Skift Take

What's the most overused travel marketing buzzword out there? Our vote goes to "experience" (although "authentic" isn't too far behind.) Love it, or love to hate it, "experience" isn't not going away anytime soon. Here's why.

In hospitality, what defines one hotel from the next, or one brand from the next, especially when we seem to be traveling at a time when everything is “local” and “authentic,” and there are literally hundreds of brands — soft, not-soft, and otherwise — for every different kind of “lifestyle” out there?

It all boils down to experience, but not just any kind of experience.

For hotel brands looking to differentiate themselves from their competitors, whether those competitors are online travel agencies, other hotels, or home-sharing platforms, it’s about owning the experiences they can deliver to their guests 24/7.

This means continuously building a relationship with customers through loyalty programs, making it easy for them to book direct, and effectively becoming their very first choice of a place to spend the night, every time they need a place to stay — it’s about the entire customer journey, or experience.

Delivering Experiences Beyond the Room

One part of that journey, in particular, where brands can really make a difference in impacting consumer loyalty and perceptions is when the guest is on site. Having a concierge who can offer helpful suggestions for things to do during their stays or offering beautifully produced in-room destination guides is a start.

But to really have a competitive edge, hospitality providers need to facilitate branded experiences that extend beyond the walls of the room or property, suggests a new report from brand consultancy L2.

“Amid growing commoditization of amenities offered and increased price transparency through online travel agencies, metasearch, and other travel sites, luxury hotels brands need to invest in delivering curated experiences that will preserve and strengthen their brand equity online,” the report’s authors write.

L2’s study noted that while many luxury hotel brands are offering some sort of experience-related content on their sites, like destination guides, for example, there’s still a lot of room for improvement, and they noted two — Four Season Hotels & Resorts and The Peninsula Hotels — for providing guests exclusive, branded, highly curated experiences.

Although L2’s report focused solely on luxury brands, the ability to offer curated activities for guests spans all brand categories. Four Seasons and Peninsula Hotels aren’t the only hospitality brands exploring this space, either. Regardless of category, brands ranging from Airbnb and Wyndham to Marriott and Starwood are all offering some kind of experiential element to their offerings that goes beyond just giving guests a place to stay.

Earlier this year, Skift reported that Airbnb plans to offer its own version of experiences. Right now, those experiences are still being tested out on the site, like this one, where guests can sign up to grab drinks with a local Parisian. The formal addition of more experiences like these would build on Airbnb’s new “Live There” campaign, which also coincided with the debut of a new Guidebooks feature, which includes insider tips from Airbnb’s community of hosts from around the world. By offering destination content, as well as actual activities or experiences, Airbnb gets to own that much more of the overall traveler journey.

Wyndham Hotel Group, a company whose portfolio comprises a large majority of economy and select-service brands, is also jumping on the experiences bandwagon, too. After relaunching its rewards program last year to make it simpler and easier for members to earn and redeem points, it announced this month that it would also offer discounted and/or complimentary experiences for its loyalty members in select destinations. The experiences offered by Wyndham include a street food tour in Mexico City, a desert safari in Dubai, a pizza walking tour of New York City, a cooking class in Shanghai, and an indoor skydiving experience in Orlando, and each is operated by a local tour operator.

Following Starwood Preferred Guest’s lead, Marriott Rewards and Ritz-Carlton Rewards also debuted an “experiences marketplace” whereby loyalty members have access to specially curated events and activities during their stays. Hilton HHonors also offers similar types of experiences through its partnership with Live Nation.

The Peninsula Hotels’ experiences, which are generally part of the brand’s “Peninsula Academy” include such activities as learning how to make dim sum with master chef Henry Fong when you stay at The Peninsula Hong Kong, or having your very own red carpet photo shoot with award-winning photographer Ryan Forbes when you stay at The Peninsula Beverly Hills. To commemorate the hotel’s 15th anniversary this year, The Peninsula Chicago debuted 15 Keys to the City experiences for its guests that you can only have in Chicago.

A Closer Look at Four Seasons’ Extraordinary Experiences

Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts offers more than 40 different “Extraordinary Experiences” around the world, not to mention its Four Seasons Private Jet Experience, which debuted last year. Experiences range from a private helicopter ride to Mexico’s agave fields for a behind-the-scenes tour and tequila tasting at the Jose Cuervo distillery to learning the art of Thai boxing during your stay in Koh Samui, Thailand, for example. The Four Seasons Private Jet Experience strings together about a week’s worth of Extraordinary Experiences in a variety of different Four Seasons locations around the world, not to mention first-class air travel coupled with luxury hotel stays.

“We never want to be that place where you just go to sleep,” said Elizabeth Pizzinato, senior vice president of marketing and communications for Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts. “We always ask ourselves, ‘How do we take the emotional experiences that take place at a hotel and bring them to people in a broader way in our lenses, in our own curated view?'”

The concept of tours and activities isn’t new in travel and, for the past few years, tour operators have capitalized on the growing popularity of experiential travel. But making these tours even more customized, or offering more insider access or perspective, is, as is having those experiences be facilitated by a hospitality provider.

At the Four Seasons, Pizzinato says she and her team want their branded experiences to be “out of the ordinary” whether they’re big, like climbing to the top of the Sydney Harbor Bridge, or small, like getting your own customized cowboy boots in Austin.

“These experiences don’t have to be over the top to make someone feel special,” she said. But the biggest differentiator, for the brand, between its Extraordinary Experiences and other tours or activities is making it “own-able by the brand.”

Branding the experiences also has to be subtle, she noted. “How do we put our special twist on that, but also approach it in a way that’s not about the branding of it, but the emotional aspect of it and make it feel unique?”

And working with partners is advised. For its private jet experience, Four Seasons works with TCS World Travel, which operates the aviation component of the program.

“We’re not an airline. We’re a hotel company, but we understand the notion of creating a memorable experience and creating the best touch points that will make travel easy, comfortable, and fun,” Pizzinato said. “Our part is about creating the experience and ensuring that, at every point, every guest is enveloped in a Four Seasons experience that complements the experience they’re having in the destination.”

Simply put, it’s no longer enough for hospitality brands to just offer a place to lay your head anymore. They have to do that — and much more — if they want a customer’s business today, and years from now.

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Tags: airbnb, four seasons, marriott, peninsula hotels, starwood, wyndham

Photo credit: One of the Four Seasons' Extraordinary Experiences for guests brings them to the agave fields of Mexico by private jet for an exclusive tequila tasting and distillery tour. Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts

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