Honeymoon in E-Marketing Heaven

In Northern California’s Sonoma County, about an hour and a half north of San Francisco, lies the village of Occidental. It has one stop sign, a population of 1,272, and a dearth of local Internet access providers. That hasn’t kept one local business from building itself into an Internet marketing powerhouse.

I discovered this little gem of a company during the planning process for my wedding and honeymoon, most of which took place online. The invitations? Bought online. The table decorations? Online. Gifts for the bridesmaids? Online. I even discovered and purchased my gown and veil online. So, it’s no surprise my new husband and I found ourselves relaxing after the wedding at a cozy inn in Occidental, a 16-room bed-and-breakfast that could show many small businesses a thing or two about online marketing.

It began with the Web site. Back in 1994, the Inn at Occidental put up its first site, before it even purchased the domain name. Featuring scanned pictures of the Inn and very little interactivity, it was pretty rudimentary — classic brochureware.

“It was one of the first sites out there, so there wasn’t a lot of competition to have a good site,” said Bill Bullard, innkeeper at the Inn at Occidental and mastermind of the online strategy.

Then came a 1997 redesign. “Along the way, email would come in asking questions about availability, sending a brochure, etcetera, and obviously the email began to build and build,” said Bullard. That’s why the next redesign, in 1999, incorporated an online availability and reservations application, developed and hosted by a company called Webervations.

“With that, we were able to build a graphical chart that people could refer to, and it cut our email probably by 60 or 70 percent, because the main question everybody asked was about availability,” said Bullard.

The system was also preferable for potential customers. “People came and stayed with us and said they wouldn’t have booked with us unless we had that reservation chart,” said Bullard, “because it wasn’t worth their time.”

Now, two-thirds of the visitors to the Web site pay a visit to the availability pages, and about 10 percent of the Inn’s customers reserve through the online reservation interface without ever requiring staff assistance. It helps that the 1999 redesign also included interactive 3-D pictures of the Inn’s rooms, each with its own character and ambiance. The reservation interface also included a little upselling, asking people if they’d like to reserve extras — wine and cheese in their rooms, in-room massages, and so on — when they made their reservations.

“Three times the number of people choose a package to add to their stay online, rather than on the phone,” said Bullard. “It’s a nice way of offering things without being pushy. They feel more comfortable about buying services that way.”

Although the Inn had always sent out email confirmations upon request, last year the email strategy blossomed (an effort that’s only been affirmed as postal rates have risen). Now, everyone gets email confirmations, and the Inn launched an electronic version of its semiannual hard-copy newsletter. The email version was first distributed quarterly but eventually was cut down in length and boosted to monthly. All recipients signed up either at the Inn or on the Web site.

The next step was to begin sending all guests a concierge-type email a few days before arrival, reminding them of their reservation and encouraging them to make plans for activities such as meals, horseback riding, and spa treatments. The Inn specializes in providing guests with comprehensive concierge services, helping them plan all aspects of their stay.

“That [pre-arrival email] has done a tremendous job in making our lives easier,” said Bullard. “As you might imagine, in wine country in harvest season, to get you a table overlooking the Pacific Ocean at sunset isn’t easy.”

Nor was it easy — before this year — for the Inn to adequately express its brand online. The site had a reservation system and 3-D images, but something was missing. It took a guest with an intimate knowledge of the Inn’s services (and who coincidentally worked for a Web design shop called Rare Brick) to undertake the 2002 redesign. What emerged was a site with a quaint storybook theme, reflecting the cozy ambience of the Inn and perfectly capturing the brand.

“The thing that really helped us is all the text, all the pictures, give you the ‘feel good,’ ‘I want to be there’ type of thing,” said Bullard. “It wasn’t done by a designer who had the technical expertise but didn’t have that experience of what the guest experience was like.”

The most outstanding part of the guest experience, from my marketing-centric standpoint, was the follow-up. The innkeepers solicit feedback on every meal guests eat at a restaurant they’ve recommended. They tally the scores and eventually give the comment cards to the restaurants — whether they want them or not.

Guests are encouraged to comment on the Inn itself, to make complaints or recommendations. Each guest receives a thank-you note (currently snail mail, but soon to move to bits and bytes) detailing the Inn’s response to those comments.

“We try and close the loop and not let these people think their comments are falling on deaf ears,” said Bullard.

The total effect is the feeling of being looked after and listened to. The Inn isn’t perfect. Our dinner reservations got screwed up (but were fixed) and our room’s Jacuzzi didn’t work. But from the Web site to the confirmation and pre-arrival emails to the thank-you follow-up, a quaint country inn demonstrated a whole lot of marketing savvy. That made it a lovely place for our honeymoon.

Pamela will speak at ClickZ Email Strategies in San Francisco, November 18-19.

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