How To Target The Niche Market
In recent years, the hotel trade has focused increasing attention on what marketers call the niche audience. Brands have tailored their messages to attract racing fans, Americans with disabilities, women, gays, and sports enthusiasts.
Why do brands do it? Because the niche play responds to a basic consumer attitude. “We want to be treated special, we want to be talked to individually,” says Lalia Rach, associate dean of the Preston Robert Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism and Sports Management at New York University. “It doesn't matter what business you are talking about. The more targeted your communications, the better your chances of success.”
It's all about feeling unique, says Chuck Mardiks, managing director of MMG Mardiks, a New York City public relations firm specializing in travel and hospitality. “People want things tailored to them. They want to know they are not just getting the ‘same thing,’ and niche marketing comes into play in meeting that need.”
The ongoing growth of niche marketing is at least partly due to changing technologies. “The hotel industry now is able to profile its prospects and customers better than it ever could before,” says Peter Warren of Warren Kremer Paino Advertising. “In the past, you would literally go out to the parking lot and check the license plates. Now we have even gone beyond geography and demographic profiling and into psychographic profiling, tracking people's lifestyles and interests.”
SUPER 8'S NASCAR PLAY
At Wyndham Hotel Group, Vice President of Marketing Roseanne Zusman has positioned the Super 8 brand as a close friend of the NASCAR community.
The brand sponsors the Petty Enterprises race team, hosts a website of entertainment activities aimed at the race car crowd, runs print ads in NASCAR Scene and NASCAR Illustrated and places banner ads on nascar.com, espn.com and the fan site jayski.com. Zusman won't reveal the cost of all these efforts, but says it is “a significant investment.”
It's apparent that a tight fit exists between the rooms and the vrooms. A 2006 survey showed that 36 percent of Super 8 customers consider themselves NASCAR fans. Zusman sees this as a sign not just that the campaign is working, but that the NASCAR audience was the proper niche to pursue in the first place. “It's a perfect demographic fit for us,” she says.
That kind of organic alignment makes a niche campaign stick, Rach says. “Do I know who I am, what my hotel is, what we stand for? You need to know those things for this to work.”
Super 8 Franchisee Amit Govindji knows some things for certain. He knows that Mooresville, NC is a NASCAR town: With two major races each year, half the town's revenue generators are connected to racing. He also knows competition is fierce from local representatives of virtually every major hotel brand. And he knows the corporate attachment to NASCAR is helping him keep ahead.
“It absolutely makes a difference. NASCAR fans are very loyal to their brands and their drivers and the logos on those cars,” he says. “When we ask why they choose us, they say first it is because they like us and second, because they connect with the brand. They connect with Super 8 as a sponsor of the cars.”
The success of Super 8's NASCAR affiliation demonstrates a fundamental aspect of successful niche marketing: You've got to walk the talk. It isn't enough just to run an ad depicting Hispanic guests, to slap a rainbow on a brochure — or, for that matter, to pay for logo space on a race car. If your aim is to target a specific market, you need to show authentic commitment to that market.
Thus, Super 8 marketing executives do more than study racing fan sites. They have engaged sports marketing agency Forge Sponsorship Consulting to teach them the nuances of the culture, and they go to the races. “It's about seeing the fans in action, seeing the passion these people have for the sport,” Zusman says.
Such stuff is crucial, says Mardiks. “What tends to happen too often is that people don't take the time to understand that niche before they just go out there and buy a list. Maybe instead of heading to AARP and buying a list of people over 50, it makes more sense to figure out what those people really need, as compared to people over 30, and then to build a complete program around that.”
Rach says you've got to dig deep to strike gold. “Are you going to do a combination of observational efforts? A series of focus groups? Are you going to talk with those customers you already have who fit that niche? When they say ‘I just love your hotel,’ you have to ask more. What does that mean, what do they love, and how can you translate that into action?”
BUILDING ON NICHE SUCCESS
One way to develop a niche following is to build upon a broader audience that already has shown a preference for your properties. Take US Franchise Systems, whose Microtel Inns and Suites has developed a following among Americans with disabilities, thanks to a number of innovative programs intended to address the specific needs of that group.
Building on that success, the brand has begun to focus even more narrowly, with marketing targeted toward a national population of slightly more than one million “Little People.”
This is a classic example of the power of niche marketing. The audience is defined so precisely, marketers can zero in with relatively little effort, generating brand loyalty without having to lay out the vast expenditure and complex massaging a broader market would require.
Basically, one guy is at the heart of the Little People community. Matt Roloff chairs the accessibility consultancy Direct Access Solutions and is former president of Little People of America. When US Franchise Systems decided to reach out to this market, it went to Roloff for guidance.
First he equipped the hotel chain with The Short Stature Accessibility Kit, which includes a custom step stool, ergonomic reach grabber, door security latch adapter, extension or “push-pull,” tool and specially designed closet rod adapter. Each Microtel now has a $300 kit, for a total $120,000 expenditure, according to Debbie Campbell, senior vice president of marketing and national accounts
In addition to the kits, Roloff introduced hotel executives to the subtleties of the niche. “Little People want to be called Little People, they don't want to be called dwarves. ‘People of short stature’ is also acceptable,” Campbell says. “You don't bend over when you are talking to a little person, but it is fine to open a door for them.”
Cultural correctness: another “must” in the world of niche marketing. In the Hispanic community, for example, family is foremost, and it's defined differently than in the Anglo world. A family vacation in the Hispanic community includes Grandma, and if you miss that in your positioning, you'll miss a vital connection that makes that niche play work.
Likewise, if you want to court the tennis crowd, you'll need to know the difference between the U.S. Open and the Tennis Masters Cup. Quick: Which one is being renamed in 2009? Tennis fans know, and you'd better know, too, before you start running those ads.
Meanwhile, armed with kits and correctness, Microtel operators say the Little People outreach is succeeding in providing new depths to the larger ADA market.
As president of SKY Hospitality, Marian Goodman oversees operations at Microtel hotels in Bushnell, Marianna, Palm Coast and Zephyrhills. The four are among the brand's top performers in revenue and occupancy.
As Florida properties, where the ratio of seniors is high, Goodman's hotels already do a brisk ADA business. She says the Little People effort is a natural next step.
To get the most out of the program, Goodman makes sure staff is trained in how to use the kits and how to interact with Little People. Training goes beyond the front desk, under the reasoning that a relevant encounter could occur at any point during a guest's stay. In addition to a marketing strategy, “these are also guest satisfaction issues, and we want to make sure every single employee is prepared to offer assistance if it is needed,” she says.
Goodman expressed hope that over time, the Little People program will begin to demonstrate the same impact that the chain's ADA efforts have driven, an impact she said is visible year-to-year.
“Because we serve a lot of seniors, we find that with word-of-mouth and positive experience with the brand, it practically markets itself,” she says. “People will come back year to year and will literally reserve the same room they had last year, because they have had those positive experiences. That tells us we are doing the right thing.”
Will the same momentum characterize the Little People program? Given the parent company's aggressive national outreach, Goodman is confident that it will.
NICHE UNDER YOUR NOSE?
These efforts may be organic outgrowths of natural affinities and existing programs, but they are nonetheless deliberate. That isn't always the case, though. Sometime a niche falls in your lap and very little effort is needed to capture that business.
As senior vice president of sales and marketing for Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, Steve Pinetti tells a great story.
He was checking out the company's Summit Lodge and Spa in Whistler, BC, Canada and saw 100-percent occupancy during the four-month ski season. In the off months, however, occupancy dropped to 20 percent. That means the year's take relies on 16 weeks of winter sport. “It sure better snow, and be good snow, and be early snow, and be late snow,” he says.
Staring at those long odds, “we knew we needed to get creative about filling up the slow season.”
As he drove around town, Pinetti realized that the off months are construction season in the area. Construction crews were building and renovating homes practically everywhere he drove. “Where do all these construction people stay?” he wondered. They stayed in motels outside of town and drove 10 miles or more to get to work.
Pinetti wanted this business but didn't want to lower his rates. Turns out the motels were making hay by raising their rates, so Pinetti could offer a competitive price without selling himself short. Plus, he could throw in a free massage, or a party in the bar, and outdo the motels' less sumptuous offerings.
From there, nailing the niche was mostly a matter of wear-and-tear on the tires. “We went around downtown, we went around the villages. We drove around, and wherever trucks were parked we asked for the foreman, the general contractor,” Pinetti says. “Wherever we saw a truck, we stopped, got a name, made a phone call.”
Off-season occupancy rose to 60 percent.
“It means you don't have to get caught up in the traditional sources of business: The corporate accounts, the travel agent accounts, all those normal channels. They dry up in the slow season, too,” Pinetti says, “so you have to step back and take a look at what is going on right in your own community.”
DELIVER THE GOODS
All this comes down to a few simple principles. Choose a niche that aligns with your identity and your audience. Hone a message that speaks clearly to that group. Find the web pages, magazines and other media that connect most directly with your intended audience.
But there is one more piece, one element experts say might be more important than all the rest: To market to a niche, you have to be ready to deliver. Don't make promises you cannot keep. Have the substance to back up the image.
Because intergenerational travel is hot, “if I am a Bahamian resort, I want to talk to those grandparents who are going to be on that trip,” says Peter Warren of Warren Kremer Paino Advertising. Before you have an AARP attack, though, you better have the proverbial bingo parlor in place. “It's a great idea to look at that group, but once the family gets there, will you have things to do for the 70-year-old grandmother and the 5-year-old kid?”
A lot of the “substance” here will come down to human resources choices. A push for the Latino market better be backed up with some Spanish-speaking staff. A play for the gay contingent will require some sensitivity training at the front desk. Nor can the substance be imposed on the situation. If a lapse into the vernacular can be forgiven: You've got to keep it real.
“You can't be something you are not. You can't be in the middle of Manhattan and try to go after hikers and backpackers,” says PR veteran Charles Mardiks. “At the end of the day you have to be able to deliver in an authentic way on whatever it is you are promising.”
THE BIG IDEAS
Personalize your marketing. People like to feel they're unique, so pitching to a niche market requires a well-tailored message.
If there's a platform available to your brand already, build on it. Take a cue from Microtel, which expanded its marketing to Americans with disabilities to Little People, a major minority.
Transcend the season. Off-season may mean lower occupancy, but construction business can fill the vacuum. Adjust your marketing to the business that's going on at the time.
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