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  • Andrew Thacker

WHY HOTEL BRANDS SHOULD BE ‘DIGITAL FIRST’

Branding & the Guest : Hospitality in Japan series no.5



In the first three articles we looked at the travel market in post-pandemic world, we discussed the importance of branding holistically as the whole experience on the guest journey, and the differences, generally, between Western and Japanese approaches to hotel branding and experience. We continue our series with more practical guidance on how to bridge that gap and be successful in a changed world, by embracing digital and making it a primary part of the guest experience.

 

In essentially ‘analogue’ experiences like hotels, it’s easy to treat digital channels as separate to the physical experience, as merely a shop window in the internet’s shopping mall. At worst the digital domain is viewed as a necessary evil and left without ongoing investment or any real care and attention. Most hotel brands are too savvy for that these days, but many still underappreciate just how important the digital experience is to the guest journey, and how it can enhance the guest experience beyond marketing and sales.

 

In last month’s article we introduced our model of the guest journey and the ‘Virtuous Circle of Retention’ where the quality of the experience and communications combine to create a compelling cycle of renewal each time a guest is acquired. To achieve this, hospitality brands need all brand touch points unified in the single purpose of providing the most seamless guest experience possible. Short of a huge and unsustainable investment in human capital, embracing digital channels and deploying them to engage the guest before, during and after stay, is the best way to ‘own’ guest relationships, and building powerful first-party data sets.

 

The Brand Experience Ecosystem

 

Once a hotel brand has committed to a holistic and integrated online-offline experience, the prototypical brand ecosystem should look something like this – the guest at the centre of the physical and virtual experience, with the hotel brand, product, service and values, consistently driving and unifying the experience. Even though this model is presented side by side for ease of reference, you may consider the virtual experience as a layer that sits above the physical one, or as a sphere surrounding it.

 

An integrated digital platform will not only help drive more business but also help manage it, enhancing the guest experience, and nurture renewal by driving engagement. A coherent, fully integrated brand ecosystem functions as a Customer Engagement Platform that enables brands to develop and own first-party data in a world built on but weaning off third-party data due to increasingly restrictive data policies being introduced around the world.



The brand ecosystem functions as the front end of the Customer Engagement Platform, enabling brands to develop and own their own customer data and relationships, reducing their reliance on third-party services.


The Customer Engagement Platform

 

There paradigm shift in customer expectations seen over the last few years was accelerated and crystallised by our dependence on digital media during the pandemic. Customers are more digital than ever. They communicate with brands on any number of channels from social media and apps to email and messaging services. We now live in the customer’s world, and while this is not breaking news – in retail we have been promoting customer-centric omni-channel strategies for years – many brands are still not fully ready for it, and traditional hospitality businesses even less so. According to a study by Futurum Research with Microsoft, 85% of companies say their customers are significantly more digital than expected, and 90% admit their systems for tracking customer journeys need improving.

 

There is a disconnect between what customers want and how brands provide it. The bridge? The customer engagement platform. While this is more software to add to an ever-increasing technology stack, what’s more important is a change in mindset to use the ecosystem you should already have in place more effectively, to unlock its full potential, to create a unified way to maintain lifelong relationships with your guests. As we move into a first-party, cookie-less world, many brands will struggle to succeed without one.

 

Digital Opportunities for Hospitality in 2022 and beyond

 

So, as we come out of the enforced stasis of the pandemic into a digitally transforming world, where should hospitality brands focus their investment?



Fish where the fish are

 

Today the average travel consumer spends almost 7 hours on digital media a day vs 19 minutes on print media. Overall consumers spend more time on digital media than with TV, radio and print combined (Hootsuite 2022).

 

Get back on Google

 

92% of online search is on Google, worldwide, but 49% don't click beyond Google!

 

The "zero-click" phenomenon suggests that while websites are important, ensuring users find as much information as possible in Google (on the right side of the results page) is more so. Hotels can manage their profile (description, photos, info) with Google Business Manager, activate the message function so users can ask questions (and make reservations) directly, and manage review to build a good reputation. Google effectively ‘owns’ the travel consumer by positioning itself at each of the five phases of the Digital Customer Journey – Dreaming, Planning, Booking, Experiencing and Sharing – so brands should manage it better.

 

Upgrade your SEO & Speed

 

Google uses over 200 major ranking signals and thousands of sub-signal variations. Your website should feature unique, relevant, editorial copy different to what’s used on OTAs, travel guides, directories, and should be fully optimized for the main SEO categories: on-page SEO, inbound linking, technical SEO. The download speed of your (mobile) website should be below 2.5 seconds to avoid being penalized by Google and reduce bounce rates.


Invest in Content

 

Content elevates visibility on Google via inbound links and citations, and more importantly, engages and entices the traveller in the Dreaming and Planning Phases creating ready-to-book customers for the Booking Phase. Content marketing requires investment at every stage from creation to campaign management, analytics and analysis, for SEO, website, social media, direct and B2B marketing (LinkedIn), PR, influencer activation, blog articles, white papers, webinars, etc. When done well, content marketing is cheaper than performance marketing, and the relationships generated are more authentic and longer lasting.

 

Data, data, data…

 

There are several transformational trends that are changing how brands approach the digital experience, including third-party cookie changes, consumer behaviour (outlined in our first article and report) and on-going privacy battles in the tech sector. The upshot? Hotels should place data at the centre of their digital planning.

 

Every hotel brand should be cultivating first-party data on all platforms they have audiences, while harnessing improvements in AI and automation of digital services will free up valuable resources to focus on improving the guest experience. Deep data segmentation offers deeper personalization – automating the right message to the right person at the right time, with less manpower to manage it. Better use of quality data will drive more conversions (and retention) at every stage of the guest journey.

 

Make it personal, and be social…

 

While advances in data management and AI offers exciting opportunities for personalization of communications and the brand experience, in this respect the importance of a vibrant, localized, international social media platform cannot be overstated. In a digital-driven society the influence of social media is growing exponentially, particularly over the last few years.

 

We know social media is where brands can be authentic, accessible and engage directly with audiences but as platforms proliferate and their use evolves around the world, knowing your audience, where they are and what they consume is essential. The urge to travel after a long pandemic and endless hours scrolling at home means the importance of social media marketing for hotels is a clear opportunity to build relationships with new customers all over the world and reengage with old ones.

 

“Social media platforms are one of our most effective ways for a direct connection with guests in various markets” says Marriott International. To take advantage of the opportunity post pandemic, Japanese brands should consider widening their platform. This means WeChat, Weibo and Red in Chinese speaking markets, for example, using the right languages in key international markets on channels like Facebook and Instagram, working out strategies for TikTok and YouTube to build stronger relationships with Millennials while cultivating Gen Z consumers, localising brand content and campaigns to resonate with local audiences, using messaging services to make guest communications more convenient, creating apps that offer utility and experience, and being proactive and personal with communications at every stage of the guest journey, from enquiry to reviews.

 

Yes, it is daunting. It will require commitment and investment. But many of your international competitors are already well ahead in the game, and gaining market share domestically, while better engaging international audiences planning their trip to Japan.

 

It’s a brave new world, and its digital. How will you face it?



HOTERES X TARO X KATANA BRAND SERIES


Branding & the Guest : Hospitality in Japan series no.6 follows next week...


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