“I have no doubt we will be stealing some market share.” – Jay Karen, President & CEO, Professional Association of Innkeepers International (PAII).
Social media, the great equalizer, has allowed bed-and-breakfasts and independent boutiques to compete for the attention of travelers online with big-box, chain hotels. And when it comes to creative content and compelling stories, small, independents properties have emerged with some of the strongest voices.
Recently, the Professional Association of Innkeepers launched a campaign called "A Better Way to Stay" to convince travelers—especially Gen X and Y—to choose inns and B&Bs over hotels. PAII’s President & CEO Jay Karen calls it “a true grassroots campaign” that will feature “fresh and edgy content—perfect for social media—never seen from our industry.”
To find out more, I caught up with Jay. Here’s a condensed version of our Q A session.
Some wear boxers, others brief; some prefer B&Bs, others hotels. Convince us: Why choose a B&B over a hotel?
That’s easy! Do you prefer your breakfast made from food off a Sysco truck or hand-picked by an innkeeper (most likely sourced locally)? Do you like never having to pay for wi-fi? How do you feel about free parking? Historical settings? Beautiful properties? Afternoon or 24-hour free snacks? Sometimes wine and cheese hours or afternoon tea? Local knowledge of the best places for recreation and dining? Also, B&Bs are considered by many women business travelers as safer than hotels.
Guests at B&Bs aren’t just a room number and a stat that adds to the RevPAR and occupancy charts – they’re people looking for more than just a room, and innkeepers enjoy delivering more than an electronic key card.
Do B&Bs compete more against hotels or other B&Bs? Should hotels be worried?
When someone chooses a B&B, it’s safe to say they likely chose that B&B over another B&B, not a Hilton or Marriott. We compete with hotels every day of the week. I firmly believe that the loyalty index among B&B guests is much higher than hotel guests. And in the new world of social media, more and more loyal guests will be telling their friends and families about their fantastic experiences.
I’m not saying hotels should be shivering with fear, because our total room volume is incredibly modest by comparison, but the playing field has certainly been leveled in this new age of connectivity. I have no doubt we will be stealing some market share.
Lately there’s been a lot of controversy over the authenticity of online reviews. What’s your position on this?
My belief is that the vast majority of online reviews on travel sites are legitimate – at least in our neck of the woods. Travel websites that do not authenticate reviews by verifying that reviewers actually stayed at the properties in question have an inherent weakness. But the concept they rely on is that the law of large numbers will overcome that weakness … the wisdom of the crowds. There’s going to be the occasional fool or fake in the crowd, but the thought is they will be drowned out.
There is a problem with that in the B&B world - we don’t have the large numbers that hotels do. A good B&B that is actively soliciting reviews from guests will still only have a few dozen reviews over the course of a year – not a few hundred. A few bad apples can spoil things a hell of a lot faster for a B&B with 5 rooms than a hotel with 500 rooms.
To me, the bigger problem is review sites claim little or no responsibility when it comes to the details within the review and won’t get involved in the veracity of the reviews. When it comes to negative reviews that have been embellished or falsified, the property owners have everything to lose. Joe Schmoe Reviewer has nothing to lose, and that’s still very troublesome at times.
TripAdvisor: friend or foe of innkeepers?
On balance? Definitely a friend. While we still suffer from second-class-citizenship on the site (we’re mostly found behind the “hotels” moniker instead of beside them, like vacation rentals, in the most visible areas of the site), the site allows the smallest of inns to compete with the largest of hotels in the same city. TripAdvisor is a great site for those who love doing their homework when deciding where to stay.
TripAdvisor reviews can work really well for local, independent players. The rest of the commerce on the site, i.e. banner ads, booking, etc., is no friend to the innkeeper. Nine out of ten B&Bs do not participate in the GDS system, so when someone is searching for availability, we are left out almost completely. It would be good to build a bridge with the off-GDS platforms that most B&Bs use and the TripAdvisor availability search tool.
Over the past few years, we have gained a good bit of attention through our high-profile discussions with TripAdvisor. I believe we have been the only lodging organization that is persistently meeting with their senior staff about parity, fairness and responsiveness with their very powerful system. I’ve been blogging about it since 2008.
Do B&B’s play the OTA game?
B&Bs generally do not play the OTA game for a few reasons. Those who do play the game, though, are generally pleased. The reasons for opting out include not being able to afford the commission structure (25-30%), the lack of good information on the guests that gets passed between the OTAs and the innkeepers, and the lack of supply with which to play in the yield management game. It’s a bit of a hassle to contribute only one or two rooms to the system and have to manage that.
Companies like BedandBreakfast.com have done a good job building that bridge between an innkeeper’s PMS system, booking engine and the OTAs, but it takes a lot of hands-on management on the innkeeper’s part to make it all work. Oh, and then they have to go turn three rooms, shop for tomorrow’s breakfast and respond to the latest online review.
The major search engines are still the biggest players for B&Bs. Google Places (and various iterations of Google Maps and Google Local) have always been an influential player, and even more so if they keep stepping up their game in the travel space.
Given such limited resources, which social media tools and resources if any do you recommend B&B owners engage in?
Facebook – no doubt. There is no better tool that allows a happy B&B guest to tell their hundreds of friends and family what a wonderful time they had. We haven’t even seen the beginning of the fruits Facebook will produce for innkeepers. I’m encouraged greatly by the social buying sites out there – especially LivingSocial. Twitter is great, but only if you’re posting content that is relevant to Twitter users, and if you look at it as a search engine.
How is 2011 looking for the innkeeping industry?
The only weak point in our industry as a result of this recession has been the transaction market. Our RevPAR, occupancy and revenue numbers have remained steady. Changes in travel preferences have benefited our industry – the desire to stay closer to home, long weekend trips, smaller, boutique properties (duh), etc. Therefore, we are generally poised for strong performance in the coming months and years, as long as the economy doesn’t tank again.
Our biggest challenge seems to be that more and more gets added to the plate of innkeepers each year, but nothing gets taken off. Innkeepers pine for the days when SEO was the only internet-related marketing game they had to keep up with. Keeping all the plates spinning in an ever-more-complex world is a big challenge. But that’s where PAII comes in, right Daniel?
Daniel Edward Craig is a former general manager turned hotel consultant specializing in social media strategy, storytelling, and reputation management for the lodging industry. He is the author of three hotel-based novels, a popular blog, and various articles about issues in the hotel industry. His new e-book, The Hotelier’s Guide to Online Reputation Management, is now available. Visit www.danieledwardcraig.com
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