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US hotels promoting the nostalgia of the family road trip

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One of the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess Hotel's drive-in movie nights, with kid-friendly movies playing in its parking lot in Scottsdale, Arizona.

New York

AS THE United States slowly, haltingly reopens, hotels are trying to persuade Americans to make this the summer of the road trip.

Although some hotels have kept a trickle of guests coming through the doors by catering to essential workers, people seeking a change in scenery and willing to drive to a vacation spot are the industry's lifeline for the foreseeable future. A good number of hotels in the country remain closed. Most business travel and nearly all group bookings are on hold, and many travellers are reluctant to take unnecessary plane trips.

John Davies, vice-president of marketing at Benchmark Resorts & Hotels, said: "Everything that we've seen and read was pointing to the summer-of-the-drive market and drive destinations."

Jan Freitag, senior vice-president for STR, a lodging consulting firm, agreed that many people would want to drive somewhere after months of being largely stuck at home. "It's not going to be very hard to convince people to drive because they just want to get away," he said.

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So, hotel marketing campaigns are invoking the familiar tropes of the family car ride to a beach, the mountains or a national park. "This is really going back 50 years or more, when people were very eager to get in the car and drive," said Chekitan Dev, professor of marketing and branding at the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University.

While the campaigns may evoke an earlier era, hotel marketing departments are interacting with would-be travellers on social media and using web-browsing data analytics to figure out the images, activities and places people are searching for when they think about a getaway.

Benchmark Resorts & Hotels rolled out a summer road trip campaign that divides the US into seven regions, highlighting outdoor activities and local attractions in each. "We felt that all they needed was the motivation to give them a reason to leave the house," Mr Davies said.

This is a shift from the messaging hotels rolled out during the initial surge of the pandemic in the spring, when their marketing was largely focused on cleanliness. Hotel chains promoted their stepped-up sanitation standards and partnerships with cleaning product brands.

Now the move is toward something a bit more optimistic.

Jeff Doane, senior vice-president of sales and marketing for Accor North and Central America, said: "We knew that once the industry and our company had established the fact that we were adhering to strict cleanliness standards, that could become a little bit of an assumption that the consumer would make. With that established, we were able to be much more promotional about the experience you can have at the hotels."

Hotel brands have also had to adjust to the uneven patchwork of plans and protocols imposed by state and local governments, along with the suspension or reversal of opening-up plans. "Not everything is accelerating or coming back as fast," Mr Davies said, which is why Benchmark Resorts & Hotels used what he called a "hyper-regional" approach.

The focus on regional and short-haul markets is changing how hotels communicate with travellers, and giving a bigger role to social media channels. "The messages are getting a little bit more specific," said Bjorn Hanson, a hotel industry consultant. "This is a property-by-property environment - each really has to have its own unique messaging."

Given that many pools, spas, gyms and restaurants remain closed or are operating in only a limited capacity, hotels are promoting nearby parks, scenery and vistas, along with simple activities that are do-able while maintaining social distance. The Fairmont Scottsdale Princess in Arizona has held drive-in movie nights, playing family-friendly cartoons and comedies in its parking lot; Kimpton hotels in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and Los Angeles created pop-up "bodegas" with snacks and bottled cocktails for guests while their restaurants were shuttered.

"Delivering the experience is a challenge," Mr Hanson said.

Figuring out where people daydream about going is another key part of the equation. Hotels are using data points like Google search results and the addresses of the people doing the searching to see what - and where - they are viewing.

Julia Vander Ploeg, global head of digital at Hyatt Hotels Corporation, said: "We're in a situation where most of our traditional data signals don't really help us in the current environment. We've had to get creative and layer on different data points to understand how to promote this gradual rebuild of leisure travel."

Executives say they also are relying more on their own internal data analytics, including the pages people look at or what images make them click to learn more, as well as surveys and social media feedback. NYTIMES

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