How to Market a Classic Hotel

Ocean Houses sits high on a Rhode Island bluff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.

The Ocean House opened in mid-May, but marketing of the luxury Rhode Island seaside boutique hotel started a year or more earlier. While that’s common practice for many large, full-service hotels, it was especially crucial for Ocean House, a small, high-rate independent in a destination with few existing lodging properties.

“It was imperative that we launched the marketing effort so many months prior to opening,” says Edward Villafane, assistant managing director. “For a project like this, our first priority was determining our vision for the hotel and how we fit into the marketplace. From there we analyzed the destination and its strengths and weaknesses to see what opportunities they present for us.”

Ocean House was reborn following a $140-million rebuilding and restoration project. The hotel, which has 49 guestrooms, 23 private residences, several food and beverage outlets, event space and a spa, replaced a historic hotel built following the Civil War. When that hotel closed in 2003 a local investment group conceived the idea to rejuvenate the property. While it wasn’t economically or structurally possible to restore the building, the owners did the next best thing: They demolished the original building and created a near-duplicate of the original hotel, with modern luxury amenities, but using nearly 5,000 salvageable artifacts from the original. The new Ocean House stands on the footprint of the old resort.

Complicating the marketing process was the fact the hotel opened at the start of its busy season, summer. A better scenario, of course, would have been to debut in the off-season or during shoulder months.

“Sure, that presents challenges but it also brought us opportunities,” says Villafane. “When you open to a full house, the expectations are that you’re 100-percent ready, which stretches everyone pretty far. On the other hand, everyone had to work a little harder and smarter and, as a result, we’ve grown as a team.”

To introduce the hotel, the marketers developed a Prelude Package for the summer. Running to the end of August, the offering includes 30-percent savings on rates (in-season rack rates range from $400 to $800), upgrades to the next higher room category, daily breakfast for two and a $100 resort credit per room, per day for the spa or other on-property amenities.

Villafane says the hotel will offer additional packages based on seasonal themes. “We’re trying to reach our customers from many angles to highlight the different facets of the hotel,” he says.

Remote Sales Effort
While a leisure hotel in the summer, the Ocean House intends to pursue the high-level group market in the off-season. Executive retreats and board meetings will be a staple, as will weddings and other social events. The hotel has more than 10,000 square feet of event space, the largest being a 2,700-square-foot ballroom that seats 250 for meetings and 180 at banquet. Outdoor event space includes several terraces and a large lawn that can be tented.

Villafane believes the property’s location, while seemingly off the beaten path, is a plus for the corporate market. Drive time to New York City is two and a half hours and one and a half from Boston.

“Rather than have our sales team based on-property, we chose to put them near the markets in which they’re selling in order to be more accessible to their clients and prospects,” says Villafane. One sales person, based in Stonington, CT, covers the leisure market, while two others handle group customers. One lives on Cape Cod and sells to the Boston, Providence and Newport markets, while the other is based in Fairfield County, CT to cover the tri-state area around New York City.

Villafane says the hotel specifically sought veteran sales people with luxury hotel experience and who have established relationships with the kinds of high-end customers the resort is pursuing.

“It’s also important to have sales people who can work independently,” he says. “It can be a challenge to work from a satellite office because they can feel as though they’re not involved in the day-to-day workings of the hotel. To overcome that, we communicate frequently and have daily sales and revenue meetings. Also, our sales people spend a lot of time on property hosting site inspections and fam trips.”

The Ocean House relies on a number of affiliations to bolster its sales effort. It is part of the American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts program and is a member of the Altour Collection. Both are invitation-only groups of high-end hotels and resorts around the world.

It’s most important weapon, believes Villafane, may be its affiliation with the Preferred Boutique Brand. “We chose Preferred because it offers exactly what we were looking for: a strong partner with a seasoned and experienced sales and marketing team,” he says. “They have a wide range to tools to reach the high-end client base we’re seeking, and the ability to participate in their trade shows and events gives us great exposure for our hotel.”

Being Social
Ocean House uses Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets as key elements in its marketing campaign. The hotel’s communications department “spends a lot of time and effort using social media to encourage participation by guests and in building buzz about Ocean House,” says Villafane. The hotel’s Facebook page already has more than 3,000 followers and postings include a combination of guest raves, announcements of events at hotel and even reminiscences from employees of the former property.

It also has photos of the hotel and events held there and a link to the resort’s website.

Ocean House management recognizes the importance of the local community to its long-term success. Pre-opening marketing efforts included frequent communications to the surrounding community and state, keeping locals informed of the project’s progress and to introduce the hotel’s Seasons Restaurant and the 12,000-square-foot OH! Spa.

The grand opening in May drew more than 600 local business, government and civic leaders to watch the owners and the Rhode Island governor cut the ribbon. A week later, the hotel shut its doors for the day to host a community open house. Nearly 4,000 people showed up for the event, which featured entertainment, refreshments and tours of the hotel’s public spaces, guestrooms and residences.

As part of the grand opening hoopla, the hotel hosted a two-week fundraiser for several non-profits in the region. For a $75 donation, participants could tour five of the hotel’s private residences, have lunch at Seasons and visit a trunk show featuring local artists and designers.

“Our ownership is very involved in the community,” says Villafane. “The investors are all homeowners in the area, and our principal owner [Charles Royce] is very active in a number of charity groups. As a result, we’ve spent a great deal of time reaching out to the local community, building partnerships where we can.”

Villafane says business at Seasons, which specializes in farm-to-table cuisine using locally sourced ingredients, has been brisk since the opening, much of it coming from the local community. Earlier this month, the hotel introduced Friday night clambakes on its private beach for both hotel guests and local residents.

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