"Until recently, we have done well on the internet; however, in the last few months, we have begun to lose ground to competitors who are marketing more vigorously than we are. We are considering hiring someone to help us improve our marketing."
Chuck Slemaker Alpenhorn Bed and Breakfast, Big Bear Lake, California
Hiring a professional marketing company is the second most important decision you can make for your business. While choosing the right professional is by far your most important decision.
During the last eight years we have watched a broad range of innkeepers try to market their own properties on the internet. Web sites were created and indexed with the search engines by innkeepers with a bit of computer savvy or by the son-in-law who promised he would take care of it for you. Regardless, the outcome has been the same and it is one of the major reasons so many inns are experiencing hard times. Like yourself, I understand what 9/11 and the recession have done to decrease reservations. However, I also know innkeepers who are having record months simply because of smart marketing.
Your first comment was that you "have begun to lose ground to competitors who are marketing more vigorously." Congratulations on several points. 1) you recognize you are competing. While that sounds silly, I am constantly amazed at the attitude of many innkeepers who fail to keep up with or exceed the marketing activities of their competition. People are still staying at B&B's, they're just going to ones which appeal to them most. Think of it as survival of the fittest and the fittest B&B is the one who markets the best and 2) you recognize the need for help in the area of marketing.
When hiring a company to market your inn, find a company who is the best fit for your style of marketing. The biggest and most popular company is not always the best fit, so check with several companies before making a decision. Understand that the level of service you receive from your first phone call will be representative of their service throughout your relationship. Are they friendly, prompt and knowledgeable or difficult to get a hold of and ambivalent about your needs? This first call should tell you a lot about their commitment to their clientele. Additionally, the company should understand the B&B industry intimately. Many innkeepers hire local marketing companies assuming they are better suited to market their inn. This is usually a mistake. Local companies are generally smaller and serve a wide range of businesses types. Their lack of staff prevents them from providing timely service and their broad clientele only waters down their marketing focus. Who then should you hire? Ask around and check with associations such as PAII (www.paii.com) for their vendor list. Once you've picked a few to check out, ask for recommendations from their clients. Most companies will list their latest designs -- contact the innkeepers and ask them about their experiences. With all of this information, I'm sure you'll find the right company to market your inn appropriately. Internet Marketing consists of three elements. They are, Design, Hosting and Promotion.
Effective marketing starts with a quality web site. If you already have a website, ask the marketing companies how effective they believe it is. Getting an objective opinion in this area is extremely important as most innkeepers are neither experts in design nor objective in their opinions of their website. In my speaking engagements, I commonly ask how many innkeepers receive negative comments about their website from guests. Not surprisingly, few ever do. From this, it would be easy to assume the site is obviously effective. My question though is how many potential guests looked at your website and that of your competitors and went to the other inn? In reality, you'll never know. However, the innkeepers I know who have had record months recently started by changing their website design. Effective design is more important than most innkeepers will ever realize. When choosing a marketing company, look at the quality of their web site designs. If they appear cookie cutter or unappealing, most likely they don't understand the importance of an effective design. Choose your marketing professional based on the quality of their work and friendly prompt service.
Hosting is Service. Most innkeepers think of hosting as the reliability of the computers which hold their website. While this is technically accurate, there are more important issues. What you're really interested in and paying for is service. When choosing a marketing company, consider the service you will receive such as how quickly they will make requested changes to your website. The reliability of the service is actually related to what services they provide. Smaller local companies which also provide dial-up services are much less reliable than dedicated hosting companies which serve innkeepers nationwide. Remember, service is what you're looking for.
As you are aware, having an effective web site is only half the battle. You then must get potential guests to view your web site which is where promotion comes in. Unfortunately, many innkeepers focus only on promotion of a web site. This serves only to bring potential guests to your site but not increase reservations. Therefore, be sure your website is effective before promoting it. That said, there are three things which work together for web site promotion. 1) Links from major lodging guides, 2) Listings in the major search engines and 3) Other promotion. We have listed the major lodging guides in a previous article which can be found online at: http://www.moriah.com/articles/mostwanted.html -- these guides have proven themselves over time and remain the number one way which your web site should be promoted. The search engines are another story. In the last year the search engines have changed dramatically and continue to do so daily. The bottom line is that while the search engines were once free, you now bid and pay for placement through a company called Overture (http://www.overture.com) formerly goto.com. With Overture, you can bid on a search term and have your listing appear on all the major search engines with the exception of Google which is still one of the most important. The search engines can now be summed up by saying, Google.com, Yahoo.com, Overture.com and LookSmart.com. Of these, only Google is free. All of this can be handled by the innkeeper themselves or by your marketing company. Obviously, a marketing company in the B&B industry will be more familiar with these services and how to best utilize them. Lastly, remember to include your domain name on your voice mail for those calls you miss. Mention it in every telephone conversation with a potential guest and have it boldly printed on everything you print. Remember, your web site as the hub of all your marketing efforts. Everything should point back to it. Everything!
Internet Marketing is like owning a good restaurant. It's not enough to serve quality food -- the dishes must be prepared and served with flair.