Saying that the future of travel is experiential is hardly revelatory for anyone who has keenly watched the rise of activity-focused blogs, ‘what to do’ aggregate websites, authentically local industry editorials or, of course, Airbnb’s landmark introduction of its Experiences platform. Gone are the days of standardized vacations and business trips. Our time on this planet – no matter the medical advances – is short, and people want unique memories to bring home so that every trip feels meaningful.
After all, it’s these memories that are the ultimate contributors to any post-stay satisfaction survey, online review or word of mouth expressed to friends and relatives. As hoteliers, we strive to deliver the best possible guest experience. To put it another way, this means that we are attempting to imbue said guests with the most positive memories about all interactions at the hotel from arrival to departure.
While much of this is accomplished by other departments working in tandem to deliver service excellence – such as the front desk, housekeeping and F&B – a systemic problem in the hospitality world is that consumers have come to view most properties as almost interchangeable. There’s nothing exciting anymore about an economy or midscale branded hotel where the lobby and guestrooms look the same no more what continent you’re on. As boredom is hardly an emotion we want anyone on our premises to feel, offering visitors the chance to partake in something exciting and something they cannot find anywhere else is just the cure for the malaise of monotony. Importantly, unlike renovating your rooms or hiring an interior designer to deck out our lobby, developing an activities program is a solution that doesn’t demand a significant capital expense.
In practice, the proliferation of experiential travel indicates that, when researching their accommodation options, customers will now first ask, “What is there to do at this place?” instead of even, “Is this the best hotel for budget?” As such, capitalizing upon this trend not only affords your property with a host of new opportunities for ancillary revenues but also greater attention from prospective guests so that they’re more likely to choose you in the first place.
Knowing that embracing experiential travel as a method towards healthier income is only just the beginning, though. Establishing local partnerships and building a functional internal engine to support this revenue stream are both very difficult tasks. Hence, this is where your attention must go, with the following steps addressed sequentially for you to maximize your results.
Step One: Local Area Bucket List
This phase is the most cerebral but also the most fun, even though it is nothing more than a well-researched brainstorm that will inevitably lead to far more work for your team. The point is to research all the experiences that are already available in your region – be they major attractions, outdoor excursions, indoor activities, shopping districts, culinary specialties, museums, cultural centers or anything else that might be fun for guests.
This is not the stage where you should limit yourself to only what’s feasible – that comes later! Encourage team participation and get creative with what you might potentially offer. You will also want to reach out to tour operators and your local DMO (Destination Marketing Organization) or CVB (Convention and Visitors Bureau) to see what they already have slated and to explore all opportunities for collaboration.
For all experiences that you list, you must also sort them according to time and monetary commitments, both for you to setup and for the guests who will inevitably buy them. This is critical for later on because this cataloguing will play a primary role in how you build out your program. For instance, you wouldn’t want to put a new craft beer tasting accessible at your lobby bar in the same category as a half-day fishing trip because these two are vastly different in time required for enjoyment and cost, thereby affecting the type of guest who will keen to purchase one or the other.
Step Two: Project Champion
Right after or concurrent to your brainstorm, you need to assign a program leader. Such ownership is important so that there’s a clear direction as to what experiences will be further developed and so there’s accountability for achieving specific objectives and meeting deadlines.
It’s important to stress here that the position of activities director is a full-time job. Even though it falls within the reigns of the front office, you cannot let someone whose plate is already spilling over with daily tasks and last-minute guest requests handle this – it just won’t get done. While asking internally to see who wants the job is a great first step to finding your passionate leader of experiences, you cannot expect this person to do this in his or her spare time.
Yes, it can be a part-time project until it has blossomed to the point where it requires constant attention, but it cannot start out as a token effort. You’re looking for someone who can rise to the challenge of juggling many different and complex tasks such as developing a sound budget, staffing, properly liaising with second-string vendors, negotiating performance deals, figuring out all the insurance requirements and crafting good marketing materials. Then once you’ve found a suitable shepherd, empower them to take action and plan to meet once a quarterly for a strategic review.
Step Three: Know Your Audience
One reason why I would recommend that every property, no matter your current circumstances, initiate at least the beginnings of an experiential travel program is that it affords you the chance to deepen your understanding of your key customer demographics. In this sense, your observations about what activities your guests like most can also be utilized to drive local market sales and enrich your offers across all sales channels.
The key to this stage is to focus first on what types of guests are predominantly coming to your hotel. If your property caters primarily to solo business travelers, for instance, then the experiences you subsequently decide to build will be vastly different than if your customer base principally consists of large leisure groups. Likewise, what appeals to midweek corporate groups will contrast almost completely with what couples on a weekend getaway are looking for. Undoubtedly your senior executives have long since devised a shrewd plan to diversify revenues from business and leisure guests, so you will need to draft a priorities list that aligns those relevant activities with each traveler tier.
As well, you will want to discern what experiences best represent your region’s specialty because, regardless of guest type, people will want to live like locals. They want a taste of something they won’t be able to sample anywhere else. Hence, if it comes down to two activities that both have similar costs and appeal within one target demographic, you would want to choose the one that’s going to be more meaningful to your guests.
Step Four: Integrate Your Promotional Efforts
Whatever experiences you establish are only as good as your team’s ability to inform customers. If guests aren’t prompted before booking, before arriving, at check-in, while onsite and after they’ve left, then it won’t matter how good the program is because no one will know about it. These listed prompts represent all the key touchpoints where activities can be introduced to guests, and a solid effort must be made at each in order to effectively get underway.
First and foremost, your website should have a section devoted to onsite events and available activities so that customers can browse through these options during the research phase of the purchasing pathway. Ideally, you will want to subtly communicate that there’s more to do at your property than any of your competitors. Thinking broader, you will also want to tout your region over others so there’s an additional emotional incentivize. Preferably, your site should have some sort of online booking capabilities for these activities, although this may be beyond what’s controlled at the property level, and even still it’s a headache to actually get done.
The touchpoints of the pre-arrival email and post-stay follow-up are two closely related opportunities to educate guests, with the former also serving as fertile grounds for impulse buys if the price is right. More toothaches may result as not every PMS is well-suited to distribute these sorts of customized emails with specific calls to action. Additionally, wielding your CRM will help to narrow your targets for select package bundles or activity-infused upgrades.
Next pertains to when your guests officially arrive, for which there is no getting around the need to train your front desk clerks accordingly so that they can enthusiastic and knowledgeably sell to guests. It’s a unified effort where, even though customers are the end goal, you must also promote your new programs internals so that all other departments – particularly front office, sales, marketing and public relations – can offer promotional assistance.
As the third pillar to complement digital and staff promotions, you will want to design a series of appropriate collateral materials like brochures tent cards to be prominently displayed in the guestrooms or on the rack at check-in. Such low-tech vectors can also be distributed throughout your area to drum up community awareness and involvement. Along those lines, you might want to consider hosting an appreciation event for the neighborhood, outlining your intentions and announcing the launch.
Step Five: Start Onsite
Building what could eventually become its own department on the ground up will be fraught with temporary setbacks and an array of coordinated tasks necessary to have it running smoothly. As such, it’s much easier to control an activity that doesn’t require any outside approval or profit-sharing.
Testing the waters in this regard means starting with a small event or recurrent experience that takes place entirely on your property and does not hinge upon the involvement of an external partner. This could be something as simple as incorporating more regional foods into your food and beverage outlets, or perhaps something a bit more complicated like procuring artwork from local creators. Next, you might try out a punctuated event that highlights the best of the area or even an art fare, both of which have appeal to incoming guests as well as the community.
The goal here is to learn what works, so that you can readjust your processes before future expansions into more serious endeavors like full-day guided excursions or anything involved heavy equipment. After all, you might find that you’ve drastically misjudged what your audience wants, where you may only receive this feedback anecdotally once the program is in its nascent stage.
Step Six: Less Is More
Now is the time for when you truly start to synthesize your bucket list with what your market research has told you about your customers and what they would most likely want in a travel experience. Again, it’s essential to incrementally expand only when the budget allows and only after properly incorporating feedback from guests as well as your staff.
Start by appealing to your core demographic. You don’t want this to be a niche venture for only the select few who fit the profile and, importantly, you need cash flow to justify its existence. Keep in mind that each new experience you develop requires additional staffing and lots of extra effort to manage on an ongoing basis. As well, time is needed to discern whether a certain activity is actually a success or not, so setting up yet another new experience during this period of ambiguity will only create additional hassles and might ultimately derail the whole project.
Step Seven: Make It Easy
Everyone want to experience the world, but most of us aren’t willing to go very far outside of their comfort zones to do so. Independently researching every peculiarity of an area is time-consuming while devising every logistical circumstance for a cohesive itinerary is equally risky for someone who has never visited the region before. Instead, it would be far less stressful to pay a small markup and let our host property make all the necessary arrangements on your behalf.
What we are discussing here is, of course, the bundling and packaging of your experiences so that guests don’t need to purchase them separately and so they feel they are getting a good deal in the process. Ideally, you want one-hour, half-day and full-day itineraries ready to go so that all a guest has to do is figure out how much free time they have then sign on the dotted line while you handle the rest. However, making it easy also means offering a frictionless reservation process.
This starts with how straightforward your website showcases your activities and how to book each one. But then you must also ensure that you have some flexibility in terms of capacity and scheduling so that guests can reserve what they want and when they want it. For instance, if a half-day experience is only available every Monday, it’s probably not going to get as much traction as if it was also open for guests on Saturday and Sunday. This is particularly challenging for groups, but that’s why you have an proficient activities director who will work steadfastly to find a healthy compromise.
Step Eight: Surprise And Delight
This is an insider term that I’ve borrowed from the advertising world, where the concept is to always deliver something extra or something beyond what was expected. In the context of hotel-operated activities, this could be something as simple as a physical memento so guests can recall the fond experiences they had with you. After all, it all comes back to memories, and when you surprise someone in a good way they will definitely remember who are you and forever cast you in a positive light.