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Couples Resorts’ Digital Channels Have A Romantic Tryst

Couples Resorts is a boutique Caribbean hotel with four locations in Jamaica and one in Barbados. If anything underscores the hotel’s reputation as a specialty resort that caters specifically to its clientele (couples, naturally), it’s the fact that its SVP Randall Russell is also its chief romance officer. As in: This is on his business card. He’ll even read—by request, of course—love letters over the phone.

But while Couples Resorts can differentiate by offering the sort of intimate customer experience that isn’t available at the Hilton, its marketing resources are much more limited, meaning that its decisions need financial justification. Four years ago, this wasn’t a big problem—95 to 97% of business came from travel agencies and tour operators that bundled a stay at Couples Resorts within an entire vacation package. But Couples Resorts also recognized it had a huge repeat rate of up to 40%. Loyalty among customers was so strong that, even before Mark Zuckerberg built Facebook, the hotel had an online message board for guests to chat, and when it decided to compile an online FAQ, it asked its past visitors for help coming up with answers.

Consequently, Couples Resorts focused on building its direct booking business—through which it could save 25 to 30% on commission fees and be more proactive upselling additional services, like decorating a room with rose petals. The result, Russell says, is that direct business increased from $2 million four years ago to an anticipated $30 million this year.

But these benefits didn’t come without a lot of work. In spring of 2011, Couples Resorts overhauled its content-rich, SEO-poor website to punch up the visuals. What they got was a content-poor, SEO-poor site with very pretty pictures. “We stubbed our toe a little with our rankings,” Russell recalls. “We needed expertise where we didn’t have it, and that was the online market, particularly as it related to SEO,” Russell says.

The company hired Internet Marketing, Inc. (IMI) to fix these problems. While SEO was at the time Couples Resorts’ most glaring problem, IMI helped overhaul the hotel chain’s entire digital marketing strategy, notably by enabling it to track the path-to-purchase across multiple online channels.

“The one [nice] thing about online marketing and sales is you can track it immediately,” Russell says. “If you spent $60,000 in Travel and Leisure magazine, what does that do? But $60,000 online, you can get $600,000 back in revenue.”

For instance, if a customer clicks through a Couples Resorts’ Facebook ad, then surfs around before booking a stay, the hotel divides the total revenue from that booking with the number of clicks. “We’re not putting weight on it yet—saying the first click is more important than the last,” Russell says, “But if someone takes 20 clicks, we find out what those clicks were and attribute 1/20 of revenue to each of those.”

This tracking is particularly important for advertising campaigns that don’t bring instant ROI. Couples Resorts advertises heavily in bridal markets and wedding websites. But the success of these campaigns is often delayed because the ROI isn’t immediate. After all, the process from wedding planning to actually honeymooning takes some time. To justify the spend, Couples Resorts now loads up its database of all the leads it has generated to determine whether those leads came through and how much those customers actually spent. “By doing that, we can attribute revenue that otherwise we wouldn’t have known about,” Russell says. “It takes a long time to do those tests, but it justifies the spend.”

Of course, in order to accomplish any of this, Couples Resorts had to have a clean and complete database. At IMI’s suggestion, Couples Resorts began encouraging customers and potential customers to sign up for company updates and offers. Over the last few years, contacts in its database went from between 60,000 and 70,000, including travel agents, to 300,000.

A better database gives Couples Resorts the ammunition to integrate its channels and be more effective in its advertising. For instance, the contacts the company garners from customers going to wedding sites will receive emails tailored to the fact that they’re getting married. “We congratulate them and we have a follow-up campaign every few months depending on the wedding date,” Russell says. “And we follow up on their anniversary.”

This underscores how much more sophisticated Couples Resorts’ strategy is now compared to a few years ago, when it used email mostly for push marketing. Currently, the hotel chain tracks pixels to determine which messages were read and whether those emails resulted in bookings. “We can attribute revenue to the specific email that went out,” Russell says. In all, Couples Resorts added 8,339 email contacts and achieved a 16% open rate.

The hotel’s social presence also shot up faster and hotter than bubbles in a Jacuzzi. In December 2011, the company had 5,000 likes on Facebook. Following an online sweepstakes, that number doubled in a day. Currently, the company has 135,000 likes. “It’s more of an ego thing,” Russell concedes, “But we see that it translates into business.” Notably, social revenue has increased by 42%.

More than anything, the benefit of Couples Resorts’ integrated digital strategies gives the hotel chain the confidence to know what’s working, what’s not working, and the ability to make on-the-fly adjustments to correct any marketing missteps. “It’s a lot of trial and error and we’ve gotten better at it,” Russell says. “While we sign contracts with various entities for online campaigns, we’re very clear when we sign, in those conversations, that we won’t commit if it doesn’t work.”

So far, most of what Couples Resorts has tried has worked. Since overhauling its digital marketing, the hotel chain has experienced a 105% increase in transactions. Google traffic has increased 22%. Non-branded searches (in which prospects aren’t specifically looking for Couples Resorts) have increased 112%. And Google ecommerce conversion rates are up 68%.

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