Marketing Man: O’Rourke Hospitality’s Brian Fitzgerald

Brian FitzgeraldEverything PR News has engaged in discussion with a number of key decision makers over the last year. PR gurus, creatives, journalists and editors, but not so many marketing experts. We found just such a guru in marketing man Brian Fitzgerald.

The travel and tourism business being as dynamic and changing as any in this digitally charge time, Fitzgerald, of O’Rourke Hospitality Marketing, seemed like the perfect person to tag for a Q & A. One problem though, in catching up with professionals on the go, is actually catching them with the time to answer questions. Brian graciously acquiesced over a couple of days. The key insights you will find below, should provide fodder for your marketing and sales cannons. But first, a bit of a background on Fitzgerald and O’Rourke.

Vice President of Digital Strategy, Fitzgerald is an industry veteran formerly a web strategist at TIG Global and Marriott International, expert in PPC, SEO, social media, digital media, as well as all the aspects of measurement and analysis. His company, founded by Tom and Sue O’Rourke in 2001, serves up a complete line of solutions for hospitality clients. Creative to SEO and outright social media engagement, O’Rourke is one of a new breed of industry players. But we will summarize later. Let’s take up mine and Brian’s conversation.

EPR -Jumping right in Brian, as an acknowledged digital marketing expert can you give our readers some insight into how the balance of PPC, SEO, social media, and digital media now stands, at least for hospitality companies? Has the proportion, the balance of needed focus changed in the last year?

Brian-Over the last couple of years Google has produced some studies that they call Think With Google. One of these studies, called the Traveler’s Road to Decision, has a fascinating statistic about consumer behavior when booking travel. The statistic is that the average travel shopper uses 10.2 information sources before buying. What this means for hotel marketers is that you need to be everywhere. You need to be doing SEO, PPC, email marketing, display advertising, partner linking, social media and more. This presents challenges on many fronts, but mainly with budget resources and human resources. How can you pay for all these efforts and who is going to manage them for you? We’re helping more and more hotels figure this out.

In terms of prioritization and balance, we have not seen many changes in the past year. Hotels are doing more testing with social media, display and distribution channels like Groupon, but the core activities are still centered around hotel websites and search. Your hotel website is still your “virtual lobby” where consumers immediately form their first impressions of your property. This continues to be a critical tactic that, amazingly, many hotels still have not properly addressed. Search engines are not going anywhere either. There are over 2 billion searches performed on Google each day. As long as consumers are using Google (and other search engines) to perform research, marketing tactics like SEO and PPC will continue to be at the top of the priority list.

EPR – A lot has been said about the OTAs, their commission models, and alternative monetization means. My question is; “Do you see hoteliers leaning more toward different channels, PPC, free OTAs, and the like?”

Brian – I think every hotel that is paying commissions to OTAs has probably thought about how they might be able to shift business from those expensive distribution channels to less expensive channels. However, I don’t know many hotels that have been successful at figuring out exactly how to do it, it is easier said than done. Over the past year I’ve seen many hotels test the group buy model, but I think most find the costs to be comparable to OTAs.

Your mention of PPC is valid. I would like to see more hotels look at Google as a distribution channel and manage their PPC spend and production the same way they manage their inventory and availability in every other distribution channel. PPC activities have a certain cost associated with them and when compared to the commissions of OTAs, PPC is extremely cheap. Too many hotels set their PPC budget and then that’s it, they spread that budget out over the course of the year and can’t go over the budgeted amount. However, if you’re PPC efforts can produce a desired ROI (or ROAS), why wouldn’t you continue to invest in that channel, capture as much demand as possible as long as you can maintain the ROI/ROAS that you require. I think when viewed and managed this way, PPC can be a channel to help shift business from OTAs to direct.

EPR -Your business revolves around gaining ROI for hoteliers Brian, just how much emphasis do clients put on analytics, proving the conversion aspect, ROI?

Brian – The true answer here is that “it depends”. Some of our clients are perfectly focused on analytics and the ROI of marketing activities. Some are not at all focused on analytics, often because of a lack of comfort with digital marketing in general or because they wear many different hats at the hotel and don’t have time. Other clients are too focused on ROI and analytics and sometimes can’t “see the forest for the trees”. I’ll give an example.

In order to calculate ROI you need to know cost and revenue generated, pretty straightforward. When it comes to specific digital marketing efforts like PPC, SEO, email, etc. that revenue generated number is dictated by your web analytics package and the way that it is setup to attribute data. The most common attribution method is for revenue to be assigned to the “last click”, in other words the last channel that the consumer engaged with before booking. For most hotels the majority of last click activity happens on branded PPC, branded SEO or website direct. This is because when the consumer is ready to book they’ve already done all their research and they know the specific hotel, dates, rate package, etc. that they want to book. The problem here is that any of the other marketing activities that may have helped generate that booking don’t really get any “credit”. The unbranded PPC ad that they saw and clicked two weeks ago and the retargeting display ad that they clicked a week ago don’t get an “assist” for helping convert the consumer.

I guess what I’m trying to say here is that it is becoming harder and harder to look at specific digital marketing channels in a silo. You must look at, and understand, how they are influencing the overall consumer journey. Improvements and greater understanding will come to this area over time as analytics packages improve their attribution modeling to give “credit” across channels.

EPR – Given that proving social media and PR ROI has been difficult, for whatever reason, do you think companies are still willing to operate on a “trust” basis?

Brian – I think some of my comments above in regards to ROI are relevant here as well. The problem I see with hotels and social media is a lack of strategy. Most hotels are just running to Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and the channel du jour because there is lots of buzz and everyone is talking about social media. What hotels should be doing first is sitting down as a team and asking, “what are we trying to accomplish through social media?” The answer to this question will vary depending on the hotel. If a hotel answers this question by saying, “we want to generate direct revenue”, then they should not proceed any further because they are not understanding social media correctly. More appropriate responses to the question might be – provide customer service, extend and share our hotel’s personality or leverage the audience to evolve our product. Like many things, it is about developing a strategy and then executing it. I believe we are still years away from a channel like Facebook or Twitter being a revenue generating opportunity.

EPR – Do you think hoteliers understand or misunderstand the digital space, as a general ruile I mean?

Brian – On average I would say hoteliers understand it. However, as soon as they understand it, something changes. So it is something that must constantly be kept up with.

EPR – If you had to name a single most crucial branding tool for a hotel, would it be a website, social media feed, or?

Brian – Let’s define “branding”. To me branding is communicating the essence of your business and your value proposition to the consumer while, potentially, connecting with them in an emotional way. Under that premise, to me, your website would be the most crucial branding tool. Through the use of colors, imagery, taglines, logo and more you are able to convey the important points of your business and connect with the customer.

Your website is your “virtual lobby”. 20 years ago if someone booked your hotel through a travel agent or through your hotel directly, they would likely have very little understanding of your brand. They would definitely have very little understanding of the actual look and feel of your hotel and the physical space. They would first experience these things, and form their immediate opinion, upon arrival at the hotel. At that point, if they are unhappy or disappointed, there is not much they can do. Nowadays, guests form these opinions and critical first impressions as your homepage loads in their web browser. Your website is that first, and potentially last, opportunity to create a great first impression and win that consumer.

EPR – I have asked every one of our other interviewees about their role models and heroes Brian. Can you tell us as an expert in your field, who you looked up to most?

Brian – Working at Marriott International for 7+ years in a variety of ecommerce roles gave me exposure to many, many talented individuals. I won’t name anyone specifically but I learned a lot at Marriott and have a tremendous amount of respect for a lot of the people on their ecommerce team. Outside of the hospitality industry I’ve always been impressed with Rand Fishkin and the folks at SEOmoz.

EPR – Brian, you have been a key decision maker for online strategy for several major players, including Marriott, is it fair to say that bigger hospitality players have a disadvantage in that they tend to react slowly to their market, their competitors?

Brian – I’m not sure that I agree with that point of view. The reality is that there are so many larger players that, even within that segment, there are always early adopters. I think what can sometimes be perceived as slowness is really just a better understanding of and adherence to their prioritization of initiatives. I think big brands and companies are better at quickly identifying things that might just be a fad, and not a long-term opportunity. I think that larger players are often good at quietly using their scale to test things before deciding on whether they are worthy efforts across their entire portfolio.

EPR – In past interviews I have asked experts to relay a general message to those just entering the ranks, young execs facing their first challenges. For O’Rourke, and a lot of other supportive businesses, its seems more appropriate to ask you about “suggestions” for hotels. Is there a “best advice” statement for any hotel owner Brian?

Brian – Whether you’ve hired a marketing partner, an A/V partner or a property management system partner, make sure they are exactly that…a PARTNER. A partner is someone that sticks with you through thick and thin and has the same passion for your industry and property as you do. That would be my advice.

Is seems pretty clear what the reader can take away from Brian’s candid responses, at least the majority of them. ROI, the digital rub for many hoteliers and other business people, becomes a bit more complex to understand and gauge as channels affect consumer behavior in ever more interesting and novel (as well as traditional) ways. And as for “brands”, Brian also sheds light on something we as PR professionals are always attempting to convey, the emotional aspects of products and services. As Brian suggests; “Through the use of colors, imagery, taglines, logo and more you are able to convey the important points of your business and connect with the customer.” A company’s website is still the most crucial element of “emotional” conversion online.

O’Rourke Hospitality Marketing, not unlike WIHP Hotels and a select handful of other more modern players, has a very tailored and refined approach to marketing. The elements, PPC to web design and more, simply must be integrated. Digital channels may be categorized as a single playing field, but the tapestry and facets therein is quite diverse. All of these must be optimized, particularly with such fierce competition. At the end of the day, as they say, a lot depends on who’s advice your business takes, for there is a lot of advice out there.

We thank Brian a lot for taking his valuable time to offer up these answers. A passing note here, he does seem like Marketing Man to me.

The O’Rourke landing page

The O’Rourke landing page

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