Choosing a hotel brand is dominated by emotion

A few months ago, I wrote a summary report on an important study conducted by Protean Strategies in conjunction with the research firm Hotspex. The topic was how emotions influence hotel bookings. The results were both profound and anything but obvious.

In order to fully clarify some of the counterintuitive outcomes generated by the research, I approached Laurence Bernstein, a managing partner at Protean Strategies, to explain how the study was performed and what hoteliers should be learning. This is an extensive and insightful interview, so get out your reading glasses and a cup of coffee!

Larry Mogelonsky: For those who haven’t read the summary report, what were some of the key findings?

Laurence Bernstein: Three things stood out immediately. The first is the importance of emotional connection in choosing hotels. As hotel marketers we are so focused on rational differentiators and, lately, price and discounting, that we have forgotten about the emotional — or irrational — component, which the study indicates accounts for nearly 70% of the decision process. Choosing a hotel brand is more emotionally driven than choosing a beer! In a way, this highlights the commodity nature of the hotel functional experience, and accounts for the fact that hotels have become price-driven commodities in many segments.

Secondly, hotel brands generally demonstrate such limited emotional ratings (the highest hotel rating for this measurement was 0.33), less than 50% of the highest rating for a casual-dining restaurant chain. For a category that is so heavily driven by emotion, this highlights a serious weakness, or, as we see it, a significant opportunity.

Third of note was the relative unimportance of some of the attributes that we would have thought made all the difference. For instance, the study shows that the relationship between a brand’s performance on the attributes “online rating and evaluations” and “actual intent to visit” is really low. In fact, the study suggests that “online ratings” fit into the “unimportant” quadrant in terms of hotel brand choice. Yet, as an industry, we spend an inordinate amount of emotional energy and time, not to mention money, on trying to manage what people say about us online.

LM: Generally speaking, how do emotions affect hotel brand perceptions?

LB: Emotions drive choice and behavior — perhaps not emotions in the traditional way we understand the term (love, hate, etc.), but rather, unconscious attitudes and perceptions. This is increasingly borne out in studies of choice by economists, psychologists and neurologists. We make brand decisions before we are aware of the options, then use our rational mind to execute the choice and, importantly, rationalize the decision.

As an example, let’s say, for a number of reasons, I have a strong emotional attachment to Hilton. If I am faced with a menu of hotel options for a specific trip and Hilton is one of them, I will try to find reasons why staying at that hotel makes more sense than other hotels, even if it is more expensive, less conveniently located or has some negative ratings.

The problem arises when there is no possible way of justifying the choice. That is, the hotel is outrageously expensive relative to the other hotels, the reviews are so universally negative or it is just too complicated to make the reservation online. When this happens, not only will I stay at another choice, but my emotional connection to the brand will be hurt because I will feel like I had been let down or deserted by a good friend.

LM: Without delving too much into proprietary details, how did you go about quantifying various emotional drivers of intent and brand perceptions?

LB: Our research partner, Hotspex, has developed a model based on, literally, hundreds of thousands of interviews. There are eight “emotional regions,” and each emotional region is defined by several hundred positive and negative attributes, including such terms as “honest,” “interesting” and “pretentious.” In surveys, we ask travelers to rate each hotel brand according to these attributes, and then, using the black box magic that guides all research, the brand’s emotional strengths and weaknesses are plotted on a map. It’s kind of hard to explain, but here are examples of a map for a good brand and a bad brand:

This figure shows the strong attachments in red and the weaker attachments in gradients of oranges, yellows, greens and blues. Also, the positive attributes are toward the center, and the negative attributes on the outer rim.

LM: How did you go about determining where hotel brands need to improve? How is this inferred from the research?

LB: That’s the $50,000 question. Using the maps we can see what the positive emotional attributes are, and we can also see what the negative attributes are. The first stage is to see which negative attributes are the most important in terms of driving decision.

We start by looking at the derived importance of each attribute — that is, the degree to which the attribute affects the choice of the brand.  For instance, if the brand is seen as pretentious, and we see that being pretentious is a strong turn-off, we try to understand what the brand can do operationally, experientially and in its communication to deal with this perception.

We would also compare the brand to the competition and see where there are strong positive attributes the brand has and the competition does not. The idea would be to build a strategy that emphasizes these aspects in customer experiences and communications.

LM: The report identified three broad emotional regions for hotel brands: inspiring, competent and familiar. What factors contributed to these delineations?

LB: These are the three emotional regions that the brands came to inhabit based on the ratings given in the survey. Bear in mind that there are a total of eight emotional regions. So, the fact that the brands all fall into only three suggests there are five emotional regions that hotel brands could be in that they are not.

LM: If two or more brands fall within the same strata, does this mean they are perceived as the same from a consumer’s eyes?

LB: Again, this is complicated. The short answer is maybe, but it is nuanced. For instance, a brand that falls in the “competent” territory could be stronger in some of the positive attributes such as “straightforward,” “reliable,” “accepting” and “happy” while another might demonstrate some negative attributes such as “impatient,” “miserly” and “unfriendly.”

LM: What emotional drivers are most important for guest satisfaction? Does this differ depending on regions occupied, or are there any all-encompassing traits?

LB: Our study identifies the most important drivers for each category and also for each brand specifically. Generally speaking, making guests excited, amazed and feeling accepted are important emotional drivers. But, drivers are different for each brand depending on the specifics of the unique makeup of emotional connections with each brand. However, there are strong similarities between brands based on which emotional region they occupy. There would also be strong differences between customer segments such as business versus leisure travelers.

LM: The report identified certain brands as lacking emotional connectivity. What are the indicators of this, and how can these issues be resolved?

LB: In the case of one of the brands, respondents did not demonstrate any strong relationship attributes at all. On the other hand, they indicated quite strongly that they felt disconnected and that they couldn’t relate to the brand. They were most positive about dry, functional attributes such as competence, but even this was offset by tone and manner. They felt the brand was pretentious and arrogant.

The prescription would be to evaluate the nature of the experiences and to understand why the emotional takeaway is so dismal. Also, it’s important to understand what experiences the target group would associate with various positive attributes, and then build a new brand experience based on these findings.

LM: Can you explain the term “derived importance”? How do you calculate this?

LB: Derived importance is a crucial part of the study. Because we look at unconscious emotional evaluations, we need to understand that people don’t necessarily know why they do things or make choices. They may think at a rational level, for instance, that they choose a hotel brand because of price. But our study might show that in fact the statistical relationship between price and intent to stay is not all that strong. This would represent the derived importance of price.

On the other hand, as an example, the same person may not even mention “feeling accepted” as a reason for choosing a brand. But in analyzing the data we find that there is a strong statistical relationship between feeling accepted and intent to stay. In this case, the derived importance of feeling accepted is strong. The study examines each attribute and identifies those that have the strongest statistical relationship — both positive and negative. For instance, being seen as “pretentious” has a strong reciprocal relationship with intent to stay.

LM: From a derived importance standpoint, simply satisfying guests isn’t enough to elicit a future visit. What factors contribute the most to this?

LB: This is interesting. Among the strongest determinants of whether a person “intends to stay” are things like seeing the brand as passionate, modern, active and happy. Generally hotel brands do quite well on getting people interested, but they fall far short in amazing and exciting guests or being seen as passionate and happy. They do well on making guests feel satisfied, but that is not as important as some of the other attributes and is only one among many.

LM: Your research also had some interesting findings related to how people choose hotels based on price, location, recommendations and social media. What are the most important determinants here, and are there any common misconceptions?

LB: Using the derived importance numbers we look at the more functional attributes in terms of how they fit into the decision process. That is, are they key drivers that strongly influence choice at a conscious level, hidden drivers that strongly influence choice at an unconscious level, table stakes which are important but don’t impact choice per se or simply non-drivers which are just not important in the decision process for one reason or another?

What we found is that functional attributes such as location and price are important, while having high online ratings is simply not important. The strongest functional hidden driver — that is, the attribute that drives choice without the person being consciously aware of its importance — is that the brand be recommended by friends or family. Attributes such as room design or even friendly service staff are important, but they don’t really drive choice. These fit the description of table stakes — you have to have them, but so does everybody else.

LM: How does a manager go about translating emotional driver shortcomings into effective actions? Can you cite a specific example?

LB: Many years ago at The Plaza in New York, guests felt the hotel was arrogant and pretentious. They did not feel connected, and they did not feel the hotel wanted to relate to them. All this was true, in fact. New ownership wanted to change this and make guests feel more at home and comfortable. The problem was that the staff was not trained in relating to guests — they were trained to shrink away when the gentry was around and not be noticed. To turn this around, they needed to have the staff talk to the guests, and the manager understood he needed to provide a simple conversation starter that everybody would understand and be comfortable talking about.

The answer? Recommend the strawberries in the dining room. Whenever a staff member was in contact with a guest, he or she would ask, “Have you tried the strawberries?” The backstory was that it was strawberry season, and The Plaza had access to the best strawberries in America — a delicacy featured in all the restaurants and room service. The result was not only selling enormous amounts of strawberries, but guests came away with a very different sense of the hotel.

LM: Are emotional drivers of choice changing over time? How is this emphasis on emotional states of mind influencing the future of travel and hospitality?

LB: Neuroscientists are constantly trying to understand the nature of subconscious connections. There is much debate as to whether they are imprinted permanently at a very early age or whether they are constantly changing based on different life stages and external factors. What we surmise is that emotional attitudes and responses are probably different for different generations, but these differences might be more in how they are translated into action rather than the unconscious belief structure.

For instance, a 50-year-old might see friendliness in the way a Ritz-Carlton lady or gentleman says good morning, but a 25-year-old might see arrogance in this action. On the other hand, the 25-year-old might find the off-handed greeting at a W hotel to be friendliness personified, but a 50-year-old would see it as nothing more than churlishness.

This underlines the importance of looking at this study in terms of the brand’s specific market, understanding who these people are and how they relate to the world around them. Applying this understanding to the learning from this study will enable hotels and brands to develop differentiated offers and create lasting relationships with their guests and the marketplace.