I remember a snowy afternoon in Salzburg when we wandered into what looked like a safe hotel near the mountains associated with “The Sound of Music” and the manager (or owner, for all I know) gave us a room – and an immediate shot of schnapps. Sure, the shower wasn’t the best, but I still remember that place for the friendliness and, of course, the schnapps, which I wouldn’t have been able to get in the States anyway because of my age. What stands out for me is how personal the service was, and how considerate. Nothing like a kind, worldly hotelier to make a girl feel at home, and in a clean, quiet place to boot.
What about the fourth floor of an old building in Florence where the rooms had frescoes on the ceiling and the most amazing lady brought us breakfast each morning? I’m also still shocked and gratified that we landed in a beautiful hotel in Venice with vaulted ceilings, stunning chandeliers and over-the-top decor. That special hotel feeling wasn’t just about Europe. After traveling extensively around Asia for a year, I recall similar stories about boutique hotels there – especially ones outside the big cities, where hospitality and respect for one’s inner spirit is for many a way of life.
One of my favorite boutique hotels was in Koh Samui, Thailand, where I enjoyed a beachfront bungalow mere steps from the ocean and was served the most amazing fresh seafood. Thai service is unmatched, every detail taken care of before you even raise a question.
Another incredible stay was in Pokhara, after a two-week trek through Nepal’s Annapurna range. Again, attention to detail and service and concern for our comfort were hallmarks of the hospitality there. But in the States, even now, it is hard to find fun, funky stays that would give you a warming shot upon check-in, classical paintings on the ceiling or glass chandeliers in the lobby and rooms. While Europe has changed over the last 20 years, and amenities have standardized there as everywhere else to satisfy visitors from all over our ever smaller planet, hoteliers in the States still seem afraid of being funky, afraid to make changes in their approach to the increasingly sophisticated global traveler.
It may be hard to embrace, and the process may be slow, but hotel owners and managers should stress out-of-the-box hospitality if they want to address the traveling public’s desire for something different that offers value. I’m not sure if our mistrust of what’s different stems from thinking the US traveler is enough of a market; maybe it’s because 9/11 made it hard for us to welcome different types of people to our hotels. Maybe it’s because our two largest hospitality vendors have yet to provide cost-effective alternatives that are fun and don’t mimic the big brands.
While the term “boutique” is evolving, to my mind it’s always meant fun, funky and not the same, and owners and managers of such properties are having fun too. Boutique hotels in the U.S. were always limited to four- and five-star, full-service hotels, and back in the day, the number of them could probably be counted on just two hands.
Things have changed.
Nowadays, that kind of hotel is called “lifestyle” or “boutique,” and is often independently owned or at least not controlled by tight regulations and standards modeled on a big brand. They’re at all star levels. Naturally, there are some gray areas, but it is nice to see distribution channels embrace more such hotels, giving the experiential traveler more and more options. Of course, the real test begins when a group of boutique hotels is owned by a large corporation and doesn’t have tight regulations for its operations. Perhaps it still qualifies as a boutique? Let’s not downplay the danger that the big brands and their new soft brands and boutique hotels with rigid standards will bring another dimension to the word “boutique.” That would certainly affect marketing for everyone.
Whatever the definition of boutique, what’s important is the operational freedom the owner, manager and staff have, allowing the hotel’s personality to shine through. Only if that’s available can the hotel provide a different, authentic experience – with a personal touch.
Naturally, a hotel, no matter how unusual, has to be clean and well-maintained. And naturally, one traveler’s nightmare can be another traveler’s dream: The first might want a dark room because he or she suffers from migraines; the second would complain that that very same room doesn’t offer enough light. Think of the traveler who complains that the pillow top bed is too high. Then there’s the reverse, the traveler who complains the bed is too low. Then again, who hasn’t invested in pillow top beds by now? I think we’ll see more and more travel reviews that may seem nitpicky just that way.
The point is, to each their own, and that’s where boutiques come in. And that’s why room descriptions and pictures are so very important. Remember, a picture is worth a thousand words. At the same time, hoteliers and guests must continue to find ways to direct work together and eliminate processes that force guests back to the top of the search funnel and the plethora of travel sites that don’t share a guest’s email or address. Hotels should own the guest information, not a third party company. With that kind of data, hotels can do email marketing, retargeting and regular mailings to past guests to encourage them to book direct next time and avoid a future travel agent commission.
This is where Google getting into the game, allowing hotels to be bookable direct while sharing full guest information with the hotel, is a very powerful tool for hoteliers. There will always be guests who want to shop, and the metasites are quite helpful for that. Boutiques and independent hotels can then work with a company that allows hotels to be directly bookable on the metasites, curtailing commissions again. Bringing the hotel and the traveler closer, creating a tighter, more personal relationship and taking care of one another – isn’t that why we’re all in hospitality together?
I’ve appended a kind of “primer” to help independent hotels leverage their uniqueness. Executing on these steps is sure to help your business:
Most hoteliers use their franchiser’s booking engine or third-party GDS/CRS systems like Booking.com, Expedia, Travelocity, Orbitz to get more reservations. As a hotelier, you are losing out on three major advantages when you use GDS/CRS or your franchiser’s booking engine.
(1) Your first loss is that you don’t get complete access to a guest’s database when you use GDS/CRS or brand’s booking engine.
Specifically, you don’t get a guest’s email address. When you use your own booking engine, you acquire complete, permanent ownership of guest’s data. You can send frequent reminders, special deals and discount offers to your guests. For instance, if you have 80 rooms and you get 60 new guests a day, in one month you will get 1,800 guest emails and in a year, 21,600 guest emails. In fewer than five years, you will have email addresses and a complete database of more than 105,000 guests.
(2) There’s a second loss you suffer when you use GDS or CRS or a brand’s booking engine instead of your website:
(3) The third major loss you suffer from using GDS or CRS or franchiser’s website is that these systems are very expensive:
This article initially appeared in Hotel Business Review