The travel and hospitality industry has changed significantly since the dawning of the digital age. Travel agencies are now few and far between, while giants like Expedia and Hotels.com entice travelers with low prices and convenient booking. Meanwhile, digital channels have brought hotel chains closer than ever to their guests through online loyalty programs, regular email communications, and (now) behavioral marketing.
I recently sat down with Chris Killough, Senior Manager of Email Marketing for Omni Hotels, to see how they stay connected with customers through new and emerging tech strategies. Here’s what he had to say about using data to your advantage, keeping emails relevant and timely, and playing nice with competitors.
What is your top priority for 2018?
We’re focused on investing in a true CRM and behavioral marketing approach for our B2C, leisure stay business. We’re currently in the process of changing how we do things so that we have a better understanding of who our customers are and can market to them in a 1:1 manner. While we probably won’t be executing full behavioral marketing strategies until early 2019, we’ll be focused on implementing this approach for the majority of the year. We’re excited about how it’s going to revolutionize the ways in we communicate and market to our guests.
“We’re currently in the process of changing how we do things so that we have a better understanding of who our customers are and can market to them in a 1:1 manner.”
How will combining CRM and behavioral marketing affect your digital and email marketing?
In the past, a lot of our digital marketing was brand messaging to the masses. Due to the shift in how consumers want to be treated as individuals, we know we need to be able to address those needs. By having the right CRM platform combined with SmarterHQ’s real-time behavioral marketing platform, we are able to do everything in one spot so we can segment and personalize better than what we could do previously.
One of the high priorities we have for this year is to tie together the digital experiences our customers have with us leading up to their stay along with the things they do when they are physically on our property. SmarterHQ allows us to segment our personalize email marketing based on their digital engagement, but the piece we’ve been missing are the engagements during their stay. Right now, we don’t have a backend CRM database that’s feeding into our email marketing other than our property management system, which doesn’t give us the complete picture of our guests. While it gives us a decent amount of data, it doesn’t clue us in on the types of things they’re doing while they’re at our properties, such as where they’re eating or what activities they’re participating in. The new platform will be able to give us a more comprehensive view of our customers, as well as deeper demographic data on who they are, so we can tailor our communications better.
Amazon has upset a number of industries, from retail to entertainment. Have they had an effect on travel and hospitality? How do you address Online Travel Agencies?
Not really. But I wouldn’t be surprised if they already have something in the works to tap into the travel and hospitality industry somewhere down the road! In our industry, I’d equate Amazon to a third party vendor like Expedia, Hotels.com, TripAdvisor, etc. We call these online travel agencies (OTAs). But just like retailers have to “play nice” with Amazon to get them to feature their products, we have to develop partnerships with OTAs so they feature our properties on their sites. Bookings made on third party sites cost us more in the long run, so we encourage travelers to book directly on omnihotels.com. Plus, we can provide a better experience that way.
From a digital and email marketing perspective, we’ve come up with a number of strategies to shift business away from OTAs, including triggered post-stay email campaigns and loyalty programs. Let’s say a guest books a stay with us through an OTA. While they stay with us (perhaps at check-in), we invite them to join our Select Guest loyalty program so we can promote future stays, which we have them book directly through our site. About 6-8 weeks after their first stay with us, we’ll send them an email with an exclusive offer and share all the reasons why they should book direct. That way, they not only receive a great offer to come back, they reap the benefits of the Select Guest program by booking direct.
In addition, we rolled out our Say Goodnight to Hunger charitable giving program in 2016 in partnership with Feeding America, which provides a meal to a family any time a guest books direct on our website. In one year, we were able to provide nearly 9 million meals to families in need through the program, and we even changed our giving strategy just this year. Now, Omni donates a meal for every booking made, even if it’s through an OTA.
That’s amazing! It sounds like you’re coming up with creative ways to beat the travel giants. Has Airbnb posed any challenges to you or other hotel chains?
It hasn’t, but it’s also not a true apples to apples comparison. We provide an exceptional hotel stay experience, while they market a “home away from home” experience. However, Airbnb recently just announced that they are becoming more involved as a distribution channel for hotels and their commission structure could possibly be more favorable compared to traditional OTAs. So it will be interesting to see if we develop a partnership with them down the road.
Due to hyperconnectivity, the consumer attention span is now worse than a goldfish. How are you cutting through to those customers with your behavioral marketing strategy?
It’s essential to remarket in real-time based on behaviors because booking lifecycles are a lot longer than consumer goods lifecycles because of considerations like cost and the time between when they book and when they actually stay. We only have a few seconds to get them engaged, so we want to send them the most relevant information based on how they interacted with our site.
Before SmarterHQ, we were never really able to remarket to individuals who interacted with our site. Now we can send more relevant and timely content to our guests via browse abandonment emails. Not only will they be in real-time, the content will be super relevant and will capture their attention quickly because they recently browsed similar information.
“We only have a few seconds to get them engaged, so we want to send them the most relevant information based on how they interacted with our site.”
Many SmarterHQ customers blend their triggered emails with dynamic content, personalization, and mass marketing sends as well. That way, subscribers feel that consistent experience throughout their entire journey with the brand. Is that strategy your future?
That’s what we’re working to accomplish. The average booking window for our guests is as far out as 6 weeks from when they want to stay. Therefore, sending out a real-time email will help right off the bat, but because there is a longer purchase cycle, there is also an opportunity to market to our guests through drips and ad-hoc campaigns in the near future.
How do you handle booking abandonment?
One of the reasons SmarterHQ was attractive to us is because they can help us trigger booking abandonment emails earlier in the booking funnel. With our previous vendor, we were only able to do that at the very end, right before a visitor was about to book. We wanted to get more aggressive in sending to qualified people, and SmarterHQ provided the capability to identify existing subscribers earlier in the process. We’ve tinkered with the strategy since then to arrive at a plan we feel comfortable with. If a visitor punches in dates and lands on a page that shows available rates, we know they’re interested. That’s when we trigger an email.
“We wanted to get more aggressive in sending to qualified people, and SmarterHQ provided the capability to identify existing subscribers earlier in the process.”
The travel bookings funnel is similar to the retail checkout funnel. How do you go about removing traditional conversion barriers?
We’ve partnered with Expedia to provide a concept we call “Vacations by Omni.” This is a revenue-sharing partnership with Expedia where if someone visits our website, they would be able to, via a white-label page, book hotel, flight or rental cars. One of the reasons for this partnership is to make it more seamless for our guests to do everything in one spot while still being able to interact with our own website.
Predictive marketing is how we put artificial intelligence into play for marketers. You can either survey your customers to see how they’re vacationing, or predictive marketing can tell you that. Do you utilize any long-term data for long-term campaigns?
We do use hotel stay behavior data for year-over-year (YoY) campaigns. If an Omni property has a goal to drive traffic for a specific timeframe (like spring break or Memorial Day weekend), we tap into our database to filter/segment for people who have a history of staying over similar timeframes. From that angle, we do try to better segment and personalize the messaging based on people’s prior stay behavior. From a predictive standpoint, we use our website to serve up destinations based on their prior behavior by featuring those destinations directly on the homepage. We’re starting to tap into that through SmarterHQ, but besides that, we don’t currently serve up any predictive content on our website.
Thanks for taking the time to speak with SmarterHQ about Omni and share your insights, Chris! It’s clear he understands how crucial it is to execute a behavioral marketing strategy to keep up with today’s demanding consumers, no matter the industry. Otherwise, someone else—like an Online Travel Agency—could beat you to the punch.