Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Hotels: How do people choose a hotel?

It's very much an individual decision. There are as many possible answers to this question as there are hotel guests. 

Actually there are more possible answers than there are individuals. Every individual has his priorities, but for each person, one or more secondary factors will be taken into account as well -- many of which will still be significant enough to make a difference in whether or not he wants the room at a particular hotel at all, and any of the others sufficient to prompt him to choose one hotel over another.

If I knew them all, I could retire comfortably in just a few years. (And if I knew, out of fifty-odd numbers, which six will win next week's Powerball jackpot, I could retire even more quickly.)  But I can't. I'm not a mind reader.  Besides, there's seven billion people on the planet, times . . . how many features, and services, and amenities are on your list of 'must have' items when you check into a hotel (as you'll see, they don't have to be big things . . .), times . . . how many possible combinations after you take into account all the other possible things in or about a hotel that you could care less about?  Do the math. It's a big number.

Several factors do turn up over and again, however:

  • Market tier. This gets a little involved: it's TLDR material for some (but if you want to get into it, it's at Beechmont's market tier classification system by Michael Forrest Jones on WWMD: What Would Mike Do? The hotel blog).
    • The important part to remember, if you don't want to know that much about it, is that we didn't make it as a hotel rating system to compete with Michelin and AAA because we thought our tastes were superior and we could do a better job of rating hotels. It actually has multiple business, design, property development, and marketing uses. For just one example . . . very little competition between hotels occurs across market tiers, and the day that that ever changes will conclude with the evening that Mitt and Ann Romney check into a Motel 6 because it's silly to spend the extra money to stay at the J. W. Marriott (or even a Courtyard by Marriott). The Hampton Inn doesn't worry about competition from the Days Inn. It might, but it needn't. A Comfort Suites in good condition needn't concern itself too much about competition from a Super 8 Motel. If a guest walks into a Wingate Inn and it's full, he's much more likely to fall back on a Comfort Suites - a more comparable property, with a brand owned by a competing franchise organization - than he is to 'rough it' for a night at the Super 8 or a Days Inn, even though the three Wyndham brands use the same Rewards card. A good Holiday Inn Express may worry just a little about competition from a Hilton Garden Inn, but a LaQuinta Inn, Days Inn and Super 8 needn't worry about it at all. One of the reasons why is that within each market tier, the sets of reasons why one would choose a particular hotel change.
    • At the economy tier, price is paramount. That $59.99, more or less (and if you check into a hotel or motel that charges much less, you're inviting an unpleasant encounter with housekeeping, maintenance or security problems: it costs most hotels nearly that much per room to cover their costs and maintain their property properly) is all the money the guest is willing to spend, and then, they look at other factors: security (in an economy property, that matters), location, and 'nice' (as not showing too much wear, tear and accumulated grime). At that tier, it's all about cheap (subject, of course, to minimal housekeeping, maintenance and safety standards).
    • At the Class B mid-market tier, price is still very much a factor, but value becomes a consideration as well. The guest wants to see a better breakfast, although he'll occasionally have to suffer along with something more plain: if the breakfast is something he can accept, he'll be happy at that hotel. She doesn't want to see security problems, although from time to time she might see people or things that look kind of scary: as long as she's okay that she's safe, the hotel's a bargain. The room must be clean, although it might not always appear to be that way. It must be up to date, with the carpet not too old, although in some places that depends on how you define 'old'. At that tier, it's all about compromise: a guest might accept or not notice a weakness in one or two of those - or other - areas that are of not as much concern to himself or herself, but wants the hotel to get the areas that are important to him or her right. As long as he's found a hotel at that level that works in the areas that matter to him, he's happy to pay the $79.00 per night (and will frequently try to haggle that rate, demand their AAA, etc.) and save the extra fifty bucks he'd pay at a Holiday Inn Express or a Wingate.
    • At the Class A mid-market tier, the guest pretty much counts upon paying $129 per night, more or less -- but no compromising: at that tier, it's all about near-perfect and up to expectations. Everything has to be consistent and work perfectly, and there's little tolerance for neglect of the property or sloppy operation. You just don't see dirt, things that are broken (or even worn), or security problems. Individual hotel and brand attributes make some difference at this level, but these are secondary.
    • At the upscale select service and any higher tiers, the rooms themselves are somewhat more plush, but not that much better in themselves, and what the guest is paying the extra money for is the added amenities and services each hotel offers - or at least access to them, even if he or she doesn't use all of them. Some - a lounge, perhaps, or room service, or a spa - are quite common. Others are more exotic and unique. W Hotels, a 'hip' luxury brand, has, as chain hotels go, quite a talent for thinking up new ones.  One of the things I like about hotels in New York City and San Francisco (and lots of other places, now that boutique hotels are catching on as a customer option) is the ingenuity that goes into creating the experience of it - and in, say, New York and other major cities, always has.
      • Long before 'boutique' hotels were 'cool', it was no doubt possible in such places - for a price - to call down for turndown service and have someone come up, turn down the bed, help you into your jammies, listen to your prayers, read you a story, tuck you in, kiss you goodnight, check for monsters in the closet, and turn off the light on the way out.
      • Some ten years ago, when some famous star (was it Whitney Houston?) got the oddball idea of calling down and asking to take a bath in a tub filled with warm chocolate milk while a guest at one of the early W Hotels - and the hotel agreed to it - it was a news event as soon as word got out. Nowadays, a chocolate milk bath is offered at quite a few upscale hotels and spas, and you can even make your own at home. Once everyone's had one, it'll be passe . . .  but some hotel in New York or London will have come up with something else. Or one will let the guest come up with an idea and simply say yes. You never know.
  • The loyalty card in his pocket. Not the brand. That loyalty card. Loyalty to any particular brand - not just in hotels but in all other industries - is on the decline, unless you have an iconic brand like Harley Davidson, or Caterpillar, or Budweiser (The closest the hotel industry has to an iconic brand that in and of itself commands customer loyalty is Marriott, and while Marriott has its hard core of devoted followers, it's not that iconic. Competitors still have a shot.)  The value of any hotel brand or franchise affiliation is directly proportional to the number of people running around with that franchise organization's loyalty card in their pocket. (Most franchise organizations' loyalty cards are good at more than one brand: a Wyndham Rewards card, for example, is good at a Wingate Inn, a Baymont Inn, a Ramada Inn, a Days Inn, a Super 8, a Travelodge, a Knights Inn - and ten others, all of which are hooked into the same computer network for tracking your 'points' and collecting data about you. Choice Hotels has eleven brands, all of which accept the Choice Privileges card. Ten Hilton brands take HHonors.) So, when the loyalty card is making the choice for the guest, Susan (Susan Deluzain Barry's answer ) is 100% right - if they have more than one card, they'll book at a hotel associated with the card that has the most points piled up on it.
  • Location.  Many guests at nearly all hotels - and most guests at the lower-end market tiers, drive. They're in a strange town, they're here for a specific purpose, and they need to be close to where they need to be to do what they're here to do. Now, if they flew into town, that complicates matters: they're dependent on others for a ride anywhere they go, they need things within walking distance, so location matters even more, and they need a rapid response from a taxi or car service. They'll choose a hotel accordingly.
  • The ultimate location choice factor: the walk-in guest. This one chose a hotel that he happened to see in a spot where it was time to find a place to call it a night, and came in without a reservation. It happens frequently on a long highway trip, but can happen pretty spontaneously: "this hotel looked good (or acceptable), and it was there". That's how much 'choice' went into the process. Interstate highway off-ramp motels live for this kind of business, but even a big box Hilton gets it occasionally: even their customers don't always plan in advance. Curb appeal obviously mattered to this guy, but you need to work on ways to keep him coming back if he might ever come back. Keep in touch. 
  • Quite frankly, many choose not to decide. They let Expedia choose for them. Or another online travel agency. Or a storefront travel agent. Or they farm out the choice to a secretary, who will probably have some idea what the individual likes to see when he checks in, but within those limits, puts him pretty much anywhere she wants. Our job is to catch up with these people and find out a little about them, see what they like: turn them from Priceline's customer into our customer.
  • TripAdvisor and other review sites make a difference. But this is often a secondary consideration. Even people who check TripAdvisor before booking a room (and while TripAdvisor is popular, you'd be surprised at the number of people who don't even bother), and even those among them who bring up a city and go through the rankings, don't select the top hotel in the rankings necessarily. (Quite often, that's a luxury property of the sort that I'd stay at only rarely, once in awhile as a treat, rather than every trip.) Instead, they scroll down until they find one or more hotels that are of a brand that they're used to seeing, where they have a loyalty card for that brand or they've stayed at another hotel of that brand before, a hotel that's near where they want to be in that town, or a hotel that's in their price range. So we're right back to market tier, loyalty cards, and location again - each of the above being much more dominant and fundamental factors. Once they're through scrolling, then the good reviews you got last week or the crappy reviews your competitors (within your market tier, of course) have been getting, might start to make a difference.
    • Believe it or not, two factors that you think would weigh very heavily don't come into it nearly as often, or at least not in the same way, as most people think: 'service' and housekeeping. These - if you're familiar with Herzberg's theory (Frederick Herzberg | Two-factor theory ) - are hygiene factors, or maintenance factors, not motivators. It is critical and essential that both service and housekeeping be done very well. But they're generally not the reason that people choose a hotel (unless there's some particular 'service' - some specific helpful act or regular service feature - that stands out as unique, or some particular person or people on the staff that the guest likes). Nobody wants to stay in a dirty hotel, or in one in which the service is bad. They'll avoid a hotel because it isn't clean, or because the service isn't good or the staff seems uncaring or unfriendly. But once the guest's expectations are met in the areas of service and housekeeping, once neither the housekeeping nor the service is an issue; then not that many people choose a hotel on the basis of how clean it is, or how 'good the service' is. (A lot of people even in the 'hospitality' business don't get this, which is one thing that makes a laudatory, but completely fabricated and bogus, review written and posted on TripAdvisor by a member of the hotel staff easy to spot for what it is. There are other indicators, but such reviews always seem to rave about the ooh-ahh 'service, or how clean the hotel is, or other factors that 'real' guests never take into consideration at all . . . )
  • It could be just because he likes the bed. (Westin has the Heavenly Bed, but it could just as easily, if not as likely, be a plain old one - maybe one due for replacement next year - that just seems to 'fit' him.)
    • Or the cookie (Doubletree has the cookie, but in one old hotel I ran, I put a party platter out whenever we had arriving guests before we had rooms ready, and had one keep coming back just because he liked that).
    • Or she likes to go for a late night swim in our pool, and my night auditor always let her. (Because he was service-minded and hospitable? Dedicated to the job? Naaah, it was because she looked good in her swimsuit; and if he turned on all the lights and let her in the pool after hours, he'd get to watch her on the security monitor. Once I picked up on it, I could always tell when she'd been in the hotel because I'd find lots of mistakes on the audit the next day: the guy wasn't even watching what he was doing, never mind paying attention to the job. Hopefully, she never picked up on it . . .) 
    • Or, he likes Room 321 and can get it every time if he asks for it. Some factors may be completely unpredictable; trivial, even.
    • It costs less than fifty bucks to adopt a pet from an animal shelter, someone whose cat had an unwanted litter will give you a kitten for even less - and yet people choose the Algonquin Hotel in New York, at $600 per night and up, simply because Matilda is there (The Famous Algonquin Hotel Cat ). If I were to visit the Algonquin, I'd be disappointed if I didn't get to see Matilda.

  • Even the guest doesn't quite realize that that's what he likes so much about this particular hotel - but he'd notice right away if it was missing for one trip. Frequently, it's like your toddler opening all her Christmas toys, then spending the rest of the day playing with the big box that the biggest toy came packaged in - you might splurge on amenities, but for that one guest, it'll be some little thing you'd never think would mean that much to anyone. Whatever it is, it's often something not offered to everyone as a feature of the hotel: perhaps even something it never occurred to you at all was a feature - but it makes all the difference in the world to that guest.
    • Does it work that way in real life? You'd be surprised. People, when asked in advance, are pretty clear about their preferences . . . but make surprising choices when decision time actually arrives. Their stated preferences may come across as pretty obvious and universally understandable, but when they actually make the choice, other unexpected and even unanticipated factors not only come into play, they seem to control. The obvious, stated, preferences become all but completely irrelevant. I just saw an interesting study a few days back. What do people want in a romantic relationship, what do men and women look for in another when they get into the dating game? Men say they want physical attractiveness. Women say they want earning power. Both say they want 'friendly and personable'. But persuade some of them to attend a speed dating event, and watch who they ultimately settle upon - and how their stated preferences have little if anything to do with it . . .

    • That's why I don't like the classic comment cards with the 'rate each of these (obvious and expected) items' blanks. Besides putting the guest on the spot to form an opinion that management wants to hear (or even worse, find fault), about something on which the guest has no opinion or could care less, it completely misses things that actually are important to the guest.
      Only two questions should show up on a comment card: "The thing I really like best about this hotel is . . . ", and "If I were the general manager of this hotel for a day, the first thing I would change is . . ." And let the guest come up with her own answer: don't limit her to expected choices that reflect the only five things that you 'know to' care about. If the guest has more than one consideration or concern, he'll either find a way to get them in the space provided, or another guest will come up with the same consideration or concern.
  • Speaking of the Algonquin in New York, the Round Table (The Round Table | Luxury New York City Hotel | Midtown Manhattan Hotel | Hotels near Times Square | The Algonquin Hotel Times Square, Autograph Collection  ) can't hurt: if the Algonquin is successful at one unique thing, it is that its guests go away with a story to tell, and a feeling that, for a night (or a stay), they were part of something that makes them a part of a community, or a participant in history. (Even if they don't care for cats. :-( )  A unique experience, or an association with someone or something one holds in high regard; the feeling that I'm using the same table that Obama used some months back, or the same hotel that Warren Buffet uses, or 'the best minds in Seattle come (or better yet, gather) here', means a lot. One of the things I like best about Quora is that there are some really accomplished people who use it, who would be famous if their name was publicly associated with some of the famouse things that they've created or been a part of, and I like knowing that through my participation, I can be associated with and even be part of that.
  • And sometimes, it gets downright personal. We have church groups using the meeting facilities at one hotel who like dealing only with one particular assistant manager - and won't deal with anyone else. If that guy ever leaves, the church groups probably will find another hotel, too. Too many sales managers operate entirely on the basis of personal connections: if they ever defect to a higher-paying job across town, their 'little black book' - and all their customers - go to the hotel across town with them. I've seen desk clerks, and even room attendants, acquire a small following: some guests stay at a particular hotel because that person works there. (Is this something to be encouraged? Well . . . I want to keep the customers happy . . . but I'd really rather the customers be the hotel's customers, not a particular employee's customers . . . It's a choice you have to make: I'd watch for it and try to not let it get started . . . On the other hand, if someone comes in the door needing a job and can bring an established following, the temptation would be there . . . When I'm running the hotel, one item in my rulebook is, anytime you're chit-chatting with a guest, and another member of the staff walks up, for any reason, no matter who it is, you make an introduction. Also, we do have rules on 'fraternization' but they, too, are relaxed by contrast to what you'll find in other hotels: we want relationships and friendships to occur between guests and individual members of the staff, provided that they occur naturally, aren't exploitive, and don't venture into forbidden areas.)
Much of the game of marketing a hotel, however, is fundamentally taking the one hotel that you're making it your job to market, and discovering the correct answers to the question, "What causes people (and more importantly, what would cause people) to choose this one?" 

And then, the part that many sales and marketing people (and even more hotel managers) don't consider as much as they should, comes into play -  knowing the guest. What kind of people would choose my hotel, and where can I find them and connect with them? How can I offer these people something that makes the best of my property's  strengths, and offer me the best hope that its weaknesses won't be a problem for them? 

Getting owners to ask those two questions, take what they get, and stay with it until we agree on sensible answers is difficult, because nearly all  hotel owners have an inflated view of the value of their property, and the value of the product that they offer their customers, and the universal mass appeal of that property and that product - and a tendency to only hire and promote people who share, or seem to  share, or pretend to share, those inflated views. 

Early in my career as a manager, for example, I was the general manager of a ten-million-dollar property. (For that kind of money, I could build you a brand new Hilton Garden Inn, or an aloft . . . .) One of my past employers was the owner of a somewhat worn, 42-room Econo Lodge that was next to a main rail line - trains roared through occasionally through the night, sometimes blowing the whistle and generating lots of guest complaints - and showing its age badly. But he truly believed the hotel was worth ten million dollars, and couldn't understand why I couldn't persuade people to stay there instead of at a nearly new Comfort Suites on the next exit, right across from the main gate of a large theme park. I even had another, with whom I was discussing contract rates for corporate and group accounts with him, demand of me, quite indignantly, "Why can't they pay rack (full price)?"

"How do people choose a hotel?" isn't a bad question, but a better question might be "How does a hotel choose its guests?" 

Really.  Even the sharpest people in this business do it that way. First, define what kind of customer your property would work best for. Then, do - and discover - what you have to do to attract, and retain, and please that customer. Let's say you were building a new hotel, you want to attract "lifestyle travelers seeking smart, stylish experiences in the upper-moderate tier", and you wanted the kind of customer who was
  • Style Conscious: great style, design, ambience and great value are essential
  • Perceptive and Receptive: attracted to hotels that appeal to all of the senses
  • Seeking Tranquility: the need to stay where stress is eased and life is enriched
Now, if you were a Marriott developer, what you'd end up would look very much like a SpringHill Suites by Marriott - I copied and pasted those very attributes  from their website (SpringHill Suite Hotels by Marriott ). Your mileage may vary. Only the anointed may become Marriott developers, but only if they sell their soul to Marriott. You have to do the same with the hotel you have, or a hotel that you can build.

The only hotel ever to please everyone was a typical 1950's-1960's era Holiday Inn - and the few that are still standing are old, run down, and no one likes them anymore. The most dismal failures in hotel marketing are the owners and managers and salespeople who try to reach and to please everyone. You can't.  (The dimtwit manager I described earlier, the 'why can't they pay rack?' guy, is a classic example. He wanted to price his rooms low, so that 'everybody' could afford them and - he thought - he could fill them accordingly. But he wanted to leave himself no margin to give more favorable terms to a company or group from whom he could count upon for twenty or so assured room-nights per month. Perhaps you'd think it shouldn't be a problem, but to any company or group with whom you're trying to work out a contract such as that, it makes a difference. If you don't show up as willing to give that company or group more favorable terms than just any schmoe who walks in off the street, your competitor will. If you want them to treat you special, as though yours is preferable to the average hotel; you have to treat them special, as though they're preferable to the average guest. Whether you or I like it or not, it's the way the business works. Even if you could rent your rooms to walk-in guests for ten bucks per night, they'd want them for eight.)

Every hotel has its strengths and its weakness, its gifts and its flaws. There are things you can do with an old, 48-room Econo Lodge that the Waldorf-Astoria or the Fontainebleu cannot do and had better not try.  Know the strengths and weaknesses of your hotel, so you can use them. Match them to guests who'll pay good money and keep coming back. Then reach and connect with those guests.

The longtime general manager of iconic Imperial Hotel in Tokyo (the one designed by Frank Lloyd Wright that was built in 1926 and demolished in 1967) had a rule for his staff. Don't be intrusive or ask pointed questions, but always try to learn something new about every guest. Besides encouraging and helping the staff to connect with the guests, it was valuable marketing information - long before Mark Zuckerberg started collecting such information about us every time we log on to Facebook.

The game isn't to know every factor that may or may not motivate 'people' to choose 'a' hotel. The game is to know which five or six of those factors are relevant and important to those people you want to attract to your hotel. Reach the customers that you can reach.

Originally appeared on Quora

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