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May the 'sales' force be with you - and please hit the 'like' button

Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel AsiaWhy hotels will benefit from independent media and how discriminating travellers might be wooed the old fashioned way, even on the cyber highway.

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by Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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Hotels want likes - it's a fetish

Hotels would like their fans and the media to hit the 'Like' button and do all their sales for them. After all, it's a swank address, right? Why this is not in the best interests of any good brand or the media.

MARKETING and sales are key plinths of any corporate  structure. They ensure the brand message gets seen, talked about and, hopefully, acted upon. Sometime in the first decade of the 2000s as the internet began rolling out, new opportunities for instant gratification presented themselves and the business focus changed.

This was a tectonic shift towards sales; and marketing was jettisoned (though it remains forlornly emblazoned on many once-proud business cards). The entire focus of companies — with the travel industry leading the way — became an undisguised push for sales, ROI and clicks.

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The intelligent analysis, vision and brand positioning — long the remit of savvy marketing departments — was tossed under a runaway sales bus driven by bean counters who understood only quantity, not quality. This was nothing short of a disaster for brands that had painstakingly built their reputations over many hard fought years. With burgeoning sub-brands and ditzy spin-offs, many millennial travellers today have no idea what any particular brand represents. Unsurprisingly, attention has moved to best price, rather than best product or best value.

That feverish sales ripple has spread out like the fallout from some atomic bomb, changing the relationship between the hospitality industry and the media it uses to reach and influence customers. In the process brands have been cheapened and the media devalued.

{Today, everyone in the communications arc is considered a potential salesman by the travel industry. To think otherwise is blasphemy...

Today, everyone in the communications arc is considered a potential salesman by the travel industry. To think otherwise is blasphemy on a Biblical scale. Everything along this communications highway (not just for sales and marketing) has been made subservient to SALES and ROI. Public Relations is no longer the masterly art of long-term relationships though there remain some excellent exceptions. PR is all about column inches in magazines and newspapers and frenzied likes on online posts — immediate returns that can be graphically presented or statistically enumerated. Needless to say, this is not a healthy posture for the media, or anyone associated with brand development for the travel industry (or any industry for that matter).

To be fair, this is a trend coyly promoted ad infinitum by an online information barrage driven by likes and clicks, these in turn generated by the outraged, the loony fringe, or the hilariously amused 'LOL' crowd, and not discriminating luxury travellers.

The media is not entirely blameless. All too often, in slavish attempts to appease, wheedle and cajole a freebie into those glittering portals, artful kowtowing takes place and favours are exchanged.

This is not to say that the occasional fancy dinner or the odd press junket constitutes an irreversible compromise, but the innocent flirtation of yore has burgeoned into something quite different. The media does not 'report' on hotels these days; it 'supports' largesse-ladling favourites and hands out bling awards, often to the highest bidder. In some cases the awards linger on though the magazines have long ceased to exist. Vanity is a lucrative business. And it is a cycle that has thrown everything into a downward spiral.

Many hotels feel they can go it alone. Just get an app or hire a young tech whiz. Managers are increasingly divorced from (and less interested in) marketing strategy. “Just get it done,” is the mantra. We have all been reduced to salesmen. In the early online days I recall many hotels insisting that we let them advertise free "to see if it worked” and whether they liked it. It was an odd sort of request, a Faustian bargain with no upside at all. Central to this premise was that an independent magazine must help sell the hotel product or it (the magazine or medium) would be deemed incompetent, unprofessional or irrelevant.

My jocular response was: "Why don't you book me into your presidential suite for a week's free stay and I'll see if our business benefits from choosing your fine address?" This evoked some raised eyebrows (at the effrontery) and mirth (at the exposé). What I was implying was that our business depended entirely on our own brand value and not on the ability of the host hotel to 'guarantee business' for us. These are two very different things. If an advertiser has a lousy brand, he cannot fault the media for not delivering ‘results’.

Yet, it is this very tack that is helping the travel industry (hotels in particular) to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. The demise of the media, in terms of being seen as independent or impartial, is the demise of hotel outreach too. And where so much was achieved through a good word or review in a trusted medium, now every word is suspect. "Oh it's been paid for," readers assume nowadays, perhaps rightly.

Those of us who started out in newspapers, learned to be investigative, even confrontational, to tease out the truth and to write with honesty and purpose. That's what brought in readers. The readership brought in advertising. And clever advertising often carried a captivating brand message. This is what built demand for superior products while strategic messaging pushed weekend deals and garage sales.

It is time to look afresh at some old fashioned thinking. People do count. Get more humans in hospitality and have them use AI to meet intelligent (not binary) ends. Encourage independent media. Develop and promote inspired marketing. Build trust with travellers. Focus on product value. Employ hotel design that facilitates rather than impresses (guests are tired of banging their knees on boutique midget furniture that is considered 'cute'). Have a simple master switch in the hotel room. Offer roundtrip airport transfers rather than one way. Allow an extra foldaway bed for a kid. Toss in breakfast and stop harping about "free WiFi and free use of the pool". These are the hot-ticket items that will generate solid sales long-term, not a pliant, in-the-pocket media.

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