Hotel Marketing Advice

Five Ways to Avoid the Summer Lull in Group Business

A banquet in a garden
Five Ways to Avoid the Summer Lull in Group Business


This article originally appeared on Tambourine.

For many hotels, summer can be a time when group business dwindles to a crawl.

The large national association and annual company conventions tend to dry up during the summer, and if you’re located in a warm-weather destination, convincing guests to bask in the heat may be a tall order. It takes a concerted effort - utilizing all the tools at one’s disposal - to overcome those challenges.

That said, there are multiple steps hotel and resort marketers can take to ensure a steady flow of summer group business, even if it means doing things a little differently, and perhaps, targeting some customers outside of the usual base. Here are five key steps to take to arm your hotel during the summer slowdown:

1. Plan ahead

Solving a hotel’s summer group needs is not an issue that can be addressed with rushed promotions created a few months in advance. Much to the contrary, it truly is a long game. Experts say the only way to truly get out in front of these kinds of seasonal dips is to plan years ahead, using historical data as a guide.

Mike Schugt of Teneo

What great hotels do is they don’t wait until the last minute to have a fire sale on Expedia or even lower their group rates dramatically,” said Mike Schugt, president of Teneo Hospitality Group, a luxury representation firm with more than 300 member hotels and destination management companies (DMCs). “They’re using their information technology and systems to look at those weeks 2 to 3 years out and executing a solicitation and a new business development plan against those.”

That includes leveraging partners, deploying sales teams and attending trade shows and meetings where key meeting planners will be present, with the ultimate goal of booking problematic summer dates as early as possible. With an established base of advance group business, some hotels may even enjoy a “slingshot” effect, being able to drive higher rates for leisure business as a result.

Planning also involves making sure other hotel departments are on board with the summer push. Oftentimes, hotels may host smaller, lower-rated groups during the season, and those groups tend to be more price-conscious than guests attending larger conventions. That means your hotel needs to be prepared to serve those lower-rated guests, from the room rate to the F&B offerings.

John Washko, EVP at Mohegan Sun

“Things like your food and beverage need to change. You can’t expect smaller groups to pay hundred-dollar-per-plate banquet prices, for example,” said John Washko, EVP of expo & convention sales at Mohegan Sun. “Instead, think about special offerings you can provide at the right price point. I always suggest building a menu around local, seasonally available ingredients.”

2. Know thy (competitor’s) customer

Don’t be shy about gathering intelligence on your comp set, including who their sources of valuable summer group business may be. Start by identifying who these group customers are and what is prompting their stay, then explore why they’re not staying with you. From there you can devise the necessary steps to capture these untapped groups.

“There are a lot of resources out there in our business to really understand who’s staying in your competitive set historically,” said Schugt. “It makes good sense to go back and really look at who’s staying. Is there an annual event at a certain property? Is the business flowing into hotels in the comp set on a historical basis, but not coming to your property? It’s about going back and finding out who, when, where and why, and starting to develop a plan to get that.”

Tools from firms like The Knowland Group can help hoteliers discover relevant prospective groups who have booked at nearby compset properties.

Part of that process is understanding the travel patterns of prospective group guests, and that’s where it’s good to think outside the box and get a little creative, to help cover more of the bases. For smaller groups, local and state association business, sports teams, etc., it pays to learn details like school summer closure schedules, sports league schedules and which smaller associations tend to meet in summer for the convenience of members.

“There are a lot of groups that prefer to travel when school is closed for the summer, so they can bring their families along for the trip. You can do some research and specifically target those groups,” said Washko. “It sounds trivial, but it’s really useful to learn school schedules for the areas where your prospective groups are coming from. That way, you can time promotions for the prime summer weeks when they’ll be looking to travel.”

3. Make SMERFs your friends

When summer break makes some sources of group demand disappear, other segments are poised to step in and fill at least some of the void, provided hotels proactively identify and market to those segments. This is especially true of the many smaller groups that comprise the social, military, education, religious and fraternal (SMERF) segment, which can offer brisk summer business for those seeking it.

“In order to be a successful hotel 52 weeks of the year, the SMERF market is vital,” said Schugt. “You want to start working it years in advance and building those relationships and going to those conventions. When there’s an opportunity, you can lean on that relationship you’ve developed to separate yourself from the competition.”

Within the SMERF market, state and regional association business can be significant, as well as social business, like weddings and reunions. Don’t neglect to market to these groups, including offering incentives—like a complimentary suite or hospitality area—for guests to book direct and within the reserved group room block.

4. Utilize digital marketing to its fullest extent

While this piece of advice generally holds true for most times of the year, digital marketing can be even more useful when it comes to selling rooms during slower periods. Hotels may want to up their digital spending in the booking window for summer.

The digital marketing opportunities can be significant,” Schugt said. “Devote resources to really understanding if planners are researching things through Google, for example, and if so, making sure you have the appropriate digital marketing strategy against that.”

One particular place to focus within that digital landscape is paid search/PPC advertising, especially through Google AdWords. Although the cost of paid search has been rising, and keyword competition can be fierce in the hotel industry—especially when well-funded OTAs are in the mix—there’s still an opportunity to drive direct bookings during the summer by upping the pay-per-click (PPC) spend in anticipation of those months.

In a recent survey of meeting planners conducted by Tambourine and ePro Direct, results showed that planners do use internet search engines and other digital research tools to discover new potential venues (see chart below):

“We’ll increase our digital marketing efforts as we ramp-up for that summer season,” said Washko. “Paid search can be especially helpful, even if you just raise your bids at the times when you need to bring in that extra business.”

5. Consider your location

Summer group business tends to vary based on geographical location and the local climate. Year-round warm-weather destinations like Arizona, Florida and Texas can be a tough sell to groups traveling in the summer, so in these cases, it’s vital to find nearby attractions and “bleisure” opportunities and promote them, in order to offset concerns over the heat.

“In Miami, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Dallas, Louisiana, Atlanta and similar places it will be a little more challenging,” said Schugt. “Those are the very lean time periods of the year on a general basis compared to the key months where most business is coming in. The areas that benefit from that are the places north of the really hot, steamy hurricane-threatened weather.”

Northern and western meeting venues accentuate their cool evening weather to attract groups in the summer

As Schugt suggests, the reverse holds true for colder-weather markets like Chicago, the Rockies and the Northeast. These areas can have a hard time enticing groups to visit come winter but offer much more agreeable temperatures in the summer. This selling point should also be stressed in the hotel and resort marketing and can be used to target groups from warmer climates, who may be seeking an oasis amid a sweltering summer back home.

“You take places like Colorado, where in the evenings it might be around 60 degrees, and you may even need a light jacket,” said Washko. “For some guests, that might seem like a much-welcome respite from what they’re used to. It’s another simple, yet effective method of convincing them to stay in your market, and hopefully, your hotel.”

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