97 – Thinking Digitally with Aimbridge Hospitality’s Michael Curran

by | April 20, 2022

Join host Ryan Embree and Aimbridge Hospitality’s VP of Digital Marketing, Michael Curran, as they talk all things digital marketing for hotels. They discuss how to keep consistency within a portfolio while still giving each hotel a distinct voice on social media, how to balance “traditional vs. new” social media platforms, how to leverage guest feedback and generate more positive reviews, and more!

Episode Transcript

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Ryan Embree:
Welcome to Suite Spot where hoteliers check-in and we check out what’s trending in hotel marketing. I’m your host, Ryan Embree.

Ryan Embree:
Hello everyone, and welcome to another episode of the Suite Spot, a special edition of the Suite Spot. We’ve got a great guest with us today that I’m gonna be introducing here, but first wanna thank everyone for taking the time to join us on the Suite Spot and listening wherever you are across the country. With me today, I have the vice president of digital marketing for Aimbridge Hospitality, Michael Curran. He has over 27 years of experience in the hospitality digital marketing industry, including names like Walt Disney Parks and Resorts online, Hilton hotels, and for Aimbridge, he works with independent hotel brands, IHG, Hilton, and Marriot, which we’re gonna talk about here. He’s got extensive background in operations, website and content development, and online media strategy and execution. And I just found out he’s one heck of a pinball player as well. So Michael, hello and welcome to the Suite Spot.

Michael Curran:
Good morning, Ryan. Happy to be here.

Ryan Embree:
Awesome. Well, as we do with all of our new guests on the Suite Spot, tell us a little bit about your background in the industry and maybe the journey that led you to Aimbridge hospitality.

Michael Curran:
So I think I’m one of the few people that went to school for this and has made a lifelong career out of it. There are folks that meander in and out of the industry, but I started back in the nineties going to school for this and 27 years later, I’m still here. So yeah, I actually picked up the major on a whim. I started out in broadcasting, found out the people in broadcasting are not the type of people I enjoyed being around <laugh>. So I dropped that major and I happened to have lunch with the head of the department for hospitality and parks at our university. And he sold me on it. I started with Hilton hotels, property operations. I came up through front desk reservations, revenue management sales. I have tremendous respect for F&B people, but that’s the one area I’ve never worked in because that an incredibly difficult division. But that part didn’t do. But I jumped into the online world in 1998 and I’ll never forget at the meeting I was in, the regional VP for Hilton was sitting at the end of the table in our daily standup meeting, and picture it in my mind right now, he raised a piece of paper. “Hilton sent me something about this worldwide web. Does anybody want to deal with this?”

Ryan Embree:
<laugh>

Michael Curran:
Nobody raised their hand. I’m like, yeah, sure. Why not? So that was it. I never turned back. From that point on I’ve been on the online part of the industry.

Ryan Embree:
Well, that was a good bet to say that that little worldwide web was, was gonna take off and have somewhat of an impact. And yeah, as far as your broadcasting, I mean, here, you do a little broadcasting here, so you’re able to kind of do that, but yep. That’s something else we have in common. Both of us went to school for hospitality. You rarely hear that though in our industry, you know, it’s usually, I just found myself here and kind of jumped into it. So I love to hear stories of people going to school and then, but also jumping into the operation side. And I’m sure if you haven’t had the opportunity, we had a lot of people throughout the pandemic, maybe exploring some of those. You were talking about F&B, maybe exploring some of those departments that they’ve never had to do, kind of taking some, some duties and responsibilities for departments that they’ve never done before.

Ryan Embree:
So, well, let’s get into it. You know, I wanna talk about Aimbridge Hospitality and your role right now, obviously one of the most recognized hospitality groups in the industry, huge, huge portfolio, a very eclectic portfolio as well. Everything, as I, I mentioned before, brands, soft brands, independence, even now to economy scale. What I’m interested in, and I think our listeners might be interested in, is these younger travelers, especially the younger travelers, they’re looking for a business’ personality, right? They wanna see on social media, you to distinct yourself from another hotel, but yet you also, as your role as VP of digital marketing, you probably want to keep some consistency and not have one hotel kind of go rogue. So how do you find that balance between GMs and onsite people actually telling their story, but also keeping consistency with the portfolio level?

Michael Curran:
Yeah, so the, the first part of it is, you know, with the brands, brands have quite a few resources and policies in place that help corral that and keep it focused. But on the independent side, I honestly take the approach, and it’s something I learned back in my Disney days, let the creativity come, let it come forth. And also what I learned there and in the 20 odd years of being online, you know, let that creativity come out. The consistency, the keeping things to a proper standard can be done through content strategy. Content strategy is a pretty broad term, but it’s, you know, at one of its fundamental levels, it’s just keeping your online presence organized, right? Let people go through not just a consistent experience, but utilizing the concept of self selection.

Michael Curran:
If you keep yourself organized properly, people can self select where they want to go, so that personality can come out and I’ve seen it going back years. I mean, to the dawn of when I started that, you know, people try to get, and to their credit, they try to get everything out there, everything online, especially on a, on a homepage. Yeah. And that that’s, that’s something to be admired, but at the same time, that concept of self selection, you’re not there to help ’em through, they have to guide themselves through where it is they want to go where they fit in. So that’s I think where the key to keeping that consistent and keeping marketing standards high, that the simplest way again, is just keep it organized all those principles. And there’s loads of principles that go under that. But you can just say, keep it organized. The personality will come through. The voice will come through. That’s not, that’s not a problem at all. It’s just that organization and the concept of self selection.

Ryan Embree:
Yeah. And I think you can use things like content calendars, for example, to keep that kind of organized, but the simple things. Yeah. Just super, super simple things, but it’s all about just kind of, and we talked about this on this podcast before just stepping into it. Right. And it’s great to hear you kind of just really saying express that creativity, cuz I think sometimes hotels or hoteliers, they just, they get a little worried about putting too much of themselves out there or they go on the opposite end of the spectrum that you talk about and they throw everything out there and sometimes the simpler, the better, cause it will give us clues on what your audience is reacting. And from there you can start to fine tune things. So definitely agree with you there, Michael let’s switch gears a little bit. I’m definitely tired of obviously talking about the pandemic and everything, but this is a resilient industry, as we’ve seen over the past couple years.

Michael Curran:
We’re still here.

Ryan Embree:
Yeah. Whether it’s been the pandemic, now, obviously, we have some serious staffing shortages within the industry. But I think, you know, as the saying, I think there’s some saying goes that the hard times teach the best lessons, right? So I wonder kind of what, from this experience, whether it be pandemic or just staffing shortages right now, what are kind of the big lessons or takeaways that you’ve got from it, you and your team?

Michael Curran:
Yeah. I think for stuff that we can market, again being an online strategy, marketing and advertising, it’s the 800 pound gorilla of what we do. You know, it takes the majority of what we do, but you know, it’s operationally what we put out there starts with operations. I think part of it starts with hybrid meetings, in my opinion, are here to stay. It was kind of, and even back in the day in the nineties, it was there, there were conventions that we would host at the Hilton Chicago where I started, one of the big ones in downtown Chicago. There would be conventions back there that would have, you know, satellite hookups to their, their other offices, sometimes. That was few and far between, but satellite time is a little pricey.

Michael Curran:
<laugh> But they would still be there, but hybrid meaning the technology and the need that came through. I think it’s, it’s here to stay. And if, if you don’t promote that, if you don’t maintain the infrastructure, as simple as that sounds, you know, you’re, you’re not, you’re not gonna be as attractive going forward. But I think as an industry overall, it’s the idea of do better with less. So, and I wanna be clear, I didn’t say more. Better doesn’t equal more.

Michael Curran:
It’s do better with less. And that’s one of the key things here, that our guest demands are still there. Our owners, obviously owners’ demands are there, but as you said, the staff shortage that continues the employment situation across the, you know, across the country, it’s just that concept is for the foreseeable future gonna be around. There’s just no way around it. And there’s lots of ways to, you know, to attack that. And we are, but, you know, we could do a whole show around that I think. It’s just do better with less.

Ryan Embree:
I love that term and that phrase, I think, you know, we definitely become more efficient and agile and really has pushed technology in an industry where, you mentioned it before, at some hotels, we’re still filling out breakfast cards and putting it on the outside of our door to become more efficient. And we’ve had to adapt with, especially with less face to face interaction between our staff and guests. So obviously staffing shortage, as you mentioned, gonna be a problem for a while, but I think it also accelerates things. The hotel industry has really been lagging behind with some of those technologies and, and perhaps we’ll make a more efficient streamline hotel experience for guests. And that kind of leads me into my next question here, because one of the things I’m, I’m just absolutely fascinated about. I’ve talked about it probably too much on this podcast is this post-booking pre-stay.

Ryan Embree:
So one of the things with the pandemic is that it kind of put the power back to the guest as they were able to make changes quicker and closer to their stay as soon as possible. But it also kind of opened their eyes to being like, I have the power to switch if I’m not excited about my stay coming up, or I feel, unfortunately, if there’s cleanliness issues at a property or something like that. So I love kind of talking about, all right, I booked with this property, but your job doesn’t stop there like it used to, right? You have to almost build excitement and get that person, and you can do that through social media, reviews, but also set expectations, which is the number one thing that we’re seeing on our end as negative reviews is expectations not being properly set. Breakfast is a great example. That’s all over the spectrum right now from still doing grab-and-go’s to breakfast buffets. So how does your portfolio kind of use this post-booking pre-stay phase to build excitement and set those expectations?

Michael Curran:
The brands do, I think, a nice job of embracing that in recent years, I guess. You know, Marriot’s mobile check-in and mobile key, I think that’s a tremendous leap forward. That was something that was way back in the early 2000s that we were gonna have a way that the internet would let a guest check in, bypass the front desk. We wouldn’t have to have a front desk anymore. Didn’t come to be, probably never will, but you know, that’s a big piece here, but I think what we focus on is actually just a simple concept. And it sort of goes back to the first point I was making there of around content organization, and self selection that there’s just a lot out there, no matter which way you turn it, there’s a lot out there.

Michael Curran:
And it has to be there. It’s our job to help people, again, understand, self-select where they want to go to get the thing they’ve been looking for, and even become aware of things that out of necessity, just get buried in content, like the ancillary services we offer. You know, be it the grab and go breakfast that is a big thing, but maybe it wasn’t too obvious to somebody. So in our pre-arrival messaging, it’s regular communication up to the point of arrival. And there is no standard, too, on a side note. I guess before I go further, there’s, you know, there’s people that say, well, you need to do a 30 day, a 15, and day before. That’s the standard. Okay, yeah, I can see that, but know your guest, maybe 30 should be, maybe it should be 60, depending on your destination, if there’s a lot happening. You know, Orlando, Southern California, maybe that’s 60. New York, maybe it’s 90. A smaller market, maybe it’s 15, 7, and day before, but that’s, I guess I digressed a little bit there, but you know, that’s at the foundation, but in those messages, it’s, it’s just simple.

Michael Curran:
“Hey, you’re 30 days out. You should start looking at making your restaurant reservations. We have these great restaurants and, you know, here’s a few more in the area”, you know, promote what you have to offer out of convenience to the guest and promoting the assets that we’re here to be responsible for. But it’s also, you’re part of a destination, it’s including that it’s, it’s including, 14 days out, it’s including messages of events that may pop up, you know, pop up farmers’ markets, pop up events that the concept is they’re planned and promoted really close in. But people should know about that too. So it’s including those little messages that to me is the simple focus. That’s the critical pre-stay promotion.

Ryan Embree:
Yeah. I love that messaging cadence that you talked about, and it’s so important right now, too, because of how many things have essentially changed, right? Or have been updated within that timeframe of maybe 90 days, whether it be local restrictions or something like that. You want to keep building that excitement like you talked about, and one of the places that you could build that excitement is social media. So what, that’s obviously a critical piece right now with the, on the mobile check-in that you talked about, more people taking advantage, the adoption is increasing on that. One of the ways that you could get messaging out is obviously using your hotel’s social media. And if they bypass the front desk, could be the only way other than those emails that you’re sending pre-stay. So how do you find a balance between traditional social media? Obviously Facebook still there, still king, but then somewhat emerging social platforms, LinkedIn, Instagram, and then maybe things that, I mean, this is already here, but TikTok, right. We know that that was the most frequently visited in 2021 over Google. So how do you find that balance between kind of traditional versus new? And that’s weird that we’re talking about that was social because it still feels relatively new.

Michael Curran:
So for Instagram, from a promotional perspective, how I approach it it’s to get that, to get that consistency. It’s, it’s as simple as using the, you know, the sync feature between the ads that we run on Facebook and Instagram, it’s a simple feature that allows us to be better with less, that we don’t have to monitor as much, but Instagram, the simplest things to me continue to be the best. You know, I’ll give you one example. One of our properties, to me, the post didn’t seem very attractive, meaning it was more of a “Meh. Okay. That’s nice. What’s next?” But, you know, it was a picture of one of our employees dressed in leisure attire and just holding a margarita out by the oceanfront patio.

Michael Curran:
Yeah. Attractive. Yeah. But it’s like, okay. Yeah, I’ve seen it before. Next. That was one of the most shared and commented on posts that we had in the year. I can’t exactly, in my mind, I can’t exactly explain it, but what it showed me is people want nice visuals and they weren’t promoting us. They were promoting that concept of that’s what I want. I wanna be that lady. I wanna be holding that, and we were part of that message, but that’s the approach. I think that’s the biggest approach there. LinkedIn continues to emerge. It’s a good sales tool. You know, if your sales folks aren’t using it, you’re a little behind and we do as one of our standard approaches. TikTok, I’m gonna go back to my Disney days on that. The Disney philosophy, they’re cutting edge.

Michael Curran:
There’s no question, but you know, the general philosophy is let somebody else maybe fall down first. Let’s see how many people fall down and we can learn from that before we quite get in hip deep into something. For me, let it play out a little bit, but the I’ll call it a replacement maybe, is OTT for me. Just the social like targeting capabilities that you can now do with, with TV commercials. It just, it gives you that power that it’s not spray and prey anymore. It’s, it’s not that old, and I should remember cuz it’s part of every marketing class, the Madison Avenue executive, back in the fifties or sixties that said, you know, half of my half of my marketing budget is wasted. I just don’t know which half <laugh>.

Michael Curran:
With broadcast that’s it, you don’t know, but now we can be razor sharp with it, like on social that, I don’t want to in a destination like Orlando, I don’t want to necessarily appeal to a business traveler. It’s there, but you know, I want a family group. I want maybe younger family, I, want someone who shows interest, past interest in beach destinations, in tropical destinations, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. You know, all the targeting things. And that’s what OTT can give you in many places. So to me, that’s, that’s the big step of the best emerging step for video. Yeah. Let TikTok maybe play itself out with some more entrepreneurial spirited people.

Ryan Embree:
I agree. I think, you know, we had, obviously we work with hotels and creating social media. And one of the things we heard years ago was, oh, I need to get my hotel on Snapchat. That’s the next thing. That’s the next thing. But you know, we found after, Snapchat might not be the best place for a hotel. Instagram is a hotelier’s dream. You think about it. Nobody is, you’ll still find some negative, negative feedback or negative pictures. People aren’t afraid to put negative pictures on their Facebook and post it at your, at your hotel. Instagram, people are living their best life. It is, it is positive vibes only in that arena and that’s again a hotelier’s dream. And that was a great example that you used with that post and kind of speaking to what you’re talking about, about knowing your audience, seeing the data and analytics on these post and then shifting, you know, what people are really responding to, to some more content there.

Ryan Embree:
So yeah, love that example. So obviously aside from social, the other place that we work with is online review response. And we knew that travel was, was plummeting because our numbers of the guest reviews that we were responding to just absolutely tanked and plummeted at the height of the pandemic. Now we are seeing those numbers, we’re responding to over a thousand reviews a day for hotels. You’re gonna have a lot of feedback, which hoteliers should love. Cuz again, it’s talking about data and analytics. How do you and your team leverage that guest feedback and maybe try to generate some more positive reviews, hopefully from guests?

Michael Curran:
Back to the, you know, part of my role is by definition in the title there, you know, being strategic, we have to, we have to think a little bit differently, a little further ahead. And it’s getting everyone in the mindset of, and again, I’ll reference the Disney days, you know, if you intercept a problem, it doesn’t actually become a problem. If that makes sense. It’s the old, like my grandparents generation, you know, it’s the old cliche back then, you know, ounce of prevention, pound of cure. If you can intercept those negative people, address the problem that they were being negative about, then by default, what’s out there is mostly positive. And the negativity that could have just continued to sprout because that issue festered or more people, someone else saw that, yeah, I had that experience too.

Michael Curran:
Let me post one, too. You know, one becomes two, two becomes four, four becomes eight, et cetera. Just it’s intercepting that before it happens. So by default, the problem goes away. You’ll get more positive reviews. That person that was probably gonna be nasty, didn’t have to be nasty out online because you addressed it. They’re happy. They returned it’s, you know, the whole system feeds on itself, but you know, there’s plenty of tools that can do that, that they simply ask after the stay, did you enjoy yourself? Yes or no. And I mean, it’s literally, it’s an email. It has a yes button and a no button, and if you click, yes, then it can route you out to a review website where, you know, we’re not dictating a review. No one should ever do that. But you know, we route you out and kind of implies, okay, leave a review for us. If no, it routes you to a contact form where the GM really does contact the person or whatever exec on property, you know, at the highest exec that’s responsible. It’s just monitoring that. That’s that’s the far better, more strategic thing to be a true hospitality oriented business in our name. We’re, we’re here to be hospitable.

Ryan Embree:
I love what you said about identifying those problems. Cause we talk to hotels all the time when we manage their online reputation and you know, we’ll bring up reviews and it’s very easy to say,that’s just an unhappy guest where there was no way we could have sat satisfied them. And, and maybe that is the case, but when you look, I mean, there’s so much feedback going on. I mean, Google literally will get your location and then prompt you for feedback at this point. And if you look all in these areas, yes, you might have a couple outliers there that there was nothing you could do, but they might be telling a true story and that story can be found within that data. So I think I’m right there with you, Michael. It’s about digging into that sentiment data and actually figuring out, okay, what are they telling me?

Michael Curran:
And use the tools. There’s plenty of tools out there. The technology platforms exist that do that sorting for you, and you just do the address and you could say the situation fixes itself. You will have a lot of positive people because the problems drop off.

Ryan Embree:
And that’s where the expertise of our onsite people really lies. I mean, that’s where their experience is, is actually handling, being hospitable hosts and handling those issues. But if you don’t know the issues, you can’t solve the problem. So let’s go back to Aimbridge Hospitality for a bit. You know, obviously culture’s at the foundation, any successful company. I saw on your website, one of your four core values, you’ve already given out some really great one-liners, but I love this: “Think like a guest, act like an owner.” I love that. Can you explain a little bit more about what that means to you?

Michael Curran:
I mean, simply put, it’s just being empathetic to our guests, you know. Again, here’s your second cliche, you know, walk in their shoes. That’s at the core of the concept of being empathetic, that you learn a lot from, and you can offer a great product, but at the same time then, it’s about balancing the need to take action to be the stewards of a considerable investment that these folks are entrusting us with, these owners entrusting us with. You know, by example, little bit back in the day when, when I started, you know, it made headlines in the early, in the late eighties, when the Hilton Chicago, you know, sold for $187 million, like whoa, $187 million, whoa, my goodness. That’s a breakfast deal, you know, <laugh>, but it’s still considerable, I don’t mean to imply that’s not a considerable investment, but you know, it’s not as shocking. There’s a lot of those now is what I mean. Yeah. And we have to be good stewards of that. These are considerable investments and we have to balance those two needs together.

Ryan Embree:
And obviously Aimbridge doing a great job with that. You could just see the portfolio there. But yeah, I love what you talked about about just empathy. I think sometimes hoteliers get a little too close and don’t look at the fact that they’re travelers too. You know, one of the things that I do when I do kind of consultations with hotels, I’ll say, you know, look at your hotel’s social feed and, and look at it as a non-employee. Are, are you following this page? Look at your reputation. What is that story telling you? Maybe get a trusted friend or family member to give you some honest feedback, cuz sometimes we’re so close to this stuff that we just really kind of don’t see through that. And again, we’re all travelers that that’s one thing that is very unique is that the person sitting at the front desk checking you in, could also the next weekend, be the person approaching a front desk and checking in.

Ryan Embree:
I think you answered most of my questions. Before we wrap up, I got a little bit of rapid fire here, Michael. So obviously with the Suite Spot, we have a variety listeners, variety of roles in their, you know, property or group of properties like yourself. One piece of advice, you can’t use the same piece twice and I’m gonna go ahead and kind of give you some positions and we’ll get your insights and feedback from it. So let’s start at the corporate level, right? The top VP of marketing for hospitality management. What’s that one piece of advice you would give them listening to this?

Michael Curran:
I think it’s the philosophy we just talked about, it’s empathize with the guest, but be that entrepreneurial good steward of the asset you’re entrusted with.

Ryan Embree:
Gotcha. What about regional area DOS, maybe just manages the marketing sales and marketing for let’s say five or less hotels.

Michael Curran:
So you don’t have to be an online expert that you have people that are that for you, but it’s not 2002 anymore. It’s not fashionable to be ignorant of online principles.

Ryan Embree:
Okay. And finally, let’s say the person that’s doing it all, right. GM or owner, that’s just in charge of everything, including their own digital marketing. What advice there?

Michael Curran:
You don’t have to spend a fortune for digital help and you don’t have to do it on your own. There are plenty of folks out there that can offer help. And it’s not the high priced help you may think it is. It is affordable. It’s within reach and you don’t have to do it yourself.

Ryan Embree:
I think it’s becoming more and more common, actually, to see it. You know what I mean? There’s other aspects of the hotel operations side that we see that are outsourced. GMs, owners, not doing their own landscaping, you know, not doing the pool maintenance anymore. That stuff’s outsourced. But I also think there’s this stigma of digital marketing. But now with the staffing shortage, it’s been another thing that’s really accelerated people reaching out for help and saying, listen, my expertise here is this onsite hospitable customer service for reputation that I’m trying to get here. Can you help me tell that story online? So seeing a lot of that right now, Michael. So as we close up, you know, always like the opportunity, any final thoughts on today’s episode before we wrap up?

Michael Curran:
I think we covered quite a bit here. The technology platforms are there and have long since proven themselves to help anybody be more strategic in their thinking. Again, you’ve got experts that can help you, but there’s platforms that if you adopt ’em, if you use ’em, if you make it part of your properties routine, it will kind of do part of that thinking for you. So just leave you with that thought and go Cubs!

Ryan Embree:
All right. All right. Yeah. Opening day today. I appreciate it, Michael, for jumping on the Suite Spot. Thank you all for listening .

Ryan Embree:
To join our loyalty program, be sure to subscribe and give us a five star rating on iTunes. Suite Spot is produced by Travel Media Group with cover art by Bary Gordon. I’m your host, Ryan Embree, and we hope you enjoyed your stay.

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