With the spring holidays past us, many families are turning their thoughts to summer vacations. For some, a vacation trip is just aspirational, but the majority of folks will go somewhere this summer to get away from the everyday grind. Of course, unfortunately for the travel industry, this year's summer travel season could be weaker than expected due to a familiar problem: rising oil prices, which in turn mean higher prices at the gas pump and for airline tickets. This year, of course, the challenge is worse, with gas prices forecast to soon blow past $4 a gallon in all parts of the U.S. and perhaps crash the $5, or God forbid, $6 thresholds.
The problem for hotel marketers is how to respond to a travel season that may well be in flux at best, a disaster at worst. Options range from straight rate cutting (a bad idea) to special promotional pricing (actually the same as rate cutting) to value-added offers (probably the best way to proceed.)
While some hotels and lodging companies are reverting to an old idea—offering free gas cards to customers as a way to help them manage their travel budgets—I think it's a mistake to go back down that path. First of all, it's no longer unique or memorable. And, more importantly, it's not wise in my opinion to remind your customers about the issue of rising fuel costs. Above any other consumer expense, the price of gasoline is the most-discussed, most worrisome fact of American fiscal life. If you don't believe me, ride around any city with a senior citizen and count how often they recite out loud pump prices as you glide past gas stations. It's an irreversible reflex for anyone over age 65 (which means I'll start doing it in two years). Since gas prices are such a sensitive issue, it isn't a wise idea to remind your customers of the problem.
And while social media can be a useful tool in most hotel marketing efforts, be careful to rely on this vehicle too much while consumers are in a budget-watching mood. Families planning vacations for the summer are doing it now, and that includes booking hotel rooms. It's unlikely they'll take the chance of riding down the interstate checking Facebook, Groupon or hotel chain mobile website for the deals of the day. Most budget-conscious families want these important details nailed down before they leave on vacation.
Ultimately, the best marketing hooks are either value-added offers (kids eat free, discount or free tickets to attractions, even stay three nights, get one free) or sweepstakes promotions (free trips, cars, meals or whatever matches the desires of your set of guests). The trick is getting your message to your target audience in a way that's compelling, effective and cost-efficient.
Gas prices may deter some people from hitting the road this summer, but my guess is most families will find a way to get away, even if it's closer to home than they would like. It's your job to make sure they can afford to stay in your hotel.