The COVID-19 pandemic was a reckoning for the hospitality industry. Business structures that had proved successful for decades were tested and bent under the weight of record-low occupancy. The unexpected champions, then, of COVID-era hospitality were smaller boutique hotels who were able to financially withstand the sudden loss of guests brought on by the pandemic. Large hotel properties depend on high occupancy to maintain their proportionally large overhead costs. So as check-ins dwindled to their lowest in 2020, large hotel chains like Hilton and Marriott downsized or stunted. As the world turned to social distancing, more populous locations became viewed with increased scrutiny leading vacation-goers to either stay closer to home or look for unique location-based experiences.
Forbes wrote in June 2021 that nine-in-ten Americans intend to travel during the next six months. As the world opens once again, it is imperative that boutique hotels that performed best during the pandemic take advantage of their unanticipated momentum during the 2021 travel season and beyond. New consumer expectations and industry standards have the potential to make boutique hotels the preferred travel destination not just following the pandemic, but for the next generation. This article highlights several strategies for boutique hotel owners to maximize their reservations and hone in on the post-COVID traveler expectations.
Close the Quality Gap with Reinvestment
Use this time when large chains are still weighing their losses to redefine what to expect from smaller hotels. A key tactic in redefining the small and boutique hotel experience is reinvestment or tactical financing.
Take advantage of this moment while large chains are still reeling and forgoing expansion to close the gap between smaller hotels and the large chains. Walking out of the pandemic, a timely and noticeable upgrade boutiques could make is installing modern HVAC air filtration systems. The virality of COVID-19 reminded Americans and travelers the world over about the importance of good air flow. HVAC systems are costly, intensive upgrades that now have a two-fold advantage: customer comfort and peace of mind. Boutique hotels that modernize their HVAC infrastructure may have the best chance of convincing a cautious would-be traveler to make a reservation.
Another upgrade quickly becoming necessary in the post-COVID hospitality world is the Electrostatic Disinfectant Sprayer. The EDS sprays wide and thick streams of disinfectant which attracts airborne droplets onto surfaces. While hotels have long been able to get by with surface disinfecting, COVID-19 has made travelers increasingly aware of viral spread and the inevitability of airborne droplets. Hotels can either purchase their own EDS or may rent machines from companies like Cisco. While the EDS can be quite costly, hotels that adopt the tool early will likely be rewarded in both customer satisfaction and cleaning staff ease of use, as the EDS is an incredibly quick and complete way to sanitize even the most difficult to reach sections of rooms..
Aside from air quality and cleanliness, boutique hotels could see big wins from investing in marketing and customer experience. Many boutique hotels are attractive because of their small town or rural-feel. Expanding your hotel’s marketing budget can be a meaningful first step to making your hotel the preferred way to experience that local community. Capitalize on your boutique’s local area and create local excursion or tour programs. Get in contact with your town’s local historical society, as they will likely be a helpful resource in learning what event would best suit your area. Your objective should be to make visiting your boutique a unique experience. Use this window of time to reinvigorate your web presence and play up your hotel’s connection to the local area. Modern hotel-goers are supremely more likely to make their first impression of a hotel based on their website or social media.
Align Small Hotel Attention to Detail with Modern Sanitation
Smaller hotels are appealing for the same reasons as the small towns they often incorporate within. Personalized hospitality and attention to detail is deeply associated with boutique hotels and the COVID-19 pandemic is largely responsible for heightening consumer’ interest in another sort of attention to detail: sanitation. Even though vaccines are prevalent, and restrictions are slowly easing, many consumers still hold a heightened anxiousness about cleanliness, especially when deciding travel accommodations.
Cementing the connection between small hotel charm and a commitment to sanitation may mean marketing costs in the form of advertisement or active rebranding ventures. Either target your ads nationwide or reconnect with a local community to both reassure and redirect travelers. Try taking pictures of your cleaning and housekeeping staff as well as freshly cleaned amenities and posting them to social media. Another strategy unique to small hotels is having your general manager or housekeeping manager pen a letter asserting a pledge of diligent sanitation to either post on your website or even submit to a local news publication. Small personal touches go a long way in assuring potential guests that personalized hospitality means attention to cleanliness.
Boutique hotels are charming because of their personalized attention to detail and focus on guest satisfaction. Establishments then would likely benefit from a marketing push saying that in addition to the heighted hospitality, attention to cleanliness is a key piece of guest satisfaction. Travelers seeking accommodations in 2021 and in the future will likely have cleanliness as one of their top priorities when selecting a property and commitment to the highest level of sanitation could be one of the most certain ways to pull in tourists and travelers.
Focus on the ‘Alternative Getaway’
A fair number of would-be travelers may rethink their plans to avoid high-traffic regions or resorts in the coming months. Pandemic-era travel also saw an exponential increase in interest in “alternative getaways”. While New York City or Los Angeles are still bound to see millions of travelers, hotels in rural or quiet small towns ought to use their surroundings as a modern selling point.
Social distancing has ushered in a new mindset of personal space awareness. Small hotels in rural regions have the most to gain from the public’s heightened interest in traveling to less crowded destinations. Similar to a writers’ retreat, there is a new market for “isolationist” getaways. In marketing for the latter half of 2021, small hotels would benefit greatly in doubling down on their property’s “isolated” feel and the increased privacy and lower population that comes with it as a renewed selling point.
An oppressive COVID-19 overtone, however, is never a good sell, so small hotels would do best to align themselves with travelers still not ready to push back into pre-pandemic mingling while focusing on the benefit of a small staff and low room hotel. Without directly mentioning COVID-19, small hotels can still market themselves as an alternative getaway by asserting their hotel’s location as the quiet or low-key option for careful travelers.
Consider Listing Rooms on Airbnb or Vrbo
Room listing services like Airbnb and Vrbo have cut a foothold into the hospitality industry that has multiplied with no sign of stopping. 272 million travelers booked stays through Airbnb in 2019; and Vrbo, while smaller, marked a 17% revenue growth during the same time. Both services make accommodation window shopping devilishly easy and the ability to chat with property owners directly is a key element in making such services personal and engaging. Vrbo’s 2021 travel Trend Report found that 61% of travelers surveyed are more likely to visit an outdoorsy location on Vrbo rather than an urban destination and that demand for cozy accommodations are also up almost 20%. The personal touch and alternative elements key to Airbnb and Vrbo can be tactically harnessed by small boutique hotels to maximize bookings. Even listing one or two rooms on Airbnb or Vrbo can be a massively effective way to advertise.
Taking professional, targeted photos for your hotel’s listing and giving detailed, personal responses to patrons on the app can go a long way to convincing post-pandemic travelers to book a room.
Lean into Events and Wedding Packages
Weddings, anniversaries, reunions, and nearly every planned event for the past year has either fallen through or been postponed. As couples and parties cautiously rebook, small hotels have the most to gain from post-pandemic event planning and packages. Boutique hotels should use their space and staff to their advantage and brand themselves as the ultimate post-pandemic event venue.
COVID-19 steered couples in the direction of small, intimate ceremonies and receptions. While the barrier between essential and elective travel leaves the forefront of conversation, there are still would-be venue seekers looking for small or cozy ceremonies and events. Large guest lists will likely still be viewed with scrutiny going into the end of 2021. Smaller hotels then have a definite advantage in servicing both small weddings and general events.
Hotels hoping to host post-pandemic events would do well updating the virtual showing for ballrooms, common areas and guest rooms. Virtual first impressions have become one of the biggest deciding factors when picking a venue, so small hotels may benefit from asserting their own distinctive willingness to accommodate events with special wedding and event packages. Small hotels should once again emphasize their size as a plus and cater to the still-large market of people who may want to forgo large festivities out of abundance of safety or simply rekindle a love for the benefits of cozy venues.
The Future of Hospitality
Several of the largest hotel chains may not bounce back to pre-pandemic returns until well into 2023. Recent 2021 Q1 earnings calls from Hilton and Marriott, however, note that this upcoming summer is likely to be the strongest earning quarter for the industry at large. While large chains play catch-up, those small hotels that balanced well or even saw profits during the pandemic will likely shift the dynamic of large chain and boutique hotels for the foreseeable future.
Targeted marketing and concept association can make smaller hotels the preferred post-pandemic getaway. As travelers are selecting accommodations for the upcoming travel season, small hotels have the chance to take hold of massive market share through both cautious tourists and travelers with adjusted expectations for accommodations. Small hotels that assert themselves as the modern or alternative destinations are best poised to turn their momentum into capital return and growth.