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Hoteliers' Voice S3E1 - How Best Western built a direct campaign with guest profiling

Updated: Jul 3, 2023

Chris Bowling, Head of digital marketing and ecommerce at Best Western UK joins us as our guest for Hoteliers' Voice to share how they built a direct campaign using guest profiling.

In this episode, we learn the approach taken to identify the right audience, the type of marketing strategy to harness this opportunity and the data that fed the campaign creative and channels to market.


We hear how Chris and the Best Western team looked for the opportunity to fight back for the brand. We discuss:


  • Why education is important

  • The role of brand marketing

  • Identifying channels to reach the guest profile

  • Using guest data to determine the approach

  • The systems that underpin the campaign


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Programme Notes


Ryan Haynes:

Hello and welcome to Hotelier's Voice. This is season three and we are back with our most popular series to look at the decisions and choices around technologies for the strategies that hoteliers are implementing. Today we're going to be talking to Chris Bowling, the head of digital marketing and e-commerce at Best Western, about how to build a direct campaign with guest profiling. Chris is no stranger to travel market life. He joined us for the I H C F special, how Best Western is investing in its direct booking strategy. In that episode, Chris explained how they approached their direct booking channel and build a strategy, getting buy-in from the board. But in today's episode, we'll be looking at how to build that direct campaign with guest profiling.


Ryan Haynes:

The internet launched in 1982, and booking Expedia was founded in 19 96, 27 years later, where is the hotel market for direct booking capabilities? With Best Western having over 250 properties in the UK and 4,000 worldwide, Chris and the team looked for the opportunity to fight back for the brand. We'll be discussing why education is important, the role of brand marketing, and identifying channels to reach the guests using guest data to determine the approach and systems that underpin the campaign.


Ryan Haynes:

Chris, thank you ever so much for joining us for our Hoteliers’ Voice season three. It's great to have you here today, especially after you joined us in Vienna for the IHTF special. Hi.


Chris Bowling:

Right. It's great to be back.


Ryan Haynes:

We've got more questions for you today and really delving into that presentation you get at IHTF. And I really thought that this was important to help others really understand the approach to take because you've really thought about this, and you had to consider the entire ecosystem and look at how the market is currently behaving now. I mean, OTAs we know clearly changed the way that we book, and Airbnb has made a huge impact on different types of accommodation and the consideration for people's travels. How do you view the difference between how OTAs and hotels sell products and that opportunity there?


Chris Bowling:

Yeah, so kind of as you mentioned, OTAs really did change up the market when they, when they're introduced and it's, it's kind of easy to see why. If you know the dates and location you want to go to, it's a clear obvious choice starting your booking journey, you're going to be able to search pretty much anywhere in the world and you're going to have somewhere to stay. So that's kind of where they've had such a big impact, whereas brands don't have the same scale. So, it's all about how can brands sell rooms in a way that competes with that. We've got the choice of everything. So, the approach we've gone down is very much telling the stories about our hotels.


Chris Bowling:

We know how they support their local economies as they're all independently owned. So that's what we're really leaning into selling the story of the hotels and making people want to stay at those hotels, not just a hotel in a location. So that's very much where we're focusing.


Ryan Haynes:

Yeah, I mean obviously Expedia and booking.com as you say, and a lot of the other OTAs, it's about that simplicity and quickness to book accommodation rather than that experience. And you really sort of sound like you're investing in that side of it. Where do you see that leverage point for hotels to drive direct marketing Then how do you build those stories up? Why is that part so important compared to perhaps how you've been doing things previously?


Chris Bowling:

So, over the years we've, we've gathered so many stories from our hotels and the amazing things they're doing, especially throughout Covid. A lot of our hotels did incredible things to help their local communities. So, it's all about finding a way for us to tell those stories effectively. We can collect them; we can spend time working with our hotels and get those stories out of them. Whereas OTAs, they're working on such a scale, they can't really collect in the same way that we do. We can just pick up the phone, talk to the GMs and have those conversations and get those stories. We can go out and get photography, make little videos and find the best way to tell them. So that's kind of where it's been so important.


Chris Bowling:

It's all about, you know, the education. How can we get those stories out to our potential guests in the best way?


Ryan Haynes:

Yeah, I guess it's that building that relationship with that guest profile, that audience to really understand what they're going to expect when they arrive and, and what's different about the Best Western brand and then any of the other brands that you've got available. As you say on booking.com, you've got such a huge choice there. But I mean there, there's always been this question of, you know, how do you get that direct traffic? You know, how do you capture that attention and so much money as we see is invested by the OTAs and they have, you know, very, very, very deep pockets to really optimize that visibility across digital channels and search. And now in your presentation particularly, you addressed performance-based marketing versus brand marketing.


Ryan Haynes:

Why did you see performance-based marketing as pretty much the Achilles heel for your g for you guys when it came to looking at that direct channel?


Chris Bowling:

So, over the past five to eight years of performance, marketing's become more and more prevalent. We've become so focused on putting more money into that pot because you can so effectively measure all the channels and all your returns, which is like the big temptation about performance marketing. You, you can go, oh, I'll try this new channel, see how it performs. Oh great, I've got, got more revenue coming in. You can measure everything, but in some ways, it can be a little bit shortsighted because you can only perform well, you get the best performance on people who are already searching for your brand. All we're doing is bidding on the same people who are already aware of our brand. We weren't pouring more people into the top of the funnel.


Chris Bowling:

So, we ended up in the position where if we went after more generic performance-based marketing terms, such as hotels in York, for example, rather than best Western hotels in York, it all of a sudden gets extremely pricey and very competitive. So, for us in the long term, it's more in, in, it's more important to start investing in the brand now and start pouring in those more cost-effective leads at the top of the funnel. You know, performance-based marketing is kind of here to stay now it has to be part of everyone's mix, even if you're just doing it from kind of the brand level kind of as we are. But it can't just be the only thing in your mix, which is a bit of the trap that we fell into.


Ryan Haynes:

I mean you can't do brand marketing though without actually having a clear understanding of your identity and what you mean to all your stakeholders as you've explained earlier, you know, both your owners are just as important as a franchise company as well as having that guest connection there. And so, you've, you've built these campus campaign booking good, which is in its second year now and you really focus on that value proposition and what makes Best Western Properties unique. Tell us a bit more about where that idea came from and why you chose to extend it for a second year but evolve it that bit, that bit more.


Chris Bowling:

Yeah, so Booking Good kind of came after Covid when we decided it was time to get back out into the market, we had to really sit and think about what makes us different versus the other hotel brands available and what makes us different versus the OTAs. Cause if there's no differentiation, kind of what's your unique selling point? So, we kind of went back to our core, we looked at those stories as that is the main thing that we have and we are independent hotels, they are supporting local communities. So, we are doing good things for the communities so that all come booking good version one. So, our first year was very much that education piece, trying to get that message across in a really nice way, focused mainly on TV, digital, kind of the, the widespread with TV and then the focus doubling down on more specific groups of audiences through kind of Facebook and YouTube.


Chris Bowling:

So, year one was very much about education and had a nice little hook, but then in year two we really needed to find a way of how we can ingrain Best Western in someone's mind a little bit more so that when they think of hotels they think, oh Best Western, I'm going to check there first. So that's kind of gone down the more playful route this year, which is kind of all based on confessions. So, if you've done something a little bit naughty, Booking Good with Best Western makes up for it because you are supporting locally owned independent hotels that support the community. And that is kind of a, it's a more cheeky, more fun message. It's a little bit more light stick in your mind. So that's kind of the approach we're going for this year. And that format just works really well on audio as well.


Chris Bowling:

So, it's a really nice hook in with radio and that kind of placements, which is still kind of the mass spread but it's a little bit more cost-effective. Then TVs,


Ryan Haynes:

I must say, when I saw the original booking good, it just made me think about, you know, how people have been thinking about booking independently and booking direct that pitch bit more. And as you say, you just highlight the fact that you're not one big mega brand of hotels like a lot of them out there, but you are really helping those independent owners have a business and a successful business. And then when we move into the consumer side of the campaign, I just absolutely love it. I just, as you say, it's a bit tongue in cheek, things like putting my dog in kennels, she's now still not talking to me, raiding the kids' piggy bank when my dinner party ran out of wine, faking my covid test to avoid the school reunion.


Ryan Haynes:

I mean you; you've really sort of obviously touched it, the nail on the sensitive part of people's psyche really gets people's that excitement and that cheekiness that everybody has inside them. And I guess that what was important for you was to understand whom you were talking to, what that demographic is, who the guest profile is to, to really bring that campaign to life. So, can you talk me through what guest data was really important to identify that audience and how much testing has been involved to make sure that that works well for you guys?


Chris Bowling:

Yeah, of course. So, we've been collecting obviously data for years and years on our, on our customers. We know quite a lot about them. We know kind of the obvious things when they stay, have they stayed recently? They're on our rewards program. So, we know all those kinds of things about them. When we were first looking at Booking Good, we started by surveying our customers. We announced them with set questions to try and work out which of the proposed messages would resonate best. And then we asked a ton of questions about, you know, how old are you sex, all that kind of stuff to try and profile and work out where we're kind of sat at the moment and what messages resonated with different age groups.


Chris Bowling:

And that gave us kind of very much a picture of what we kind of already knew as we have a slightly older demographic, and they do like sporting local businesses.


Ryan Haynes:

It's, I mean it's really interesting and obviously, you've got that pet-friendly message in there as well. And you know, again, through quite a cheeky approach. And what I, what I found really interesting about some of the data that came out of it was really how you really divided the campaign between awareness and consideration and loyalty and, and certain things like excluding the web visits from the last 180 days in the awareness campaign or you know, including web visits from the last 30 days or the consideration campaign or you know, those purchases made in the last 180 days to build up that loyalty side of things. What has been the impact so far?


Ryan Haynes:

You know, what metrics do you sort of look at to go, okay, right, this campaign's performing because as we know, the brand is an investment, it's not something that's going to bring the revenue necessarily overnight. So, what, what us at the moment in the, in the two years you've been running that campaign are the key metrics for you?


Chris Bowling:

So, it gets quite tricky when it gets to the more brand awareness level. We kind of, from a, a very high-level point of view, we're doing quarterly market surveys to buy a, I can't remember the name of the company now, but we're basically surveying people on the street, working out their prompted awareness, their unprompted awareness, and seeing how best Western rank we actually want to see those metrics going up and get into more where some of the other brands are. So that's kind of the very higher-level metric. But then when it comes to kind of how we're targeting our digital channels, it's all about creating the right segments of people that we're targeting and working out, which are the best ones for us.


Chris Bowling:

So, we're looking at things such as CPM, click-through waste of the websites, engagement with the videos we're posting as, you know, we want to be hitting people who are giving us a bit of attention and taking in that message. There's no point in us hitting a million people. If not, if they're all watching less than three seconds for example. It's, it's kind of a wasted, wasted bid. So, it's all about being as efficient as we can with that money and measuring the bits that we can measure. Obviously, the end goal is revenue, but you have to hit the touchpoint so many different times, seven times pretty much is kind of the base-level metric people quote before someone's going to make a booking and trust your brand. So, it's all about building up those engagement points at an effective level.


Chris Bowling:

So yeah, what we're,


Ryan Haynes:

And as you say, you know, you, you, you got this radio campaign just about starting, you've been focusing as well on TV and digital to get that message out there to be in front of that specific audience. Now, you know, I could answer this question probably myself, but you know, for the audience out there, why did you choose those specific channels? Why was it so appealing?


Chris Bowling:

So, we wanted the combination of how we can hit as many people as possible for our budget in the first instance. TV is something that we've done before in the past, a long time ago that's been successful. So that's kind of what we thought. Go back to Brendan Butter, we know what's worked before. Jumped in, made a really nice advert, got it out there, hit loads of eyeballs, and was obviously supported via digital channels. But this year we want to be, how can we hit, you know, potentially the same number of eyeballs but in more places. Cause TV is obviously very expensive. So, this year we're going with the radio approach, still spotted by digital, but we're also going to be doing out-of-home later in the year as well to try and add up those touch points and to try and, you know, build that stickiness.


Chris Bowling:

Now with how we've changed the messaging this year, it works more visually in a non-video format so it's better for static placements. So, it allows us to do more of that out-of-home stuff as well to support the TV and support the radio. Sorry,


Ryan Haynes:

E excellent. Yeah, I mean, you know, TV and radio have changed so much in the last 10 years that in the same way that you can identify lookalike audiences with digital, you can pretty much do the same with radio and tv. You know, the, I was just amazed as I started to delve deeper into that about how radio adverts, for example, can be played to very specific people in very specific locations depending on a whole range of criteria or aspects of their personal interests. And it's amazing really how that network now is much more applicable to making very direct, precise targeted campaigns.


Ryan Haynes:

But, you know, all these needs systems and technology, I know that you've used or you've, you've integrated a number of different systems that have really helped you here and could, could you talk me through a couple of them and what role they play?


Chris Bowling:

Yeah, of course. So, for us, one of our main focuses has been kind of getting more of that first-party data. We know that everyone's moving away from cookies and relying on that third party. So, we had to do everything we could to secure as much data as we can in, you know GDPR compliant way. So, the first place was to look at our website, how can we collect more leads? So, I know a lot of people don't really like exit messaging and banners on websites anymore, but it's still a valid approach, especially when it's done well with Rice, with nice messaging and you know, targeting people at the right time, not just, you've arrived on the site, please join my mailing list.


Chris Bowling:

Work on like a bit in activity. So, the first thing we implemented was a tool called Exit Intelligence. Essentially, it's an agency that manages the technology for you. They do AB testing constantly to get the best Optum rates for, you know, for people who are trying to leave the website essentially. And they've been a supply for us for a couple of years now. Really, really good technology and really great people to work with. And then the other focus on that is that we've covered the website, getting those people who are trying to leave is that we have a lot of people stay in our hotels who haven't booked through us best Western hotels can be booked directly by the brand or via an OTA.


Chris Bowling:

So, we know that there's a wealth of guests who haven't had a touchpoint with us. So, it's about how can we capture them. So, we've been working with a supplier called Stamped who do really nice kinds of opting forms on Wi-Fi messages, on Wi-Fi signups and that's been a really great source of data for us messages well. So that gives us a wealth of people who have potentially stayed by an OTA, have stayed, enjoyed the brand, but haven't booked direct. So that's a really rich part for us to get involved with.


Ryan Haynes:

And then I know that you know, rate parity is incredibly important for the direct channel. How do you ensure that your rates are reflective of, you know, what's happening in the market at the right time, and you've got that parity there?


Chris Bowling:

Yeah, so this is kind of the ongoing battle. There are plenty of tactics going on to get the best rate to certain, to certain OTAs. So, we've gone with kind of a two-pronged approach. We've got OTA inside so we can see where the parity issues are, which is kind of one thing we can educate our hotels about and see if it's maybe something that's been done by accident, not understanding the systems. So, we can educate them there to try and alleviate those issues. But then we took it a step further as well because some people don't want to be educated or, you know, as staff changes hands, things just get lost in the loop and your kind of in the cycle of constantly educated.


Chris Bowling:

So, to fill those gaps, we built our own TE technology within our website so we can essentially give parity to ensure that we've always got the same cheapest rate. So that's been a really huge development for us and something that's making an impact because we can directly see if a hotel's not in parity, the conversion rate goes down, why would you book with us when it's 10 pounds cheaper on booking.com for example? You just wouldn't.


Ryan Haynes:

Yeah, and I've been looking at some of the results so far. When you look at crunching the ROI on some of this or the commission costs, if I'm understanding right, OTA commissions are around 15% and once your campaigns are fully working, you are looking at a 3% charge on all direct bookings.


Chris Bowling:

Yeah. Does is this leading back to my little board from a slide from the presentation? So, it's all about if you can give that guest a really good stay, you can get the money onto your database and encourage them to stay maybe two or three times, even if you've acquired them via an OTA for that initial first high commission booking every other time. If they're coming back via your email channel, you're essentially alleviating all that cost. You've just got to pay your transaction fees essentially as email is so cheap and still effective. And so, anything you can do to capture that data and encourage people to book directly with you a second and third time is incredibly beneficial.


Ryan Haynes:

Excellent. Chris, thank you ever so much for taking the time to be with me again today and talking through your campaigns and really how you guys went about it. I think it's incredibly valuable for anybody listening to be thinking about how valuable their data is and how they can use that in the most effective way. So, cheers, I really appreciate it. Thanks for joining me.


Chris Bowling:

No, thanks so much for having me.


Ryan Haynes:

So that was Chris Bowling, the head of digital marketing and e-commerce at Best Western, how to build a direct Campaign with guest profiling. He's part of season three of Hotelier's Voice. Look out for the other episodes coming very soon throughout 2023. Thanks for listening. I'm your host, Ryan Hayes. Don't forget, to check out more episodes on TravelMarket.Life. Ciao for now.

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