Case Study No. 2959: Hotel PR

PR Campaign Takes Brand-Building Among Families on the Road When brand managers at The Hampton Inn and Hampton Inn & Suites hotel chains asked Dallas-based Meltzer & Martin Public Relations to come up with a way to promote its brand among families and kids, it was because hotel management had tracked a shift in travel patterns, with families comprising more than 50% of its total guest base. The Memphis-based hotel chain, with 700 hotels worldwide, had previously served a mostly business traveler clientele. Now, leisure travelers - families traveling in the summer and winter months - had overtaken the business traveler in significant numbers. In trying to find a way to build brand awareness among kids and families, and position Hampton Inn as a moderately priced leisure-time destination, M&M wisely used input from kids to form the basis of its "Happy Highways Kids' Travel Kit" campaign targeted to kids ages 4 to 10 - a kit meant to be used in the car, that includes a 30-minute audio cassette tape featuring kids' songs and road games and a colorful travel journal that also contains travel-related content and activities for kids. The young Dallas PR firm counts Embassy Suites, The Container Store, Kimberly-Clark and Sprint as clients, and says it had billings of $1.1 million in 1996, and projects 1997 billings of $1.8 million. The PR firm had to contend with an abundance of hotel brands in the marketplace, as well as the philosophy of its client, which does not subscribe to discounting and promotional tie-ins with blockbuster movies or other family-targeted incentives - something competing hotel brands do. Rather, explains Robert Martin, principal, Meltzer & Martin Public Relations, Hampton Inn's corporate philosophy wanted to "offer a value to traveling families that no other hotel chain was providing." "We were asked to look at creating PR activities that could be directed toward families," says Martin. "We decided to have a major PR push each summer." The firm was originally charged with the task in the early 1990s, In 1991, the firm started out by conducted research, and asked parents and kids to fill out a brief questionnaire regarding their thoughts on travel. "We wanted to find out what kids thought," said Martin, "and we thought we would get some interesting responses for the media." The survey asked questions like, "Where do you think families will be vacationing in the year 2,000?" and "What's your favorite food to eat on vacation?" It was a kids' answer to one of the survey questions, however, that helped the firm conceive of the highway kit. "One of the things that came out of it was that kids said the car trips were boring and what they disliked the most," said Martin. "That helped to spark the idea of creating something to entertain them with in the car." The project was initially executed in the summer of 1992, though that original highway kit consisted of an audio tape only. The firm produced 2,000 tapes; parents were able to order the tapes (for a postage and handling charge) through the mail. All 2,000 tapes sold out, due partly to coverage in USA Today. Additionally, the mail-order fulfillment process allowed Hampton Inn to place its hotel directories into the mailboxes of its target audience along with the kit. Public relations materials for the kit were directed to national consumer media, local media in key markets for Hampton Inn and consumer travel trade media. The decision to relaunch the kit in the summer of 1996 was accompanied by a larger budget. M&M decided to hire a well-known kids performer/singer, Eddie Coker. It also hired Dallas ad agency Rhodes, Stafford, Wines to design the accompanying four-color activity book. The cost of producing the kit was approximately $30,000 says Margo Isbell, senior vice president, Meltzer & Martin. The highway kit campaign resulted in 15 million consumers reached through the print media that picked up on the kit, with stories or mentions appearing in The Washington Post, Dallas Morning News, Orlando Sentinel and The Houston Chronicle as well as in Family Fun and Southern Living magazines and local parenting magazines such as Connecticut Parent, Dallas Family and Portland Parent. M&M also placed the story on two travel-related consumer programs on America Online. And, it released a video news release a few days before the Automobile Association of America released its annual summer travel forecasts last May, betting that TV broadcasts would pick up on both stories and package them. 107 TV stations used the highway kit in broadcasts either separately or with the AAA material, says Martin, resulting in an additional 2.8 million media impressions. M&M also implemented a media relations campaign to publicize the kit's availability during the summer months. The hotel chain reported a 6% increase in revenues for the summer of 1996 over the previous summer, adds Martin, and occupancy rates were 10% above the industry average - results which took place during a period in which Hampton Inn did no other national advertising or marketing activities. M&M, which recently received a Gold Quill award in the audio-visual category for the kit from the International Association of Business Communicators, is currently planning its 1998 campaigns, and, says Martin, "we will definitely do something for the family market, in a much bigger program." (Robert Martin, Margo Isbell, 214/953-0808)

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