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The Challenges of Change for Independent Resort Properties
By Bruce Kerfoot - Gunflint Lodge, Grand Marais, Minnesota

Independent properties are an endangered species unless we learn new ways to operate and market our businesses. Between the amount of money available for discretionary purchases by our potential guests, and the speed in which change is occurring in recreation, we all must starting thinking out of the box and be open to changes. Some have called it gorilla marketing while others just call it a paradigm shift in how they do business. Yet, solid opportunities do exist for success if you can adapt quickly enough to implement the necessary changes.

When Independents take a step back for a moment to look at our marketing and the choices our potential guests have for recreation travel, it is getting scary. All of a sudden people can spend a week in sunny Mexico or at an all-inclusive Dominican beachside resort for a lot less than taking a mid-western resort vacation. A couple of weeks wandering around Italy can be cheaper than a week at a North American dude ranch.

The methods for making vacation decisions have changed drastically. It used to be that people might have gone to a January sports show and booked their summer vacation, or skimmed the travel section of the Sunday newspaper or their favorite travel magazine. In so many respects, marketing our properties had not changed much over the last 35 years. But that just won’t work anymore.

The interests of our potential guests have changed, to the point that we cannot put as much stock in repeat business. Options for travel and recreation have expanded to include a plethora of new opportunities that, before, were never even considered just a few years ago. Yes, the resort and recreation is growing, but the competitive climate has exploded.

With all this in mind, marketing strategies for Independent properties must change. While I am not suggesting we throw out the baby with the bath water after years of operation and marketing to get where we are today, we should hold on to our tried-and-true promotions while striking out to find new methods, new packages, and new marketing channels.

CRITICAL STEPS TO STAYING FOCUSED

As you begin your new marketing and operating review, start by reviewing who you are and what segment of the travel and recreation market you can best serve. Take a look at your assets, both in-house and in the community. This can take several sessions of brainstorming, and it is often wise to invite your better employees to participate. To illustrate: Several years ago we did this review for our property in northern Minnesota. At that time most of us in our local region thought of north central Minnesota as our competition, yet we felt like poor country cousins when compared with their swimming pools, fancy tennis courts and golf courses. Although we did not offer those types of activities, we realized from our review that they did not have the moose and wildlife that we had, or the abundance of deep clear water lakes, or the Boundary Waters Wilderness. Once we realized we were apples to their oranges, we understood that they offered excellent social recreation opportunities, while we offered excellent environmental recreation opportunities. Our subsequent marketing materials were thus oriented to proudly represent our strengths, and we no longer felt we had to apologize for being different.

THE BENEFITS OF PACKAGING

Consider, too, how you are offering your vacations. We all used to price our accommodations, meal plans, boats, and outfitting equipment as separate line items. Guests today appreciate easy choices, so offer them a Package as an alternative. Giving them options wrapped up into nice Packages means they’ll only have to make one decision – Which Package?.

Offering Packages allows you to control the options, while making the buying decision much easier. It’s amazing how you can mix a handful of choices into so many variations, and you’ll have more latitude on your final price points because Packages bury the individual component prices. Options are limitless: There are women’s retreats, couples weekends, stuff for the kids, antiquing, gourmet meals, etc. Sometimes you can partner with another community business to create a unique Package.

Our neighbors laugh at us, but at our Gunflint Lodge we have decorating weekends. Guests come to decorate our lodge for the holiday season and they pay for their weekend! This package fills the two weekends following Thanksgiving that are normally very hard to sell. The dead season after Labor Day or just before Easter becomes your opportunity to market “quiet time vacations”. Create a 2 or 3 night package with accommodations, maybe a canoe, some hiking opportunities, and some food components (if you can’t provide in-house meals or beverages, perhaps you can partner with a local restaurant for special delivery).

MAKING THE TOUGH DECISIONS

Another essential part of your self-review is critiquing your media buys and ad placements. While there can be tremendous inertia involved in “doing what you’ve always done”, it’s time to be honest about those traditional ad placements that really do not work when it comes down to maximizing the ROI. The PC has given us the tools to easily track our marketing efforts and determine their effectiveness, and this is something we MUST do. Our web marketing has been so successful that we have committed almost totally to that medium, and we are learning as we go.

In managing your web site, in addition to registering with the search engines and writing good meta tags, you can make word buys to drive traffic to your site. These buys make you a “sponsor”, which brings your site to the top of the page when a person does a search using one of your key words. This approach to marketing on the internet seems to be replacing the banner buys that many of us started with.

While Independent properties are in the midst of a challenging time, we do have the ability to be nimble and to adapt faster than chain properties. If you use all your assets to keep your offering finely tuned but flexible, you will be pleased with the success you can achieve with your property.