The travel industry is heating up, and savvy promo sales pros are stoking their own success by capitalizing on the positive momentum.
Hard data shows clearly why travel is an excellent niche for reps to target. Consider that a January 2015 survey by Orlando marketing services firm MMGY Global reveals that 68% of U.S. adults planned to take at least one leisure trip in the first half of this year. That’s up 4% over the same survey done in 2014.
As compelling, three key metrics gauging the travel industry are trending up year-over-year. Hotel occupancy was up 3.6% (to 64.4%); the average daily rate rose 4.6% (to $115); and revenue per available room went up 8.3% (to $74). Those figures come from STR Inc., a Nashville-based company that provides benchmarking data to the hotel industry
Our own anecdotal research shows that business is up for suppliers to the travel industry. Read on and see how high-end hotels are ramping up on bags, mobile phone-related items and other giveaways for travel agents, meeting planners, hungry guests and high rollers. See how servicing smaller, independent hotels can pay off. And learn how a focus on beach-related products is helping one part of the country recover in the aftermath of a major hurricane and a nasty oil spill.
The Hero Business
The tour and travel industry never stops, according to Jani Jason. It does, however, get tougher, especially when the economy slumps and companies slash their sales and marketing budgets.
For Jason, who lives in Las Vegas and is a rep for Cincinnati-based Associated Premium Corporation, the market has swung back, a good sign for somebody who does 80% of their company business within the hospitality/travel niche. Specifically, she focuses on hotel tour operators, travel agents and independent hotels. The latter can be a challenge, due to low budgets even when the economy is riding high.
Jason spent many years in the tourism trade before switching to the promotional products industry a couple decades ago. But when she made the jump, most of her clients came on board and have stayed with her for more than 20 years.
“This is all about relationship selling,” she says. “Sometimes smaller hotels have low budgets, in the hundreds of dollars a month. There are times when you have to split billing between months. But to me it doesn’t matter how small the hotel is because they’re all viable clients.”
To that point, Jason says it pays off to always deliver quality and be a hero every time, because many of the smaller hotels are owned or operated by management companies that may oversee a number of other hotels. Do a good job for one hotel in the group and word spreads quickly.
Doing a bang-up job for a hotel client means providing unique promotions, whether that means making low-budget items stand out, or by brainstorming bigger ticket items that get the hotel’s would-be clients’ attention. “Even if it’s a pen, or golf balls, or a beach ball, there are ways to make those stand out,” says Jason.
One client affiliated with a national park was looking for a unique idea, and Jason sold them on a cute version of door hangers. Anybody can do a traditional “Do Not Disturb” sign, but the park’s signs have a picture of a bear hibernating. The signs are used in the hotel rooms and also are sold in the gift shop.
For clients with bigger budgets, she has put creative flair into invitations for hotel familiarization (FAM) tours. One invitation came in a half-gallon container that looked like a paint can. Inside the can was the invitation, a guest badge and information about how the property was “introducing new colors.”
One of her most memorable FAM trip invites was an invitation to attend an old-fashioned barbecue party at a newly refurbished convention hotel. She sent miniature BBQ grills to 150 of the hotel’s top clients. The desktop grills didn’t really heat up, but if they were usable you could’ve fit one hamburger patty on each one. The products cost $8 apiece.
“The mini grills really caught people’s attention,” says Jason. “When you’re a meeting planner it feels like you get invited out to every hotel. So something like this has to stand out. When people put these grills on their desks, all their co-workers wanted to have one. Everybody oohed and aahed over them, and, everybody asked about what property they’d come from.”
You could say it was a promotion that caught fire, and left people wanting s’mores.
In The Bag
The business advantages of servicing high-end hotels are starting to pile up for Nelson Penalver. The director of Miami-based Logistical Outsourcing Inc. (asi/255497) has been providing promotional product support to Sandals Resorts International for 10 years. In 2014, including accounts with Palace Resorts, Melia Hotels, Marriott Vacations, Bahia Principe and Hard Rock Mexico, about 45% of Logistical Outsourcing’s $2.5 million in sales were in the hospitality industry.
Penalver predicts his company’s travel-focused business will jump to 65% of their sales in 2015.
There are basic tenets involved in growing this niche: Don’t just be an order taker; be a consultant and adviser to your client. But Penalver says that more than a decade of experience has shown him what works and what doesn’t work for a hotel’s promotional products, dependent on the goal demographic of the visitors and end-users.
Travel agents, for example, like a broad range of things. For a recent golf tournament for 350 agents at the company’s Jamaica property, guests all got Sandals-logoed towels, caps, golf balls, polo shirts and carry bags. The wicking polo shirts were specifically logoed for the golf tournament.
There were two keys to the products Penalver suggested for the giveaways: immediate and post-event usability.
“We give these things away to guests on the first day because we want them to use them during their stay,” he says. “When you go down to the pool, everybody is using their towel. And it’s hot, so people have their hats on. But even when people are leaving the resort and heading off to the airport, we know they are using the bags, and those bags are stuffed with their belongings. That’s a great form of advertising.”
Since so many of the travel agents that come on this trip are repeat guests, Penalver puts an emphasis on changing the color and style of the Sandals bag from year to year. “People look to see what the bag is going to be,” he says. “So we make sure they’re not getting the same type of thing year after year.”
Other, more unique products that Penalver sees growing in popularity, especially poolside at upscale resorts, include neck towels that hold a cool temperature and acrylic wine tumblers. Also, at one chain a client recently needed to replenish an order for 2,000 relaxation kits that include ear plugs and eye masks. During a hotel stay, some guests are there to raise the roof, while others just want a good night’s sleep.
When you travel, you have to eat. It’s rude and unsightly, though, to bring your own side of beef to a Ritz-Carlton or a Four Seasons. Neither does it go down well for hungry, up-market travelers to have to deal with rumpled servers. That’s where Bob Horwitz comes in.
He’s the president and co-founder of Idea Workshop Inc. (asi/229563), a Minneapolis-based company that’s been around since 1996. Horwitz remembers the lean years, from 2010-13, that affected most of the industry. But he says sales in 2014 were up 140% over the previous year and he continues to see sales bookings increasing this year.
Idea Workshop has several high-end clients, including hotel chains, and supplies them with well-known apparel brands, like Patagonia, Lacoste and Brooks Brothers. The latter is called for in high demand by upper-end hotel eateries.
“We supply a lot of shirts to hotel chains that have white linen tablecloths, primarily the fine dining establishments,” says Horwitz. The Brooks Brothers button-down, collared shirts favored by wait staff, servers and hosts are primarily white, but are offered in a variety of colors.
“Hotel restaurants do very specific orders, but we can offer a range of sizes,” says Horwitz. Most chains are focused on hiring a specific size of server. Still, the shirts come cut for men or women. They can be ordered for small, medium and large, but you can also ask for a particular neck size or sleeve size.
“And the fabric is the highest quality,” he adds. “The shirts look crisp whether it’s 7 a.m. or 9 p.m. You can wear these shirts for eight hours and still look fresh.”
Horwitz has found it particularly effective to keep customers loyal by creating point-based sales contests. Frequent purchases earn his customers more points. New customers might earn 1,000 points to get started. Depending on the seasonality of the product, the contests may run for either 90 days or six months. Other creative sales and marketing options offered by Idea Workshop include: custom instruction on running a restaurant contest or sweepstake; loyalty programs; and corporate identity programs.
“They're active – they definitely like the bags and the backpacks.”
Hello, High Rollers
Contrary to the old adage, what happens in Vegas now stays in the pages of Advantages. Kevin Williams is happy to talk about what’s going on in the promotional products industry in Sin City, especially as it pertains to hotels and casino resorts.
Two years ago, Williams and Andrew Fersch co-founded PowerUp Promos. Business is booming; second year sales were up 100% over the start-up year. About half of their business is done with hospitality industry clients, and a third of that niche is right there in the area, like the Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino (formerly the Las Vegas Hilton), the Westin Lake Las Vegas Resort & Spa and the Aquarius Casino Resort in Laughlin.
Williams says seasonality plays a big part in what clients want. “During non-high peak times, a client may want something as simple as T-shirts for a slot machine tournament they’re holding,” he says. “But when the casino resorts are already going to be filled because people are in town for something like the Super Bowl, the kind of promotional products they want to give out change dramatically.”
It’s more likely that during a Super Bowl, clients want to attract the high rollers, the guests who have proven track records of betting heavily in the casinos.
During the last Super Bowl, PowerUp Promos supplied things like barbecue sets, bathrobes and football jerseys for casino resorts.
“At the Westgate we had jerseys made up that had the property’s name on them,” he says. “For people who were rooting for the New England Patriots or the Seattle Seahawks, we had pendants made that had the team names on them. So you could show your support for one team or the other, but you’re also showing your support for the Westgate team.”
Williams says his company is in the process of adapting to a new influx of a particular demographic: the 80 million millennials in the United States.“They’re active – they definitely like the bags and the backpacks,” he says. “They’re also young parents. And they travel with their kids. So survival kits for traveling with kids are popular.”
Millennials also like promotional products that relate to their mobile phones, says Williams. Those products include screen cleaners, mobile cases and waterproof mobile phone totes. A millennial couple is probably traveling with four mobile devices – a computer, a tablet and two phones. So even if the client wants to hand out pens, you can stand out to Generation Y by connecting a pen to a mobile feature.
“Pens with a twist are a big deal,” says Williams. “A pen might be connected to a screen cleaner. Or, it might come with a stylus you can use on your phone. These kinds of pens are not that much more expensive, maybe 15% to 20% higher.”
Jackpot! How’s that for leaving Las Vegas richer than when you arrived?
By the Numbers
According to the U.S. Travel Association, the travel and tourism sector is one of America’s largest employers.
Travel is among the top 10 industries in 49 states and D.C. in terms of employment.
Generated $209.5 billion in payroll for those employed directly in U.S. travel.
Nationwide, travel is #6 in terms of employment compared to other major private industry sectors.
1 out of every 9 jobs in the U.S. depends on travel and tourism.
Supported almost 15 million JOBS,including 7.9 million directly in the travel industry and 7 million in other industries.
Anita Brooks talks passionately about helping re-boot the Mississippi Gulf Coast. It’s where she’s lived since 1991, and where she got her start in the promotional products industry. Today she’s part of the national Geiger (asi/202900) team, and her own company is called ASB Marketing LLC.
Business is on the upswing. The first quarter of 2015 was up 60% over last year. While the local economy is not booming, Brooks says there is a cautious growth trend that favors spending money on travel and tourism. That sector is not a majority percentage of her annual sales. But it’s definitely personal.
Areas along the Gulf of Mexico are still recovering from Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill. The task of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Regional Convention & Visitors Bureau is to bring back tourists and group business. Brooks has assisted on promotions for two of the three counties (Jackson and Hancock) on the state’s coast, as well as the regional CVB.
“Even when I’m not doing business, I’m active on boards and chambers here,” she says. Yes, it’s possible that working in her spare time to help generate visits to the area will lead to more business. But the primary motivation is helping a region bounce back from the man-made and natural disasters.
One key to conveying a positive message to meeting planners and travel agents is a focus on outdoor activities. Products that are mailed out to potential visitors and given to meeting planners during familiarization tours are geared toward the beach.
“Our buyers frequently ask for logoed beach towels,” says Brooks. “They want to show you can go out on the sand, and have a relaxing day on the beach.”
Promotional bags include a variety of lip balms, sunscreen and beach pails.
Brooks is also called on for items that promote the area’s golf courses, casinos, fishing and birding. But in light of the possibility of lingering doubts about the environment and infrastructure, it’s the beach-related products that are used to convey a return to normal.
“After a disaster, it’s natural for a meeting planner to take pause a little bit,” says Brooks. “We are showing off the fact that this is a safe, wonderful place to come and relax, and be outdoors.”
Ron Donoho is a CA-based freelance writer for Advantages.