capture the anticipated pent-up traveler demand that some industry marketers expect to see as the coronavirus pandemic eases. Episode 297 of Lodging Leaders podcast explores how hoteliers can effectively use email to market their properties and inspire loyal and prospective guests to book a stay.

New Buyer Habits

The coronavirus pandemic has changed consumer habits and travel buyers are no different, said Clairvoyix’s Schmitt.

Previous guests who book the same time each year or frequently use certain services might be open to try something new. So it’s smart to know your guests while crafting a targeted offer via email, but don’t get too granular as targeted emails can get ignored if they’re too specific.

“Be sensitive to their particular preferences. If a family likes the chef’s dinner at Thanksgiving, I see no problem including them in a monthly or quarterly newsletter and say this is what else is happening,” Schmitt said.

Making people feel like you know them is difficult to pull off at scale. “The reality is, you’re probably going to send three to five different offers. But to say, ‘This person likes cabernet; this other person likes a beer; this one likes Prosecco,’ is great. And you can actually do that, but the cost benefit is not going to show up, especially now,” Schmitt said.

Schmitt anticipates pent-up travel demand will unleash as the pandemic eases in the coming months.

But it is still important that hotel marketing teams remain sensitive to today’s reality and check the tone of the email before hitting send. Now is not the time for flash sales.

He advises hotels lead with their COVID-age hygiene protocols. Most of all, let prospective customers you will be there when they’re ready to visit.

What’s important in email marketing is not how many emails you send, but how many are opened and how many click-throughs and conversions are generated.

“The science side of email marketing is just as important as the picture that’s going to make you open it in the first place,” he said.

Ominsend reported email open rates from January through April increased by nearly 14 percent. Most of the increase took place in April, when much of the nation was in lockdown mode.

Before the pandemic, email open rates increased year over year by an average of nearly 2.5 percent. Once the pandemic struck, open rates jumped year over year by nearly 32 percent.

Schmitt said Clairvoyix is not sending as many emails for hotel clients as it did pre-pandemic, but he’s seeing open rates returning to early first-quarter levels.

U.S. Travel Association this past summer launched its Let’s Go There campaign, which is big on email.

Long Live Lodging previously reported on the campaign that’s built for the long haul with crafted messages and imagery that tells prospective travelers that destinations, hotels, airlines and others in hospitality will be there for them whenever they decide to venture out.

LET’S GO EMAIL: A map pin is part of the marketing collateral of ‘Let’s Go There,’ a social media campaign by U.S. Travel Association designed to encourage Americans to start thinking about vacationing and planning excursions in the COVID-19 age. Email marketing is one of the campaign’s tools. The messages include compelling imagery meant to entice people to begin thinking about travel as the industry maneuvers for a comeback. For more on U.S. Travel Association’s Let’s Go There campaign, check out Lodging Leader podcast’s Episode 292.

‘Fundamental Shift’

Photos of people hiking, at the beach, in a hotel pool or flying over a tropical landscape send a clear message of the value of getting away from it all. The content also includes an online map pin that hotels can use on their own photos.

The messaging content is rolled out in phases and a campaign tool kit is available for hotels to use in their marketing programs.

Mike Medsker, co-founder and president of Focal Revenue Solutions in Denver, Colorado, especially likes the message that the campaign images send.

“It shows people that travel is still possible. It’s a really good way to communicate that message,” Medsker said.

But not every hotel is a candidate for Let’s Go There messaging.

“I think it depends on the hotel and I think it depends on the market,” Medsker said. An area such as Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where hotels are nearly full have a different story tell travel consumers.

While hotels in a hot market would benefit from some form of cooperative promotional campaign, individual properties might do better on their own as they try to stand out from the competition.

Hotels need to know themselves, their markets and their loyal and prospective guests well enough to craft an email marketing campaign that’s the right fit for everyone.

Now is a good time to reflect on what it means to be a hospitality marketer.

“When we talk about digital marketing, it really requires a fundamental shift in the way we think about marketing as hoteliers,” Medsker said.

Part of that is knowing the response rates and other analytics from your hotel’s promotions, whether they’re done by your hotel sales and marketing team or by a third-party marketer.

Medsker said when his company works with a hotel to bring more marketing strategies in-house, he’s “consistently shocked” to find operators don’t have access to Google analytics or ad counts.

“If you’re not paying attention to the campaigns’ digital cues, you probably don’t have an in-depth view as to what’s actually impacting your business,” he said.

“At its essence, I think digital marketing can be boiled down into touching base with perspective customers on all the channels on which they’re shopping for a hotel.

“Customers are buying a lot differently now,” Medsker said. “They do 90 percent of their research about the property before coming to you. So it’s important to be on the channels where they’re researching.”

And placing your hotel in customers’ inboxes is a smart move.

“Email marketing is still 100 percent a very important part of every hotelier’s digital marketing strategy,” Medsker said.

“When you look at email marketing, you see low open rates and even lower response rates. That will always be the case with email marketing. However, there’s still success to be found.

“I encourage hoteliers to look beyond how we’ve traditionally approached email. It used to mean we send a mass email blast with a 25-percent-off offer. But people don’t really buy that way. People want to be inspired. People want to be able to place themselves at your property before making a reservation.

“The more you approach email marketing from the standpoint of creating inspiration for travelers as well as continuing to maintain relationships through non-promotional content, the more successful you will be in your email-marketing effort.”

A common mistake hotel marketing teams make is to deluge prospective guests with emails that repeat the obvious or carry messages that are not relevant.

In other words, don’t send an email just because.

Omnisend noted that while email open rates were up in the early days of the pandemic, click rates were low, meaning consumers opened the email but failed to act on it.

Click rates eventually rebounded, however, as more consumers acted on their intent to buy.

Omnisend expects conversion rates to continue to grow as consumers better identify their needs and merchants build trust with online shoppers.

Hotels can plan their email campaigns accordingly.

Medsker advises hotels to take a look at their post-stay follow-ups.

“Oftentimes it’s a survey request or a request for a review online. Those things are great from the viewpoint of the hotel, but if we have guests check out with us and they feel immediately we’re asking for next favor or we’re trying to reach into their wallet, they’re not necessarily going to feel a reciprocal value in the relationship.

“Take the beyond-stay experience and convert that into a post-stay experience,” he said.

If a guest went to the spa or dined at the restaurant, the hotel can follow up with an email that provides wellness content or includes its chef’s top three seasonal recipes.

“By helping guests continue to get value out of the relationship with the hotel, they’ll be more eager to return the next time they’re in the planning phase for vacation.”

Business Travel

Though the holiday season might make hoteliers think of family and leisure travel, Schmitt with Clairvoyix says this time of year is also best for hotels to start building awareness with corporate guests.

Business travel may not be the same for quite a long time, but Schmitt sees email as “an incredibly cost-effective way to reach corporations and their travel managers and stay top of mind.”

Monthly or quarterly newsletters are smart tools to stay connected and remind businesses that your property can accommodate small meetings and safely provide other business services. Smaller staff means there are not as many people to make phone calls. “You need to communicate, and email is the best channel to do that.”

Resources and Links

You can find Lodging Leaders podcast on

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