Marketing for spa, beauty and hospitality through and beyond Covid-19

Feb 26, 2021
Marketing Director Elliott Wakefield

Marketing in the spa, beauty and hospitality sectors over the past year has been an exercise in resilience, creativity and quick thinking, but one brand in particular has done an exceptional job. The Alexander Hotels collection has reacted to the challenges of Covid-19 with good grace, empathy and commercial inspiration that business of all sizes can learn from. We spoke to Group Marketing Director Elliott Wakefield to find out what they did.

While some are more obvious than others, what are the challenges that Alexander Hotels has faced over the last 12 months?

Since the advent of the pandemic there has been a range of challenges in every industry that relies on people coming together. One of the particular things that we have found difficult has been the stop/start nature of the lockdowns. There has been a sense that every time you get ahead on something it’s pulled out from under you. We understand why but it does make things very difficult, especially when you think the marketing journey isn’t as simple as placing an advert and off we go; you gradually encourage people to commit to that purchase. That was one point that I think we all found difficult in terms of staying positive and upbeat.

Adapting to regulations has also had its challenges. Trying to keep the experience as real as possible when we’re asked to create physical barriers where you don’t really want them is a test, especially in the spa. Physically you might have a massage but mentally you also want people to bring their barriers down, and when you’re putting things in that make it more clinical, that can be very hard.

With that in mind, we have worked to soften the edges where we could, and the operations team have done an amazing job on that. Similarly, the food and beverage experiences have been about coming up with ways to make people feel confident about visiting us again.

What marketing activities did you do, why, and what was the effect?

It’s been a journey and we’ve evolved how we’ve been communicating over time. When it first happened, I realised we were going to have to up our game on digital communications. We needed to increase the volume to try to translate our real life experiences to peoples’ homes and make them feel more connected with us. I only joined in 2019, and one of the reasons was to develop the conversation around the lifestyle side of the brand, so in a way this was an opportunity to do that.

Our first newsletter I named ‘The Covid Chronicles’ (before Radio 4 starting using the phrase). I did get a certain amount of negative backlash from readers who thought it was opportunistic, which was upsetting, but we also had lots of positive feedback as well. If I was younger, I might have handled negative feedback differently, but I think you have to remember that it’s a person at the other end of that email, so I reply as me, not as a marketing person, and will happily have conversations with people to make clear our intentions. We had to develop the tone and of course we tried to commercialise some aspects of the situation because we’re a business, but we needed to do that without looking as though we were using Covid as a slogan.

We had a whole calendar that focused on getting beneath the skin of the brand; developing at home spa rituals, we spoke to Jennifer about home facials and to Temple Spa, who we use for our spa products. In all of the hotels we have certain signatures – one is a lovely coarse spun wool from the west coast of Ireland that we use in all hotel bedrooms. So, we interviewed the owner and retailed the blankets so people could have a little piece of the Alexander Hotels collection at home. We did the same thing with various other brands as well. It was commercial but I think it’s important that people not only have something to read but nice things to do as well and creating a little bit of the hotel experience at home is a part of that.

When I joined the company, my general approach was that if we had nothing to say then we wouldn’t say anything at all. I fell on my sword on that because we went from saying we might do a newsletter in any given month to definitely doing a newsletter every week. It’s been quite a lot and obviously it’s only one piece of the puzzle.

The thing we have found is that these activities staved off the great drop in web traffic that most other hoteliers reported. It has evened out at about 80% of the traffic that we would normally have, which was great given that people weren’t booking. They were visiting to read recipes, read stories and feel inspired to visit the hotels in the future. We definitely saw that when we had a parting of the clouds in August. I think it’s fair that most hotels had a great summer ever because people weren’t going abroad, but the marketing activity we did definitely helped to turn engagement into bookings.

Our Barnett Hill hotel was meant to have its launch year in 2020. It hadn’t previously been known as a leisure destination and has had a lot of work done to reinvent it. Even taking into account the lockdown, bookings were far and away 200% better than it had ever been before. We were ahead of where we were the previous year, even though there were no weddings.

Are there any opportunities that you have spotted for your business and the wider spa industry?

Groups like The Pig collection understand that people want to have an experience when they go to a hotel. Now, more than ever, if people are going to come out of their homes, they’re going to come for more than just a treatment or a hotel bed. It’s about the experience, and it needs to be unique and thoughtful, tapping into different thoughts and feelings.

For example, there are these great moments in the collective consciousness that Netflix forces where everyone is talking about the same thing. Some places do incredibly well at recreating those moments. The Lanesborough has done a whole thing around Bridgerton; it’s light-hearted and fun but everyone gets the reference because it’s part of that national conversation and you can make the digital real. We don’t want to have experiences that are just transactional anymore. We want to be wowed and have magic moments that we remember and talk about.

Equally, people are consuming content in their own homes to an extent they never have been before. So, we will carry on doing the recipes, the stories, giving people that sense of touching your brand between visits to keep them engaged and excited to come back or to buy something for themselves because they loved it on their last stay.

Content has come into its own over the last year. Lots of us have paid lip service to it in the past but guests and consumers want and need to understand the story behind a brand, how sustainable it is, where it comes from and make the link between the digital and reality. I think our industry paves the way for that and I really hope other businesses do it as well. I think it’s integral for the survival of the high street.

What did you do regarding internal marketing and communicating with the team?

Different companies have had different approaches and we haven’t always got it right. I had a really interesting conversation with one company about motivating the therapists, the waiters, the front facing teams, but it raised the question - who’s looking after the people who have to motivate them? We’re only human and you can only motivate yourself so much alone at home.

Our approach was pretty simple. It was about staying in touch with people, making them feel like they’re not isolated for however many months and having open communications whether that’s one-to-one or on group calls.

I have a relatively small team that I am directly responsible for and we speak each week. We do have exercise classes and Zoom bingo and things, but it’s very much something you only do if you want to do it; there’s no shaming people into thinking they have to be involved. If they don’t want to, it doesn’t mean you’re not a team player but it’s there as a resource for those who do want to do that.

We have also included the occasional communication from our owners as well. We’re owned by a couple who visit the hotels every day normally. For our team it’s really important to get that sense of community and to show we’re trying to do everything we can to make sure our company recovers in the most robust fashion. There’s training that we’ve done, such as the Jennifer Young Cross Infection Control course for therapists. We have had book clubs, and plenty of tea (or gin) and chats.

What team training did you do and how did the team respond?

In 2020 I became aware of the Jennifer Young brand. I have plenty of people I think of who I would want to be looked after in a special way at a spa if they were going through cancer treatment, but I would want them to be treated in a way that doesn’t make them feel different. I remember working in some spas where the phone would ring, and it would be someone who had cancer asking to book a treatment and the default reaction would be ‘best not’. I found that heart breaking.

The team at our flagship hotel, Alexander House, had training with Jennifer Young and we have created a dedicated spa journey and a voucher as well. They are really excited about being able to practice the treatments when things re-open. At the end of the day, everyone has a story to do with cancer and that’s true of our therapists as well. They feel that knowing someone is going through this awful time and being able to give them that power of reprieve and relaxation is one of those moments that is really rewarding.

The team also did the Cross Infection Control course. As a therapist you’re in an intimate zone with your client - the door is shut, it’s physical and certainly there was a lot of anxiety about minimising risk around Covid. The course made them felt reassured that they could practice without feeling they were doing something wrong.

What are your plans for the coming months?

Last year whenever there was an opportunity, we took it. Our grocery store for example was set up to sell produce from our suppliers. We wanted to keep orders going because we’re a big company and lots of people rely on us. It was almost too successful at times, and one day we woke to £20,000 of orders in one night for delivery the next day, which was a bit overwhelming!

This year, our approach is a bit different. In this lockdown we have been taking the time to collect our thoughts and make sure our foundations are solid. At the moment we’re focusing on the basics and taking a holistic view of the website to make sure it flows and looks right.

We have plans in the drawer for every occasion. There’s a whole plan for easter if we’re able to re-open then. If it’s May then we have plans for how that will look. We’re thinking may poles, egg and spoon races for the school holidays – making it a really fun experience that’s worth getting out of bed for.

It all comes down to trying to create experiences and wanting people to choose our product over someone else’s. I think people who want to travel in the UK will be spoiled for choice with things going on when everything opens up. I am working on convincing the operations team to bring in pop-up beaches and ice cream stalls for those who can’t get to the coast this summer – we shall see! In short, we have skeletal plans all over the place, but for now we’re updating the website, brochures and menus etc.


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