Travel, tourism, and hospitality organizations that position their brands by focusing on product features are likely selling their brands short in the long run. While features are more concrete, most can be easily imitated, taking the wind out of promotional sails as competitors quickly adopt those same features. True brand differentiation requires organizational leaders to reach up into higher levels of understanding and identify the broader experiences the brand creates for guests and customers.
Admittedly, this is a harder tact, and the waters are murkier to navigate; but the results are well worth the effort. To help light the way, outlined below are three ways to identify the experiences that will help your brand rise to the top.
ONE — Look first to your brand values and identify ways they can come to life for your guests. Well-defined brand values philosophically unite a workforce and help everyone understand the higher purpose driving their efforts. However, to realize the full potential of brand values, they must be brought to life in the operations of the business, the actions of the brand, and ultimately, in the experiences that operations and actions combined create for customers. In fact, brand values only become real to customers and guests when they are brought to life through those experiences.
For example, international hospitality association, Relais & Châteaux, has five Ideals of Spirit that unite its 525-plus members: ideals like Sense of Place, Harmony and Being. As unifying as these ideals are, they alone don’t differentiate the brand. Knowing this, Relais & Châteaux identified five Guest Experiences inspired by each ideal, such as A Taste of the Land, A Celebration of the Senses and Awakening to Art de Vivre.
All of these experiences are brought to life in every Relais & Châteaux establishment around the globe, but they are interpreted differently in each location, reflecting the unique personality of the property, its proprietor and its surrounding region. While the values of the brand are important, it is the experiences that well-paying, discerning guests care most about. After all experiences are what they’re ultimately buying, not values. (View a film celebrating Relais & Châteaux’s five Guest Experiences, here.)
Two — Don’t just develop activities; create thoughts, emotions and sensations. The richest experiences are ones that appeal to many different parts of us at once. Yes, they are rooted in activities; but they transcend those activities to elicit thoughts, stir emotions and fire the senses. When multiple facets of us come alive through an experience it creates a more powerful and lasting impact, making us remember more, motivating us to share more and compelling us to come back for repeat performances.
Travel Alberta demonstrates this idea in the new brand story it launched a year ago. Alberta is a province with many incredible natural features—e.g. the stunning Canadian Rockies, the haunting Badlands and the majestic Eastern prairies. But rather than focus solely on those features and sell Alberta simply as a destination (as it had done in the past), Travel Alberta rose above them to position the province as a holistic experience: one that touches the head, the heart and all the senses. Internally, Travel Alberta encourages those working in the travel and tourism business to create “goosebump moments” for guests: those experiences that enrich our lives, give us something to brag about and are so mesmerizing that we must ‘Remember to Breathe,’ as brilliantly brought to life in this brand video.
Three — Don’t promise the experience; just deliver it. In this age of increasing consumer skepticism, we naturally start doubting a brand if it promises too much in its marketing communications. A brand can allude to an experience or show people in the midst of it. But experiences are much more meaningful when they are under-promised, over-delivered and allowed to unfold for guests in a genuine, surprising and unforced way.
To illustrate, a story. A couple of years ago when planning a trip to southern Africa, my partner and I cashed in just about every frequent flyer point we had to book two First Class tickets on Lufthansa. We’d flown their Business Class several times, but that section was all booked up so we decided to splurge on First. The overnight flight from Vancouver to Frankfurt was very nice, and we arrived in the morning refreshed and ready to tour around the city before our next overnight flight to Johannesburg. In Frankfurt, we met up with Daniel, a good friend who lived in Germany. After a nice lunch and walk around town, Daniel turned to us and said, “OK…you should get back to the airport now.”
“But our flight isn’t for another six hours,” we reminded him, a little hurt that he was done with us so soon.
“I know. I know. But listen to me, you need to get back and make full use of the First Class Lounge. It’s life changing.”
He wasn’t kidding. The moment we glided up the escalator past the elegantly inconspicuous sign, we knew we were entering into something special. The woman at the front desk took our boarding passes and said to come back precisely at 10:15 PM. “But our flight leaves at 10:25,” we remarked. She just smiled reassuringly and sent us on our way.
For the next several hours we proceeded to live like gypsies in the palace. We sampled some of dozen or so champagnes they serve by the glass. We took showers in the fully marbled, private bathrooms. We sampled more champagnes. We napped in the private bedrooms. We ate exactly 23 different things in the restaurant. We smoked cigars. We had ice cream sundaes. We got massages. And at 10:00 PM, sated, a little tipsy and convinced we would need more than ten minutes to catch our next flight, we walked back up to the front desk, where we were immediately and politely told to come back at 10:15.
As amazing as the First Class Lounge was, the best part was leaving it. At 10:15 we were taken down in an elevator to the tarmac where a black Mercedes with darkened windows stood at attention. We slipped into the back seat and were whisked away to a 747 that seemed to be (actually was) waiting just for us. As we pulled up to the plane, I couldn’t help but notice the faces staring out the windows at our car. Not being able to help myself, I reached into my bag and pulled out my sunglasses.
Walking towards another elevator, I felt certain I heard our fellow passengers wonder in several different languages, “Who’s that?” their voices somehow reaching through the fuselage and rising above the noise of the jet engines. We glided onto the plane, up the stairs and into our seats. And as the flight attendant handed us a glass of champagne (What’s one more?) and the plane pulled away from the gate, I leaned over to my partner and proclaimed, “I can’t ever go back.”
The product and service features associated with Lufthansa First Class are most certainly remarkable. But what is more remarkable and memorable is the ‘rock star’ experience those features create. I’m not sure if Lufthansa uses that term in their internal documentation, but it is certainly what the experience felt like as we were pampered, nourished and made to feel completely and utterly special. They promised little and delivered a lot, setting my expectations at a reasonable level and then allowing the experience itself to completely exceed them.
Rather than leaving satisfied, I left completely surprised, delighted and dying to share the story of this experience with anyone who would listen. More than anything, I left wanting to come back and experience the whole thing again, which I plan to do…as soon as I save up enough points.
This post was originally published on December 10, 2012 as the second part in a series of articles I am writing for UK-based travel and tourism site, EyeForTravel.