Virtual Tools Target Travelers

WASHINGTON Near the indoor amusement park at the Mall of America in Minneapolis, between anchor stores Macy’s and Nordstrom, sits a 30-foot by 13-foot hotel suite from the new Cambria Suites, a division of Choice Hotels.

The outside facade is the exact replica of the real hotel’s exterior, complete with the signature tower. Inside, visitors can try out the wireless connection, turn on the flat-screen TV, hook their iPod into the clock radio with the MP3 jack, or sprawl on the king-size bed. Brand representatives greet visitors when they walk into the suite.

On 100 televisions stationed at the 24 interior mall directories, two alternating 60-second spots touting the Cambria Suites amenities run every eight minutes.

Cambria Suites is attempting to snare the business traveler who may be shopping with his family. Put the kids on a nearby ride in the amusement park while mom or dad takes a stroll through the replica suite.

Meanwhile, at the Minneapolis airport, a visual promotion of the hotel appears on a 14-foot wall and travelers can don “reality Googles” to take a virtual tour, complete with a 360-degree view. This virtual tool also helps travel agents feel like they have stayed at a Cambria Suites, and puts them in a better position to recommend it to their clients.

“Our idea is to take the hotel to the guest,” says Cambria Suites brand president William Edmundson. “Having been involved in several other brand launches, one of the biggest challenges is telling people what your brand is and where do you find it. What we have to do now is let people know about it.”

The Cambria Suites in Bloomington, Minn., opened Nov. 15. The target demographic is the 28- to 48-year-old career-driven technology lover who travels a lot for business. This person wants to replicate all the comforts of home while on the road. Since the marketer operates each of its Cambria Suites as a franchise, it is also looking for developers who would run the franchise and corporate travel decision makers who would consider establishing a company account with the hotel. “These are things we would not get with traditional media and things we certainly would not get with a single effort,” Edmundson says.

To reach specialized groups, Edmundson says he needed nontraditional marketing approaches to complement the more traditional print ads and local sales calls, which also supported the effort. So Choice Hotels approached Red Peg Marketing, an Alexandria, Va., agency that specializes in creating customer experiences.

“It is very difficult to go to market with a brochure, or picture or architectural design concept because it is fairly flat,” says Mercedita Roxas-Murray, vp and director of client service at Red Peg. “We were not going to do just a section of the hotel. We wanted to take an exact replica and bring it out with the exterior elements, [complete with] the plants and the foliage. We wanted people to get the wow factor.”

Before visitors leave the pop-up suite at the mall, brand ambassadors are trained to sign them up for the Choice Hotels rewards program. Visitors also can book a room at the real hotel right there.

In the first week at the Mall of America, the pop-up suite generated 33,276 impressions, 10,468 interactions between visitors and the brand ambassadors, 3,441 site tours, 301 virtual reality tours and five reservations made on site, according to Red Peg figures.

Based on the first week’s trend, Roxas-Murray says they expect to receive more than 250,000 impressions, with more than 20,000 people actually walking inside the suite and taking the tour. Edmundson says Choice was attracted to the Mall of America because 6 million people visit it during the holiday season, which breaks down to about 175,000 people each day.

Erik Hauser, founder of the Experiential Marketing Forum and ecd of Swivel Media, argues that giving people experiences appeals to their emotions and increases the chances that they will buy the product or service being offered. “If the average consumer is bombarded with 5,000 advertising messages a day, the body tunes out the external stimulus,” Hauser says. “What you have to do to reach the audience is to create relevant experiences where people are most receptive without being intrusive.”

A November study the forum conducted with Stanford University found that one-third of the more than 650 advertising executives surveyed said they considered experiential marketing to be the “lifeblood” and core of their organizations. They used it to build relationships, engage prospects and create buzz.

Hauser says the Choice approach is likely to create top-of-mind awareness, but the marketer also has to match the consumer expectations that have been raised by the marketing tactic. “What they are putting out there is a big brand promise and it is important that that level of enthusiasm is matched once the customer gets to the real hotel,” he says.