Contributed by Paula Perrin, Sr. Market Analyst, SHR

Loyalty has begun to break free of the traditional “program” mentality. This trend is growing, and contrary to what you may have heard, it’s a good thing. Taking advantage of it seems to come down to three main points of action today, but it all started years ago.For instance, way back in 2013, Henry Harteveldt outlined the state of hotel loyalty programs for Skift, citing stats from his white paper, Who’s Sleeping with You? [A] Detailed Look into the U.S. Online Hotel Guest. He found that 40% of U.S. travelers who booked on hotel websites belonged to that hotel’s loyalty program, but that even then, they were looking around at other choices, and averaged nine searches of other brands before booking. His paper also pointed out that hotel guests were growing younger, with Millennials already beginning to outpace the massive Baby Boomer generation in travel spending. This led the author to the following conclusion; hotels don’t really own their loyalty program members anymore. The revelation spawned many articles predicting doom and gloom for hotel loyalty programs and loyalty in general.

But I believe that Henry was on to something positive; a transformation from traditional loyalty thinking to something new, something bigger, and arguably, better for guests and hoteliers, especially for independent hotels that often do not have traditional loyalty programs like the bigger brands.

Because in the five years since, a lot of things have shifted. Those nine searches have turned into 30+. According to a recent study, Boomers now share FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) with their younger travel peers. Add in the growth of the OTAs and the expansion of the Facebook platform to include Instagram and Messenger as well as the top five apps globally representing millions of users. Then, mix in the continuing appeal of mobile booking for all generations looking for that authentic travel experience, and what loyalty means, not so much the program involved, has become the real question. Here’s what you can do now to build real guest loyalty—and more of tomorrow’s new revenues in the process.

Step #1: Meet Your Guests Where They Are

Millennials may well be the tide that raises all boats, because all generations are using now mobile devices for research and booking, as well as social media and review sites. And hoteliers need to take this into account when considering how to reach out to potential guests. Did you know that recent studies have found that guests who are engaged with on social media are three times more likely to return to the brand? This means being on these platforms, and also buying ad space to get the advantage of what’s referred to as booking intent, i.e., knowing that someone in Florida is looking at your ads, for instance, and being able to track that intention to keep from wasting money on non-producing ads and posts. Also, when crafting your hotel website offerings in a mobile environment, keep in mind that screen space is at a premium, so you need to make the best impression you can quickly to inspire your guests toward their next great experience, hopefully at your hotel. Don’t overwhelm your guests with too many rates and packages. Make sure you have rate parity with your third-party platforms as well, then feel free to experiment with different videos and different ways of reaching your guests visually. All of this fine tuning makes a CRS/IBE partner that can handle customization easily, a must-have. Because when you have that kind of partner, you won’t be afraid to change things up often, keeping your online experience fresh. You may also want to check out Google Adwords and Google Hotel Ads as well. No matter how you decide to approach all of this, just keep in mind, it comes down to meeting your guests where they are not just physically, but mentally, and then giving them the full tour of what you can offer. Remember, you are the master of your hotel’s narrative, so be sure to tell your story your way.

Step #2: Deliver an Authentic Experience and Perks that Matter

Once your guests show up at your hotel, the key to winning their loyalty is making them feel truly cared for in a way that is meaningful to them. Cookies and water on arrival, for instance, while nice, just don’t speak to guests anymore. Why should guests feel loyal to your particular hotel? Be prepared to be honest with your response. Because if you can provide a solid answer to that question, you will have a lot fewer obstacles to building true loyalty—and increasing your revenues at the same time. Think “authentic” when offering perks aimed at building loyalty. For example, say good-bye to outdated offerings such as valet parking, and say hello to something every traveler of every age group needs today -- free WiFi. This not only appeals to a general audience, but can help you hone in on emerging travel markets, like the ever-expanding bleisure travel sector. Keep in mind, there’s a very strong and well-studied link between guests’ feelings of well-being and customer engagement that corresponds directly to the amount of money they are willing and happy to spend per visit, so thinking about loyalty in its broader sense is where you can gain ground.

Step #3: Actively Cultivate Your Online Reviews

Engaged guests also offer additional advantages beyond just money spent. They love to share the joy of their experience. Since they generally have a strong emotional attachment to the hotel brand they visit most often, or even one they had a memorable experience at just once, they tend to promote it among friends, family, and co-workers. Interestingly, reviews today have taken on the tone and importance to many people of a trusted friend, or even a relative. a phenomenon also known as crowdvoting. So, don’t forget to request feedback often and encourage the posting of photos and honest reviews to Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and the all-important Trip Advisor. Remember, people do not post about their booking experience, they post about their hotel experience. So, monitor and internalize your reviews to draw out what is actually happening during your guests’ stay, and what is happening online after the stay. Remaining in the review loop also allows you to use their input to craft future promotions, and offer packages and add-ons that they are more likely to love.

By working these three steps into your hotel business plan now, you will help increase your guests’ sense of well-being by creating a new sense of loyalty that goes far beyond mere perks, building relationships as well as your revenues -- whatever the future trends may hold.

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