Trust in Local

By Vivek Chadha, managing director and founder of Nine Group

The pandemic has meant a shift in how we run the business and how we approach the market, and I think we have become better hoteliers in the process. There hasn’t been a huge amount of support from the brands when it comes to sales, they haven’t been using their marketing budgets to look at local business because they are focused on a macro global perspective. The brands aren’t designed to look at local business, there is more of a focus on global travel and when that falls away the delivery drops away too.

Instead, we have been digging deeper and, depending on the hotel and its location, we’ve gathered bits of business and filled our hotels. Everyone’s working harder because we actually have to get into the small contracts that we never really paid attention to before. We’ve been working on our relationships with travel agents, relationships with brokers, places where we never got involved before because we thought it fell under the brand’s remit.

As I sit down to write I am mindful we are in a period of transition and positivity for the hospitality industry. Hoteliers have stood with open arms to welcome guests back, but who is the guest? The road warrior has yet to hit the road in any volume and the ongoing restrictions and uncertainty around international travel means that no one can be sure when they’re coming back.

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When you’ve just opened a hotel near an airport, as we have at Gatwick, it means having to think not just outside the box, but well outside your familiar parameters to bring in revenue. And while there are rumblings of
uncertainty around whether the new variant will unstick the current 21 June reopening target, we have had to shop local.

We chose to join the hotel quarantine scheme at Gatwick, which has been a success, and we have tried other tactics, including ghost kitchens and having our own brands for deliveries. But this can create a lot of problems in the kitchens, because they’re managing in house guests as well as the takeaway orders and two teams can make operations more complex.

We have always made a point of working with the local community and ensuring that the hotel is embedded within it. Part of our Gatwick site features a pub which dates from Tudor times, which is a long-standing favourite in the area, and which we have reflected by offering locally-inspired dining.

The pandemic has seen a renewed enthusiasm from customers to support local operators and, having had hospitality closed during the crisis has meant that consumers appreciate its value, as an employer but also as a place to meet friends, families and colleagues after countless months spent on Zoom.

Establish brand partnerships with local attractions to create packages

Given the volume of pent-up demand for travel currently in the market, consumers are not only looking to get away, crucially they are looking to get away for longer. And longer stays means making the most of that time away. The appetite to add experiences to a stay has never been bigger.

For hoteliers this means speaking to the local tourist board and local council as well as local tour operators, attractions, exhibitions to find out what is available and what’s coming up particularly over the summer months. Theme parks, museums, gardens, festivals, scenic spots for bird watching and picnics are just a handful of options to suggest to guests to enhance their stay.

Consider building a ‘Stay and play’ package that includes a two-night stay and entry to a local theme park, for example. Speak to local operators and agree a mutually beneficial way to support and promote each other with
packages and offers that can be developed throughout the year.

Take to the airwaves

Local radio and social media groups can be an effective and efficient way to raise your profile and build a buzz. Competitions don’t have to have huge prize values – afternoon tea, overnight stay with dinner for two, for example can be offered either on your own Facebook page or via a local radio station to include on-air mentions with support on their social media channels. Prize packages and the level of profile you get will vary so speak to the commercial teams at the local radio and always check the terms and conditions.

Alternatively (and always bearing in mind the current rules on social distancing and restrictions) hoteliers can invite their local radio station to broadcast a show from their venue. Again, there might be a commercial or promotional angle to this. For example, launching a new bed and breakfast package showcased throughout the breakfast show or a new afternoon tea menu featured throughout the drivetime show – all brought to life beyond the website and emails.

Invite local business networking groups to host events

Business travel and the migration back to the office is expected to take longer than the return of leisure travel. That said, just as there is pent-up demand for leisure travel, so too there is pent-up demand for a return to face-to-face meetings. To safeguard business on the books hoteliers should take the time to establish or re-establish relationships with local business networking groups.

Once again this can be achieved either through the local council or via social media with invitations for representatives and local business owners to visit their property for a networking and showcase evening.

Hoteliers can offer a tour of the MICE facilities, taster menu of selected drinks and canapés if appropriate and firmly establish their hotel as the place to do business going forward. How you act in a crisis sticks in the mind and we hope to have created loyalty which will last with our guests and with the communities we work in.

We’ve actually made a profit at most of our hotels during 2020, even during the first half of the year, because of our slim operations and finding our own business. We’ve shown that we can do it on our own, without the support of the brands.

As travel comes back the relationship with owners and brands will have to change; it will be very difficult for the big flags to maintain pipelines and get new development agreements with potential owners if they don’t flex on terms. We’ve become better hoteliers and so must they.

By Vivek Chadha, managing director and founder of Nine Group

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