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 remain on hold, and many travelers are reluctant to take unnecessary plane trips.
“Everything that we’ve seen and read was pointing to the summer of the drive market and drive destinations,” said John Davies, vice president of marketing at Benchmark Resorts & Hotels.
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.
So, hotel marketing campaigns are leaning into nostalgia, 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 travelers on social media and using web browsing data analytics to figure out which images, activities and places people search for when they think about a getaway.
Benchmark rolled out a summer road trip campaign that divides the United States 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. “We put a huge focus on that with a message that’s more comforting and uplifting and kind of inviting for people to kind of get away from the chaos of the crisis.”
That 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 like Lysol and Mr. Clean.
The first step was moving toward something a bit more optimistic.
“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,” said Jeff Doane, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Accor North and Central America. “With that established, we were able to be much more promotional about the experience you’d be able to have at the hotels.” Accor recently started a campaign with tongue-in-cheek depictions of people snorkeling in the bathtub and lounging in a pool float on the living room carpet.
“What we found in the search results and feedback we were getting from guest experiences is people just wanted to get out of the house,” Mr. Doane said.
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 even reversal of opening-up plans.
“Not everything is accelerating or coming back as fast,” Mr. Davies said, which is why Benchmark used what he called a “hyper-regional” approach.
The focus on regional and short-haul markets is changing how hotels communicate with travelers and giving a much 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 easy to do while maintaining social distance. The Fairmont Scottsdale Princess has held drive-in movie nights, playing family-friendly cartoons and comedies in its parking lot, while Kimpton hotels in Winston Salem, N.C., and Los Angeles created pop-up “bodegas” with premade snacks and bottled cocktails for guests while their restaurants were shuttered.
“The promotion message is easy, but 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.
“We’re in a situation where most of our traditional data signals don’t really help us in the current environment,” said Julia Vander Ploeg, global head of digital at Hyatt Hotels Corporation. “We’ve had to get very creative and layer on different data points to understand how to promote this gradual rebuild of leisure travel.”
Kathleen Reidenbach, chief commercial officer at Kimpton Hotels & Resorts, said Kimpton started by asking guests, “‘Where are you looking to travel?’” When people responded to surveys or queries posted on social media that they wanted to visit pools and beaches, she said, the brand worked with individual properties to play up their aquatic offerings. “As you go to our website, there is a lot of content about beach destinations, and now we’ve pivoted a lot of imagery over to the pool. It’s really impacted our content strategy,” she said.
Executives say they also are relying more heavily on their own internal data analytics, including what pages people look at or what images make them click to learn more, as well as surveys and social media feedback. “Social is playing a unique role right now,” Ms. Vander Ploeg said. “I believe people are using that for signals of how we feel about travel.”
To that end, hotels also need to be sensitive to the perspective of people who might want to book a vacation someday — but not just yet.
Mr. Doane, of Accor, said the company has tried to strike a balance between sounding eager to receive guests while conveying that it is not rushing headlong into reopening. “There are some people who feel cooped up and want to go out and do something, and others just aren’t ready to do that yet.”