A look into a BLLA study on travelers perceptions of boutiques vs brands
Here’s the $64 million dollar question: what’s on consumers’ minds as hospitality works through this phase of post-COVID recovery? And what, in particular, are they thinking and talking about when it comes to boutique hospitality? And most importantly, what do they DO about it?
As many have said, there’s no question that travel will come back. But the question is: what is in the minds of travelers and guests? They dictate when travel will begin again, and when it does, what they will want. Right now, many investors and hoteliers alike will admit: they’re in the dark.
To gain this insight into how customers are thinking and talking about boutique hospitality, brand strategy, experience, and development studio Collaboratory brought together The Boutique Lifestyle Leaders Association (BLLA) with research firm Metric Centric to develop a Voice of the Customer sentiment study. The result was BLLA’s recent Boutique Hotels Perception Analysis which sheds light on the issue for owners and investors in boutique hotels.
To do this, Maryland-based Metric Centric leveraged tools and technologies to aggregate consumer sentiment and perception data. Metric Centric’s distills the findings into a set of custom scorecards with the goal of providing business intelligence designed to spot marketplace opportunities.
The survey, which spanned the period from August 2019 through August 2020 looked at traveler sentiment with a focus on boutique hotels, in some cases comparing them to mainstream brands. As a guest experience firm, Collaboratory dug into the details, and have developed some recommendations for boutique hoteliers to navigate these “interesting” times.
The survey revealed several key, notable findings which provide some indicators for a way forward in terms of positioning, messaging, promotion, and a path forward:
- Confusion reigns. That consumers did not have a clear vision of what a boutique hotel was. Many consumers focused on the premium, design-driven aspect of the boutiques. There’s an opportunity for stronger messaging and differentiation.
- Conversational focus. Much of the conversation in the post-COVID period centered (unsurprisingly) on safety, recreation, and leisure. This sets up an opportunity for new customer acquisition.
- Differentiation. Unsurprisingly, the smaller size and service levels of the boutiques was popular, both prior to and after COVID. Pre-pandemic, “boutique” hotels generated stronger positive sentiment and significantly lower negative sentiment than “chain” hotels. Expectations were high for service and personalization. While the gap narrowed in the COVID era (post March 2020), the negatives focused on issues similar to the entire lodging category (cancellations, etc.) This is another messaging and even design opportunity.
- Competitive set. Interestingly, some of the consumer sentiment focused less on the differences between boutiques and chain hotels, and more on the relative merits of hotels vs. alternative lodging. This presents an excellent positioning opportunity.
- Conversation drivers. The strongest driver of mentions was traditional media, and in particular the New York Times. This has clear implications for promotion and communications strategy.
Six Suggestions based on the research.
- Clarify what “boutique” means in a way that’s newly relevant. At Collaboratory, we’ve always thought that there’s a great story around boutique hotels being independent small(ish) businesses, championing the independent businesses in the locality. The world loves an entrepreneur. They love the vision, the scrappiness, the agility, the pure, can-do spirit of the entrepreneur and small businessperson.
- Consider positioning around this. Stop relying on design and clever branding (both of which have are almost commodities these days.) Drive entrepreneurial energy and ethos through your guest experience. Bring the founding team into your story. Even though we believe passionately in the power of “Brand”, people connect with people, even more than they connect with brands. This is where the boutique can shine. Similarly – and this taps into the current conventional wisdom that hoteliers should focus on local leisure guests – affiliate yourself with the local business eco-system. Support them. Help them rebuild. Have them support you. Local and authentic have long been a key part of the boutique value proposition. Keep playing it up – not just as part of an “authentic” experience, but as a vital purpose. Customers and guests connect to genuine purpose. See what your founders and entrepreneur’s story is, and then test it with your customers and see what they say. Does it resonate?
- Target business travelers. What? Yes. Even though business travel is a weak, flickering shadow of its former self, it will return at some level in time. Now is the time to go after former (and future) business travelers with leisure and work-from-hotel offers. Double down on service and personalization. This is your chance to convert them to the boutique way. Treat them and their families well during their leisure trips, and you’ll likely have converts for life. (Stressing the entrepreneurial/small business element in boutique is good for this segment too.)
- Embrace your real competition. It’s likely that your real competitors in the next little while probably isn’t the chain hotel but AirBnB and the alternative lodging players like Sonder and Zeus. What can you offer? Service. Human connection (touchless, if necessary: it’s possible.) Discounts and packages for longer stays. The AirBnBs and others are providing lodging and independence. Boutiques are providing quality service. (And service matters: after months of self service – no restaurants, no hair salons, etc. – people are craving service.) Invest in creating that human connection, double down on service and guest experience.
- Sweat the new details. Even if there’s less housekeeping, lower restaurant occupancy, no bar scene, and no breakfast buffet, use this opportunity to step through the entire guest journey looking at it from the guest’s perspective, from what we like to call the Entice phase through the Extend phase (after care.) Make sure your team understands what’s open and not. Ensure they understand exactly how the restaurant is working (even if it’s not under the same management at the hotel). The experience has to be seamless.
- Reconsider PR. It’s clear: in this protracted phase of COVID, where restrictions, openings, and closings change daily, people considering travel are hungry for news they can trust. And that means major media outlets – and perhaps not the Insta-fluencers who’ve been so in vogue in the last few years. Now is the time to invest in building your relationships with established media.
- Keep listening to your customers. This high-level BLLA report is filled with great data which can lead to solid insights. But it is a snapshot, and covers the boutique industry as a whole. Regular listening specific to your property and your interests will help you further fine-tune your positioning, targeting, messaging, guest experience, and even purpose.
For boutiques, this is a time of some truly gut-wrenching disruption, but a big opportunity as well to come out even stronger. Letting the customer lead the way is a great place to start – and essential to the DNA of the boutique experience.
To get a copy of the exclusive study, please make sure to confirm your membership with BLLA here.
About Collaboratory. Collaboratory is a brand strategy, experience, and development studio within award-winning hospitality planning, architecture, and design firm Bull Stockwell Allen. Collaboratory helps hospitality thrive in disruptive times through innovation and reinvention, both of which flow from one thing: tapping into what customers value and crave. Headed by Regina Connell, the multidisciplinary team unmasks those desires through research and insight, then designs offerings and experiences that will satisfy that craving. Regina can be reached at email@example.com
About Metric Centric. Metric Centric leverages the best tools and latest technologies to aggregate conversational data. Their proprietary approach distills the findings into a set of custom snapshots and scorecards that provide at-a-glance actionable business intelligence. Metric Centric insights enable organizations to anticipate marketplace opportunities, proactively manage risks, benchmark directly against the competition, and to quantitatively measure consumer sentiment and perception. To learn more about how Metric Centric helps Fortune 500 businesses, financial investment firms and global reaching associations and organizations, visit www.metric-centric.com.
About the Boutique & Lifestyle Leaders Association (BLLA). The official organization for the world’s boutique lifestyle leaders promoting connection, education, and advocacy. As a pioneer in forecasting the boutique movement, the BLLA’s network has grown beyond its hotel foundation to welcome more passionate entrepreneurs, businesses and purveyors that amplify the boutique lifestyle. BLLA is a catalyst for trends and the future of boutique. blla.org