With international and corporate guests likely to be few and far between this year, city centre hotels need to offer a series of incentives that appeal to the domestic leisure market. Janet Harmer discovers the marketing strategies likely to succeed in 2021.
As the date for hotels reopening draws closer, there is an evident deep divide in how operators across the country are expecting business levels will pan out over coming months. While many hotels in the countryside and coastal resorts are reporting 100% occupancy – particularly over the peak summer period – many city centre establishments are reluctant to divulge figures other than to say it is going to be a challenging year.
With UK cities usually so heavily reliant on overseas visitors, the dramatic loss of leisure and business travellers arriving from abroad since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic has hit city centre hotels hard.
The number of visits to the UK from overseas this year is forecast by VisitBritain to be just 25% of what it was in 2019, down to around 11.7 million visits from 40.9 million two years ago. At the same time, visitor spend from inbound tourists is expected to reach only £6.6b this year, compared to £28.4b in 2019.
The UK's top four cities for overseas tourists – London, Edinburgh, Manchester and Birmingham – account for 50% of inbound visitor spending, highlighting the devastating impact their loss has had on city centre business levels.
With uncertainty surrounding when and how quickly international travellers will return to the UK and a change in the way corporate business, both domestic and from overseas, is expected to be conducted in future, city centre hotels are refocusing their marketing activities on the domestic leisure market. The lack of hordes of international tourists means that there has never been a better time for British travellers to explore their own towns and cities, which will hopefully allay the anxiety of those individuals who are nervous about visiting locations that they may perceive to be crowded.
The unique opportunity for domestic travellers to enjoy a relatively quiet capital could boost occupancy levels above last year's dire figures, when London lagged behind its counterparts across the UK in terms of number of checked-in guests. During the first three weeks of August 2020, occupancy among hotels that had opened across the whole of London was 28.6%, while Marylebone and Mayfair, where some of the capital's most prestigious properties are situated, registered an occupancy of just 10.3%, a drop of 88.1% year-on-year.
As well as in-house hotel sales and marketing teams coming up with the means of attracting guests via creative and generous packages, the most savvy operators are also tapping into the support being offered by a whole host of outside agencies, campaigns and partnerships with third-party businesses.
Collaboration, indeed, is the name of the game, whether it be with national agencies such as VisitBritain, regional bodies or as part of standalone campaigns, as in the case of Hotel Week London. Then there are the countless opportunities stemming from partnering up with corporate entities, independent companies and visitor attractions, providing commercial benefits for both parties.
The coronavirus consequences
Initially, it is vital that hotels do everything they can to ensure their establishments are welcoming to guests. At this stage of the pandemic, it should be a given that hotels are fully compliant with Covid safety and cleanliness measures.
The ‘Stay Safe' message has been heavily emphasised for the past 14 months and therefore, says hotel marketing expert and lifestyle consultant Pamela Carvell, should not form the mainstay of any hotel's marketing policy. "But it would be a nice touch to offer a complimentary safety pack containing a facemask, good-quality hand gel, surface wipes and skin wipes," she says. "It is about being creative and offering something extra."
For those guests who want to be assured, information regarding cleaning policies should be made readily available, for example on the hotel's website. The 253-bedroom Park Regis hotel in Birmingham provides a full run-down of safety procedures, backed up by a video showing the steps taken to clean every room, including the use of hospital-grade materials, the application of UV lights to highlight the presence of germs and an additional eight minutes spent on checking every room.
Reassurance also needs to be in place when it comes to travelling into city centres. Whereas public transport was a straightforward option before the pandemic, nervousness among some consumers may result in more people choosing to drive themselves into a city. "Hotels need to appreciate that some guests will want to arrive by car," says Carvell.
"They therefore need to come up with a parking solution. Deals can be done with car parks to offer parking as part of a hotel package with a sensible pricing option. Then, once guests are with you, provide them with all the information they need to get around the city on foot, whether that is through walking routes or making arrangement with walking guides, as well as free umbrellas and rain capes. Or offer bicycles or electric scooters and helmets free of charge."
With all the necessary safety protocols and help with travel into cities in place, hotels are reaching out to guests via a host of initiatives.
In London alone there are a total of 146,000 bedrooms to be filled, a figure which is going to be boosted, according to STR, by an additional 7,400 rooms this year with the opening of a significant number of properties, including the 350-bedroom Londoner in Leicester Square, 237-bedroom Pan Pacific London on Bishopgate and the 91-bedroom Nomad London in Covent Garden.
Both established and new hotels need to entice guests with attractive offers and it is the purpose of Hotel Week London to shout about them. Set to run from 28 May to 6 June, the initiative features 45 of the capital's leading establishments, including the Dorchester, Rosewood London and the Savoy, offering a host of attractive packages during the spring half-term week and, often, until the end of June. The initiative is being run by travel marketing agency MMGY Global on a no-cost basis.
"By taking a collective approach and working together as a large group, hotels can send out a strong message that London is open again and is a great alternative to Cornwall or the Lake District for a domestic break," says Jonathan Sloan of MMGY Global. "We're not going to see five-star hotels offering rooms at £100 per night, but there will be value-added offers to entice people back to the capital, whether it will be the addition of tickets for attractions, room upgrades, dining credits or cocktail-making classes. There is a lot in particular to appeal to families."
By taking a collective approach and working together as a large group, hotels can send out a strong message that London is open again
All three Hyatt hotels in the capital – Hyatt Regency London – the Churchill, Andaz London Liverpool Street and Great Scotland Yard – are taking part in the promotion. Arnaud De Saint-Exupery, who oversees these hotels as area vice-president, says that pre-Covid between 60% and 80% of business across the properties came from overseas.
"All our efforts this year will be focused on the domestic leisure market, whether it is Hotel Week London; using social media for speaking directly to a targeted audience; via the World of Hyatt loyalty programme; or working in partnership with our neighbours, which in the case of the Churchill includes Baker Street Quarter and New West End Company," he says.
"We're also organising a Mini Marylebone package targeted at families for the Churchill, which promotes the hotel's proximity to the likes of Madame Tussauds, Hyde Park and Oxford Street, with cocktails for parents, mocktails for children and a free babysitting service."
The Hotel Week London packages will see the three hotels offer a 20% discount on the best available rate, including breakfast and a £25 credit on F&B, with an early check-in of 12pm and a late check-out of 6pm.
Dukes London is also offering a 20% discount on rooms rates during Hotel Week London, alongside 20% discount on spa treatments, a pre-dinner cocktail and a continental breakfast.
Having no international travellers since March 2020 has been "disastrous" for both occupancy and room rates says Alberto Cambus, head of sales and marketing, Dukes London.
"It is a period of crisis and we are doing all we can to appeal to local guests, emphasising that London has never been more attractive – it is not overcrowded and there are low levels of pollution."
In addition to the Hotel Week London packages, Dukes London is also offering three nights for the price of two and a Dukes Workation deal, which includes a ‘work butler' providing printing and scanning services, a 10% discount on food and a glass of bubbles at the end of each day.
While the capital's tourism body London & Partners will be building on last year's #BecauseImALondoner campaign to encourage bookings from a local audience, organisations in other UK cities are being equally proactive in reaching out to domestic guests.
Adrian Ellis, general manager of the Lowry hotel in Manchester, praises Marketing Manchester and Visit Manchester for the role they are playing in driving business to the city with the promotion of three major festivals this summer: Manchester International Festival, Manchester Pride, and Parklife, which is the largest metropolitan music festival in the UK. The festivals are included within the #21for21MCR promotion, highlighting major events for the city this year, among which is the opening of RHS Garden Bridgewater, the largest garden project in Europe for many years.
"We can't hide the fact that the loss of international, corporate and conference business is a big blow," says Ellis. "But we are benefitting from the work of Marketing Manchester and Visit Manchester, including the city-wide Have A Night On Us promotion offering three for two, four for three or five for four nights."
Meanwhile, hotels in Birmingham suffering from the loss of corporate travel, which accounted for 33% of all overnight trips to the city in 2019, are being supported by the West Midlands Growth Company (WMGC, previously known as Marketing Birmingham) as they reopen. In conjunction with Birmingham Business Improvement Districts, WMGC is hosting the Cheers to Hospitality campaign, highlighting a host of events in the region that could lead to an overnight stay, from international test cricket at Edgbaston to the 2021 Coventry UK City of Culture and the Creation Day Festival in Wolverhampton.
The 185-bedroom Grand hotel in Birmingham will be opening its doors for the first time on 18 May following a £45m refurbishment. It is promoting a book direct offer with a 10% reduction in rates, late check-out of 2pm and £10 bar credit via newsletters sent to prospective consumer and corporate clients, press relations and social media campaigns.
Multiple agencies working together to promote city stays is underlined by the work taking place by Visit Leeds in partnership with Leeds City Council, Leeds Hotels and Venues Association and Leeds Business Improvement District to deliver "a fully integrated marketing campaign over the summer that specifically encourages overnight leisure breaks back into the city through enticing accommodation and hospitality packages". It is hoped that the joint efforts of these bodies will go some way towards replacing the 388,000 visitors from overseas who stayed in the city in 2019.
In Bath, where 48% of all visitor nights in 2019 were filled by international guests, interim chief executive of Visit Bath Kathryn Davis says: "There has been a huge amount of work with partners, both across the media and agencies such as Visit England, who we cannot praise enough for their support, to share inspiration and reasons to travel."
In addition, she adds, Visit Bath has worked with hotels in the city to promote themed and price-led breaks via social channels, including Instagram takeovers.
Among the host of nationwide initiatives that hotels can tap into is VisitBritain's Escape the Everyday campaign, set to be launched in late spring and which will focus on encouraging stays in cities. As Patricia Yates, director of Visit Britain, says: "With international tourists slower to return, this really is the year to rediscover the crown jewels of British tourism in our vibrant cities."
This really is the year to rediscover the crown jewels of British tourism in our vibrant cities
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Pride of Britain: promoting the art of great British hospitality
As an organisation that focuses its marketing activities on the UK market, Pride of Britain is well-versed in knowing how to appeal to domestic guests.
So what is the key bit of advice its chief executive Peter Hancock can give to non-member hoteliers who are more used to promoting their establishments to overseas visitors?
"When marketing to an overseas audience, hotels generally focus on the Britishness of the offer, whether it is their afternoon tea or service," he says. "It should be no different when marketing to a UK audience. Britishness is equally appealing to the home market, with a focus on British products, whether it is the ingredients or the furnishings. It is also about never cutting corners and promoting the best hospitality you can hope for."
The majority of the 50 member hotels within Pride of Britain are located in rural and coastal locations and, as a result, are enjoying bumper bookings, with some reporting 100% occupancy alongside premium rates (see panel overleaf) during the summer.
However, the five hotels in the consortium that are city-based – the Goring, the Capital and the Athenaeum in London, and Fingal (a floating hotel) and Dunstane Houses in Edinburgh – have been hit hard by the loss of overseas guests, which usually account for an average of 60% of their business. Pride of Britain is now working hard to fill the gap from the loss of international bookings. The current focus, therefore, of the e-flyers sent out 45 times a year to a 100,000-strong database is promotions being offered by the city hotels, backed up by a targeted social media campaign.
"The aim is to encourage people to think about a city break while the streets and parks are relatively peaceful," says Hancock.
Pride of Britain's campaign for the capital is headlined Discover London Without the Crowds, with a strapline inspired by Joanne Taylor-Stagg, general manager of the Athenaeum: "Now is the time to get that selfie in front of Buckingham Palace – without being photo-bombed by a stranger!"
Hancock hopes members of Pride of Britain will claw back some of the lost business from the past year in his final six months at the helm of the organisation. He will retire from the body in November after 21 years as chief executive. The search is currently on for his replacement.
Hotel rates – to discount or not to discount?
It may be tempting for hoteliers to consider dropping room rates in order to attract guests, but the overwhelming consensus among industry experts and operators to whom The Caterer spoke is that offering reduced rates is not a sensible option, unless it is part of a short-term promotion with a clear end date, as with some of the packages being offered during Hotel Week London.
"Clearly pricing should be well thought-through," says Russell Kett, chairman of asset management company HVS. "But knee-jerk reactions are rarely productive in the long run."
The general view that reducing rates will take several years to recover is borne out by Kett's experience. "It took six years for revpar levels to be returned to previous levels post-9/11 and after the financial crisis of 2008/09. I anticipate it will take a similar timescale for hotel revenues to get back to 2019 levels. Some will get there faster, some might take longer."
Kett warns that price discounting is not known to stimulate demand when travellers are afraid to travel. This is a view shared by Peter Hancock, chief executive of Pride of Britain. Reduced demand for city centre hotels, he believes, has nothing to do with room rates, but rather that the location is not the number-one choice for guests at this particular time.
"Our experience is that there is a great deal of pent-up demand from guests who want to spend their money, which is highlighted by rates increasing up to an average of £440 across our country hotels," says Hancock. The average room rate in Pride of Britain properties during 2019 was £300-plus.
Rather than drop rates, Kett advises city centre hotels to add value to entice leisure travellers. "Offer five nights for the price of four, include breakfast in the rate, or provide a free upgrade to a better-quality room," he suggests. "Approach nearby leisure attractions and develop packages offering access to the attraction alongside an overnight stay." Additionally Kett suggests that having flexible cancellation policies in place will help encourage bookings.
Consultant Pamela Carvell advises that upgrading guests rather than reducing rates will help establish long-term loyalty. "Occupancies are unlikely to reach the dizzy heights of 80%, so there will always be a larger room available," she says. "Doing so will wow guests from the moment they walk in. It will give them something to post on their Instagram account and could be very powerful."
Hotel Week London www.hotelweeklondon.co.uk
London & Partners www.londonandpartners.com
Marketing Manchester www.marketingmanchester.com
Pride of Britain www.prideofbritainhotels.com
Visit Bath www.visitbath.co.uk
Visit Leeds www.visitleeds.co.uk
Visit Manchester www.marketingmanchester.com
West Midlands Growth Company www.mgrowth.com
Photos: Rawpixel.com/ didesign021; both Shutterstock.com
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