Ms. Knutson

Sales & Marketing

Creating a Sense of Place in Your Hotel

Place or Placeless? That is the Question

By Bonnie Knutson, Professor, The School of Hospitality Business/MSU

My husband and I got married when we were just 19. We were still in college. Like many young couples of our era, managing school, two jobs, and family didn't leave a lot of discretionary time nor money. But we were always good savers, even if it was only a quarter here or a dollar there. This bring me to the old Alka Seltzer containers. Some of you may remember them. They looked like little glass tubes and contained the round tablets that gave rise to the memorable jingle: Plop. Plop. Fizz. Fizz. Oh what a relief it is. (These classic containers are now categorized as "vintage" collectibles on eBay. To go back down memory lane, find a spare minute to view the distinctive 1969 television commercial on YouTube.

When the glass tube was empty of its tablets, it became the perfect size to hold quarters. The diameter of the container was just big enough to let a quarter easily slide down inside, effortlessly stacking one on top of the other until the tube was full. Then it was on to filling the next one. Thus, Alka Seltzer became our own little bank and the glass tubes became our own little vacation savings account. As we packed each one, it was stored in the bottom drawer of our dresser.

I can vividly remember the first time we opened that drawer and realized that we had finally saved enough for our first weekend away. We were like two kids anticipating Christmas morning. Needless to say, we did our homework to find the perfect place so we could stretch our Alka Seltzer allotment as far as possible. Remember that this was pre-Internet with its Trip Advisor, its Yelp, and its Groupon so it definitely took some work. When the Friday afternoon finally came, off we went to what we hoped would be a magical time together. And it was. While I can well recall our room, the little restaurant where we had dinner, and lounging by the pool, it is walking through the resort's grounds at night holding hands that holds my most vivid and fairy-tale memory. You see, that was the first time I had ever seen trees up-lit. It seemed as if the leaves on each tall, stately elm, maple, and ash were dancing, making irreplaceable patterns above us. It was truly magical.

Since that weekend, every home in which we have lived has incorporated tree up-lights in its landscaping. Why do I tell you this story? Because these up-lights give me a sense of place.

Sense of Place has become one of marketing's more recent hot buzzwords. It's been used to promote everything from a national park to a housing development. And, yes, it is also used to promote hotel bookings. The truth, however, is that we can't really define the phrase so we don't really know how to leverage it effectively. Trying to define it is akin to what Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said in his 1964 test for obscenity, "I shall not today attempt further to define [it]…and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so, but I know it when I see it…"
Geographers look at sense of place from a locational perspective with its topographical characteristics.

Anthropologists see it in terms of the relationship between culture and symbols. Sociologists think of it in terms of a feeling of belonging. Urban Planners try to figure out how they can design and build it. And marketers just want to use it to increase sales. But no matter what the viewpoint, there are three fundamental points to remember in developing your property's sense of place.

First, just as perceptions are different for everyone, so is sense of place. Those up-lights are one of mine, but they were never my husband's. While he lovingly remembered our walks beneath those trees, he found his sense of place stepping onto the first tee at any golf course. Second, a sense of place needs a place. That is, it has to have a geographic location. Here is where hotels, inns, resorts, and B&Bs can have a leg-up on other businesses. By definition, you already have a physical place. Yours is an airport hotel, or an ocean-side resort, or an inn like Bob Newhart ran on his 1970s TV sitcom. The question is whether it also has an emotional sense of place. Third, places that have a strong sense of place have a distinctive identity that locals and/or visitors can't necessarily explain, but can feel. The key ingredients here are unique, authentic, and character. It is this third point over which you probably have the most control, but it may also be the hardest for you to implement.

It seems that, with the exploding global hotel industry, finding that unique and authentic concept to establish the property's distinctive character becomes more challenging. But those hotels who have successfully done it and are reaping the benefits.

Take, for example, the Rosewood Hotels. Several years ago, this luxury hotel group launched a sense of place marketing campaign to support its belief that "a true journey never ends." Rosewood is well known for having one-of-a-kind luxury properties in some of the most unique cities in the world - from Santa Fe, New Mexico to Sanya, China.

Highlighting their concept, they offer guests customized private experiences that allow them to become immersed in the unique aspects of the local culture. In announcing the campaign, Sonia Cheng, the Chief Executive Officer, talked about the specialness of the Rosewood experience because they used a "living canvas approach" for every property, wanting each to be as "un-hotel as possible," not "a cookie-cutter experience." To help them remain true to their goal, they engaged experts to give them the "inside scoop on each location," designating these experts as the hotel's "curators." Now you may not have the marketing budget of Rosewood or the opportunity to hire your own curator, but every town, city, or hamlet has a museum or a historical society that you can tap for the "inside scoop" about your location.

For instance, the Hotel Monteleone gives guests a sense of a paranormal place by leveraging its friendly ghosts who have appeared to guests and employees. Of course, this 19th-Century Hotel in New Orleans French Quarter boasts its historic gilded chandeliers, carved paneling, and soaring ceilings as the backdrop for it sense of place. And, oh yes, the actual 13th floor, where most of the ghostly actions happen, is called the 14th floor. In a similar vein, the quaint 1649 Three Chimneys Inn in New Hampshire, established its strong sense of place by exploiting the paranormal sounds and sightings of a young girl who drowned in a nearby Oyster River. And it, too, reinforces its sense of place with antique furnishings.

But a property doesn't have to rely on ghosts, or historical happenings for a sense of place. It can build its own much like the famous 110 room Madonna Inn did in San Luis Obispo, California. The original 12 room property was not nearly as ostentatious as today's inn. But after it burned down in the sixties, it was rebuilt as the "most ridiculous and amazing motel you're likely to find anywhere" with individually themed rooms bearing such names as Caveman, Rock Bottom, and William Tell. And, having had the opportunity to be stay there, I can attest to the fact that it does establish its clear sense of place its guests.

It isn't enough, of course, to just have ghosts, crazy rooms, or up-lit trees to establish your sense of place. Operating procedures, service quality, and promotional messaging have to anchor it too. A letdown is one of these vital areas can negate the best place - i.e. brand -- strategy ever designed. Do you remember in your high school physics class when you learned the molecular difference between a bar of iron and a magnet? If you recall, in a bar of iron the molecules are randomly arranged; there's no rhyme or reason to their order or their organization. Consequently, the bar does absolutely nothing but sit there. However, the molecules in a magnet re aligned so that all the "+" poles are in one direction and all the "-" poles are in the other. They are arranged on purpose - and they do something; they work; they attract. In today's experience economy, it has to be the same way. Every cue must be done on purpose to support the overall sense of place that the guest experiences. It is often said that a successful business is not doing one thing a thousand percent better, it is doing a thousand things one percent better. Nowhere is this truer than in establishing a strong sense of place for your hotel.

There is no question that the understanding how a sense of place develops and becomes relevant to your guests is not an easy thing to do. Social psychologists, geographers, designers, and marketers have been trying to figure how to do it for years. All we can do is take what they have learned so far and work to integrate it into every aspect of our hotel's operations. First, a sense of place is actually an emotional bond between a person and his/her surroundings. This comes back to the truism that perception is reality. Second, its three key components are unique, authentic, and character. It is another truism that you can't try to be something you are not; people will see right through you. It follows then, that an additional truism is: You can fool some of the people all of the time; all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time. And third, your guest's sense of place is often rooted in past experience. This last truism comes down to the notion of banked memories and takes us back to my story of Alka Seltzer containers and up-lights.

So be sure to have your trees up-lit when I come to your hotel. It will give me my sense of place, not placeless. Your REVPAR will thank you.

Bonnie J. Knutson is a professor in The School of Hospitality Business in the Broad College of Business at Michigan State University. She is an authority on emerging lifestyle trends and innovative marketing. Her work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and on PBS and CNN. She has had numerous articles in industry, business, and academic publications. Bonnie is a frequent speaker for executive education as well as business and industry meetings, workshops, and seminars. Dr. Knutson is also editor of the Journal of Hospitality & Leisure Marketing. Ms. Knutson can be contacted at 517-353-9211 or drbonnie@msu.edu Extended Bio...

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