Marketing travel and tourism resorts today is no easy feat and requires a deep understanding of the property, the destination, and the competitive landscape. It’s no longer just about getting ‘heads in beds’ but finding the right guests and moving them towards booking using the right marketing strategy and tactics. A lot has changed post-pandemic and what worked before, can no longer be counted on. In an era where every touchpoint can influence a potential guest’s decision, effective tourism marketing is not just beneficial—it’s indispensable.
Start With Strategy
Most resort owners I talk to have a pretty good idea of who their best customers are. But when I ask them how they find those ideal guests, and exclude those that are not, often their answers are less clear. Here’s where some deep customer research and guest interviews can help. Once we’ve gone through that process, we often discover a disconnect between why guests book with a particular resort and the reasons the owner thinks they do. Those differences can lead to further differentiating your property from your competitors.
Define Your Brand and Tell Your Story
Once you fully understand your ideal guests and the problem you solve (benefit provide) you need to ensure your brand reflects this. I can’t count how many high-end resorts I’ve seen that have decidedly low-end websites and branding made from clipart. Then they wonder why they aren’t attracting the high-value guests that their competitors are.
When it comes to telling your story, always ‘tell your customer’s story’ because it’s really about them, not you. So if you know your best guests come for authentic local tours and unique adventures, you need to weave those stories into your marketing.
Nail your high-level marketing strategy, then choose the right model: OTA’s, traditional travel agents, direct bookings or a hybrid booking model.
OTA’s: Are They Necessary?
Online Travel Agents (OTAs) such as Expedia.com, Booking.com and Hotels.com have grown massively in recent years, covering nearly all segments of the travel market. But are they necessary? Well, that depends. If you are in the low-mid range of the market, if there is nothing to clearly differentiate your property from the others in the area, and if you compete on price, then I would definitely say yes, you need OTAs.
Google has a deal with OTAs that favours them in search results as well as having its own travel service so it would be nearly impossible to directly compete with them in paid or organic searches like ‘Kauai Resorts’ or ‘Sedona Hotels’. Expect to pay 15-30% commission depending on the OTA and the size of your property (bigger resorts usually get better deals).
The Travel Agent Model
In the traditional travel agent model, it’s still (mostly) a real human handling the booking process. If your resort is in the higher end of the market, or in a specific niche, this may be a good fit. And due to the pressure of OTAs on the lower ends of the market, most travel agents who are still around, tend to focus on luxury travel and specialty niches, such as skiing, fishing, and cultural travel.
The travel agent model is very entrenched in some markets, such as Europe. In fact, it’s hard (but not impossible) to get direct bookings from over there. It makes sense since a German guest can call someone in their own time zone, ask questions in German, and get their flights booked and excursions done by the agent.
But expect to pay 20-25% commission, and some agents do not do much to earn that, and let the guest and tourism business work out the rest on their own. In the long run, a 100% dependence on agents might not be good for your business either. That commission is in effect, your marketing budget. But don’t forget the other associated costs like agent sales visits, hosting agents on FAMs, joining trade associations, and attending travel trade shows to sign those deals. When you factor that all in, the true cost is actually much higher.
In the high-end, luxury travel market, resorts that have gone the travel agent, B2B route still need to spend money on tourism PR. This is a key part of the brand: ‘prestige press’ in luxury travel magazines and top-tier outlets. That’s usually combined with obtaining tourism awards and of course a great-looking website with strong visuals. So we see the agent referral as the ‘traffic source’ and the website, fancy press, and awards are enough for the agent to close the sale.
Direct Marketing for Resorts
OK, so you’ve decided to go it alone, without relying on OTA’s or travel agents. Bravo. This model is best for resorts that are on the higher end of the spectrum, and in a niche like fishing, skiing, surfing, or wildlife viewing and ideally have a high guest repeat and referral rate.
The best strategy for lodges and resorts like this is to sell the destination and activity first, then their lodge as the ultimate way to experience it. Be an expert on your destination and niche with compelling content and lead magnets like downloadable ebooks or trip planners. Get’em on your list and nurture them until they book. It’s vitally important you know your ideal guests, so you can be a ninja with selecting the right social channels, and digital marketing tactics like tourism SEO and Google Ads.
The key here is earning that authority and trust, and if you can do that I’ve seen guests make 5-figure (and even 6-figure) direct bookings without ever using a travel agent.
The Hybrid Booking Model
Depending on your resort, a mix of direct and agent bookings can work well. So if you’re going after Germans, French or Swiss, you may need to use agents for a majority of sales. The opposite has been happening in the US, and Americans tend to be quite comfortable booking directly, even in the luxury travel space.
The key here is to never undercut your agents and only work with good ones who can deliver added value to your guests, beyond just taking their commission. If your business is seasonal, and you can sell out your peak season directly, a good strategy is to only offer shoulder and lower season dates for agents, to make them earn that hefty commission.
Market Other Resort Properties Separately
Does your resort have other businesses within it that are open to non-guests? Here I’m talking about tour operators, spas, bars, and restaurants. If so, it could make a lot of sense to de-couple them from your resort or hotel for marketing purposes.
I was in Puerto Vallarta recently and literally stumbled into one of the most stunning restaurants in the city. It had the best view of the bay, bar none. I had a look at the menu and was impressed as well. It was a Saturday afternoon and I thought this would be the perfect place to come back to for dinner. I asked the maître d’ if there was any space, assuming it would have been totally booked, and he replied, “Si Señor, when would you like to come?’ I was shocked.
It turns out this restaurant had only a page buried within the hotel’s website. It had no Google Maps listing, no Google Business Profile or Tripadvisor listing. It was almost unfindable online. This is local SEO and it’s essential for getting in-market bookings. Had this restaurant been marketed right, it would have been packed!
Earning Trust Leads to Bookings
Regardless of which model you use, earning trust is key. Getting reviews and testimonials from guests should be integrated into your operations and a key focus for your staff. Powerful press that earns trust and authority with your audience will position you above your competition, and grow bookings.
Setting up for Success
If you’ve tried piecemealing your marketing in-house or outsourcing it to a generalist agency, now is the time to consider a fractional Chief Marketing Officer (CMO), a consultant that can build a strategic plan for growth. Aventur Marketing is a tourism marketing agency with more than a decade of experience achieving industry-leading results for premium tourism businesses.
Contact us for a free consultation.