Break Away from 'Corporate Uniformity' and Learn to 'Go Local'
By Matthew Rosenberger Consultant & Publisher, ABC Travel Guides for Kids | February 2010
Today the hospitality industry is dominated by a handful of large international hotel chains. Like other industries, consumers continue to look to recognizable brands for comfort, value, dependability and quality. Traditionally hotels have recognized the importance of brand or chain loyalty with reward programs and an expanded range of lodging options under one corporate umbrella. Many of these properties are independently owned and affiliated with the brand through a franchise agreement or management contract; some are corporate owned. Either way, marketing initiatives are often put into place to highlight the brand's recognizable logo or slogan to consumers. The properties will participate in the company's national reservations service and incentive program. Learning to "go local" and break away from "corporate uniformity" does not mean abandoning the value these programs bring, but it does require an understanding that, in today's market, appearing to be part of a "larger enterprise" is not always the most effective way to increase market share in the industry. A combination of marketing that includes utilization of branding programs and corporate good will, with more personalized local services and unique experiences, is necessary. Consider the growth of boutique hotels in recent years. Generally found in urban locations, these smaller hotels provide visitors with great service at competitive pricing with distinct amenities and dining opportunities, and all without a large corporate brand behind them.
Anyone who has recently shopped for a digital camera, television or stereo knows it. Anyone who has recently dined in a restaurant where the chef owner cooked their meal or greeted them as they entered the establishment knows it. Anyone who has picked up a new pair of baseball cleats for their son or daughter at the local sporting good store knows it. Anyone who has recently had a prescription filled where the pharmacist knew them by first name knows it. It is common sense. Simply stated, locally owned businesses, where the owner, or their family, is on site servicing their customers, offer the gold standard in customer service experience. A knowledgeable staff and original and unique products and services are the hallmarks for creating loyal customers. These are businesses owned by people who live and shop in the region. Whose kids attend the local schools and churches and temples. Owners who make their own decisions about their business and pick and choose the highest quality products for their customers. There is no distant corporate office to associate with or to direct their every move. These are also businesses that have some of the most loyal customers on the planet because local business owners and their customers form friendships, and help create a real sense of community that is not available with a distant invisible corporate enterprise is calling the shots. When visitors are remembered they feel special and become loyal repeat customers. When business owners are visible and can be held accountable in the community, they understand the needs and wants of their clientele and provide better customer service. Hotels must adopt some of the same strategies of locally owned businesses implemented in the above examples to attract guests and to breed loyal repeat visitors.
One strategy to accomplish this is to form business relationships with local suppliers, theaters, museums and restaurants in the community. It is important that hotels solicit opinions and suggestions from local business owners when it comes to decision-making that impacts the local community. Also important is participation in local fund raising efforts, street fairs, and the like. This good will will not go unnoticed on the local level and will trickle up to the boardroom and help the brand improve and maximize returns to shareholders. It will also generate positive media coverage and publicity. Like locally owned businesses, hotels can too be guided by other values besides the bottom line. Showing a concern about the local community's welfare and long-term growth, health and vitality is good business sense. Using the local bakery or a nearby farm for some baked goods or produce for your guests or staff will distinguish your property from competitors who are unable or unwilling to "go local". When we visit a property or region that is well known for its bread or baked goods, meats or cheeses, or fruits and vegetables, we want to see these items on-site. Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts and Illy are okay too, but there should be room for the local roaster and baker as well. What steps have you taken to form partnerships and relationships with these providers of regional delicacies? It is these efforts that will improve brand visibility in the community and at the same time satisfy your guests' expectations.
Consider the example of Loews Hotels. In early 2009 Loews Hotels launched the "Adopt-A-Farmer," initiative entering into partnerships with area farmers, fishermen and independent purveyors. With the launch, Loews Hotels became one of the first hospitality industry companies to issue a brand-wide mandate to support and enhance local farming communities. Using locally grown ingredients not only supports local farms but also provides guests with fresh, flavorful and environmentally friendly dishes that change as the seasons change. Coinciding with the Adopt-A-Farmer program, Loews Hotels will adopt a new menu format that spotlights the program. Guests will find "From the Garden" selections featuring farm-fresh ingredients harvested by local farmers and fishermen, as well as "Things We Share" selections designed to bring people together.
Contrasting the Loews initiative with communities dominated by retail chain stores rather than local owned mom and pop shops or nearby farms, will highlight a history of debate, dissension, and discontent among the locals. When decisions like store hours, or what selection of goods to carry or wage to pay, are made in a centralized corporate office where the realities and culture of the local community are ignored or unknown, financial woes and failure are not far behind. A balance should be the goal - a community composed of a combination of locally owned mom and pop shops where these same decisions are made by people who live in the community and who will feel the impact of the decisions they make, and some larger chain oriented brands that are vested in the community and involved with the community. It is this element of accountability to friends and family in the community that breeds loyalty. It will also keep dollars in the local economy, create tremendous good will by word of mouth, and bring new guests to the hotel. Whether it's food and supplies purchased from a local store or an arrangement in place with a local farmer, dollars will be circulated and spent at other locally owned businesses; this will enrich the community as a whole.
So what plan is in place at your property to show a commitment to "go local" and provide onsite managers the authority they need to make quick and discretionary decisions when necessary to forge relationships in the community? Are local community issues being addressed in sales and marketing meetings? Understanding that your guest wants to experience life like "a local" (as well as "a tourist") will go along way in ensuring a return visit and glowing recommendations to others. In today's marketplace, breaking away from corporate uniformity and a commitment to "go local" is a must to attract today's traveler.