The art of storytelling in hospitality: how narratives enhance guest engagement

2023-11-29
tourist-couple-on-adventure

If you've spent any time on social media platforms over the past couple of years, you have no doubt encountered the phrase "main character energy". The underlying idea is that of living your life as if you were the primary protagonist of a grand narrative.

In a 2021 New Yorker article, Kyle Chayka noted that not everyone looks at "main character energy" the same way:

The term can be used appreciatively, acknowledging a form of self-care — putting yourself first — or as an accusation, a calling out of narcissism: a person dressing too extravagantly for a casual event, for example, is trying to be the main character. Main-character moments are those in which you feel ineffably in charge, as if the world were there for your personal satisfaction.

Engaging storytelling in hotel marketing

We would argue, on the other hand, that striving after main character energy is a perfectly natural thing — after all, who doesn't want to feel like the focal point of a compelling story?

Hotels can tap into this drive to be part of a good narrative by making storytelling a key component of their marketing efforts. In the competitive landscape of the hospitality industry, finding unique ways to differentiate your brand is essential. While offering excellent amenities, top-notch service and a comfortable stay are fundamental, storytelling is an often-overlooked aspect that can set your hotel apart.

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Immersing guests in the hotel's narrative

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In the hospitality business, artful brand storytelling is a powerful tool that transcends the ordinary and transforms a mere stay into a remarkable journey. Beyond the comfortable beds and exquisite cuisine, a hotel's narrative is the invisible thread that connects guests to the heart of their experience.

By crafting a narrative that aligns with the brand or theme, hoteliers can make the physical space an extension of the story, immersing guests in a unique and cohesive experience.

Presenting the guest experience as a journey or adventure, hospitality businesses can captivate guests and make for a more memorable stay. Every touchpoint along this journey provides the hotel with opportunities to enchant guests and connect with them on an emotional level.

Stories make emotional connections

Indeed, the most memorable experiences are those with emotional resonance. Through storytelling, hospitality providers can craft experiences that resonate emotionally. For example, a family celebrating a special occasion at a resort may be surprised with a personalized storybook recounting their stay.

Stories hold a unique power — the ability to touch the heart and stir the soul. In the hospitality realm, it's about more than just providing a bed for the night; it's about creating lasting memories.

Making guests feel that their personal stories are connected to a larger narrative can be a potent marketing technique, because it fosters brand loyalty and repeat visits.

Small details can resonate deeply

From a design perspective, even the smallest details can become key elements in weaving the rich tapestry of the hotel's story. A recent Hotel Design article, for example, quotes designer Christian Werner, curator of a new color concept for bathroom brand Duravit:

Color also determines how we perceive a product. It’s an emotion because everyone responds to it differently. Multiple colors create a kind of color resonance, something that ideally creates harmony. And colors for an interior should never be considered in isolation, but rather in the context of the entire space.

Hotel storytelling to engage all the senses

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Visual storytelling is especially powerful, but in hospitality, the most successful storytelling engages all of the guest's senses.

A growing number of hotels, for example, have begun partnering with "olfactory branding agencies" to help them develop signature scents. A July 31 Washington Post article quotes Jennifer Newson, in-house neuroscience consultant at neurocosmetics brand Children of Earth Skincare, who says scents have a subconscious influence that can "plant a seed in the brain" tied to a specific place and time.

“Our olfactory system is unique compared to our other sensory systems in that the pathways from the nose and olfactory bulb go directly into memory and emotion centers in the brain, such as the entorhinal cortex and amygdala,” Newsom told the Post in an email.

The same article quotes Dawn Goldworm, co-founder and "nose" of olfactory branding agency 12.29 Scent, whose clients include Hyatt and Ritz-Carlton hotels:

We’re able to create an idea of comfort, or atmosphere of safety, or inspiration, or relaxation, or whatever the hotel brand wants to do. We work with the music, we work with the lighting, we work with the textures, the colors, and everything becomes that emotion a brand wants to elicit from their branding efforts.

Experiences as unique as guests themselves

We focus a lot on the value of personalization in hospitality as a means of crafting great guest experiences, and storytelling can be an integral aspect of that.

We would even go so far as to say that personalization through authentic storytelling is the cornerstone of modern hospitality. Using data collected at various points along the customer journey (with guests' permission, of course) hoteliers today are able to craft narratives that are as unique as the guests themselves.

As Deloitte notes, “The principle of knowing guests is and has always been at the core of understanding and delivering an exceptional hotel guest experience.”

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Every hotel has a story to tell

Knowing a guest's preferences and interests allows the staff to customize guest interaction and recommend amenities and services based on the narrative that resonates with the individual customer.

Every hotel has a story to tell, and it's not just about its inception or history. It's about weaving a narrative and allowing guests to step into it, making their stay a memorable experience.

Start by identifying the unique elements of your hotel's identity.

  • Is it nestled in a historic district?

  • Does it have a distinct architectural style?

  • Is there a theme that runs through the hotel's design and décor?

These are the building blocks of your hotel storytelling.

Showcasing local culture

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Storytelling is a powerful tool for showcasing the local flavor of a destination. Hotels and restaurants can integrate elements of the local culture into their offerings, providing guests with a deeper sense of connection to the community.

Imagine that boutique hotel situated in a historic neighborhood. As the guest steps into the lobby, they're not merely greeted by a receptionist; they're welcomed into a narrative. The décor, the ambiance, and the staff members' attire all tell a story of a bygone era. You're not just staying at a hotel; you're stepping into history.

This immersive experience captivates guests, transporting them to another time and place. It's a journey that begins at check-in and continues throughout their stay.

Forging connections with a sense of place

Hospitality extends beyond the hotel walls — it embraces the soul of the locale. To truly immerse guests in the spirit of a place, hotels can add the rich flavors of authentic stories into the guest experience. Whether it's the whispers of ancient history, the aroma of traditional cuisine or the rhythms of local music, these inspiring stories connect travelers to the heart of their destination.

As the Hotel Design article we cited above notes:

The hotel is no longer seen as something apart, but needs to be woven into and a part of the environment in which it is placed. From large luxury brands to smaller boutique offerings, personalization is now high on the agenda. The hotel experience, meanwhile, is no longer confined by a property perimeter, but needs to be part of a deeper social picture as it both responds to and challenges both its guests and its locale.

Telling the stories of the season

Creating impactful stories based on seasonal events can be a compelling way to draw in potential guests and provide them with enchanting and memorable experiences. Here are a few timely examples of hotels that have embraced the current holiday season.

  • Since 2005, San Francisco's Westin Saint Francis has displayed its holiday Sugar Castle. This year's version (on display through January 2, 2024) is 12 feet tall and weighs 1,200 pounds, featuring 20 circular towers and 30 rooms with illuminated windows. This year, visitors can explore the inside of the castle using their smartphones via an immersive augmented reality experience.

  • The Park Hyatt Toronto, meanwhile, invites guests to visit an immersive holiday cottage pop-up concept inspired by traditional "bothys" — cozy cottages commonly found in remote mountainous regions throughout Europe. According to Jason Bossenberry, the hotel's Director of Sales & Marketing, the Park Hyatt's Holiday Bothy "offers a sanctuary of warmth and connection in the heart of the city, where guests can escape the cold and revel in shared moments of holiday magic."
  • Among the seasonal offerings at the Hotel Indigo York in the UK are packages that include excursions to local attractions including Christmas markets and a chocolate museum. The big draw, however, is undoubtedly the North Pole suite, a Yuletide-themed room complete with a Christmas tree, wrapped gifts and the scents of cinnamon and apples.

Digital storytelling knowns no boundaries

If all of the above sounds like it was tailor-made for Instagram or TikTok, that's no accident. Whether or not they're working with travel influencers, these hotels can be assured that social media channels will be full of user-generated content highlighting their efforts.

A compelling story becomes a shareable experience. Guests who are moved by a hospitality establishment's narrative are likely to share their experiences with others, contributing to positive word-of-mouth marketing and helping to attract new customers.

In the 21st century, storytelling knows no boundaries, and digital media has become a vital tool for showcasing a hotel's brand narrative for its target audience. A captivating website with great video content or an interactive digital experience can take guests on a journey long before they arrive at your front desk. These digital narratives offer a tantalizing glimpse into the story waiting to unfold.

Hotels that offer PressReader as an amenity can use the Self-Pub feature to digitize and upload their own content to the platform's front page to further engage guests with newsletters, restaurant and bar menus and information about the hotel's history and the culture of the local area.  

Forging emotional experiences

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The art of storytelling in the hospitality industry goes beyond mere decoration or branding, although each of these is certainly an integral part of it. Harnessing the power of a good narrative, hoteliers can create a cohesive, memorable, and unique identity that forges an emotional bond with guests and fosters long-term relationships.

The impact of storytelling for hotels is not measured in words but in smiles, loyalty and a shared human experience. The success of these narratives is evident in the glowing reviews and guest testimonials, repeat bookings and an elevated reputation for your hotel brand.

In an industry where intangible factors often lead to quantifiable results, storytelling is the golden key that can unlock the hearts of travelers, encouraging guests to feel like the main characters in their own personal narratives.

Connecting with guests on a deeper level

In short, storytelling in hospitality is not merely a trend; it's a strategic approach to enhancing guest engagement and creating indelible memories. By crafting narratives that are personalized, immersive and emotionally resonant, hospitality providers can connect with guests on a deeper level.

Whether it's through immersion in the local culture, engaging all five senses or digital storytelling, savvy hoteliers are employing the ages-old art of storytelling to transform the hospitality industry, one amazing guest experience at a time.

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