In the absence of patrons, Indian hospitality players have begun to offer brand experiences online. Could this be the future of travel? By Riaan Jacob George
These days, if you log in to Instagram or Facebook between 05:00 pm and 07:00 pm, you come across a bunch of live sessions on an array of subjects. These real-time video sessions range from counselling chats to tutorials offered by bloggers and cooking demonstrations. Hospitality players haven’t been left behind, aggressively publishing innovative content on social media. The majority of these online experiences are in the form of Instagram and Facebook live sessions, but there are also webinars, Zoom calls, YouTube videos, and what-not available for free consumption to India’s cyber citizens. While hotels, airlines, and other businesses wait for normalcy to return, many are banking on such ancillary experiences on the Internet to drive engagement with patrons.
The Ritz-Carlton, Pune (ritzcarlton.com) conducted a home photography campaign in collaboration with Goa-based narrative photographer Maria Philipose as part of their Pause for Possibilities campaign. People were asked to share their home photographs that were related to travel in some way, and tag the hotel, thereby generating traction. While there is no explicit connection between home photography and the hotel’s offerings, Vineet Mishra, general manager, tells me that they wanted to “make the diverse community capture unique perspectives of this extraordinary worldwide lockdown, which is a shared global experience.”
It’s all about selling a lifestyle rather than just a bed, says Sohrab J Parakh, director of marketing, W Goa (marriott.com). “Hospitality marketing is not just a beautiful picture on the gram or a stunning video with a thousand likes. When a hotel brand’s passion points are lived through music, fashion, design, and fuel, they are missed by those who are addicted to the #FOMO mania.” W Goa, known for its flamboyant lifestyle offerings, kept the entertainment value up during the lockdown with live sunset DJ sessions, a virtual seven-day detox with a yoga coach, and a live cocktail session in partnership with Pernod Ricard.
The Oberoi Hotels & Resorts (oberoihotels.com) has also been on-board the knowledge-share bandwagon, posting a host of immunity-building recipes on their website. Created and conceptualised by the group’s in-house team, this was a culinary brand-building exercise of sorts, where larger audiences, including both patrons and non-patrons of the hotel, could be part of the brand experience.
BUILDING A LIFESTYLE
A few brands stepped back to focus on the bigger picture of hospitality. Sports, entertainment, and food were harnessed in Accor’s (all.accor.com) global campaign #ALLatHome, a virtual brand extension of its Accor Live Limitless division. Ibis Music, for instance, was a very successful gig-driven programme at Ibis hotels across the country. Ibis India decided to repackage Ibis Music as #GigsatHome. Every Friday, artists like The Gilsons, Prachi Kapil, AZTEC, and The Suryansh Project took over the Ibis India Instagram handle to perform live gigs. “In addition to providing a platform to young artists, we wanted to deliver unique experiences to our virtual community, as our in-house gigs are on hold for now. The idea is to entertain and stay connected,” says Sylvain Laroche, director of operations, Ibis India.
Another strategic move was when a mass-market brand like Amul partnered with a luxury hotel to reach new audiences. JW Marriott Mumbai Sahar (marriott.com) collaborated with Amul India to create a range of easy home recipes, bringing the former’s premium content and experiences into a more relatable context. The final objective was “to craft virtual experiences for guests to bridge the distance,” says Anshuman Bali, the hotel’s executive chef.
Wellness has been one of the most hotly debated topics in recent times, and ITC Hotels’ (itchotels.com) campaign, Digital Master Series, is a noteworthy branding exercise. Through six wellness videos, the luxury group is communicating its narrative of well-being. The campaign, Wellbeing Master Series by Kaya Kalp, is driven by Dr Suraj Dubey, head of spa and wellness. The first session on palm reflexology, focussed on boosting immunity and vitality, was conducted by Dr Mamtha, the resident naturopathy physician at ITC Grand Chola Chennai. “On closer analysis of the market, we found that wellness is one of the most significant areas of guest engagement. This is indicative of a trend, one that will find greater meaning in our future offerings. We need to retain engagement with both guests and our social media community,” the home-grown luxury group’s COO, Anil Chadha, tells us.
It wasn’t only hotels that used virtual experiences as a marketing tool. Home-sharing giant Airbnb (airbnb.co.in) led the pack in innovation. Recently, it expanded its Online Experiences—given that most people were not able to access real-life Airbnb Experiences—in partnership with a host of leading Indian personalities across fitness, food, fashion, and home decor. As a result, we saw a fashion illustration experience from the Delhi home of designers Shivan and Narresh, an interactive mixology workshop with Monkey Shoulder ambassador Pankaj Balachandran, a table styling workshop with decor specialist Devika Narain, a zero-waste cooking class by Chef Sandeep Sreedharan of Goa’s Mahé restaurant fame, among other experiences. Parin Mehta, regional director of Airbnb Experiences APAC, reveals the thought process, “Online Experiences provide an easy opportunity for someone to become a host and earn an income. Secondly, guests have easy access to people in other countries, breaking geographical borders, in order to experience something unique. In terms of our online experiences with Indian personalities, we managed to co-create engaging genre-specific experiences.”
Indian airline Vistara (airvistara.com) also used the lull in air traffic to create travel-related content. In a series of webinars and live chats across Instagram, Zoom, and YouTube, the airline’s bosses engaged with travel influencers to discuss pressing aviation-related matters such as the new normal of flying, safety, and sanitisation facilities on flights, awareness about pre-, in-, and post-flight measures as well as topics like frequent flyer miles. From an aviation standpoint, this was a great way to drive conversation and create content buckets that might be of interest to any flyer.
How the new normal pans out remains to be seen in the next couple of months. But one thing is for sure. The marketing and branding teams of hospitality companies will have to reinterpret traditional strategies and think of larger, more inclusive schemes to engage both customers and non-customers, and ensure brand visibility even in a global pandemic.