Executive summary

Courtesy of Shangri-La Hotels & Resorts

Over the last decade, the world’s most innovative hotels and hotel brands have developed as portals into their destinations’ local communities. To communicate that experience to guests, hotels are developing sophisticated online content marketing that positions the hotel as a character in a traveler’s journey.

The next wave in content marketing is focused on building content ecosystems as a complete package where all of the different components are designed to enhance each other.

This professional brand storytelling has an editorial nuance in its delivery that must entertain, enlighten, inspire and/or educate in some way to be effective. Hotel brand marketers and their agencies realize that content with a hard sell and generic execution doesn’t engage or motivate consumers to buy. Therefore, there’s a rise and reallocation of budgets in hospitality to develop more engaging content, track and measure that engagement, and partner with more types of third-party content creators.

Heading into 2015, the next wave in content marketing is focused on building content ecosystems as a complete package where all of the different components are designed to enhance each other. Today’s best content campaigns integrate on- and off-property live events; aggressive social media; brand.com, blog and app platforms; user generated content; and different types of content formats including a rise in video production.

Measuring the ROI of modern content marketing remains hazy due to the variety of devices travelers use today. While no one has developed a last click attribution model to connect content consumption and revenue, many hotel marketers see the benefits of content higher up in the marketing funnel targeting consumers during the initial research phase of the travel buying process.

Introduction

Content marketing is not new in hospitality. The shift from traditional “push” advertising and advertorial-style promotional campaigns to more journalistic-style “pull” editorial is over a decade old, first developed by hospitality companies ranging from Ace to Andaz.

Moving into 2015, however, signs are pointing to more widespread adoption of editorial brand storytelling across all market segments and budget tiers. There’s more sophisticated and targeted content delivery aimed at specific audiences, and content is also more often attached to some type of experiential marketing that blends live and virtual programming.

Perhaps the biggest trend: the best content marketing is now developed within a
holistic ecosystem of fluid content.

Perhaps the biggest trend, the best content marketing is now developed within a holistic ecosystem of fluid content. Today, the most innovative hospitality marketers place a priority on the horizontal integration of content, events and social media across multiple digital channels and platforms—often in serial formats and/or with related behind-the-scenes content—to generate maximum exposure and long-tail engagement throughout the marketing funnel and consumer journey.

At the same time, all of the experienced content marketers that we spoke with agree that a comprehensive last click attribution model does not exist. In 2014, calculating the complete ROI of content marketing based on how it drives direct and indirect hotel bookings remains nebulous at best.

If someone watches a hotel brand video on an iPad at Starbucks, for example, and then books one of the brand properties three months later on a laptop at home, there is no clear and direct connection between the two behaviors that can be tracked and measured—neither psychographically or digitally. Marketers can measure volume of engagement, which is evolving somewhat from quantitative metrics to more qualitative, but they can only surmise causal relationships between the consumption of content and new revenue.

That lack of empirical ROI is causing many brands to stick with traditional public relations and marketing campaigns, blasting out more and more formulaic press releases and generic, corporate-speak advertising to an audience that is responding less.

At the same time, there’s a groundswell of new content campaigns coming from both large global brands and independent hotels that are driving new levels of engagement. This report examines a selection of compelling case studies and the strategic thinking behind their development.

Hotel content marketing, then and now

Courtesy of Shangri-La Hotels & Resorts

Courtesy of Shangri-La Hotels & Resorts

A young man is walking strenuously through deep snow in a darkening forest while wolves are heard baying in the distance. Finally exhausted, the man gives up all hope and collapses to the ground. The wolves move in closer, and as they come upon the helpless man, they encircle him tightly so their warmth will sustain the man through the frozen night.

At the end of the three-minute YouTube video, a caption slowly appears on screen: “To embrace a stranger as one’s own. It’s in our nature,” followed by the logo for Shangri-La Hotels & Resorts.

That piece of content first appeared in 2009 and won numerous advertising industry awards.

Fast forward to October 2014. Ogilvy & Mather Hong Kong and Shangri-La produced a series of seven videos chronicling the popular Tibetan singer Yangjin Lamu on her journey to the new Shangri-La Hotel Lhasa in Tibet near the iconic Potala Palace monastery. The “Find Your Shambhala” digital campaign began with Lamu inviting her social media followers to come along with her on the road to the roof of the world.

This “virtual pilgrimage” was anchored on China’s Weibo social network (a cross between Facebook and Twitter). Lamu’s fan base posted spiritual thoughts on the singer’s Weibo page, which were then copied onto traditional Tibetan handwritten prayer flags featured via streaming video and photography during Lamu’s trip. By the end of Shangri-La’s campaign, the Weibo posts garnered 6.5 million views while the videos were watched over 175,000 times.

The 2009 wolf video was a landmark initiative in terms of its production value and engaging story. The 2014 campaign shows the evolution of content marketing into a complete multi-dimensional package. It involves user generated content (UGC) and crowdsourcing, social media targeted toward a specific audience, a highly visual and experiential component, impactful live video and imagery, and a sense of purpose designed to build community around an admirable goal.

Ultimately, it’s an integrated, two-way content ecosystem designed to build community around a hotel brand.

“We knew our guest would not travel to Tibet to visit a Shangri-La hotel, they were going there for a personal and spiritual journey,” says Greg Dogan, CEO of Shangri-La Hotels & Resorts. “So we took this lady on a journey on her way up to Lhasa, and it was one of our most successful campaigns that we’ve ever had.”

From hospitality brand to publishing house

Marriott Content Studio / Courtesy of Marriott International

Courtesy of Marriott International

With the exponential rise of content marketing across many different industries, brands have taken on the role of media companies over the last decade. Red Bull, for example, is one of the torchbearers of this megatrend.

Marriott International is using Red Bull’s content marketing model as an inspiration for its new Global Content Studio, launched in September 2014, to develop and curate content on an unprecedented scale. To lead that initiative, Marriott hired David Beebe as VP, global creative & content marketing, who previously held director and VP titles at Disney-ABC Television. Beebe’s stated goal is to make Marriott the largest publisher in hospitality.

“We understand today that consumers don’t want to be barked at by a brand saying how great they are,” he says. “We need to provide value and a great way to do that is through content. So that’s why we’re doing it at this scale, and when I talk about being the largest publisher, I’m really talking about the eyeballs that we have access to already…. We actually are building capabilities in-house to develop and produce content for all segments of the market with all 18 brands.”

Beebe says Marriott.com is the 7th largest retail website, where Marriott hasn’t even begun to activate content. Developing editorial for the site is expected to drive additional views through search during the early stages of the consumer research process. Content will also appear after the consumer has purchased a room, highlighting the specific destination where the booked hotel is located.

Marriott Mobile and Marriott Rewards, which has 47 million members actively engaged with the brand worldwide, also don’t have robust content delivery systems.

“We’re really using the distribution and reach we have, but traditionally haven’t looked as a way to distribute content,” says Beebe. “So when we talk about being the Red Bull of hospitality, our strategy is really very similar. You can sum it up in one sentence: Give the consumer what they want at the right time on the right screen in the right format that adds value to their lifestyle.”

Moving forward, Marriott’s Global Content Studio is producing its own content, which will be reworked and recycled to leverage the full potential of each of the different media channels and platforms. The Studio is also partnering with agencies, production companies, independent content creators and entertainment talent to develop further exclusive content.

Some of those partners include successful YouTube entrepreneurs such as Sonia Gil, founder of Sonia Travels, who has over 95,000 YouTube subscribers, and the JacksGap brothers, who produce travel videos that regularly earn millions of views each.

“The stuff they’re producing for us is all about us saying, ‘Guys, here’s a story, integrate our hotel into it,’” explains Beebe. “It’s very much the story built around the hotel or the brand experience. Or the hotel is enabling a story to take place, allowing a story to be told, so it serves as a character in the story.”

Marriott’s next-gen storytelling

Marriott International’s foray into content marketing began in earnest a few years ago with Renaissance Hotels, which is positioned as Marriott’s lifestyle business brand delivered around the theme of “Discovery.”

Hosted on Mark Cuban’s AXS TV channel, Renaissance’s Navigator Live series features up-and-coming bands who stay and play concerts at the properties, and then talk about the local places they recommend to experience in the destination. Consumers are drawn to the behind-the-scenes look at life on the road as a band, including where they eat, where they go out at night, etc.

“All of that is taped,” says Beebe. “So the show is all about travel and music discovery, and the Renaissance property merely serves as a character in there. We’re not selling anything, we’re not saying look how great this Renaissance lobby is. It’s just the story is taking place there.”

This summer, Renaissance Hotels partnered with The Creative Coalition, which leverages the star power of celebrities for social causes, to produce a guest room coffee table book called The Art of Discovery. The book showcases movie stars who discuss pivotal moments in their lives that had a major impact on their artistic development.

Due to the success of the book, and the wealth of “snackable” content that easily converts into web content, Marriott is expanding the content’s reach with gallery shows at some of the hotels.

“The Art of Discovery book launch has proven to be wildly successful,” says Tina Edmundson, global officer for luxury & lifestyle brands at Marriott International. “By creating a traveling art exhibit in our lobbies around the country, we’re able to bring the pages of the book to life, providing another unique experience for our guests and an increased level of engagement that continues to promote discovery in their lives.”

Likewise, Marriott Rewards program launched a “Year of Surprises” series of 12 webisodes that premiered in October 2014. The first episode, hosted by basketball star Jordan Farmar, and the rest of the videos examine real-life heartwarming stories in local communities where Marriott operates.

All of this content is measured to determine the level of engagement with consumers, both in terms of viewer quantity and content quality.

“We are now more focused on measuring time spent with the content versus clicks,” says Beebe. “So, how long did they watch the video? Did they scroll through and read 3/4 of the article, or 10%? How long did they view an infographic? How long did they listen to the podcast? Whatever the content, how much time they spend with it is a much truer measurement for us in terms of content success.”

Beebe’s team is also actively measuring social share in terms of how different types of content is building new audiences.

“So for us it’s all about content that people engage with, how that content builds community, and how those communities drive commerce—we call them sort of the three C’s,” he says. “And then we’re also looking at some other business models as well around licensing some content. So if you look at the Red Bull model, they’ve built many, many platforms for many, many eyeballs. They’re packaging their content, like any other traditional media company would, and then selling that to other brands who want to reach that audience.”

The fine art of content curation

Courtesy of Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts

Courtesy of Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts

Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts created a significant shock in the industry when it unveiled an $18 million website in January 2012, rich with hotel and destination content in multiple formats. Aside from its primary role as a booking engine, the website is also an integrated content hub for the many different brand verticals, including the print magazine website, two independent microsites dedicated to weddings and culinary, and an array of Four Seasons-branded local content platforms.

“The way we think about it is having a really integrated content ecosystem, so everything does start with our website,” says Elizabeth Pizzinato, SVP of marketing & communications at Four Seasons. “Ultimately what we focus on is thinking about all of the channels we create, thinking about how Four Seasons is a publisher of content, and thinking about how all of that integrates together. So wherever we’re touching the consumer, whatever point they are in the consumer journey, we’re bringing them into the Four Seasons world and enticing them with a story.”

Using Prague as an example, Pizzinato says consumers don’t start their travel research by saying, “Gee, I wonder if Four Seasons has a hotel in Eastern Europe, and I’m going to go wherever Four Seasons has a hotel.” Instead consumers most often start researching the destination first. Pizzinato says that her priority is to create and curate destination information on as many platforms as possible, just as much as she and her team focus on hotel-specific content.

“So hopefully when you search for Prague in a search engine, you might come across a story in the Four Seasons online magazine, for example, and the top 10 things to do there,” she says. “So it’s not about if you’re going to Prague, you should stay at Four Seasons. It’s about Four Seasons being an authoritative source about Prague, and creating a story around that.”

In the almost three years that the present Four Seasons website has been in operation, it has amassed an incredible amount of content across a wide spectrum of platforms.

Print content from the Four Seasons Magazine is reformatted for online, bucketed by both destination and all of the major travel themes. There’s also the embedded Taste by Four Seasons portal, highlighting more granular culinary content, such as recipes and chef bios, relating to each of the different Four Seasons destinations. There’s the Extraordinary Experiences section with large imagery and videos that link to the individual hotel pages, and then there’s all of the multi-format content attached to the hotel pages themselves.

“It’s really tempting with content to be additive, to add more, to add more channels, to add different places where people can go,” says Pizzinato. “However, I think one of the things we’re going to take into 2015 is really thinking about a focus for all of that content. There’s the whole notion of the paradox of choice, where there’s so many different places I can go to, so what is really going to give me the information I’m looking for. It’s not that we’re paring back the content or producing less content, but really being a little more laser focused with it.”

Presently, some of the most popular content is on the Four Seasons Magazine section of the website, especially the food, family and wedding stories. So Pizzinato is looking at how to integrate that more effectively with the individual hotel pages in order to better position certain hotels as thematic destinations attractive to specific niches such as food, family and weddings.

The next priorities are refining the editorial calendar to create more of the top producing content within each vertical, such as the Real Weddings and Concierge Recommends storytelling. And then, the editorial team needs to determine how to best deliver and promote that content specific to each of the different social media channels.

Pizzinato says having the content spread across all those platforms has its benefits. For example, the Four Seasons Magazine content captures consumers at the top of the marketing funnel when they’re beginning their travel research in the so-called “dream phase.” Then the hotel page content engages consumers deeper in the funnel, typically after they’ve chosen their destination.

So how do you refine the overall online user experience, with so much available content, to maximize the marketing ROI?

“That’s a really great question and frankly something we ask ourselves all the time,” says Pizzinato. “And I don’t have an answer about what the end result of that will be, but what I can tell you is we are constantly thinking about how the content best serves the consumer, how we serve it up to the consumer, and then what will they do with it once they have read or seen that content. That is a constantly shifting landscape, so we set a strategy: To create compelling and engaging content with the right degree of frequency at the most reasonable cost across all relevant channels. The end result of doing that well is creating a fully realized and differentiated voice for Four Seasons.”

Experience-based content marketing

Courtesy of Waldorf Astoria Hotels & Resorts

Courtesy of Waldorf Astoria Hotels & Resorts

Hospitality brands and their marketing agencies are developing live experiences on- and off-property that provide exciting content marketing opportunities. Experiential travel will continue to evolve at hotels, specifically because hotels understand the marketing value of highly visual and shareable live experiences within a larger content ecosystem.

Here are three recent examples of this movement in action.

Waldorf Astoria’s ‘The Stories Begin Here’

“What has evolved over the last few years is the consumer journey is becoming increasingly more complicated,” says Stuart Foster, VP of marketing at Waldorf Astoria. “Today, content is really playing a huge role in giving people ideas and motivating them about specific destinations and experiences. And I say experiences, because the hotel and destination are somewhat secondary to the experience, and that’s why content marketing is so important at that phase of the consumer journey.”

In November 2013, Waldorf Astoria Hotels & Resorts launched its “Stories Begin Here” promotional campaign with a long fictional story entitled The Escape Artist about a fashion designer and screenwriter who meet at a Waldorf Astoria. Award-winning author Simon Van Booy wrote the script and actress Olga Kurylenko was hired for the accompanying video and photography content. The Escape Artist can still be accessed from the Waldorf Astoria homepage.

“We saw a lot of people going to the website for the background content, like interviews with Olga, interviews with Simon, so it was a very dynamic content-rich experience where people got to understand not only what the brand is about, and what the hotels stand for, but gave them an inspiration to travel,” says Foster. “And I think that’s a great example of how content marketing delivers a much richer experience in that dream phase for the consumer.”

Now that the hotel brand sees the ROI of content marketing, Foster says the next campaigns will integrate new guest experiences at the hotels. Presently, those include Waldorf Astoria Driving Experiences, where guests have the opportunity to drive exotic sports cars near six U.S. properties. Also, the new Taste of Waldorf Astoria initiative launching in January 2015 pairs promising emerging chefs with master chefs working at a handful of domestic and international Waldorf Astoria properties.

“We have used our content marketing team to create rich videos and photos, so as people tell their story, you can experience what people are sharing about those stories,” explains Foster. “We have power Instagrammers we’ve put into these experiences, we’ve put bloggers in the experiences. I think where it’s really moving in the future, the consumer is going to be the publisher. It’s going to be less about brands publishing content than it is about consumers having experiences and then publishing content around those experiences that they can share.”

For 2015, Waldorf Astoria will continue to build on the successful Escape Artist story arc and integrate it with live experiences. However, instead of using the website as a hub for content like other hotel brands, Foster says Facebook will be at the center of the content distribution ecosystem, where new content first appears, which then links to the main website, YouTube and other social media.

“The end game for The Escape Artist was not for people to read Simon’s story,” sums up Foster. “The end game was to drive awareness and change people’s opinion of Waldorf Astoria. A lot of people know Waldorf Astoria, they know the New York property, but they’re not familiar with the fact that we have 28 Waldorf Astorias around the world.”

W Hotels & content with a strong point of view

W Hotels has always consistently married hotel experiences, cultural influencers and web content, but there’s been a surge in the scale of those programs and partnerships in 2014.

Seeking to be more vocal in its support of marriage equality, W created the Turn It Up For Change series of hotel parties across America to raise funds and awareness for the Human Rights Campaign. With a large LGBT community of employees, W is pushing a strong brand message both externally and internally with this initiative.

“We will always look at a campaign as being something that is grounded in a really strong point of view, where W is actually doing something,” says Anthony Ingham, VP luxury & design brands at Starwood Hotels. “That point of view is kind of like a source of a fountain, and that then enables us to create content on videos, photos, all social media channels, and internal associate engagement. So there’s a whole program attached to Turn It Up For Change to engage our associates, so they can participate in events and feel proud that they’re part of an organization that’s standing up for an issue that’s important to our LGBT associates.”

The Turn It Up For Change events lend themselves well for high-impact photography content. Ingham says that it’s this kind of hotel programming that can evolve and keep everything fresh within a brand, whether that’s music or fashion partnerships, or cocktail and F&B promotions. To better showcase more of its dramatic photography library, W has significantly ramped up activity on its Tumblr microblogging site during the last half of 2014 as a photo content hub for this campaign and others.

“The Turn It Up For Change microsites and WHotels.com and all the promotions that we’re going to be doing will link back to the Tumblr site,” says Ingham. “They serve different functions. Tumblr is very much news and blog-oriented in the way that you can deliver information. Where with WHotels.com, we have the same content in a different way, and it’s more steered toward booking and learning about the destination and where to go on vacation.”

W Hotels also sponsors a career development program with the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), which identifies 10 emerging designers who already have successful businesses, and who the CFDA believes have the potential to be the next big thing.

The 10 designers get a workspace in the New York garment district and W works with each of those 10 designers for two years, mentoring them so they get to learn about W’s approach to marketing and how you would apply that to your own business. The designers also travel around the world to be culturally inspired by the destinations where W Hotels operate.

“They work with us to work with fashion buyers and media in major markets to present their collections, and that partnership for us builds great content,” explains Ingham. “There’s great content around each of these designers, what they’re doing with W, where they’re traveling to with W, how W destinations are inspiring their collections…. So the whole partnership is about creating content that people really want to engage with.”

Ingham says the end goal is simply to build content that consumers are hungry for, because that’s how marketing today creates loyalty and traction.

“We have benchmarks that we can use to evaluate how successful our campaigns are in terms of driving that engagement and degree of viewership,” he says. “But with something like the CFDA or Turn It Up For Change campaign, we don’t try to link it back to a dollar revenue figure.”

MMGY: A agency’s role in brand storytelling

“In the last 12 to 18 months, content marketing has become more of a focus for companies, and you see all of the larger brands pivoting toward content development,” says Clayton Reid, CEO/president at MMGY Global, a hospitality and tourism marketing company. “Hotels have been slow to move to content programs because they don’t have the budgets, or haven’t reallocated the way they think about their marketing investments into content. That’s not true about everyone in the industry but it’s certainly true about a lot.”

Reid says experience-based content marketing is a lot like other forms of brand marketing that lifts awareness and lifts differentiation around product or brand. He emphasizes that content should be just one part of a successful cross-channel campaign, such as recent work MMYG did with Fairfield Inn and Terranea Resort in California.

In an attempt to resonate with millennial age business people, Fairfield and MMGY developed the Everyday Connect campaign on Tumblr in spring 2014. Four successful entrepreneurs in their 20s and their business mentors were profiled in various ways, including a significant amount of video, around the core message that Fairfield understands the next-generation business traveler and their needs.

The Tumblr content also includes business advice and storytelling focusing on business development in general. In effect, Fairfield Inn is taking on the role of a mentor itself through branded content.

This fall, MMGY developed a more experience-based content campaign for Fairfield Inn called Stay Amazing. The thrust of the promotion used people adept at multitasking, such as a marathoner who juggles while he runs. At the start of the campaign, the people featured in the promotion were brought to the Flatiron District in New York to promote the Fairfield Inn brand live.

“MMGY’s charge was to create event experiences that stand out in the minds of the next-gen business traveler,” says Reid. “So for us, we want to create immersive storytelling around the brand, kind of moving away from a hard sell, to communicate the value that Fairfield creates for its guests. What we’re doing from an event and social standpoint is trying to differentiate the brand through those types of engagements.”

At Terranea Resort in Palos Verde just south of Los Angeles, MMGY brought 20 top digital influencers to the resort to explore different area of the property. The influencers, who were chosen by their Klout scores, were asked to experience various activities listed in a mockup passport.

“The passports were stamped with experiences that they could translate into shared stories, in both the group and transient channels,” says Reid. “We saw a huge impression engagement and the hotels saw meaningful revenue contribution as a result, both on the group side and the transient side.”

Reid explains that these kind of content programs are expensive when you’re bringing high-profile influencers into the property and creating experiences worthy of the resort brand. One of the things that everyone involved in this event learned was it has to be about lasting relationships created with the influencers. There needs to be long tail engagement around the content so the hotel client’s investment is paying off over time.

“Most individual hotels haven’t figured out how to make it work yet,” says Reid. “I think next year, more and more hotels will have line items for unique content development and events and engagement programs.”

Next-generation hotel web content integration

Courtesy of Thompson Hotels

Courtesy of Thompson Hotels

Over the last decade, many of the boutique/design and smaller luxury hotel brands have been at the forefront of content marketing trends, mainly because they’ve always positioned themselves as lifestyle experiences.

Hotel groups like Thompson, Kimpton, Joie de Vivre and SBE rely on interesting online story narratives to help sell their on-property experience much more so than larger corporate brands during the consumer research phase. However, whatever these design-driven brands do now is often picked up by the big brands eventually.

In 2014, the above hospitality brands upgraded their websites to better integrate content into the booking engines and individual hotel pages, while streamlining the user experience by “flattening” the website layout architecture. The biggest trend in web design this year for hotel group websites incorporates most of the information for each individual hotel on single “long scroll” pages versus multiple pages. At the same time, the hotel pages are pulling in relevant social media and blog content specific to the destination where the hotel is located.

“We thought really carefully about how people shop online and use different devices, how they’re going to be researching things while they’re watching TV, and how people like to swipe,” says Lisa Demoney, senior director of digital marketing & media at Kimpton Hotels. “This whole thing about above the fold is kind of irrelevant. Tablets have just completely changed the way that people interact with digital.”

Thompson Hotels

Dhiren Khemlani, SVP, head of account management at New York’s Noise agency, oversaw the development of the new Thompson Hotels portal in 2014. He says most hotel websites “direct users down a rabbit hole of clicks” requiring them to constantly navigate up and down too many levels of interior pages. Instead, the new website extends the length of individual pages to deliver more hotel description per page.

“When we designed the original site five years ago, most users didn’t care to scroll,” says Khemlani. “Most websites, and specifically hotel websites, were designed for an above-the-fold experience.… Times have changed. People are not adverse to scrolling anymore, especially with the advent of the tablet, and the penetration that has had over the last few years. So that was one constraint we felt we didn’t need to sort of adhere to anymore because the behavior has changed, which freed us up creatively to design this in a different manner.”

Another evolution included more destination content to drive search ranking results, which required making it easier for content producers to update the different hotel sites and blogs more frequently with fresh content. But it was also important for the end user to more easily access all of the different content without having to switch between the brand.com site, social media channels and Thompson’s popular Room 100 blog. Now, everything is embedded on the hotel pages.

“For us we feel it’s important these days that users have the ability to experience the brand through all of its touch points,” says Khemlani. “By incorporating the social media and the blog, the user is getting a better sense about the culture of the brand, and what’s happening with the brand on a daily basis. In the old site, the blog was there but it was relegated to the footer nav, and it wasn’t easily identifiable as a blog.”

Kimpton Hotels

Kimpton Hotels launched an all-new version of its website in the summer of 2014 to interact with viewers on a deeper and more personal level, while engaging them longer on a year-round basis.

“Our goal was to ensure that our digital experience really matches and aligns with the hotel experience,” says Kathleen Reidenbach, SVP of marketing at Kimpton Hotels. “Anyone can put a great website together that has glossy pictures and cool content, but does the website and blog make you smile? We want to make sure that the love affair that occurs between guests and Kimpton is happening when you plan your next trip.”

The strategy behind the website redesign integrated Kimpton’s primary brand values: different, original, down-to-earth, healthy, simple and carefree. So the new website is more visual-first in its delivery, and the content is more localized and in depth with a 50-50 split between hotel and destination editorial. The non-hotel content is further split between travel information, such as the top 10 places to go for bike rides near a hotel, and lifestyle-oriented posts with actionable takeaways, such as recipes and fashion trends.

For the Life is Suite blog, it was removed from its independent url and embedded into the brand.com site. Blog content is assigned to in-house and freelance writers as determined by guest data.

“We’re pulling from studies we’ve done on Kimpton guests and their psychographic behavior and buying behavior, and how they’re living their lives,” Reidenbach says. “For Kimpton guests, they over-index in things like health and wellness, and pets, and wine and travel, and it’s also really important to them that they have a local experience.”

Previously, travelers researching the Kimpton site would explore the different hotel pages throughout the portal for a cursory overview. Then, if they were interested in more in-depth information, they would go to the independent, standalone hotel websites. With the new site, Kimpton wanted to provide the full shopping experience within its own platform. Strategies to accomplish that include more visible third-party validation and reviews on the hotel pages, a full-width slideshow with much more updated photography than before, Google Maps, a series of hotel highlights, and relevant blog content.

“There’s just this overwhelming amount of places to research travel online, so we want to help connect the dots and make it easier for people when they’re looking for information about Kimpton, to find it, recognize it and feel comfortable with it,” says Demoney. “It’s confusing if you go to a bunch of different sites and it doesn’t make sense as a whole.”

Joie de Vivre Hotels

Joie de Vivre Hotels (JDV) launched an all new website this year with a split-screen homepage offering users two choices to explore, research and book their hotel stay.
There’s also now a much richer level of destination content on JDV’s Joyride blog that’s integrated into the hotel pages, and there are many different click streams to access that content.

For people who know the specific hotel they’re looking for, the navigational interface on the left half of the homepage directs prospective guests immediately to the property of their choice, organized by destination. The right half of the homepage is what JDV is calling its Explore tool. When you click on that, you’re directed to choose from one of three themes—Interests, Location or Travelers—to help you discover a hotel that fits your travel and lifestyle preferences.

“The site is based on the idea that so many of our guests are discovery-driven travelers, and every Joie de Vivre hotel has its own story to tell, so it had to feel personal, friendly, playful and approachable,” says Scott Williams, EVP/chief creative officer of Commune Hotels & Resorts, parent company of Joie de Vivre. “The other tenet was community. Social is critical. We wanted to make sure we were hypersensitive of that, and that we delivered on the hyperlocal aspect of the Joie de Vivre brand. So the location-based, hyperlocal content was super important. We know if we deliver that we’ll deliver better community.”

In effect, the new website is attempting to match the individual hotel personalities with the individual personality of the JDV guest, which has basically been a guiding force behind the brand since its inception in the 1980s. By diversifying the paths that travelers can navigate to consume content on the site, while also expanding the volume of travel content, JDV hopes its redesign will open up the user experience to a wider variety of user engagement behaviors.

For example, a map on each hotel page features notable places to visit near the hotel, bucketed by culture, food, drink, and shopping, and each is linked to their respective Google Map. Rarely is destination content integrated so prominently this high up on a hotel page.

“We call those our ‘Local Guides,’ they’re basically a stylized Google Map API with pins, essentially, representing things to do that are core to that properties’ experience,” says Tim Murphy, president of the New York-based Sideways agency, which developed the new JDV portal. “There are also brand-created and user-created Instagrams, which is an organic way to get fresh content on the blog with a nice seasonal variety. There’s a neat backend component where a social media manager can approve content that then gets pulled automatically into the feed.”

SBE Hotels

Three months after launching this past spring, the new SBE hotels website logged 53% more visits and 86% more pageviews, according to Callie Peck, associate creative director at Sideways Creative in New York, who built the new website. She says the primary objectives for the new site were to provide a cohesive shopping experience across all of the SBE verticals, build SEO through content integration and optimization, and drive awareness of the SBE brand, especially on mobile.

On the mobile site, there is now a massive amount of hotel and destination information organized with an intuitive and streamlined user interface. The mobile navigation architecture was another priority to help sell hotel and nightclub product to SBE’s late night audience, typically with only a phone at their disposal.

“The intention here is to capitalize on the moment of inspiration,” says Peck. “So if I learn that a great DJ is playing at Greystone Manor in Los Angeles, I can go and make my reservation right then and there. We’re really hoping to capture people with that lifestyle content because that’s what you get access to when you come to an SBE property.”

For the desktop experience, navigation is orchestrated by a main sidebar that pops out from the left side of the screen into the full screen imagery. That is mirrored on the right with the blog tab. The minimalism and symmetry of the two signal the brains and beauty of the site, freeing up screen real estate for the high impact visuals while delivering a highly intuitive user interface that clearly delineates the SBE product.

“One of the challenges we faced was creating a tight organization for an enormous amount of content, and also there’s a big push to introduce all of SBE to a larger audience,” says Peck. “The ability for this sidebar to quickly establish what SBE is was very important to show all of the business verticals…. And it’s a great way to pull people into the site without making a grand brand statement that loyalists are going to have to see again and again.”

Helping close booking decisions, the blog content is fully integrated with every hotel, restaurant and nightclub page, contextualized by theme. So a nightclub page will pull a DJ story into the browser, while a hotel page might populate with a blog post about luxury travel.

The state of the hotel app

Courtesy of Pullman Hotels

Courtesy of Pullman Hotels

Hotel apps are evolving with more features and functionality, including remote check-in, keyless room access and in-house communication. But few do a really great job with content to help consumers navigate the local destinations and engage with the brand. Here are a few examples of content-driven apps that more hotel brands should look to for future content marketing initiatives.

The first edition of the Pullman Hotel magazine app was a tour de force when it launched in the summer of 2013. Thai director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, one of Asia’s most celebrated directors, created a short fashion film sponsored in part by Lanvin, integrating the Bangkok property and sights of the city. This was followed by an interview with Ratanaruang who talked about his fondness for combining work and pleasure while staying at hotels during his frequent travel schedule. That is exactly aligned with the new messaging coming out of Pullman corporate.

The 2014 edition of the Pullman magazine app is pared down slightly in terms of its scope, but it retains its most important feature—mobile exclusivity. The content and layout was designed specifically for mobile, so it’s not like consumers are trying to read the print version of the magazine squished into a mobile format. The end result is a magazine app that is beautiful to look at and very easy to navigate and read.

The latest iteration opens with behind-the-scenes photography of a fashion shoot in Morocco, followed by a series of photography pages profiling Pullman destinations. The main edit well includes an eclectic series of profiles of cultural influencers, from rock and roll photographer Richard Bellia to Moroccan director Laila Marrakchi. There are pages dedicated to new hotel and destination developments with stunning professional photography, plus hotel deals, stories about professional development, and data charts depicting how people of different nationalities use social media and their electronic devices.

At the individual hotel level, the new InterContinental Davos app combines all of the typical booking functionality of a hotel app with a colorful magazine-style user interface profiling both the hotel and the Swiss ski town. The navigation is segmented by hotel information, a destination guide, a Google Map and a lifestyle magazine. Within one app, consumers can plan their entire trip in Davos with additional information for day trips to Zurich and Chur.

All of the hotel’s amenities are described in detail with large photography and easy to read type. Each amenity has multiple pages for deeper engagement, such as menus for the restaurants and PDFs explaining all of the spa treatments. The destination guide, meanwhile, is further bucketed into area restaurants, nightlife, shopping, sightseeing, and practical information for both the hotel and destination. There is also a dedicated My Davos page that saves all of the user’s favorite pages.

For hoteliers seeking a third-party app development option, Intelity offers a centralized ICE content management system that bundles a complete suite of in-app functionality. That includes the ICE Bedside platform where guests can manage room controls and communicate with the hotel about things such as room service, late check-out requests, laundry and transportation.

Intelity-provided stats show the app delivers an 18% increase in dining orders, 8% rise in restaurant reservations, and 12% increase in average check.
The hotel app also provides fully customizable destination information segmented with as much detailed information in as many categories as the hotel decides, along with Google Maps, embedded social media and a wide variety of newspaper and magazines.

“The hotel industry has changed dramatically how we reach consumers today,” says David Adelson, CEO/president of Intelity. “We enable hoteliers to know who their customers are and how they can better market to them.”

Adelson emphasizes that the app is a platform for live two-way communication between the hotel and guests. Geofencing and push messaging capability captures metrics about what guests are seeking and how and when they engage with the hotel and hotel partners. So the hotels can activate specific direct messaging to guests based on their preferences. At the same time, the Intelity app helps guests personalize their hotel and travel experience previous to arrival and on the fly in-destination.

“The consumer likes it because they’re being communicated to on their own terms, which gives the guest the ability to control their own experience,” says Adelson.

On the hotel side, he adds, hotel executives can now easily measure staff performance and ROI through the detailed analytics in a centralized system that tracks both revenue and nonrevenue producing requests.

The rise of hotel video content

NOUVELLE-VAGUE

Courtesy of Nouvelle Vague

According to Google, it projects that its YouTube platform will be the world’s largest social media channel by 2017. For hotels, they’re continuing to increase production of video content that leverages YouTube’s TrueView activation model. With TrueView, advertisers only pay for video advertising after viewers consume a preset length of content.

“TrueView allows you to reach people who are in your target audience with your message regardless of what they’re watching,” says Ryan Fitzgerald, co-founder of Net Conversion, and Orlando-based digital marketing. “The platform can tell what type of topics users are interested in from cookie data on their computers, as well as the device they’re on, terms they search, websites they visit, their location, times of day they search, etc.”

The independent Plus creative agency in New York produces videos for a wide range of consumer clients including Starwood Hotels. The company crafted the video used to promote Starwood’s keyless mobile check-in via its SPG app in early 2014. The agency is also producing videos for Le Meridien’s ongoing Destination Unlocked campaign, which promotes the hotel brand’s focus on art, music and creativity in general, relative to each local destination.

For example, Le Meridien partnered with the band Nouvelle Vague to produce music for the hotel lobbies and other programming. The band has traveled from Tampa to Kuala Lumpur to play concerts in the hotels and share their experiences in each of the destinations. Plus worked with Starwood and the band to create videos of the band members traveling through the cities while engaging with local musicians. The end result is a series of gorgeous travel videos with individual Le Meridien hotels acting as central characters.

“Today it’s all about telling a story, because when people travel they want to have memories, they want to do things, they want to escape, and they want to have fun,” says Jeremy Hollister, founder of Plus. “So it’s about touching on those points, and how you can tell that kind of story to people through video to make them excited.”

Hollister says that nailing the right balance between editorial storytelling and commercial marketing is a primary challenge on both the creative and corporate side, but he says most major hospitality brands today are aware that traditional push marketing fails to engage the modern consumer.

“If the content is rich enough and dramatic enough, people will take that and curate it into their own travel experience in a personalized way,” he says. “We just finished another video with Nouvelle Vague in Tampa, and it’s really about discovering another side of a city. The job is to go and unlock that. So where are the creative and exciting places in a destination, maybe even a little gritty, but with an exciting aesthetic? We found a whole Afro-Cuban neighborhood and cigar factories, and hooked up with an Afro-Cuban band to find a different spin on things.”

Plus is now working with Starwood to develop new in-room TV programming, which has traditionally been weak among all hotel brands in terms of delivering actionable destination information. Most in-room content consists of a generic listing of hotel amenities and the most basic of destination content, if any at all.

Starwood and other companies see this as an untapped resource to engage guests on a more human level with new styles of video content.

“It’s been an interesting thing because it’s a huge captive audience, but people don’t necessarily pay a lot of attention to in-room TV programming, and it’s still a big representation of the brand,” says Hollister. “So how do you reformat that? And how should brands allocate budget and spend that budget, so they can deliver a range of different types of content formats?”

For independent hotels, Hollister says most of them shy away from video production because of the expense involved for professional services, compounded by the need today to constantly update content marketing. For individual hotels interested in developing video content on a tight budget, he suggests avoiding videos depicting the actual physical property. Low budget videos will only make the hotel product look less appealing.

Instead, Hollister recommends that hotels focus on the lifestyle vibe of the local destination because consumers are attracted to more street-style amateur video in that environment. Basic hand-held video production, when done well, often provides a more immediate and seemingly “authentic” experience in the eyes of the hotel guest.

“Even small hotels can do interesting stuff, but deciding what type of video you want is the biggest thing,” explains Hollister. “If you want to use video, the main priority is about understanding if the brand has a strong point of view. If they do, then that makes it much easier to use video to best communicate the hotel experience.”

5 key strategies for hotel content marketers

Think like a publisher. The line between media companies and any other company is fading fast with all of the publishing capability that brands have at their disposal. Hotel marketing staff is more and more being sourced from the communications and PR sectors versus traditional marketing fields.

It’s not about what you say, it’s about what your audience understands. This age-old media axiom applies more than ever today. If you’re creating content based on what you want to promote to audiences, you’re missing the boat. Content needs to provide real value, meaning it needs to inspire, entertain and/or educate in some way. Determine the deliverables of any piece of content before creating it.

Content today is a horizontally integrated ecosystem. Many hotel brands have dipped their toes into content marketing but they’re not seeing good engagement results because the content exists in a vacuum. Just as much time needs to be spent promoting content and creating it, and it needs to live as long as possible on as many media channels and platforms as possible, linking and cross-promoting each other.

Good content costs money. The lack of a last click attribution model is holding back many hotel marketers from investing the required resources to produce good content. Successful content marketing is a long term process with an ROI spread over time. Just creating content for the sake of doing so is a waste of capital. Marketers should also look at cost effective ways to produce video content because it’s clearly becoming a bigger part of the future of marketing in all industries.

Start with a strategy and have a point of view. The first thing hotel marketers need to do before creating any content is figure out who they are and what they want to say that differentiates the brand within its competitive set. Publishers have editorial calendars and they know what their niche is. Hotels should do the same. Bland brand pillars stating how hotels “exceed expectations” or “our people make the difference” are useless.

Further reading