SEO On-Air: Digital Marketing for Hospitality Industry During COVID-19 Crisis

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In this episode, we cover:

Today, we speak to Loren Gray. He is an internationally recognized authority in hospitality marketing and has appeared as an expert yearly at numerous national industry conferences spanning the hospitality and digital marketing industries.

In this episode, he will speak on ways to do digital marketing for the hospitality industry during the COVID-19 crisis.

Stay tuned for the next podcast episode, where our guest, Stuart Pollington, discusses why agencies must focus on bespoke SEO strategies.

Show notes

  • Do you think the hospitality industry is going to take a while really to get on speed, or what’s your opinion on this?
  • Could this be the time for the hotel industry to do something around this and get back on track?
  • What are the top five things you would recommend to the hospitality industry?
  • Can you share some tools that are helpful for the hospitality industry?

Show Notes Explanation

Hey guys, welcome to another episode of SEO on air. We have Mr Loren Gray today. He’s a seasoned entrepreneur. He’s been having over 40 years of experience in the hospitality industry. Loren, welcome to the show. 

Senthil: Yes, Loren, a lot of stuff going on. We know this COVID, as we speak now, I hope we have successfully bent the curve. As we see, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and in the global crisis, everybody’s talking about the hospitality industry, you know, it’s like done and dusted. It’s going to take a while for it to really get back on its feet. 

But you know, the best answer would be coming from a person like you, because I’m pretty sure you would have seen it all in the last 40 years. A lot of crisis, from the eighties, the nineties, the financial crisis, and then the 2008 financial crisis, the depression you’d have seen everything. So, I think you’re the best person to answer this. 

What do you think Loren, do you think the hospitality industry is going to take a while really to get on speed, or what’s your opinion on this?

Loren: Well, it will take time. It will be a matter of weeks or even months. There might be a recoverability of 18 months to 24, depending upon resurgence and what our governments do to solve through certain hotspots that get created from flare-ups of people that may have been introduced into the public a little sooner, or people that had contracted this unfortunate virus. But it’s been actually a bit of a combination of several things. 

It has similarities to 9/11, where there was the depression of interest in travel, the uncertainty, the insecurity of travel, but we didn’t tell people not to travel. It was their choice not to, and you have the financial stability, the loss of the eight or nine where people didn’t have the financial capabilities to. That aspect of this has yet to be realized. We’re still in the throws of our confinement. We’re still working through the process of reacting to the events that have unfolded these past few weeks. The financial variations to travel have yet to be experienced, not just the social implications coming up as well.

Senthil: Right. And I believe it’s going to be like 18 to 24 months, but at least the domestic travel and the domestic hospitality industry should be able to stand on its feet much earlier.

Loren:  Very much so. It’s a well-known discussion that the earliest forms of travel discovery coming from this will be the drive market, localized travel. Some people might find the ability to travel farther away even if they don’t have the financial means, they might consider it an opportunistic travel. We have just, as we know, our own travelers are different in their travel requirements. As an individual, I might have four different travel patterns, with my family, for business, for pleasure, or seeing family. I have different traveling requirements. 

So, to come out of this, we will have different traveling levels based on the tolerance of insecurity. We’ll have people that don’t believe that this is truly a threat or they’ve recovered from it, and they don’t feel like they’re in a threatening position where they’re going to be very opportunistic in their travel. They might be willing to travel a little farther than most. All the way down to the very conservative person that may still not travel and none of those decisions that may be based on finance at that time. When you add the financial factor into it, you may have very much desire to travel, but have no financial security to do so. So that’ll be limiting their capabilities as well.

Senthil: Right. Now, let’s assume that there’s going to be a downtime for about 8 to 10 months. Over the last few years, the online aggregators and travel aggregator sites have seen a phenomenal amount of growth. And in fact, the hotel industry has become a luxury because having your own website, trying to rank for it, takes some time, rather than trying to focus on getting more experience by improving their customer service and all the other areas.

But this website has always been treated as an afterthought because they are getting some good leads out of the paid campaigns and travel portals and stuff. So, now in this 8 to 10 months’ time, or let’s keep like a year, could this be the time for the hotel industry to do something around this and get back on track?

Loren: Definitely so. Concerning timelines, we knew that the OTAs had faltered to a certain degree at the beginning of this year as we know, Speedy was going into this year without a CEO that had resigned and their board, and so forth in December, they reported lower earnings and so forth, with hotels.com as well. They were going into this already with a variation of uncertainty based on the fact that Google has expressed its dominance in the market. 

We know that Google is indeed the largest entity in the spectrum of discoverability for our products and services. And they were putting a definite variation to how OTAs would be effective. We know that in its AI usage for search results, Google has gotten better at quantifying the value of content associated with hotels and so forth, and the OTAs were very shallow in their content. 

They had recognition, identification, NAP information, so forth, and they had some review processes. But they didn’t have a depth of content as well as hotels had of themselves. So indexing gets shifted a little bit towards the fourth quarter of last year that we knew, where hotels were able to represent themselves a little bit stronger into the organic space. That being said, the organic space was a slight bit down on a mobile platform, before you first saw any of this, cause you were going through all of the Google content of their answer box, which we affectionately called Google zero, and also to all of the paid circumstances that they were still allowing it to have happened. Plus, Google’s maps, Google’s rates, Google, local, and Google business are all things you had to go through before you got to the content you could represent yourself in.

So Google has put itself into the position of itself. So coming out of this, I think the hotel is going to focus a lot more on the aspect of profitability, where prior to this, they were focusing very much on top-line revenues. Now they’re going to want to come out of this with a profitability quotient. So, they’re not just going to hire everyone and go back immediately. They’re not going back to spending at the dollar levels that they were doing prior to this already for the strategies, they’re going to grow themselves much like the airlines incrementally did after 2008. They didn’t put all the planes back in the air. They slowly put planes into routes that they could see completely full before they added another plane. I think the hotels will take a lot of that strategy coming out of this. OTAs are not as strong of a component of that total spectrum as they once were.

Senthil: Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s a great time. Right? Now when they have found a weakness in the OTAs and the hotel sites are getting more rankings and more traffic. Now what could be the top five things that they should watch out for, because while we are doing this, there’s only a limited margin of error because this is probably once in a lifetime kind of an opportunity for these hotels because this kind of downtime shouldn’t be happening at least for the next hundred years, I believe, if the statistics are right.

But with kind of a track in place, what are some of your recommendations? Because you’ve been doing this for the last eight years, fully focused on the hospital industry’s digital marketing. So what are the top five things you would recommend?

Loren: Well, in the spirit of why we’re talking about SEO, your development of content within your site, and I say this more from the independent hotelier or restaurant tour, being able to influence that most of the brands, obviously brand has its restrictiveness or controls as to what you can contribute to, but just taking it from the perspective of being able to expand your own content, the localization of your content, the expansion of content right now, as you pointed out, uniquely. People have the time to read a little more than they were reading before, view a little longer than they were viewing before, and listen a little longer than they were listening before. 

And so, putting content into place now about things that people want or need to discover, breaking them down into segments of their interests. You have the soft adventure, and you have the family travel, you have the off-beaten path, the culture, you can categorically define your travel and put content relevant to those onto your site. And that’s just not writing good content, that’s also going into your schema and developing very accurate representations of the content that you’re developing so that it gets indexed correctly, and go for that Google zero aspect that you show up for the answers to questions related to and related around you in your market space. That’s the first out of five, I would say, is the content generation and optimization of it. 

The second would then be strategizing that content by identifying the audiences you want to put it in front of. And I’ll pause at this point, because as you can tell, I can keep going, definitely break it down a little bit more if you like, because that’s a big topic itself. If you wanted to be more granular about how you would want to define your SEO, I would say that you take your CRM data, should you have good access to it, and begin to identify the demographic personas associated with your persistent guests and your guests change of course, over the course of a year, depending upon business cycle, event-driven things and so forth. They come from different places for different reasons. Creating those segmentations and personas and identifying who walks in your door at different times of the year, where they walk in from, is the basis of what you would refer to as SEO content. Content that they would find of interest, of value and importance in searchability, right? Those are the things that you put together. 

Once you did that, then you would build up a structure of communication for them, and that goes back to organic social at this point where you’re then identifying when do you want to start dialoguing with people, demographically, geographically, about content that they’re interested in, in a time-sensitive way, that when they’re going through the discovery phase high in the funnel. Then from a paid perspective associated with that, what are the large, big terms so affordable right now that you would never think about buying before because they’re just too expensive, but you can show off some great terms for your market because nobody else is buying on them right now and identifying those, not to sell a room necessarily right now, as you said, we keep this in the 8 to 10 months perspective that within a couple of months, there’ll be a certain type of traveler that will be traveling, the less risk traveler. 

Then from there, you’ll have the other travelers that will be more conservative, but not as conservative. Those who have yet to travel, then as people get their jobs back, how soon before they can take vacations, do they get to take vacations? Do they get to take time away? Those people that were still working, do they get to take vacations knowing that kind of granularity of your client, of your guests approaching, why they would come to stay with you, what they would want to do while they’re with you, that would be the content generation of the SEO. We’re talking about the market strategy and the communication socially that we are talking about. So, that’s about three out of your five so far.

Senthil: I mean, so far, to give a quick review of what you’ve done so far. So, if you’re a hotelier, open your CRM first, pick up the customer list, and look at the segmentation, trying to figure out where they are, then segment them further in terms of the risk layers. Like you mentioned, the low-risk players may want to come out first, and then you have a good period for building these content pieces all together and bound your complete content strategy around it and dominate it. You know, it’s a brilliant strategy, Loren.

Loren:  It worked successfully for the hotels that are still in operations for us. We’ve been very good about even selling them out on occasion by the targeting that this creates, the capabilities of identifying and messaging to these people and platforms that they’re still using. This is not an SEO conversation, it’s more of a marketing, but if you geo-fence correctly or proximity market correctly, and you identify the people that you want to talk to when you create those parameters, you can identify direct messaging to them where they understand what your product is, the value proposition to them. And this isn’t a rate and date proposition. This is the value of opportunity where they didn’t realize by coming into the market that the hotels they used to go to are still closed and also, or they’ve been stranded because they have to travel. There are segmentations of people that are still having problems as we speak now, and it’s not about promotion as it is awareness or making people aware that you have a product in the market at this time.

Senthil: Yeah, absolutely. Can I add a fourth point, Loren? I mean, let me know if this deserves to be the fourth point. So, imagine now that everybody’s inside their homes and probably the pollution is down, and nature looks fine. So is this the right time where the hotels can invest more time on photography and try to take a lot of good pictures of your hotel because pictures are something that people are going to look at on the Google maps while they’re making a decision and probably, you could try to get more pictures to add it into your Google, my business.

Loren: Yeah, I would say yes, on the caveat of doing something for Google maps and things like this because the beauty of that is it’s free. Second of all, it’s very easy to do with, even your phone. I’ve pride in myself in showing that I have one 360 degrees picture of a hotel in Australia that we have as a client, that has almost a half a million views simply because where I was at, you can’t drive a car to it. If somebody didn’t do what I did, there was no picture of it. So, it was uniquely of that location, but even that said, just taking simple pictures within your hotel using Google streets as the app, it’s a free app, you can put hotspots like Google maps.

You could walk into your lobby, into your restaurant. Now that’s okay when you have nobody in the picture, but if you’re going to create good images of it, of dialogue, it’s fun to get back to where people are in your restaurant, having fun or at the pool having fun because people having this sterile picture is great for awareness, but not for the experience. So the experience pictures are much more driven, I would say. 

Then the fourth process is this is an excellent time to survey your previous guests. They have time on their hands. They have a willingness to participate, and they have a fondness for, we know that 80% of travel, the joy of travel is actually more in the preparation of the travel than it is in the travel itself. That’s actual statistics. So, because of that, there’s a lot of aspirational thoughts where now people are taking the time to know what they’re thinking about wanting to do when they finally get to do it. Now, again, we know the modifiers are with, do they have the finances to do with, the time to do it, that capability to do, and the safety to do it. We know those are variables that will still come into play, but they still have that aspirational aspect. 

So, if you start sending emails out like “I know you can’t be with us, we look so forward to the day that you can, but in the meanwhile, can you recount with us a great experience you had with us or something you did that was a lot of fun when you were in our market or what would be the first thing you would do when you come back to our market that you’re looking forward to doing?” You get this information, but the most important aspect of it is you categorize your demographics in your CRM, with the information they provide. So they’re literally teaching you what you need to market for, to them in the future.

So as you discover this from your CRM, you can segment the fact that these people take advantage of last-minute deals, and these people are close enough. They can take the money and take advantage of drive deals. These people come once a year because of this event. You begin to identify them in such a wonderful way that instead of the general send out a newsletter, put everything you can, and hoping something is of interest. You can now send a much more customized offer that people want anyway. That’s why they’re sharing the information with you so that you can identify more of what they’re interested in you talking about. So this is a wonderful chance to pick that ball up and run with it while people still have the time.

Senthil: Absolutely. That’s great. So, to summarize the fourth point, it’s going to be looking at the CRM and then trying to ask people for reviews and to share their experiences, and obviously, use that in a later stage. You know there’s going to be a goldmine of information coming out because people wanting to recollect their old memories. I think Loren, I, myself, is staying inside for over one month, and it’s horrible. Actually, we want to get out. And what we are doing is trying to look at the old memories and these kinds of moments are something which people would like to recollect. Probably this is also a good time for these hotels to get those deserved reviews that these people might have forgotten to give. 

Loren: Yup. And then I’d say to the fifth point, which is nothing works in a bubble. SEO, by itself, is not the greatest solution as it can be. If you amplify it with social, organic, and paid in general, those are the components that work well together, all this content that we’ve been talking about, all this granularity of understanding your guest base and so forth using it to convey stories and social, where people can engage with. It’s not about selling them something; social is much like an electric guitar amplifier. The electric guitar doesn’t sound very good unless it’s just plugged into an amplifier. It allows people to be engaged in conversation storylines, but not constantly hit with direct sales, like rate and date buy, buy, buy. That’s not the thing to do with social. 

And especially now, you just really want to create the dialogue. You want people to engage with you because of the centric aspect of picking a hotel to stay at is the core of your experience in that market. Where you stay is the central aspect of what it is you experienced. And so when people begin to get tempted by other hotels that may have lower rates than what you’re offering, if you’ve done your job and really engaged your guests as to all the cool stuff that they have discovered through you, in proximity to you, in value to you and that $20 or $30 rate change is not worth it, because then we would have to realign what it would take to see those same things from a different location. 

What they really feel like, you know what, I’ve learned a lot from them. They’ve shared a lot with me. I’ve engaged with them on this. It’s not worth that savings for me to change to be on the other places to stay there. So that’s where this value comes in and use being paid and targeting your freedom markets, targeting at the right time, targeting demographically correctly. The cool part of what we experienced now, compared to of all the things in the past 40 years, if you just say is that we have some very excellent granular tools that I can target about any individual detail of somebody and, and make that a point so that they are the only ones who see the offers. They’re the only ones that see the information that I want to share with them, wherein times past, you really just had to hope that by broadcasting, what you had, somebody would find it of interest. So we really have some pretty cool tools that are, that are usable. 

Senthil: Can you name a few, Loren? It should be helpful. 

Loren: Sure, I mean, the one I’m very much engaged with right now is a platform for those who have WordPress websites. It’s called if-so.com, and what that does is it creates dynamic content on pages based on where they came from to come to your website. So if they’re a repeat guest, if they’re from a certain geographic location, if they came from a certain ad, if they were on their second visit or fourth visit, the content on the exact same page that they would be looking at, versus somebody that didn’t meet that criteria would see something completely different. And that makes it really great in the sense that if they didn’t mean when it comes to your website, there’s a more custom experience for them.

So, if I knew that say Detroit was the feeder market, and they came to a website via an ad that I had in the Detroit market, I might have links to the best flights out of Detroit. I might have content about what people from Detroit learning from my CRM would find of interest in my market like the hotdog festival, just making it up as an example. I might have referrals of people or ratings from people just from the Detroit market on that page showing up for them. So, that there’s an affirmation that I’m picking a pretty good spot and people from my market like this place. And Hey, they got some hotdog shop that’s around there. It makes Detroit specials. And you look at that flight from that deadline and think, that’s not a bad flight. Those things add to the customization aspect. 

Senthil: That looks really interesting, Loren. So, after this podcast, we’ll be anyways transcribing it and adding a detailed blog post around it. So what we’ll do is we’ll give a link to this tool so that people can check.

Loren: Excellent. I’ll give you a couple of other links to have some really fun stuff, customized video creation tools, because people do have the time to watch videos, and they actually put little hotspots in. So, if you want to know more about a certain thing, you just hit the button, and it goes to another video about that content. So it’s like an interactive video storybook that you’re creating. I’ll send that one over to you and a couple of the tools that are just good usable tools to create that custom content experience for SEO value. 

Senthil: Yeah, I’ll be delighted to check these tools out. I haven’t heard of these tools before, so it’s going to be great to look at it.

Loren: Outstanding. Then, as I said, there’s more to it. We can spend more than 20 minutes talking about these things, but it’s a good starting point to realize the value proposition of looking at it from that perspective of growth from the SEO value up to the place value, connecting with your guests, when they get time to be able to travel coming up in the future. 

Senthil: Absolutely. It’s been a great pleasure to have you on the show. We’ve learned a lot. Whoever is listening to this, guys, we will add a lot of information about what Loren has just shared with us about the tools, and we’ll try to get even more such cool tools. Loren, anything else you would like to add?

Loren: Nope. Other than, I hope everyone stays healthy and safe through this process, and we will come through it, but, it’s going to be an interesting progression of growth and back into work, the numbers we had prior to this event, but just try not to rush it, but be realizing that profitability will be probably a high prioritization in the strategy build going forward compared to just top-line revenue as was before.

Senthil: Yeah, absolutely. Well, thank you so much, and guys, thank you so much for listening to this. If you guys have any feedback or comments, please feel free to reach out to us. It should be very helpful for us to improve our podcasts in the future. Loren, thank you so much once again for taking your time out, have a great day, Bye-bye.

Meet the speakers

Loren Gray

Seasoned Entrepreneur

Senthil Kumar

VP Marketing –
Stan Ventures