Of all the industries that have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, perhaps no one is feeling the pinch more than the travel and tourism industry.
Events are cancelled, flights are grounded, and international borders are closed. Even when restrictions are eventually lifted, it’s hard to know when people will feel safe to resume the globe-trotting lifestyles they used to enjoy.
Big, multinational hotel chains might be able to weather the storm, but the situation is a lot more serious for local boutique hotels. This is expected to be a bleak year for tourism across the board, and with fewer rooms and thinner margins, boutique hotels are feeling the pinch.
That doesn’t mean, however, that boutique hotel owners should lose hope. With a little bit of creativity, boutique hotels can adapt to challenging circumstances and use this moment to expand their business into new revenue streams that they might not otherwise have explored. Hotels can do a lot more than just survive this pandemic—by using the right strategy, they can seize this moment and emerge as not just boutique hotels, but thriving tourism brands.
Here are seven easy ways to get started:
Sell gift cards for future stays
Gift cards have been a mainstay for a lot of small businesses during the global pandemic. They’re a great way to create a much-needed cash flow, even when you aren’t able to operate normally.
Even if you’ve never sold gift certificates in the past, it’s easy to get them up and running quickly; if someone on your staff has an eye for graphic design, you should be able to put together a professional-looking gift certificate template and have them ready to go in an afternoon.
Selling gift cards is also an opportunity to expand your customer base, even after the pandemic ends. People who might otherwise never have heard of your business may become frequent guests after being gifted a stay at your hotel – at the very least, their posts about your hotel on social media help spread the word to other people in their networks who may be interested in travelling to your city.
If your hotel has a full-service kitchen, you can also create restaurant gift cards to market to locals in your community. By this point in the pandemic, people are literally and figuratively hungry for new take-out options.
- Partner with other local businesses to put together all-inclusive vacation packages that people can gift to their friends and loved ones, with flexible redeemability. A three-night romantic getaway package could include a bottle of local wine, a prix-fixe dinner at a local restaurant, and sweet treats from a local bakery.
- Don’t underestimate the power of your local community. It may be a long time before people feel safe travelling abroad, and after months of staring at their living room walls, the people in your area might be open to taking a “staycation” at your hotel.
Expand into branded products
When you think about DoubleTree, you might think of the cookies before you even remember that there’s a hotel chain behind them.
Creating a second source of revenue is a great way to help your brand survive challenges. Having a signature branded product creates a more interesting brand for your hotel, and helps you stand out from your competition.
Whatever you choose doesn’t necessarily have to be related to the tourism and hospitality industry; cookies are not especially associated with hotels, but DoubleTree found a way to pair the two together in a way that enhanced their brand.
Look to your local area for inspiration.
What is your community known for?
What sorts of things do people associate with your state, city or town?
People choose boutique hotels over chain hotels because they are looking for something they can’t find anywhere else, so boost your brand with a product that exudes local charm.
If you’re in New York City, that might mean creating your own variation of the black and white cookie. If you’re in Seattle, that might mean creating your own line of locally-roasted coffee beans. Find something that feels right for your brand, and fits in with the local tourism landscape.
- Partner with a local business to license an existing product— there’s no need to re-invent the wheel. You get to put your name on a product and generate extra revenue, and they get to sell their products at your hotel and increase their own brand’s profile. Everyone wins.
- Don’t overlook the talents of your existing staff. Include them in the brainstorming process—you might be surprised at what they can come up with.
Sell pre-booked wedding packages
2020 has been a disappointing year for a lot of people, but it’s been an especially difficult year for couples. Travel restrictions and stay-at-home orders meant that a whole lot of weddings were postponed or canceled entirely.
With many people out of work and the future uncertain, it may be a long time before lavish weddings with 100+ guests are common again. For the time being, the future of the weddings is going to be small, intimate ceremonies with only a few close friends or family members in attendance.
As a small, boutique hotel, there has never been a better opportunity to corner a share of the wedding market.
Even if your hotel has historically been considered too small to be a wedding venue, it may be the perfect size for micro-weddings and elopements; couples who don’t want to wait years for their special day will need to make do with fewer guests and smaller receptions than they might have otherwise have planned for.
Put together wedding packages that will allow those couples to have their dream wedding in an intimate setting, without putting Grandma’s health at risk if they want her to be there. Even when large gatherings are allowed again, many people will not feel safe attending a large wedding in a high-traffic venue like a major hotel—this is your chance to establish yourself as the ultimate place to say “I do.”
- Upgrade your décor! Weddings are all about the pictures, and you’ll have a much easier time trying to sell yourself as a venue if you have places to take Instagram-worthy shots. With fewer guests in your hotel due to the ongoing pandemic, this is the perfect time to do any remodelling or decorating projects you’ve been putting off.
- Set yourself up to do high-quality video streaming. Couples with international or immunocompromised family members may want the chance to have their loved ones virtually present for their big day, and they will appreciate having a venue that takes care of all the technical stuff for them.
Tell stories and keep the brand fresh
Storytelling is one of the most powerful tools that any brand has at its disposal.
Telling stories is how people connect and engage with your brand – it’s what makes people care about you for more than just the services you provide. Humans are hard-wired to enjoy stories, and when we hear stories, it helps us form the emotional attachments that are such an important part of brand loyalty.
Your story is what makes the local community care about whether you’re able to stay in business; people go above and beyond to save the businesses whose stories resonate with the community as a whole.
But keep in mind that just having a story is not enough. Your story needs to be relevant for today’s world. Keep your brand fresh. If you are still using the same mission statement and narratives that you had back in the 1990s, you are well past due for an update.
Even if you’re a historical institution with an old-fashioned aesthetic, it’s essential that you avoid being seen as “stagnant” or “stuffy.”
Find new ways to talk about the history of your hotel, and tie that history into the landscape of your city today. Talk about how your hotel has changed over the years, including the changes you’ve had to make in the face of a global pandemic. Re-invent yourselves. In times like this, it’s crucial that you be seen as a vibrant part of the tourism industry, and not a relic of the past.
- Explore new mediums for telling your story. Start a YouTube channel about life at the hotel. Create a podcast about boutique hotels. Sign up for an Instagram account if you don’t already have one. Use this lull in business to find creative ways to connect with potential customers.
- Stay active on social media. Even if things are slow, you can always find new things to post, or even old content that you can recycle. Going dormant on social media right now will make people wonder if you’ve gone out of business, which is the last thing any hotel needs.
Even if your boutique hotel prides itself on having an old-fashioned, low-tech aesthetic, it’s time to embrace solutions that minimize the contact your staff have with your guests, and the contact that your guests have with each other.
The more you can incorporate social distancing into the day-to-day operations of your hotel, the more comfortable customers will feel about staying with you.
When thinking about ways that your hotel can go low- or no-contact, it’s also important to remember that Millennials and Gen Z are notoriously adverse to phone calls; this consumer base won’t be excited about solutions that require them to pick up the phone and call your staff to explain their needs. Look for online and app-based solutions that will help you compete with larger hotels and present yourself as a forerunner in COVID-19 safety.
- If you offer meals or snacks to guests, consider delivering food directly to guests’ rooms to minimize mingling in common areas and dining rooms. Use an app, or an app-free solution like OneDine to let guests request specific meals, or deliver a platter of continental breakfast staples in the mornings.
- Hotels that employ bellhops should move to a no-contact payment and ordering system – have a phone number that guests can text to request bellhop services, and a designated spot where they can drop off luggage for pickup.
Educate guests on your COVID-fighting efforts
The first time guests find out about all of your social distancing and coronavirus-prevention strategies should not when they’re actually checking into the hotel.
Don’t keep quiet about the things you’re doing to fight the virus – guests need to be able to find this information when they’re researching possible bookings. Customers won’t assume that you’re going to extraordinary lengths unless you tell them you are. When you keep quiet, you run the risk of customers thinking you aren’t taking the pandemic seriously.
It’s important to showcase not only the efforts you’re taking to protect guests at your hotel, but the staff who work for you.
If you’re providing personal protective equipment (PPE) to staff, minimizing staff contact with guests and bumping up your paid sick leave policy, don’t keep quiet about it. Modern, conscientious consumers want to support businesses that treat their employees well, especially in such difficult times.
- Stay active on social media. Write blog posts about your new cleaning routine, post pictures of staff in their masks and protective gear, make videos explaining any new checkout policies. Frequent social media posts show that you are on top of this and ready to respond to any new developments.
- Make content aimed at other boutique hotels, teaching them about best practices for upping their cleanliness and making sure they are practicing social distancing. Educating other business leaders positions you as a thought leader, and helps you appear trustworthy.
Market yourself as the perfect isolation spot
Even as travel begins to open up again and border restrictions are relaxed, many places are still imposing two-week quarantines for all new arrivals. People entering Canada or New York state, for instance, will be required to self-isolate for two weeks upon entry, and can face some pretty stiff penalties if they don’t comply.
Many travellers are reluctant to quarantine with their families and potentially risk exposing them to a deadly illness, which leaves them in need of alternate arrangements for their fourteen days of isolation—which creates an opportunity that boutique hotels can get in on.
Market yourself as the perfect self-isolation spot for travellers and returning locals who need a safe place to avoid contact with others.
With fewer guests and staff, boutique hotels are in a great position to present themselves as a safer, more socially distanced option than a giant hotel chain. Find ways to meet the needs of guests who quarantine onsite—food delivery, pick-up laundry service, extra toiletries stocked in the room upon arrival—and show guests that you are a safe, comfortable option to get them through a difficult time.
- If you have spotty Wi-Fi, now is the time to fix that. A fast and reliable internet connection is one of the most important things any hotel can have during this pandemic, especially if you are looking at booking guests for long-term stays.
- Offer discounted self-isolation packages for guests staying with you the full two weeks, and throw in perks like laundry service at no extra charge. Not only will it make people more inclined to stay with you, but making it easier for people to safely isolate within your community will reflect well on your brand.
- See if you can partner with a local business whose employees do a lot of out-of-state travel. Providing a safe isolation location for all of their returning staff would be a win-win for both of you.
It’s not an easy time to be in business, whether you’re a boutique hotel, or any other member of the travel and tourism industry. These guidelines aren’t a cure-all, but they can help you think creatively, make your customers feel more confident about staying with you, and rethink how you can best serve customers as we move toward a post-pandemic world.