Davidson Hospitality Group Senior Vice President of Marketing & Communications Patricia Davis recently connected with Andy MacLellan, President & CEO of VERB Interactive. Here are excerpts from the interview:
PD: Andy, thank you so much for taking some time to sit down with me.
Andy: Happy to do it!
PD: We’ve been working together on web development and digital marketing over the past couple of years; VERB has expanded quite a bit during that time, what have you been up to?
Andy: Thanks to great partnerships like the one that we’ve developed with Davidson, we’ve been steadily growing our team across all disciplines within the agency. VERB has been expanding our portfolio of hotel and resort clients internationally and have also been busy growing our destination marketing and cruise line service deliverables. This included building several critical applications for Royal Caribbean Group to support over 35,000 travel agencies around the world as they return to service.
In addition, VERB has soft launched our first product – Dolli. Dolli (named after my grandmother) is a middleware product that we utilize to create seamless, branded booking experiences across website and mobile apps. Through leveraging available APIs from platforms such as Sabre Synxis, TravelClick, ORS, SevenRooms, etc. we are able to create completely custom shopping experiences where we can combine the services and functionality of multiple systems into one booking experience (e.g., Accommodations + Dining + Experiences). Traditionally this would require multiple transactions through different systems, but through the use of our platform we can combine all transactions on one folio.
To date, this is being used by popular hospitality brands like Accor Hotels, Ennismore, Royal Caribbean, and Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia.
PD: I love that you named your first project after your grandmother, that is adorable. I’d love to hear more about it.
Andy: We were going down a different path because, you have to remember, I’m a marketing guy that owns a marketing technology company. We hear from so many hotel properties say that their booking engine does 80% of what they need it to do and we thought, “What about that other 20%?” That could be a huge opportunity for a brand, so we initially started down the path of building our own booking engine. As we were getting deeper into it, though, we realized the barrier to entry is quite high, so we pivoted to create a middleware product that would give hoteliers more marketing power without making major operational changes.
For example, you can go to SLS, Baha Mar and book online and from there, you can also book dinner reservations and experiences and have it roll up into one itinerary.
PD: Wow, that’s amazing. It sounds like Grand Hotel would be a perfect candidate for Dolli.
Andy: Perfect candidate and what I love about it from a marketing standpoint is that you can move through the process. It’s not like you’re going to go to an arrival/departure widget and shoot off into another universe. The colors may be the same, but you can tell you’re somewhere different….
I was in London with a guy that worked for me at the time and we went to the flagship Burberry shop. He picked up this bracelet that we wanted to buy for his wife and I’m sitting there thinking, “You can’t afford that, just put it down,” but imagine at that point of discovery – it was such a sensory experience there. Everyone looks pretty. It smells great. And he’s about to over index to fulfill this transaction. Think about that with a beautiful website and then when you’re ready to buy, I shoot you off to a booking engine that is a completely different experience. So imagine him, he’s ready to over index and then someone says, “Hey follow me into this dark room and I’m going to take your money.” So, that’s what we’re trying to solve for.
PD: How does VERB’s approach to digital marketing differ from other agencies and how has that benefitted Davidson’s hotels?
Andy: I started the agency when I was 24 years old with the idea that we wanted to fill what I felt (and still feel) is a void in the industry, which was that other agencies worked for the monthly billables versus focusing on being a strong strategic partner. Partnership, like marriage, has its ups and downs, but they are also about working together through challenges we face collectively – like a pandemic and recovery.
Our approach to digital marketing differs from other agencies in that a property is never going to get a self-serving recommendation from our team or “agency vanity buys” as I call them. VERB believes in investing in performance-based media channels that can drive high returns for your properties. Our data informed strategies enable us to keep our media allocations fluid so we can ensure our strategies are capturing as much existing demand as possible while still building awareness for the Davidson properties. This approach is very different from the “set it and forget it” digital marketing plans we see being implemented by other agencies. High-touch communication, data driven strategies and a focus on understanding the marketing and revenue management priorities for each of the properties is critical to our ongoing partnership.
PD: I love that VERB takes a purposeful investment, even with the smallest budgets. What are the essentials of digital marketing?
Andy: An effective digital marketing strategy is integrated across all stages of the guest journey. At the foundation, a strong search marketing strategy that integrates both organic SEO and SEM (paid) strategies is key, as this will drive the higher returns for your properties. SEO extends to the technical health and quality of the platform in addition to site schema, content strategy, and user experience. This should be complimented by a strong CRM and social media strategy, which – to be effective – should be integrated with the overall SEO and content marketing plan for the brand, and also supported by your paid media strategy. We live in a day where all channels really work together and support each other.
A powerful social media strategy is one that balances the output of engaging, measurable content with the listening and response skills required to communicate with your audiences (and find new audiences) in the channels where they spend their time. Too often we encounter properties that safeguard their social media strategies or rely on their PR agencies to drive social content strategy. What we often observe in these scenarios is a disconnect between social strategy and the overall digital marketing plan. How can social strategy (organic/paid) compliment the greater social media strategy if the PR agency doesn’t even talk to the digital media agency? What data informed strategies are driving the social content plan? Are we being strategic or are we simply posting content to our channels and seeing what sticks?
An effective content strategy is one that supports the overarching goals of the entire digital strategy. Content is so critical. And your email database is gold – grow it, segment it and learn from it.
PD: Where can hotels do better when it comes to supporting marketing goals in the digital space?
Andy: Involving revenue management in marketing discussions helps our team to understand the pain points of the property and how marketing can support revenue management goals. Marketing strategies are developed to support business objectives and having a deeper understanding of the holistic performance of the property beyond what we can see within our analytics/web channels helps our team to connect with each brand on a deeper level.
PD: I couldn’t agree more! Revenue managers have their fingers on the pulse. What else can we be doing?
Andy: Connecting us with your social agencies is critical. I care about how I can use social media to drive inbound traffic back to the platform because that’s what’s actually going to convert.
PD: What’s on the horizon that we should be ready for?
Andy: Understanding your first-party data strategy and how we can leverage data to build effective personalization strategies and audience focused digital marketing campaigns. With an increased focus on privacy and the upcoming death of the third-party cookie, brands are going to need to focus on developing their own data strategy. There is a wealth of information in first-party data that can help brands focus on building one-to-one connections with their guests and, in turn, look-a-like audiences who will have a high propensity to convert.
I personally feel this move is going to make the Internet a much more relevant experience for guests (e.g., show me content about brands/products I want to connect with and not ads from other competing properties who I haven’t even expressed an interest in). It does mean that brands will need to work harder to understand their audiences and connect with them, but who doesn’t like a good hunting exercise?
PD: What’s next for VERB?
Andy: We are blessed to have key strategic partnerships with brands like Davidson. I pride myself on having the discipline to not take every opportunity that’s presented to our agency. To not explore opportunities that present themselves on a weekly basis outside of the travel and hospitality space. To never let revenue or growth opportunities guide our decisions. Instead, we will continue to focus on the core principles of being great partners to our clients, to engage in work that we enjoy and to drive results for brands. This will support VERB in managing controlled growth as we move deeper into 2022 and beyond.
In addition, VERB will continue to enhance our Dolli product as we explore building unique booking experiences for global hospitality brands. In 2022, Dolli will be complimented by our next product release, which will be a payment gateway solution that will be designed specifically with hoteliers in mind. Hospitality brands are tired of giving away points to OTA and other intermediaries. The goal of our solution is to introduce a payment gateway solution that is flexible enough to integrate with all leading booking solutions and POS devices that are commonly used by hospitality brands, but also to introduce a product that will put more money back in the hands of the brand to power marketing campaigns that will grow revenues. Our solution will enable this to happen. I just need to figure out who I will name this product after. J
PD: Thank you again for sitting down with me, Andy, and for being such a great partner!