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Hotel Marketing in 2010: Perception Trumps Positioning

by John Davies, September 11, 2009

With the arrival of fall comes the season when most business plans and marketing strategies are in the final stages of development for the coming year.  For some, this process may have already been completed.  Based on the roller coaster ride that continues for 2009, budgeting, strategizing, and formalizing an effective plan to attack 2010 is probably one of the more challenging and formidable you have experienced.  The good news is, it’s unlikely to be a year of free-fall and unpredictability like 2009 has been.  The bad news is, that predictions for 2010 include another slide in RevPar.  With lackluster demand and the outlook for a robust recovery not on the near term horizon, 2010 is rapidly shaping up to be a pivotal year for building a foundation and setting the stage for the long journey back to improved performance, increased stability, and much needed prosperity.  In light of all that has transpired over the past year, and the unprecedented volatility that has rocked the hotel industry, it could not be more imperative to take inventory and carefully assess two very critical and closely connected components of your 2010 business plan: validation of the desired positioning of your hotel or resort, and a comprehensive evaluation of your competition. 

Is Perception Aligned With Positioning Objectives?

Unlike anything we have previously experienced, the impact of a global recession may have dramatically shifted the market dynamics and the playing field may be a bit deceiving - it’s worth a closer look.  The ultimate goal of your market positioning is about how you want guests and consumers to perceive your hotel, service, and amenities.  However, before you can implement marketing strategies and plans, your positioning needs to be confirmed.  You also need to take into consideration a year of brutal pricing competition, streamlined services, market-mix shifting, business travel and group demise, amenity refinement, staffing reductions, desperate plunges into new market solicitation, reduced training, deferred maintenance, cost-cutting, customer concessions, increasingly frugal guests, curtailed marketing, and dismal financial performance.  There is a good possibility that some or all of this has affected how you’re perceived in the marketplace, which ultimately really defines your market position relative to your competition.  The biggest mistake is to underestimate the impact all of this volatility has had on the consumer, and to assume they have a clear understanding and perception of your desired image.  Even if your property has a preferred, unique, or enviable location in the market, you are still vulnerable to shifting consumer sentiment.  With the economy in recession and as the hotel industry continues to strive for stability, the war to win the hearts and minds of the traveling consumer will only intensify.  The real marketing battle in the coming year will take place in the collective perceptions of guests, prospects, clients, and consumers.  The market will draw its own perception of your hotel or company in relation to the competition, whether you are assertive, reactive, or just sit on the sidelines.  You and your competition can influence the perception and positioning of your hotel, but it is the consumer who will ultimately decide.  The encouraging news is, you can positively influence this process with sound planning and strategic sales and marketing activity.  In addition, it is increasingly looking like 2010 may be a year of transition that provides a positioning “bridge” and a window of opportunity to recalibrate where you fit in the market and how you want to promote the identity and image of your hotel.  If you are really struggling amid all the change and fallout, it might be well worth the time and investment to complete an onsite market positioning workshop.  With the guidance of some experienced and objective input, you might be very enlightened and inspired by the outcome.

Get Inside Your Competition

How you define your positioning strategy is critically aligned and determined by how your competitors position themselves.  Considering all of the market turmoil and change in recent months, you will need to determine if your strategy is to take the offense or stay in a competitive comfort zone.  For example, is it in your best interest moving forward to stay close to your competition and fight it out for rate or for the constricted group market, or, is it in your best interest to truly differentiate your hotel and try to position yourself away from the competition?  If your hotel has gone through a major renovation, expanded the facilities, or successfully begun to penetrate some new and previously untapped markets, or conversely, if your hotel is really lagging or has been adversely impacted, you may also want to realign where and how you want to fit in the pack.  Either way, it requires a thorough review and comprehensive examination of your competition.  Under normal conditions, the routine S.W.O.T. (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis and comparison might suffice.  However, the dynamics are in transition, and in the wake of a recession and the dramatic affect it has had on the entire hospitality industry, it really requires more than a perfunctory walk-through and simple check list evaluation.  This time around, you may gain more valuable insight by actually touching, feeling, tasting, and experiencing your competition.  If your ultimate goal is to make a move and maneuver around or ahead of your competitors, or capitalize on a unique demand opportunity in your destination, you will really want to do your homework.  Also, if you know a competitor is on your heels and has you in their sights, you might want to do some guerrilla reconnaissance to help maintain your edge.  It’s a marketing research investment that, if done correctly, could be well worth the time. You may be very surprised at what you uncover and the advantageous insight you might gain.

Start by assigning selected hotels in your competitive set to your designated evaluation team.  If you’re the market leader or you want to set the bar even higher, include a couple of hotels you admire or aspire to compete against.  The exercise should include a top-to-bottom look inside your key competitors, from making a reservation to evaluating the follow-up after departure.  By spending a night with the competition, you will be afforded a much closer and more intimate look at how they are performing and delivering their product and services.  In addition to the obvious, such as physical changes, renovations, and additions, observe the guest profile, check-in, sleep in their bed, order room service and a wake-up call, experience the amenities, taste the food, walk the corridors,  visit the spa or gym, sit in the lobby or by the pool and observe, stroll the grounds, check out any meeting and banquet events, engage the guests in conversation, discreetly talk to the associates, monitor the service levels, review their in-house marketing, and get a good feel for the atmosphere and attitude of the operation.  Through this exercise you should get a much better sense for how they are performing and postured for the coming year.  Once completed, pull the entire team together for a download and discussion on their experiences and findings.  As a group, complete a comprehensive S.W.O.T evaluation and determine if and how the research might impact your positioning strategy moving forward.  Obviously, there are many other factors to consider and evaluate when developing an effective business plan and marketing strategy, but considering the extraordinary market conditions,  these two components really warrant some extra time and effort.

To a Guest, Perception is Reality

Those who have been proactive and are well out front in ensuring their image in the marketplace underscores their strategic direction and positioning, will have a favorable competitive advantage.  For others who still may be struggling to clearly define exactly where they fit in their market, don’t get discouraged.  The coming year could be very revealing as to the evolving impressions of an apprehensive and tapped-out traveling consumer.  We have already seen some dramatic examples of the fallout with the “AIG effect” - those resort destinations that have fallen victim to perception anxiety and have been forced to backpedal on the “resort” aspect when soliciting meeting business.  Furthermore, guest allegiance and trends based on the aggregate appraisal of price-value may become more evident in the coming months.  What is critical to remember, is if you don’t assertively manage how you want to be perceived, the customer will do it for you, for better or for worse.  The residual effects from the economic meltdown will continue to generate change for the hotel industry, but it will also create opportunities to build upon for the future.  Now is the time to take charge and make sure you are being heard!  So - define the message, align your marketing image, rev-up the public relations machine, rally the sales team, and solidify the foundation for a constructive and productive year!

About the author 

John Davies, CHA, is a marketing consultant, advisor, and coach with over 30 years of property and executive leadership experience in hotel and resort sales & marketing.

His career includes executive sales & marketing positions with Noble House Hotels & Resorts, Tiburon Hospitality, and Pointe Resorts. He is a graduate of the University of California, Santa Barbara. John resides with his wife and two children in Carefree, Arizona.

John can be contacted by email at or by phone at (602)-692-5488. 


John Davies CHA


Also See: Hotel Selling: Grab the Low Hanging Fruit / John Davies / August 2009
Social Media: Marketing Magic or Madness / John Davies / July 2009
Perseverance In the Face Of Adversity. Timely Lessons./ John Davies / June 2009
Solid Sales and Marketing Fundamentals Can Improve Hotel Performance in Tough Times / John Davies / April 2009



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