Changing Times: B&B Market Niche

The B&B industry is in transition: from young to maturing, from “build it and they will come” to targeted marketing, and from undefined to defined market niche. Defining the inn’s brand — or market niche — gives innkeepers the competitive edge they need to flourish, not just survive. Guests’ wants and needs have changed through the years; it’s important to understand those changes so the innkeeper can react and the B&B can thrive.

How have guests changed through the years? Twenty years ago, most guests were fine with shared baths and double beds, they were adventurous and looking for surprises in their lodging, and they were a often price conscious. Today, guests want private baths and king-size beds, they want to know what the B&B is like before they arrive, and they are typically less price sensitive. Today’s guests are looking for a specific experience, come in a wider variety of ages, and are traveling with their kids, pets, laptops, and cell phones.

Restaurants provide great examples of market niche development. There is Denny’s, which provides a wide range of food at generally low prices. The food may not be the best, but it’s okay, sates hunger, and satisfies a wide range of food preferences. Then there are restaurants that specialize –in Italian, Mexican, Chinese, steak or seafood. They attract diners who are looking for that particular experience for that specific meal. An even tighter focus is the Italian restaurant that specializes in Tuscan, Venetian or Sicilian cuisine. B&Bs have the same patterns to follow. A B&B can have a broad appeal, like Denny’s, or it can have a narrower focus, like an Italian restaurant, or it can have a highly focused niche, like a Tuscan restaurant. The idea is to attract guests who want the specific experience you are comfortable providing.

Don’t mistake this concept for themed rooms, though they can be related. Market niche relates to the atmosphere and hospitality you offer. This relates to the type of people you want to attract. This relates to the food you offer, the prices you charge, the music you play, the reading material you provide, and even the colors you select for decorating. It’s also a matter of the innkeeper knowing what kind of people they want to serve, what kind of people they feel most comfortable with and enjoy most, and then creating an atmosphere and experience that will support the niche.

What guest experience is being sought? What hasn’t changed? Guests are still looking for a personal touch and innkeeper interaction, cleanliness and safety, and a good breakfast. But they also are looking for something unique, a memory-making experience. This is part of where innkeepers differentiate their B&Bs, by creating something unique and special. What are you doing to distinguish your inn from others in your area? How are you communicating that distinction and experience — with emotion? It’s the emotion you feel for your inn and the guest experience you create that has to be effectively communicated to potential guests that will draw their attention and bring their business. In the past, being a B&B was almost enough to bring people in, but not any more.

One episode of “The Apprentice” in the spring of 2005 had the two teams design the promotional material for a new sports car. One team listed all the facts about the car in a rectangular brochure, while the other listed the emotions the car evoked in people and used the shape of the car’s emblem for their brochure. The second team won that week’s project, by far, and the manufacturer was so impressed it announced that it is using that team’s design for the car’s promotion. Innkeepers need to do the same thing with their guest experience and communication — express the emotions through words and design on both the website and brochure.

Once the emotions of the experience are conveyed, facts need to be shared too. Travelers want to know how many guestrooms there are and what amenities those rooms have (private bath, fireplace, high speed internet, bed size, patio or deck, TV and sound system, coffee set up), they want to know about breakfast and the inn, they are curious about who their hosts will be, they are even interested in the local activities, and they want to know what environmental actions you take. Today’s travelers are more interested in the details than they used to be, and they’ll keep looking online until they find what they want. They’ve always wanted to know the experience, the emotion, of the bed and breakfast.

Twenty years ago, being a B&B was the niche. Today the guest experience is the niche. Twenty years ago, generalization was fine for bed and breakfasts. Today, specialization is important for a bed and breakfast’s viability. Communicating the emotion of the inn has always been important, and today that emotion is still important, but so are the facts. Defining the guest experience, carrying that experience consistently throughout the inn, and communicating it to potential guests is the secret to B&B success today.