Ms. Freud

Sales & Marketing

Qualitative Research: Understanding Business Travelers' Behavior Toward Hotels

By Johnna Freud, Qualitative Research Moderator, Saul Cohen & Associates

Obviously, business travelers today have many hotel choices. In fact, in many instances, these choices are within walking distance of one another. So, why do some business travelers choose to stay at your hotel while others stay at the one across the street? How can you drive more traffic to your property? Understanding what motivates them can greatly influence your bottom line.

Determining A Study's Objectives

We know that certain business travelers value some hotel features over others. These might include location, personal service, and/or amenities. You could readily conclude the hotel that can satisfy the greatest number of needs and wants on the business travelers' list has the best potential to retain current customers and acquire new ones.

However, does "convenient location" mean downtown or near the airport? How is personal service defined? Are the desired amenities WiFi access, the fitness center or complimentary toiletries? Qualitative research can uncover the business travelers' meanings behind these needs and help identify their relative importance as they relate to how they decide where to stay.

Gaining insights into the most important features for business travelers is one example of what could be accomplished in a qualitative research study. However, a study can fulfill multiple objectives simultaneously. For example, the same study could be used to test whether the features offered by a hotel fit with the way consumers perceive its image.

A hotel can position itself as an upscale and relatively expensive property aimed at attracting business travelers who appreciate top-shelf service, luxurious accommodations and fine food. It can work hard to deliver on these goals and still not enjoy the benefits of repeat visits from business travelers or new guests from their personal recommendations, but why?

Because qualitative research seeks to explore the reasons why consumers think and act as they do, it is an ideal tool to answer this question. It can explore whether the features that a hotel offers fit with consumers' expectations for that property. These expectations are often derived from marketing materials that perhaps tell consumers whether the hotel is upscale, moderately-priced or budget. Qualitative research can examine whether there are disconnects between the positioning messages in the marketing materials and the delivery of the features. It provides valuable information that can be used to help synchronize a hotel's marketing message to consumers and its delivery on the promises made.

Selecting a Methodology and Location

Focus groups are the preferred method for accomplishing the objectives outlined above. The dynamics of group interaction provide deep learning about consumers' thoughts and motivations that lie beneath conscious rationalizations for their behavior.

In trying to determine the best location to conduct these focus groups, hotels have an advantage over other industries. When companies want to conduct focus groups in markets that do not have traditional focus group facilities, qualitative research consultants or moderators will arrange for groups to be conducted in hotels. Adjacent meeting rooms are used - one for the group and one where representatives from the company that commissioned the research can view the groups as they are being conducted. A closed-circuit television system enables the viewers to watch the groups in real time and tape the groups for future use.

So, if you want to know why people stay at your hotel, why not start by conducting focus groups in your hotel? If the decision is made to conduct the groups at your hotel, a moderator can pre-recruit guests with reservations at your hotel and invite them participate in a focus group on your property during their stay.

Or for more objectivity and anonymity, a moderator may recommend using a more traditional setting, such as a focus group research facility. (A "facility" is an office with conference rooms in which moderators conduct focus groups while client observers watch the groups in soundproof lounges from behind a one-way mirrors. Such facilities are available in most cities across the country and provide audio and video recording services.)

Regardless of where the groups are conducted, when individuals are invited to a focus group, they are customarily offered an incentive to encourage them to participate and to thank them for their time. These can take several forms. Typically, a monetary honorarium or gratuity is offered, but there is no rule dictating this as a mandate. Be creative! Consider offering a free night's stay or a gift certificate for dinner. If prospective participants are employed by companies that prohibit them from accepting incentives, offer to make a donation in their name to their favorite charity.

In deciding who to invite to participate in the research, consider speaking to various subsets of guests. These could be business travelers who are loyal to your hotel as well as ones who are visiting for the first time. Talk to some who travel infrequently and perhaps only spend one or two nights at a time and others who travel more frequently and customarily stay longer on each visit. Invite some patrons who reserve meeting rooms as well as guest rooms. Include a mix of male and female business travelers.

Additionally, focus groups could be conducted to ascertain why competitive hotels' guests are loyal to them. Efforts should be made to find participants for these groups who have stayed at your hotel as well. These participants will be able to speak to the reasons why they have tried your hotel but prefer another. They can provide valuable insights into what could be done to win back their business.

Determining the Discussion Content

Once the date is set, the venue has been selected and the participants have been recruited, the moderator will compose a discussion guide based upon the objectives of the study. Creating the guide is an interactive process between the moderator and those who commissioned the research to ensure it includes all of the specific questions they want answered.

Sometimes I am asked why a professional moderator should be used to conduct focus groups. Granted, you do talk to your hotel guests regularly, and you do know what questions you want answered. And, running a focus group "looks so easy." But, appearances can be deceiving.

Actually, a good professional moderator has the training and experience to make a focus group look effortless when, in reality, the moderator is guiding the discussion to keep it focused on the points of inquiry and ensuring that no single participant dominates the session. They accomplish this objectively, without interjecting their own opinions or personal bias. Moderators are sensitive to what is omitted in the discussion and ask probing questions to uncover this information. And, since the participants in the group don't see the moderator as an authority on hotels, the moderator can ask simplistic and even "dumb" questions that might be embarrassing for someone in the industry to ask.

Once meeting with the group, skilled moderators utilize a variety of techniques to make the participants feel comfortable in sharing their thoughts and feelings. Customarily, participants are asked to introduce themselves at the beginning of a group. For this study, they might be asked to describe their current usage of hotels and attitudes toward competitive properties. They could be asked to recount their most recent visit to a hotel and provide insights into this experience. Participants might be asked to create a list of what they believe to be the best hotels for business travelers and explain why they feel this way. They could also be asked to compare the positive and negative attributes of these hotels and explain how these attributes might influence their decisions to stay at or return to these hotels in the future.

In these discussions, perceptions are just as important as experiences. If participants harbor thoughts about a hotel or hotel chain -- positive or negative -- these can impact their decisions about ever trying it. Since studies have shown that some business travelers select hotels based on their familiarity with other properties in the chain, experiences as well as perceptions can have an even greater effect on a major hotel corporation's bottom line.

Using the Information

Generally, the findings from qualitative research are used for their directional value. The insights that might be gained from this study could be used in several ways.

First, they could be the starting point from which to examine how marketing materials position the hotel. Do they accurately project the image the hotel wants to convey? If so, are they reaching the target audience? Are they being received by the target audience as the hotel intends?

If the hotel's positioning and marketing materials are deemed accurate, then the features and services that the hotel provides could be examined to determine whether they match what is conveyed to consumers. Investigate solutions to enhance the hotel's features and services to realign them more closely to the way the hotel promotes itself.

So the next time you ask yourself what could be done to attract more business travelers to your hotel, consider using qualitative marketing research as a tool for providing the answers.

Johnna Freud is a Qualitative Research Moderator with Saul Cohen & Associates, Ltd. She has experience in focus group moderating, interviewing, group facilitation and project management. She has worked with service companies, publishers, consumer package goods firms, retail chains, manufacturers, educational institutions, consulting firms, and advertising agencies. Research objectives have included concept evaluation and refinement, communications and advertising assessment, product repositioning, employee/student recruitment and performance evaluation, packaging and displays. Ms. Freud can be contacted at 203-322-0083 or scohenqual@aol.com Extended Bio...

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