At a time when nearly every travel marketer expounds on the importance of “experience,” Fairmont Hotels & Resorts recently took an interesting approach to understanding just what kinds of experiences can make a real impact on travelers.

The Toronto-based hotel company, which is in the process of being acquired by AccorHotels, conducted a series of interviews with 10 guests to get a better understanding of just what kind of emotional connection or experience they have when staying in some of Fairmont’s most iconic and historic properties.

Fairmont published its findings in the first of a series of Luxury Insights Reports: “Stewardship of Iconic and Historic Buildings.” To conduct this study, the hotel company hired Weinman Schnee Morais, Inc. (WSM), a New York-based market research firm made up mostly of social and behavioral scientists. Instead of interviewing people in focus groups, WSM researchers interviewed eight guests via phone during their actual stays at historic Fairmont hotels across Canada, and interviewed two in person during their stays at The Plaza in New York City.

Why did Fairmont choose this type of research approach, and with such a small sample? Alexandra Blum, vice president of public relations and partnerships for Fairmont, said, “Ethnography was the right way to do the research, to look at core emotional drivers.” Prior to conducting the interviews, Fairmont also gathered guest feedback from 6,559 guests from 2015 and 12,736 guests from 2014 to help formulate the questions asked during the interviews.

With each of the interviews conduced by researchers, key themes began to emerge about what historic hotel stays offer to guests. They included:
• Place Identity: Hotels with rich histories make guests feel like they’re part of something meaningful, important and enduring.
• Experience is worth more than owning things: Social status is being aligned with the consumption of experiences as opposed to material good.
• Luxury travel is about creating unforgettable memories and experiences.
• Cultural immersion has a new type of cachet for today’s travelers.

Both Blum and lead researcher Abbe Fabian, vice president of MSW, were most struck by the depth of emotional connection that guests had to Fairmont’s historic hotels. ”There are a lot of incredible, meaningful things that have gone on before that time, and within history,” Blum said. “Guests can merge with the history that took place there, psychologically. They feel like they’re part of that history, and part of something even more enduring than themselves, actually.”

“We knew there was something particular about a historic property that was different from a modern luxury property,” said Fabian. “But I don’t think I would have ever predicted how deeply people felt. People really seem to psychologically merge with these historic properties in a way that expands them. It’s not just elevating them to expand luxury; it’s expanding them through time.”

Fabian said that for guests in their mid-40s to 70s, an historic hotel stay is especially impactful. “It’s universal that at a certain stage of life, people begin to ask themselves existential questions like ‘What is the meaning of my life and has it been meaningful?,'” she said. “By inserting yourself in the history of the place, it answers those kinds of existential questions in a way that a modern luxury hotel would not be able to. It assures you that you’re part of the flow of time — you’re part of history. It will be there even when you’re gone. It’s this reassurance on a deep psychological level that these historical properties provide.”

Beyond helping Fairmont better understand what motivates its guests to stay at the company’s historic properties, the research will also be used by the brand to communicate both with its guests and its hotel owners and partners. Some of the brand’s most historic hotels include The Savoy in London, The Fairmont Peace Hotel in Shanghai, the Fairmont Banff Springs, the Fairmont San Francisco, and Fairmont Le Château Frontenac in Quebec.

“This research is not only going into our communications to guests in terms of motivators, but it’s also important to owners who decide to partner with us on renovating these hotel assets and to justify our leadership positon to them,” said Blum. “It will also help us work with community leaders and heads of cities and states in order to educate them and further validate how important it is to restore and and support these historic properties, not only for economics but for the communities they serve.”

Key Takeaways for Travel Marketers

1. The desire for historic hotel stays remains very strong, especially among luxury travelers. Of the 70,000 Fairmont guests that stayed with the brand at least three times over the course of a two-year period ending in 2015, 38,000, or approximately 54 percent spent the majority of their stays in an historic Fairmont property.

“I was surprised at how enthusiastic [Fairmont’s] customer base is for historic hotels,” said Larry Horwitz, executive director of Historic Hotels of America and Historic Hotels Worldwide. “We’ve been giving a presentation for five to six years, talking about the annual market in the U.S. of travelers who are predisposed to a historic hotel or historic, heritage, or cultural travel experience. Right now, it’s 137 million people, and It’s growing. The United Nations World Tourism Organization has cited research over the last several years talking about the importance of heritage and cultural tourism.” Horwitz said that the new Fairmont report “validates” this, and shows what customers want.

Because some of today’s travelers are more focused on the experiences they collect, as opposed to things, the ability to stay in an historic property is tantamount to true luxury for a lot of guests. “Staying in a particular historic hotel is more than aspirational — it’s a sense of arrival.”

2. It’s hard to beat the authenticity of an historic hotel. Not to discount the type of authentic, local experience that a home share can provide, but the level of authentic experience delivered by an historic hotel is on a different, deeper emotional level, according to the report.

“Historic hotels give you a chance to stay where history was written, where world leaders have stayed, where entertainers, diplomats, business tycoons, or authors have stayed,” said Horwitz. “Airbnb may give you a valuable option for saving money and meeting locals, but it isn’t putting you in a place where history was actually written and where it continues to be written.”

The grand architecture of an historic property is also something many Airbnb listings are lacking, he said. “I just don’t see Airbnb experiences as being iconic; there’s a big difference between the iconic experience that you can feel by staying in an historic hotel.”

When it comes to providing a meaningful emotional connection and appealing to a customer’s aspirations, historic hotels have the market cornered, Horwitz said. “I’m not aware of a timeshare or condo resort that George Washington ever slept in. Many historic hotels have also been converted from former monasteries, convents, schools, or buildings for adaptive ruse. You can’t get that from an Airbnb or another alternative form of accommodation.”

But it’s not just the architecture or physical space that enables an historic property to leave an authentic impression. The service is just as important. “It’s about the authenticity of the place and their relationship to the people who staff the hotels,” said Fabian. “People really like that there was continuity between being in this historic place and feeling like you have a real relationship with people where they acknowledge you as an individual — where there’s this sense of authentic caring.”

The definition of authenticity in travel varies for each individual traveler, which is an important distinction to note, however. Horwitz and the Fairmont report are bringing their own predilections to the forefront when discussing the relative authenticity of a stay in an historic hotel versus an Airbnb or somewhere else. Plenty of travelers, from a variety of age groups, may find it more authentic to stay in a typical city neighborhood and interact with locals than stay in a 150-year-old hotel that may be somewhat removed from the populace.

3. Make history personal. Travel marketers promoting historic hotel properties would do best to focus on the personal meaning of an historic hotel stay, as well as any family connections guests may have to these iconic hotels.

“There’s always been this focus, on the past, about the relationship of the historic hotel and where it’s located,” said Fabian. “While that’s important, for sure, I think focusing on the personal meaning that these properties have for people, and encouraging things like celebrating milestone events, is just as crucial. It’s about highlighting the connection between you, your family, and what’s gone on in that space over time.”

Blum sees the potential for historic hotels to appeal to multigenerational travelers. “The Millennials of today have grown up as young children in our hotels with their parents and grandparents,” she said. “It might have been their grandparents who took them to tea at The Plaza, or brought them to stay overnight at the Fairmont San Francisco. They remember having these moments with members of their families. When they too walk back into our hotels, either paying their own way or as part of a multigenerational trip, the stage is already set to layer on a new emotional experience.”

4. Give people a chance to take a little piece of history with them. As much as people value experiences more than they do actual things when it comes to their travels these days, it’s still important to allow guests to have some sort of tangible reminder of their stay at an historic hotel.

“People want to take a piece of that history with them, we found,” said Fabian. “There were people who decorated their spaces to mirror what they saw in those properties, for example.” She said hotel companies could try to leverage that by providing ways for guests to continue that personal connection long after they check out.

Photo Credit: The Plaza Hotel in New York City, a Fairmont property. Labor Market Information Service