Top tips for indy hotels to compete against the chains

San Antonio's Hotel Valencia Riverwalk is one of five independent properties owned by the Valencia Group.
San Antonio's Hotel Valencia Riverwalk is one of five independent properties owned by the Valencia Group.

San Antonio's Hotel Valencia Riverwalk is one of five independent properties owned by the Valencia Group.

National Report – For independent hotels to compete against large chains, they need to have access to the same distribution tools. So say the presenters of Hotel Management’s second independent-hotel-minded webinar, entitled “Acting Big, Staying Small.” The presentation outlined a number of options for independents to keep up with big names.

Opening the webinar was John Keeling, EVP of the Valencia Group, which currently owns five independent properties. Keeling said that even if a hotel is operating independently of a large brand it should still have access to a central reservations office, booking engine, search yield optimization capabilities, yield management, a social media presence and electronic marketing. Independent properties also need to be able to connect to worldwide global distribution systems to facilitate direct bookings.

“If you don’t have the booking engine then you need to rent somebody else’s, and then you have to pay for every reservation you get,” Keeling said.

Keeling also said there is a way to get the word out on your property without having a large marketing staff. To this end, he recommended partnering with a third-party booking company, such as Associated Luxury Hotels International, and securing a national team to support your property. Keeling’s Valencia Group also works with CisionPoint to distribute press releases through its public relations website, PRWeb.

KEEPING EXPECTATIONS HIGH

The second presenter, Jeff Durham, is owner of the Redwood Fortuna Riverwalk Hotel, in Fortuna, Calif., the principal and founder of Passport Advisory Group and principal and founder of Haversack Hospitality.

Durham said that, thanks to the Internet leveling the field for independent hotel operators, his hotel was able to succeed after breaking off its affiliation with the Holiday Inn Express brand and going independent 21 months ago.

Durham made it clear to his staff during the transition that being independent did not mean using outdated technology. He also involved his staff in the process of becoming an independent hotel, including walkthroughs of the hotel, and gave them the opportunity to come up with ways to wow guests as part of the transition. Above all, however, he knew that the hotel’s property management system needed to be cloud-based and easily updatable, like the hotel’s website, which was something Keeling agreed with.

“We used to have a partner that we would have to go through [to make changes to our property websites] and it would take weeks to make changes,” Keeling said. “You want to make content on the fly to keep yourself responsive.”

NO STRINGS ATTACHED

Durham didn’t go independent because he thought his property could do as well as it did without a brand as it did with one. He went independent because he thought the hotel could do better.

The Redwood Fortuna Riverwalk Hotel was able to shed its midscale look after becoming independent, embracing the aesthetic of the local redwoods and nearby California coast.

The Redwood Fortuna Riverwalk Hotel was able to shed its midscale look after becoming independent, embracing the aesthetic of the local redwoods and nearby California coast.

This started with giving the property personality through embracing the local redwoods and imagery of the California coast and imbuing that into the hotel’s visual aesthetic. Eventually, the hotel saw ways to cut costs while actually improving services.

“[Going independent] opened up a new opportunity to buy items for the hotel,” Durham said. “I know my property better than anyone before, and now I know OTAs and my website better than I ever knew it. I paid IHG a large franchise fee, so I relied a little bit more on them than I should have.”

One cost-saving measure Durham chose was to drop Holiday Inn Express’ cinnamon rolls, which were each 70 cents to buy. Additionally, the hotel installed soap dispensers in all guestrooms as opposed to one-ounce bottles, as well as an ozone-cleaning system.

“Neither of these would have been possible with a franchise,” Durham said. “As an independent, you can make decisions that are good for guests, the environment and your bottom line.

“The Internet has leveled the playing field,” Durham added. “Independent success can be achievable. The rise of lifestyle brands across all franchises proves that this is viable.”

Keeling said that independent hotels draw on their true power by tapping into the unique aspects of a destination and making that part of the property.

He cited New York City as a market with a large number of unique hotels that sometimes siphon off too many of each other’s qualities, watering down the overall product.

“Like a hit song, you have to have a unique point of view,” Keeling said. “The Monkees were an imitation of The Beatles. It’s not the same thing.”

Four secret weapons for running independent hotels

According to both Keeling and Durham, having an active website can draw guests to your direct-booking engine, sidestepping commissions, third-party fees and GDS transaction fees with every reservation. Both presenters recommended that independent operators should specifically focus on their online presence, online reputation and the tools and resources they choose to use. Here is a look at some of the tools for independents:

1 Buuteeq: This website creator appears tailored well for independent hotels, and has an emphasis on monthly charges and no up-front fees. Additionally, the service allows operators to update their website’s content manually at any time.

2 Revinate: This review-managing tool can lend a hand to hoteliers who feel overwhelmed with the prospect of responding to all the reviews their property is getting. Hotels want to stay personable by responding to as many reviews as possible and Revinate helps organize these reviews in a way that feels manageable.

3 Evernote: Accessible via Web browsers and smartphones, the Evernote app allows hotel managers to communicate with their staff, set schedules and even assist in book keeping. “There is no log at our front desk for maintenance, it’s on Evernote,” Durham said.

4 oDesk: If a hotel needs help in a very specific area of the property, they can turn to oDesk, a global online work platform. oDesk provides access to over 1 million independent contractors, and can help an hotelier find people to help with everything.

Key webinar takeaways

* Like a hit song, you have to have a unique point of view. Copying another boutique concept is not likely to succeed.

* To be a successful independent, you have to acquire the infrastructure.

* Develop it yourself (call center, booking engine, etc.)

* Take a look at soft brands

Use a third-party management company that already has infrastructure.

Source: Hotel Management webinar series