Long gone are the days when customers were satisfied with a hotel that offered a clean room, a restaurant, and maybe even a swimming pool. Today's savvy travelers expect higher levels of service, stylish design, wireless connectivity, and a place to sleep that is as comfortable as their own home, if not more so.
The wake-up call for the industry may have been the launch of Starwood Hotels & Resorts' signature Westin Heavenly Bed in 1999, which prompted hotel chains to focus on the guest sleep experience. Thus began the "bed wars," with major brands swapping out tired bedspreads and mattresses with customized bedding ensembles promising a restful night's sleep.
The bed overhaul also spilled over into the bath experience and ultimately the entire room, with chains redesigning spaces to include more luxurious and high-tech touches, particularly WiFi and high-speed Internet service, video game consoles, and CD stereo systems.
The Web has become a relatively new means of touting these upgrades. For example, Hilton Hotels typically hasn't used online media as a primary marketing vehicle. Yet Hilton executives say that as more consumers research and book travel online, this channel has become increasingly more important.
Research proves it. "PhocusWright's Online Travel Overview" estimates that sales from leisure and unmanaged business travel sites last year totaled nearly $65 billion, with 30 percent of all U.S. travel sales booked online. By 2007, that number is expected to jump to $93.6 billion, or approximately 40 percent of the market.
It's no surprise, then, that hotel companies are embracing the Web to capture more customers. Hilton's $1 billion "re-ignition" campaign, which launched in January, features emotionally driven print, TV, and online advertising components using the tagline "Travel Should Take You Places."
"We heard that travel is no longer positive, that people lost those wonderful feelings of what travel should do," says Abby Spatz, senior director, Hilton brand marketing and advertising. So with the help of Y&R Advertising, the 87-year-old hotel chain launched a campaign tying together music and animation to forge an emotional connection with customers while promoting improvements to physical properties.
With a Flash-enabled microsite (www.hiltonjourneys.com), Hilton uses dancing characters to feature the "Entertain" section of the site, a woman floating through the skies in its "Pamper" link, and a businessman on the run to illustrate "Empower."
"Travel should awaken mind, spirit, and senses," adds Kirk Thompson, vice president, Hilton brand marketing. "Flash is an integral part of our site because sight, sound, and motion are the best ways for people to interact with us, as opposed to clicking and reading."
The site uses a single line to underline the catchphrase, "Travel Is More Than Just A to B." In addition to videos, Hilton Journeys also allows viewers to interpret travel in their own way by drawing a postcard and e-mailing it to a friend. "We wanted the campaign to use a medium that people most actively use to shop for and understand travel," says Thompson. "While we wanted to ensure that the campaign signals the re-ignition of the brand, we also wanted the same transformation to occur in online connections."
Marriott International was thinking along similar lines when it hired T3 Labs to develop an interactive Web site (www.ExperienceMarriott.com) showcasing its "guest room of the future." Using video and cutting-edge Flash technology, the microsite takes visitors through the new room, opening closet doors, turning down beds, turning on showers, and adjusting ergonomic desk chairs.
"It's a virtual tour of the bed, the technology, and things users are most interested in," says Amy McPherson, executive vice president, sales and marketing, Marriott International. She adds that Marriott took home the 2005 Gold Adrian award for technology innovation on the site.
"We will continue to leverage Marriott.com," McPherson says. "It's a great distribution channel, but it's also a huge marketing engine. Through search engine optimization, we're creating links with the Amazon.coms, so we're getting a lot of people we haven't seen before coming into the site from a lot of different channels."
The $5 billion investment in Marriott's new look will span the next five years as owners and franchisees convert their hotels. To inspire and educate the traveling public, Marriott also hit the streets of New York's Times Square in September with the mSpot -- a four-day extravaganza with free concerts and morning workouts led by Marriott fitness instructors. A print ad campaign for the Revive bedding collection followed, showing an energized guest soaring over a crisp white bed. The campaign received the Innovation and Impact award at the JCDecaux Second Annual Airport Advertising Upfront.
Interactive experiences are also part of Holiday Inn Express' Simply Smart shower program, featured on its Web site (www.hiexpress.com). The site, which receives approximately 20,000 hits per day, showcases the company's $20 million bathroom makeover with an online tour. A voice prompts visitors to click on one of four different bubbles to view the curved shower rods and new curtains, extra-fluffy cotton towels, bath amenities, and the Stay Smart showerhead by Kohler.
Holiday Inn Express also linked its TV ads to the site and created a retail section for consumers to purchase the bathroom products. "We have seen enormous success behind the marketing of the Simply Smart shower launch, in which the interactive experience played a key role," says Verchele Mills, vice president of brand management for Holiday Inn Express. "It allowed the brand to truly highlight unique features and benefits of our experience in a way that it couldn't have via any other medium." The interactive experience, she says, receives nearly 10,000 unique visitors per month.
As customers become more comfortable booking travel on the Web, look for hotel chains to step up their promotional efforts online. "Marketers are becoming more aggressive with their e-commerce decisions," says Jennifer Gassman, media director of Nurun/Ant Farm Interactive, a full-service interactive advertising agency. "A significant component of that aggressive strategy is targeting and converting prospective travelers online. We've definitely seen a shift in marketers' budgets toward online media."