The Park Hyatt New York posted a sign letting the public know it was temporarily closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. As states begin to reopen their economies, hotels – many of which have remained opened throughout the country – should be thinking about what they want to say to the public, especially would-be travelers who are still fearful, say experts.

‘Stay True to Your Hotel’s Brand’

Post-COVID-19 travelers will seek out hotels they know and trust, say marketing experts

Monday is Memorial Day. The long weekend signals the start of summer vacation in the U.S. But all signs indicate that while many states are eager to reopen their businesses, much of the public is not ready to participate.

For the first time in 20 years, the American Automobile Association is not issuing a travel forecast for this year’s holiday.

Official social-distancing guidelines in the age of COVID-19 has significantly reduced Americans’ vacation plans. And AAA expects a record-low number of travelers this coming weekend.

The agency anticipates leisure travel to slowly return to normal and plans a forecast for the fall.

Another study tracking travel intentions appears to reinforce the industry’s expectations that people will eventually begin to travel again, albeit slowly.

MMGY Global in early May reported a slight uptick in leisure travel sentiment as its survey showed a seven-point increase in respondents’ intentions to take a vacation in the next six months.

“While interest in traveling could be eclipsed by lingering concerns about safety, we know from experience that when consumers get past the fear and look beyond the news cycle, they actually change their minds fairly quickly,” said MMGY Global in a May 4 newsletter.

The company teamed up with the U.S. Travel Association to produce the bi-monthly Travel Intentions Pulse Survey.

MMGY Global and the U.S. Travel Association have teamed up to produce bi-monthly reports about Americans’ travel intentions. Their May 4 report shows the likelihood of respondents’ to travel in the next six months.

What To Do Right Now

MMGY Global offers three tips for hotel marketers:

  1. Refine tempo, sentiment and messaging as we go forward. Stay true to your brand and listen to what your audience is telling you.
  2. Continue to build, monitor and maintain relationships with your local communities. Gaining an understanding of local sentiment about tourism in the midst of this pandemic will help craft reopening strategies and build greater trust and advocacy.
  3. Be empathetic – not just in our words, but in how we operate our organizations. Brands that create greater long-term flexibility now will most likely be rewarded in the long-run.

The second tip echoes advice from hotel marketers who participated in Long Live Lodging’s digital conference on April 30.

LodgingStream: A Brave New World’s session called Marketing for Future Guests included Kristi White, vice president of product management at Knowland, a software provider for the group-travel and meetings sector.

“Recovery will happen locally,” said White. She advised hotels to reach out to local businesses and associations, asking how they’re doing.

This is the time to check in on long-time friends, not push for new relationships. “If you don’t have those relationships locally, you’re going to have a hard time recovering,” she said.

Makarand Mody, an assistant professor of marketing at the School of Hospitality Administration at Boston University, was also a panelist.

He noted while people will want to travel again they may put it off not because of fear of the coronavirus but because of financial constraints caused by layoffs and out of concern that taking a vacation so soon after returning to the job will not play well at their company.

WATCH: LodgingStream: A Brave New World, Long Live Lodging’s digital conference for the modern age of hospitality, is available to watch here.

Such barriers to travel intentions means hotels can market to nearby communities by promoting staycations and drive destinations.

Stephanie Smith of Cogwheel Marketing said hotels should avoid pushing new prospective guests to book right now. Instead, focus on reaching out to past guests and share stories about your community. “Work with people who are already familiar with you,” she said, adding avoid the hard sell at this time.

In the beginning of the industry’s revival, it’s all about the relationship your hotel has built with past guests.

And, because most hotels have remained opened during the crisis, the impressions your property has made on current guests is ever more meaningful.

A photograph used in Wyndham Hotels & Resorts’ Everyday Heroes marketing campaign. In mid-April Wyndham Hotels & Resorts launched the campaign to celebrate front-line workers during the COVID-19 crisis. About 90 percent of Wyndham’s 6,300 hotels in the U.S. have remained open during the pandemic and are serving essential travelers. The hotel franchiser is awarding these guests with loyalty points and other perks.

Brand Matters

Also important in these times is the brand, which tells travelers what they can expect. To that end, Wyndham Hotels & Resorts is among the large hotel companies that are leveraging the power of their brands to attract guests.

Lisa Checchio is chief marketing officer at Wyndham Hotels & Resorts. She said more than 90 percent of Wyndham’s 6,000 franchised hotels in the U.S. have remained open during the crisis.

Most are housing essential travelers and workers as well as military personnel.

These are the current guests the company is targeting in its marketing during the pandemic. The next phase of Wyndham’s messaging is encouraging leisure travel for people who want to spend time with family and friends.

LISTEN: Episode 270 of Lodging Leader’s special report on the coronavirus and its impact on the hotel industry explores how hotels are marketing for future guests. Experts also point out it’s a good time to re-evaluate and update your hotel’s sales and marketing processes and systems to capture the upswing in demand.

“We’ve been taking a phased approach to our marketing,” Checchio said. “When the pandemic began we really pivoted to a stay-safe-to-stay-home message. We released a number of videos and social media campaigns and posts around the importance of staying safe. And we focused during that time period around what is celebrating our front line essential workers, our Everyday Heroes.”

The positive and grateful messages focused on those who continued to work in health care, emergency management, grocery stores and supply chains, such as warehouse workers and truck drivers.

Last week, Wyndham shifted its messaging to build confidence among prospective guests with a marketing campaign called Count On Us. The program ensures people Wyndham’s hotels are following heightened cleaning and disinfecting standards that will rid rooms and public spaces of the coronavirus and deploying new customer-engagement protocols at the front desk and among other staff such as wearing face masks and using hand sanitizer.

“The purpose now is to build a sense of confidence that when the shelters in place begin to lift and when you’re able to travel again, you’ll be coming into a safe environment,” said Checchio.

“As we come into Memorial Day and the 4th of July holidays we will start to position back into why Wyndham is the right choice.” The first wave of revival will come from domestic leisure travelers, Checchio said. “Which is the core of who Wyndham is.

“In times like this a brand will never matter more because I think those guests will be looking for a name they know and trust.”

Keep An Eye Out

For branded and independent hotels the marketing message can be tricky. Too much too soon can turn prospective travelers off.

Andressa Chapman, owner of Trigger Hotel Marketing, which specializes in promoting non-branded hotels, advises hotel operators to carefully watch who is beginning to book as the crisis eases.

And avoid the urge to drastically cut rates.

Instead of the hard sell or working to entice bookings by cutting rate, Chapman advises hotels to calmly watch who the early bookers are. “I think as we start to come out of this and public health officials start to relax and you start to see things organically increase, it’s a good cue that people are ready to start traveling again.”

She cautions against reducing rate. It will not stimulate demand immediately post-crisis. “When people are ready to travel again, you’re going to be sorry that you discounted the rooms.”

LISTEN: Andressa Chapman of Trigger Hotel Marketing was among marketing advisers in a March 27 Lodging Leaders podcast that discussed at how hoteliers can build trust during the coronavirus crisis.

Mike Medsker is co-founder of Focal Revenue, which provides business-analytic software that guides hotels on marketing and pricing.

If business is relatively slow at your property, now is a good time to review the technology you have in place to manage reservations, customer relationships, rate and marketing, Medsker says.

Shake off complacency, step back and take a wide view of your processes. Ask yourself what needs to change so you can come back stronger than before the crisis.

Medsker said hotel owners and operators need to reevaluate tools and methods the property had in place before the COVID-19 crisis crippled the hotel industry. “Use this opportunity to hit the reset button and look at processes that no longer serve you.”

To take advantage of the expected rebound in travel, Medsker said hotel managers should pretend to shop online for travel like a “naïve customer.”

Checkout destinations online and then shop for a hotel. Notice the differences among hotel websites in each market. Does the website have too much friction in the booking experience? What does your consumer behavior look like?

The answers will enable you to adapt your website and booking process to a new reality and provide a modern experience that will allow your hotel to take advantage of the rebound.

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