Welcome to “Insider Perspectives”, a new series in which we interview travel industry insiders and veterans to hear their insights and stories, drawing upon their unique and impressive backgrounds.
This week, we invited our clients, Renier Milan, Vice President of TOBO Investments, and Halei Young, Digital Marketing and Community Manager at Beach Terrace Inn, to find out how they transformed a 48-room hotel into a market leader.
Tell us about your role at Beach Terrace Inn and what’s the most interesting, exciting, and enjoyable part of your job?
Renier: I am Vice President of TOBO Investments, the parent company that owns Beach Terrace Inn and a few other concerns. My primary role is to keep the hotel competitive and current, and to drive the future planning, visioning, marketing, sales, and capital investment of the property.
Of all the things I do, however, I am most excited about having the opportunity to curate a team that shares my passion for, and vision of, excellence—people who aren’t driven by the metrics of corporate hotel life, but are interested in creating and sharing great experiences and memories with both our guests and our colleagues. I’m dedicated to cultivating a fun work culture. We always try to inject a sense of playfulness, creativity, happiness, and humor into what we do. In fact, that spirit is rewarded here. I think our approach works. It has helped us to maintain our position as a market leader for the last several years.
Halei: As Digital Marketing Manager for Beach Terrace Inn, my role is to develop, implement, and manage our brand’s marketing strategy across the digital landscape.
Digital marketing is a rapidly evolving scene, both technologically and strategically. To remain relevant, I am constantly poring over the latest digital marketing news, trends, and industry best practices. To do my job well requires adaptability and a growth mindset, which I find extremely appealing.
Tell us a little bit about your hotel. In your opinion, what makes this hotel unique?
Renier: Beach Terrace Inn has been family-owned and family-operated since it was built in the 1960s. It’s a special place. We only have 48 rooms because we’ve deliberately chosen to be a small hotel with big rooms rather than a big hotel with small rooms. Although our rooms inventory comprises a tiny little slice of the market pie, amazingly, we’re a RevPar and ADR market leader when compared to a lot of our branded competition. Besides the location, our happy staff, special offerings, and beautiful, huge rooms are important factors that contribute to our success.
When people ask me to describe the hotel, I’m most eager to say that we’re a luxurious little hotel on a big sandy beach in the heart of San Diego’s north coast. We have a privately-owned beach and many of our rooms are actually cantilevered over it, a very rare privilege in California. You can’t get much closer to the ocean unless you’re actually on the water!
We feel very strongly that the regular world ends where our sand begins. We practice a relaxed vibe, which is why I can’t emphasize enough how friendly and helpful our staff is. In fact, we hire based on personality traits and then train the skill. We live the fact that if an employee doesn’t smile in the first 30 seconds of an interview, we don’t hire them—for us, it’s important to curate people who are the right culture fit.
What’s it like to be a small independent property in a metro area full of big branded properties?
Renier: One of the things that I’m most proud of in this hotel is that, even as a small tiny little David in a market of Goliaths, we’re still the market leader in Carlsbad. Although we compete with major brands, we’ve stayed at the top of TripAdvisor rankings and have been the number one hotel in terms of RevPAR performance for the last 18 months.
As the “anti-brand” that is being surrounded by major brands, we work hard to make sure that we’re not corporate and strive to provide experiences that are more personal, consistent, and interesting than our competitors. Because we’re small and nimble, we’re able to constantly listen to our customers and adapt to their needs.
What are the common challenges you face as an independent hotelier and how are you tackling these challenges?
Renier: In order to stay current, our hotel has to compete on digital platforms everywhere, especially on OTA platforms. We strive to avoid very hefty OTA commission percentages by marketing directly to guests. We keep our guests engaged and interested by staying current and creating experiences that are unique and memorable for each guest. In fact, we have so much success that 55% to 60% of our guests are return business.
Halei: We may be a small team, but we have an incredibly ambitious vision. With so many channels to explore, markets to reach and strategies to test, it can be challenging to allocate limited time, energy, and financial resources. We work hard to streamline processes and optimize our digital performance so that we can free up the resources to continue testing new ideas.
What are your biggest opportunities and goals?
Renier: Our biggest opportunities for growth have a lot to do with keeping up with our customer and the changing trends of the marketplace.
In a 60-year operating history, we’ve served many guests, including generations of guests. To adapt to the demographic change of our clientele, we have to evolve our brand image from the hotel that served your parents to a hotel that can continue to serve you as well as your children.
My goal as Vice President of Hotels is to make sure that we stay fresh with our marketing practices and product offerings so we tell a story that resonates with changing generations and target audiences. We try to maintain a current point of view, a modern look, and a timely personality. In terms of marketing, we attract guests through various tactics on both digital and social media platforms. We revise our website and update our photography and media library regularly to keep our brand image from becoming stale.
We also adopt a mantra of constant improvement in the property to reward our guests. One of the things our guests regularly comment is, “Every year when I return, something has changed and the hotel has improved.” We are passionate about investing in the enhancement of guest experiences to remain competitive and to thank our guests for their loyalty.
What are some tactics and platforms you’ve tested and liked as a digital marketer?
Halei: I’m a fan of any tactic or platform that can leverage technology to serve up tasteful personalization in a way that doesn’t feel disruptive to the consumer.
Our brand experienced a significant digital transformation within the past year, the most obvious being the launch of our new website. But we have also rolled out a new booking engine and digital marketing strategy. Our partner throughout this journey has been Travel Tripper. By integrating their web platform with the RezTrip booking engine, our ability to showcase ‘smart content’ such as real-time rates and inventory has elevated the transparency of our messaging, resulting in remarkable direct conversion growth.
What does the future of independent hotels hold?
Renier: Just about everywhere one looks, brands are striving to appear more authentic and independent. Soft brands help accomplish this for some, but others are pursuing it further. The recent acquisition of Kimpton by IHG emphasizes the need for large brands to acquire marquee marquee boutique properties that feel independent in nature. Likewise, the announced acquisition of Two Roads Hospitality (Destination Hotels, Joie de Vivre) gives Hyatt a lifestyle platform of independent hotels. Location- specific experiences, design, and service are the future.
Thanks to the democratization of distribution, independents with an authentic, unique experience are well positioned to grow and lead the market. The popularity of Airbnb also shows how eager the consumer is to connect in special ways during travel rather than just staying in homogenized hotel environments.
What other emerging platforms would you like to try out? What’s your take on tactics like influencer marketing and chatbots?
Halei: I’m looking forward to allocating more resources to programmatic marketing, particularly if the future of programmatic features omni-channel delivery, more transparency on the open-exchange, and enhanced security (Blockchain, anyone?). I’m also really excited about the future of intelligent voice search and AI-powered technology but that’s perhaps a conversation for another time.
Everyone is an influencer to some extent. That said, it has been fascinating to watch the evolution of influencer marketing within this digital revolution. For hotels, it’s a tactic that can be a powerful driver of brand awareness and traffic if used strategically.
We expect more out of chatbots than what they can currently deliver. It seems that virtual agents are a better alternative for now until we see more advances in natural language processing and conversational AI. In five years, I think we’ll look back at this chapter in customer care technology and laugh at how unsophisticated it was.
A lot of us who work in this industry are passionate about traveling. So what’s on your bucket list for travel?
Halei: Papua New Guinea!
Renier: Japan, India, Spain, and Argentina. I love to travel, but increasingly it is a hassle. To counteract that, a great hotel is as essential as a great destination.
What’s your most memorable travel experience?
Renier: My most memorable trip was arriving as a 5 year old boy in Miami as part of the American- sponsored Freedom Flights that rescued families from Cuba after the revolution. It was my first flight, my first trip, and it made my life, as I know it, possible.
Halei: I spent some time traveling in Southeast Asia. For 10 months I lived in a treehouse on a small island in Cambodia. No running water, no electricity, no cars and certainly no internet. It was glorious.
How do you plan and prepare for your leisure trips?
Halei: I’m a travel minimalist. Carry-on only, neutral color palette with layers, noise- cancellation headphones, an audiobook, and a solid Spotify playlist.
Besides traveling, what are your hobbies/side hustle/passion projects?
Halei: I’m happiest in the sunny outdoors, which is why San Diego is home. I live a block from my favorite surf spot so I spend a lot of time there. Otherwise, I keep busy with projects like sake brewing, making music, or working to shape local environmental policy with The Surfrider Foundation.
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