Inn occupancy is a point of conversation among innkeepers and a big question with inn buyers these days. One trend I had observed since 9/11 is that urban inns tended to be suffering a lower occupancy while many rural inns are seeing a stronger occupancy rate. Based on what I had learned in various hospitality and real estate conferences, that is what I expected to see. But for the past few months I’ve been observing conversations among innkeepers which indicate that trend hasn’t held across the board. Why? Lack of, or inconsistent, marketing is my conclusion.
There are many reasons innkeepers have cut back on marketing. Partly it’s because income is down and innkeepers are trimming budgets. Too many marketing options overwhelm some innkeepers into non-action. Some just don’t like or think necessary that aspect of innkeeping so don’t make the effort at all. Some innkeepers haven’t cut back but have not increased marketing in response to a softening economy. By not tracking marketing, innkeepers lack the information what’s working for them so don’t have the knowledge to trim the “bad” marketing avenues. Let’s look at these points individually.
Cutting Back On Marketing to Trim The Budget
Trimming your marketing budget is the last action to take when business is down. If guests aren’t flocking to your door, you need to reach out to them to remind them that you are there, remain interested in their business, and to give them a compelling reason to stay with you. One new innkeeper kept the marketing campaign the selling innkeeper had in place when the inn sold; that innkeeper has stayed busy while other inns in the area — who have trimmed any marketing they may have done — are not busy.
Randy Smith of Smith Travel Research has opined that dropping your rates isn’t the answer in economic crunches, but adding value is the answer — or at least part of the answer. He commented that when properties dropped their prices during the last economic crunch it took years for those properties to regain that lost ground, and the dropped rate didn’t make much difference in the occupancy rate. Having a clear market niche, providing outstanding customer service, adding value, and having an active marketing campaign are all elements of minimizing your impact from a down market. Dropping your rates should be avoidable if you stick to the basics. Have a web site, list it on as many B&B sites as you can justify, and trade links with others. If there are travel books that fit your style, be part of them. Join your local chamber of commerce and/or travel bureau, be part of local, state, and national B&B associations, and be active in your community. These are all things you can do market your inn within your budget. Give your loyal return guests incentives (discounts at specified times, after “X” number of visits, dinner/activity discounts) to not only return more often but also to refer their friends and associates to your inn.
Knowing your market niche will help you save time when it comes to talking to marketers. When sales people call on the phone or at the door, give them serious consideration IF their product will support your market niche and campaign. If marketing online, DO NOT resort to “spam” — get your guests’ permission first. If you resort to “spam” you could easily get your web site host booting you off their servers and you could hurt your business by annoying your guests.For the same reason, don’t buy from spammers either. Why support those using unethical practices to get your business? It just encourages more junk mail in your own inbox.
Abundance Of Options Is Overwhelming And Confusing
When I was an innkeeper, advertising options included a brochure, the travel books, and advertising in mass media (newspapers, magazines, TV, radio). Mass media has always had a mixed success and rarely a strong one; save your marketing dollars for known successes, unless you have spare marketing money to experiment with. There weren’t many books to choose from 15 and 20 years ago, so decisions were fairly easy in that arena. Now there are scores of travel books to choose from as well as the Internet — talk about options!
The problem with travel books always has been that they are out of date as soon as they are printed; but they are a tool B&B travelers use so are still worth your consideration. Internet sites have the option of being updated frequently, though they often aren’t, so the potential for out-of-date information still exists. Speaking of being out-of-date, your web site should be reviewed periodically (annually at the very least) for incorrect or missing information. Not only are there numerous books and sites to sign up with but there is even more diversity of logic behind what path you choose.
The kind of choice I’m referring to is the free or pay-per-click (PPC) listing. Some feel there is no better way to go than PPC while others feel PPC is an unnecessary option (this discussion isn’t too dissimilar from that of books years ago: do you pay to get into a book or go for the free listings) and free or one-fee listings are fine. The arguments on each side are strong and persuasive. The bottom line in my mind is to try both approaches and decide for yourself. But do take action and get your web site up and listed — somewhere. Hire B&B professionals to help you unless you have an Internet marketing background.
Don’t like, or think necessary, the marketing aspect: I’ve seen this for years. I think it’s because marketing is equated to sales and “undesirable” characters sell. It’s sad that folk don’t understand good selling and good marketing are only a matter of good education. Nobody can educate the public about the benefits of your inn better than you. We’re no longer in the build-it-and-they-will-come phase of the industry. There are many inns to choose from and your marketing should be aimed at educating the public on “why your inn”. It is a necessary aspect of innkeeping and it must be done to succeed in any market, and especially now.
Getting Into Gear To Promote Your Inn
Promoting your inn requires constant planning and action. You have to make time for it daily. Promoting your inn has two fronts — treating the guests in your inn well so they will want to return, and getting the word out to those who don’t know you (or haven’t been with you in awhile). Don’t get so caught up in being an innkeeper that you forget to be a marketer too. I know an innkeeper who never collected email addresses from her guests, thinking they weren’t Internet savvy, so when she needed a quick, inexpensive way to contact her guest list she had to resort to postcards — much more expensive than emails; she forgot to keep her marketing hat on as she played innkeeper. Another innkeeper didn’t offer much customer service or attention to her guests, but did collect email addresses. When her business disappeared after 9/11 she did send emails to her guest list — with minimal success; she forgot to put her innkeeping hat on as she played marketer. Neither inn has faired well i
n this uneasy market we’re experiencing.
As you design added value measures, develop return-guest incentives, create packages, and conceive of additional money-making opportunities (gift shop, retreats, weddings/special occasions, concerts), make sure each idea compliments and supports your market niche. Partner with other businesses dependent on tourism (museums, performing arts, carriage rides, outdoor rental shops, restaurants) in your marketing campaign. Consistency is important for conveying the message of who you are and what your inn provides — what the guest experience is.
Track Your Marketing
With the wealth of options for where you spend your marketing money and time, you need to learn what works and what doesn’t so you can hone your marketing plan and action. Ask not only those who book rooms with you but everyone who calls you where they heard about you. You’ll be surprised to learn where your business truly comes from — and be better armed for fine-tuning your campaign too.
Guard against marketing apathy. Keep your marketing budget strong. Be active in your local community and the B&B community. Hire an Internet marketer who specializes in B&Bs to guide you through the myriad Internet options. Develop a positive attitude about marketing and do it — actively and creatively, daily. Track your marketing so you can fine tune your time and money expenditures. Get back to business basics and survive this uneasy market.