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By Sara O’Brien

Recently, a small hotel group asked us an extremely smart and on-point question: “How do I create a loyalty program that is not a loyalty program?” They understood that while major brands such as Hilton, Marriott, Accor Hotels, and Choice Hotels International spend millions in infrastructure and technology to support a complex loyalty program that they cannot replicate, there is still a need to recognize, engage and retain guests. Fortunately, a much simpler and cost-effective approach is available for independent properties to drive more direct relationships with consumers and reap the direct booking benefits of a loyalty program.

Why should “loyalty” become an even bigger focus for all types of hotels in 2017? The competition for consumers’ attention and engagement is becoming more and more challenging. Microsoft research shows that the average human attention span has fallen from 12 seconds in 2000 to eight seconds in 2016, which is less than that of a goldfish. In addition, 19% of online viewers leave within the first ten seconds of landing on a website. A “loyalty” or Guest Engagement and Retention Program, allows hotels to deliver a customized and personalized experience for the hotel website visitor, increasing engagement and the likelihood of a direct booking.

Not only is a guest engagement and retention strategy important for getting more direct bookings and repeat business, it allows the property to take advantage of invaluable past guest data necessary to build customer personas and implement a smart data marketing strategy across an array of digital marketing campaigns: SEM, Email Marketing, eCRM, Display Advertising and more.

Here, we outline two options for independent and small to medium-sized hotel groups to engage and retain customers: 1) a Guest Engagement and Retention Program with full CRM integration and 2) an Instant Rewards Program, where website visitors can enter their email to unlock exclusive rates and promotions.

Optimum Solution: Guest Engagement and Retention Program with Full CRM Integration

While traditionally a strategy reserved for the major brands, an independent property can implement a Guest Engagement and Retention Program with full CRM integration to provide rewards and perks in return for direct bookings. When the guest arrives on the website, they are prompted to sign up to receive rewards for booking direct through a perks-based program (free breakfast, F&B credits, free Wi-Fi, free upgrades, etc.) or a points-based program (typically better for chains with multiple locations). The property can name this program whatever is the most fitting for their brand, as long as it is concise and easy-to-understand. Tsogo Sun, Africa’s premier hospitality, gaming, and entertainment group, offers one such rewards program, which includes both perks and points.

The HeBS Digital Guest Engagement and Retention Program features full integration with the smartCMS® and includes:

  • Web portal for new member sign-ups, existing member account status, membership tiers (e.g. Gold, Silver, Bronze, etc.), and general information
  • Complete loyalty member database management
  • Perks-based or points-based program
  • Integration with the hotel website for Smart Personalization

Implementing this type of rewards program opens the door to a wealth of additional opportunities to create personalized experiences for potential guests, such as smart personalization, targeted eCRM campaigns, and data-driven email marketing.

Smart Personalization:

Once the visitor becomes a member of the hotel’s Guest Engagement and Retention Program, the hotel can then customize promotions, content, and imagery on its website and email campaigns, based on the visitor’s past booking history and preferences while on property. The ability to dynamically change the content could be based on:

  • Whether or not the website visitor is a loyalty member
  • Which loyalty program category the visitor belongs to (Bronze, Silver, Gold, etc.)
  • The booking history of past guests and type of accommodations they have stayed in the past (suites vs. rooms)
  • The guest’s interests while on property (spa, golf, dining, etc.)

Targeted eCRM Campaigns and Communication:

  • Confirmation emails
  • Pre-arrival emails
  • In-stay emails
  • Post-stay/ thank you emails
  • Drip campaigns based on on-property preferences (spa promotions, dining credits, etc.)

Data-Driven Email Marketing:

  • Ad Hoc email marketing based on occupancy needs (e.g. send an email to past guests with a promotion, excluding all travelers who already have a reservation)
  • Business-rules based email marketing

Interim Solution: Instant Rewards Program to Unlock Exclusive Rates (Not Integrated with CRM Data)

Properties with a very low percentage of repeat guests (below 5%) or very small properties can benefit from an “Instant Rewards” program as an interim or secondary solution.  

With Instant Rewards, website visitors enter their email address to unlock exclusive rates and promotions on the hotel website in real time. These could include reduced “members only” rates, or perks such as free breakfast, 25% off spa services, free Wi-Fi, complimentary upgrades, and more. The reduced rates are not publicly available and are considered “fenced rates,” which fall outside of the rate parity agreements with the OTAs. As part of the program, members of the group also receive emails announcing the latest promotions and offers.

A guest engagement and retention strategy is critical to the long and short-term success of any hotel’s business. Now easy-to-implement programs are available for independent and small to medium-sized hotel groups to connect with consumers in a meaningful way and capture invaluable guest information. This guest data can play a critical part in developing a smart digital marketing strategy, which will allow the property to drastically increase direct bookings and lower distribution costs. 

About the Author and HeBS Digital

Sara O'Brien is Associate Director, Marketing at HeBS Digital. Founded in 2001, HeBS Digital helps hoteliers around the globe drastically increase direct bookings and lower overall distribution costs by deploying industry best-of-breed digital technology, consulting and marketing (

The firm is headquartered in New York City and has offices in Las Vegas, Europe, and Asia Pacific. HeBS Digital’s technology, website design and digital marketing services have won more than 400 prestigious industry awards, including World Travel Awards, HSMAI Adrian Awards, Stevie Awards (American Business Awards), W3 Awards, WebAwards, Travel Weekly’s Magellan Awards, Summit International Awards, Interactive Media Awards, and IAC Awards.

A diverse client portfolio of top-tier major luxury and boutique hotel chains, independent hotels, resorts and casinos, franchised properties and hotel management companies, convention centers, spas, restaurants and bars, DMO and tourist offices across the globe are all benefiting from HeBS Digital’s direct online channel strategy and digital marketing expertise.

The HeBS Digital team is comprised of thought leaders, a truly diverse team of experts comprised of over 33 nationalities speaking over 22 languages. The team’s singular focus has always been and still is to help hoteliers maximize revenues from the Direct Online Channel – the most profitable channel for hoteliers today. Contact HeBS Digital’s consultants at 1 (800) 649-5076 (North America), +44 (0) 7730 779 213 (LONDON), +64 (0) 9 889 8489 (APAC), +65 (0) 9005 1589 (SINGAPORE), or

Contact: Mariana Mechoso Safer / 212-752-8186

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