Circos Brand Karma

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Finding your brand differentiators

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Thanks to an invitation from Giancarlo Carniani, I recently had the pleasure of presenting social media for hoteliers with Laura Valerio at the Buy Tourism Online Conference in Florence.  Laura, who is Expedia’s Director of Market Management for Northern Italy, is highly knowledgeable about the Italian travel market.  This post is an epilogue to our presentation, and given that the great majority of Italian hotels are independents, this post is dedicated especially to them.

Independent hoteliers need to truly understand their differentiators, because it’s the differentiators that will enable hotels to attract the right guests who are willing to pay a premium for what you offer.  Differentiators must meet the following 2 criteria:

  1. It’s absolutely good by your own standards (however measured, either through internal guest satisfaction surveys, word-of-mouth feedback on the web, or because your guests tell you when they check out)
  2. It’s relatively better when compared with your competitors (from looking at social media feedback and editorial reviews)

Given this framework, location is rarely a differentiator if your competitors all face the same piazza.  While it may satisfy criteria 1 (the location is absolutely good), it fails criteria 2 (it isn’t relatively better — at least not discernible to most guests evaluating where to stay when all hotels are in the same piazza).

Design, however, can be a differentiator.  For example, let’s say you’ve recently renovated, “modern rooms in a classic building” could be a differentiator, and an especially strong one if other hotels in the piazza haven’t renovated in the last 10 years.  Service can also be a differentiator.  For example, “fresh-picked fruit from own garden” or “regional cooking lessons” can all be differentiators.

And herein lies the absolute beauty as it comes to the Italian hotels: it’s easy to spot the differentiators in independent hotels once you move away from the “obvious” criteria that often appear on guest satisfaction surveys.  In most cases, you can find the answer in social media about your hotel.

Spotting Design as Potential Differentiators

According to the Italian State Tourism Board, Italy is consistently one of the of the world’s top 5 destinations (the other four being USA, France, Spain, and China).  In 2007, for example, 42.8M visitors contributed to 163.5M bednights, with cities of historical and artistic interests contributing to nearly 1/3 of the bednights.  The rest is primarily made up by visits to sea, mountain, and lake locations.

This information suggests that travelers to Italy are naturally inclined to seek out picturesque things (artistic, sea, mountain, and lake).  To find out what are the picturesque things that guests find exciting about your hotel (and want to share with their friends and strangers), go to Google (or Flickr and Picasa), type your hotel name in, and look at the “Image” search results to see the pictures that are available about you.  And then follow the pictorial links to sites that have user-generated content to see what pictures your guests are sharing and how they are describing your property.

You might find pictures of your amenities, rooms, certain design elements, or you might find pictures of nearby attractions, or you might find pictures of the outside of the hotel, or the view from the balcony at sunset.  Whatever it is that you find will tell you precisely what guests found to be interesting about your hotel — and took the time to download the pictures from their camera into their computer, uploaded it from their computer to their account on the social media site (assuming that they’ve already created an account), and then told their friends that they’ve uploaded these wonderful photos about you.  These photos give you a pretty good idea for what in the design of your property (either internal or external) could be differentiators.

Leveraging History as a Potential Differentiator

Secondly, travelers to Italy who are interested in historical cities might also be interested in the history of your property.  For example, what did the building used to be?  How did it become a hotel?  Is it a family business?  Did anything interesting happen on premise?  Hotels in Italy (and many other countries around the world) have built-in stories that make the stay experience even more special.  Why not share them?

Even though it may be more relevant if the property’s history is connected to the historical attraction in the city, sometimes it’s the people that own the building or run the property who have the interesting history.  For inspiration from a familiar source, think of the wineries that are all over Italy.  Many of them are run by families who have owned the same winery for generations.  Behind each of these wineries are stories of colorful characters overcoming (or facing!) problems.  Even most wine labels have a story behind them.  Can you relate this to your hotel?

The great thing about the history of your hotel is that it’s always unique to your property.  If you share your history and your guests begin to write about it in their reviews about your property, then that history might very well be a differentiator — one that you don’t have to spend any more money on improving.

However, you won’t know until you share and see how your guests respond.

Getting People to Talk About Your Service

I have a third tip on differentiators.  In the past 12 months I’ve sat on more planes crisscrossing the globe than I can remember.  On a recent KLM flight the safety video projection was not working, so the flight attendants had to demonstrate in person.  I saw that most people actually stopped what they were doing to watch the flight attendants demonstrate how to buckle and fasten a seat belt.

This is because people pay attention to people.  Extended to hotels, especially good service will not be ignored, and can become a differentiator that is not easily replicable by your competitors.  Whether it’s in the way of a welcoming attitude, or thoughtful anticipation, or speed to solution, or personal recognition, or something else quirky but wonderful, what you and your staff create in terms of the human experience can often be your strongest differentiator if you construct the experience with empathy in mind.  For Italian hoteliers, empathy can solve guests’ language obstacles, dietary needs, lack of familiarity with local culture, attractions and customs, bad/long transportation experience, etc. and win your guests’ loyalty.  If they are so moved as to recommend you to their friends, they also become your best marketers.

4.5 years ago I stayed at Villa La Favorita in Alba which was up in the hills.  I had bought some wine and needed to get to Turin, but this would have required me to get down the hill with a bulky box, take a train from Alba to another town, and then switch trains to get to Turin.  Roberta, the owner, after helping me decipher the train schedule, voluntarily offered to take me to the train station.  At first I thought it was nice of her to take me to the Alba train station, but she ended up driving me right past it and on to the 2nd train station.  To this day, I’m still referring people to her 6 room property, and look forward to going back.  On TripAdvisor, Villa La Favorita has a 100% recommendation rate and is ranked #1 of the B&Bs in Alba.  Roberta is mentioned by name in several reviews.  The most recent one reads:

Last but not least the owner Roberta goes out of her way to make each guest feel special and welcome. She provides for most anything you could ask for and will arrange for special tours or activities in the area if you wish. She will definitely succeed with Villa La Favorita.

An Example from an Independent Hotel in Italy

To summarize, let me use Villa La Favorita as an example.  If you go to the Villa La Favorita website, you’ll see the following description amidst beautiful pictures of the property and Roberta.  My analysis of why this is so effective is in parentheses below each paragraph:

Welcome!  It gives me great pleasure to present my country home.  Dating back to the early 1900’s, it is officially recognized as a historic residence, and has been meticulously refurbished in recent years.  Set amidst a 10,000 m² estate of vineyards and fruit orchards, it is located on a hillside just 1 1/2 kms outside Alba.

(Roberta displays her pride of ownership and introduces the historical significance of her property)

The farm produces fine doc-status wines – Nebbiolo d’Alba and Grignolino Piemonte – which can be tasted free-of-charge, as well as a large variety of organically-grown fruit (cherries, apples, pears, apricots, plums, persimmons, figs, mulberries, peaches and pomegranates), some of which are used to make delicious jams.

(introduces potential differentiators: tasting of fruits, jams, and wines made from on-premise orchard and vineyard)

The villa’s four highly original, en-suite bedrooms are tastefully furnished with period family pieces, and have satellite TV, air-conditioning, bath with shower and hair-dryer.  Each “room with a view” brings guests into close contact with the hills.and the towers and roofs of ALBA‘s old town centre.  A stroll along the path leading through the vineyards to enjoy the picturesque view of the sunset from on high is warmly recommended before the sun disappears behind the rooftops and bell-towers.

(with the pictures available on the site, introduces design as potential differentiators of the guest experience, both internal and external)

Every morning a plentiful breakfast offering a wide choice is served outdoors in the large garden, on the terrace or in the bright lemon-house. I will recommend the best restaurants in the Langhe and Roero, and visits can be arranged during your stay to the countless castles in the area, as well as to wine cellars – famous estates or family-run concerns just waiting to be discovered.

(service as the strong differentiator, addressing convenience and access to local knowledge backed by her personally )

Alba is a lively town, standing at the feet of the celebrated “Langhe” hills. It is famous for its mediaeval towers, “Via Maestra” (the main street, animated by plenty of shops and a busy Saturday morning market), and cultural and food & wine events. It is also the starting point for many interesting outings, on foot or by bicycle, motorbike or car.

(sells Alba.  Note that she isn’t selling her proximity to the town center — those may be strong differentiators for other B&Bs that are competing with her)

What is effective about this simply laid-out page is that the description presents the property’s strong differentiators and sets guest expectations on the location.  The property is exactly where it is, and not only is the description transparent and upfront about it, it moves the value proposition to design, history, and service.  These differentiators are then further backed up by social media.

All in all, a consistently great story, which makes for a great business.


10 Responses

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  1. Hello! My name is Giovanni Cerminara, Bto blogger, I really appreciated this post and your presentation as well. I’m in agreement with you. I think it’s correct to point out that social media is once again only a marketing tool useful to analyze and understand what guests exactly are thinking about the hotel, service and location and through them trying to “re-build” an – identity – by leveraging on history, a service or something bulky but easy to remember. According to me Social media doesn’t solve business problem but it can only help the hoteliers to solve their problems.
    But the problem is that a lot of italians’ hotels are run by families, and sometimes it can happen that they are not so inclined to “rejuvenate” theirs building or to lead the staff in the right way. Finally, according to me, the first marketing strategy should be starting by staff because I noticed that several of hoteliers currently are more focused on Social Media. I think that the most important thing is keep in mind and don’t forget the important role played by human relations which are the first marketing strategy.

    Giovanni Cerminara

    November 25, 2009 at 10:58 am

    • Dear Giovanni, well said. Being in the hospitality business means that people do come first. I think empathy is the gold standard in service. In other words, the staff must be able to put themselves in the shoes of their customers and “feel” the guest experience from their customers’ point of view in order to get it right.

      Social media is a platform for guests to talk about what went well and what didn’t go well, but because it’s people that drive social media, hotel owners must start with pleasing guests as the core first principle.


      November 25, 2009 at 2:50 pm

  2. Hello Morris,
    I too was at BTO and blogged the event live in English for the international audience.

    I very much enjoyed your presentation rich in suggestions and considerations on what to do and how to do it, pushing the boundary beyond the typical SEO techniques.

    Social Media is definitely a strategic player hotels should embrace without hesitating.

    Your post summarizes so well what many of us recommend to hoteliers.

    I think the future is definitely going in the direction of personalization and a greater level of attention to Guests – our challenge in Italy is to convey the message and get the smaller hotels involved in Social Media. Many still see this as “far away in the future”.


    November 25, 2009 at 8:24 pm

    • Dear Sante, thank you very much for your kind feedback. When I present at conferences I always try to bring in a new perspective. The walk up the hills of Firenze the day before allowed me to see Firenze differently, which inspired me to talk about social media in a way that I hope made it easier to understand — especially for people who hadn’t been exposed to it before.

      Social media is humanism digitized. We’ve been sharing stories since we lived in caves — it’s part of what makes us human. Hence businesses that want to engage in social media need to be empathetic and authentic. In other words, genuinely put customers first. If hotel owners can master that, then even without doing much in social media, other people will spread their goodwill for them.


      November 26, 2009 at 6:51 am

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