Today we interview Daniel Zelling, who has worked for several years in the hotel business for various multinational companies, like Micros Fidelio, Pegasus and ReviewPro. He founded opensmjle and DIGITAL AMENITIES and now works with different customers in the hospitality industry across Europe.

hetras interview with Daniel ZellingWhy do you think every hotel needs a good story to tell?

Well, in the end, any hotel out there has rooms, beds, most certainly a shower, and, in most cases, a reception and breakfast. So, the core functionality of a hotel is not really a differentiator compared to its competitors. If you not only want to compete on price, but also want to stand out with your USPs and explain to guests why spending more euros in your hotel would be worth it, you need to find your individual story and get it across to the customer.


We just started a new project with a hotel in Bavaria to build their website from scratch, help with the storytelling, produce a mood video, add new pictures, translations, etc. The hotel is busy with their day-to-day tasks, operations, renovating the hotel, and serving their guests, which is totally normal, and they know their story very well when asked. However, when visiting their website or any other channel, you cannot find why this hotel is so nice and why it is different. Just to give one example, they have their very own natural swimming lake, only for their guests, on their premises. It is a fantastic place for relaxation in an amazing natural environment, and, for me personally, it would be one of the main reasons to book this hotel. Currently, though, you can only find a small hint about it on one of the sub-pages, so 90% of the potential guests will not know about it until they stay there. Those are the kinds of specifics we try to filter out to tell a better story across the multiple channels and networks.


Do most hotels have a proper website? What is your experience?

I cannot provide a full market overview on that, but based on some cities in Europe we checked before creating our new model, we found that between sixty and eight percent of existing websites would benefit from a revision. Thirty to forty percent should be updated immediately, as they don’t represent a typical website setup anymore and, for example, are not optimized at all for the mobile user. And that’s just the beginning.


What kinds of challenges do you face every day with your customers?

The most critical part is to create great copy and visuals. We rarely run into projects where a hotel already has all its data. They still need great texts, high-resolution photos and videos, metadata, etc. Even their story remains untold. In most cases, existing texts were optimized for Google, but not for the customer, and some of them have dozens of sub-pages that a guest will never touch or read. Often, they appear to have been written by the owners in between tasks, without much consideration or analysis of what a potential guest would be interested in reading.


So, the first task for us (I would not call it a “challenge”) is to analyze what data exists, organize the storytelling, and see what data we can use and what needs to be created. Acquiring new data can be done either by our team or partners, or by the existing network of the hotel. In our current projects, one key service we provide is to make sure we have compelling content, but then also take over the data loading and optimization. In many SaaS models, hoteliers would need to handle that themselves and decide how to set up their site. There are probably some hoteliers out there that would do a great job handling that, and I even personally know two or three of those talented guys. But the majority of hoteliers seem to be very happy that they are able to hand over this task to us, while they continue to take care of their daily business.


Explain a bit about your agency, DIGITAL AMENITIES.
What´s the idea behind it?

Ever since I started my own agency, opensmjle, at the start of 2013, I have had the idea of changing the way hotels create websites and how this is handled by the industry. Speaking with hoteliers, I learned that, in many cases, the processes were just not scalable or intuitive, they could not access or update the content of their websites, and in cases where they had particularly good websites, the projects were really expensive. So, based on my network agency and experience with different projects for different industries, I started looking for the right partners to create a different model. I was sure there was an easier and smarter approach.

In 2015, after handling a few projects together, I and my two business partners, Oli and Marc, both communication designers, founded
DIGITAL AMENITIES. The model behind it is based on a SaaS model with pretty low start-up fees, then monthly fees around 99€. That alone would not make a huge difference from what exists in the market, but we decided not only to do the design and technical parts, but also to eliminate the typical hotelier headache of having to load data into the CMS before selecting GO LIVE – our team takes care of that.

Furthermore, we not only handle the website as such, but we also look into the storytelling of the site – that’s what opensmjle is all about. Then, as a full service agency in the background, we can help with most content that may be missing, whether it is visuals, texts, translations, logos, whatever. So, we combine both worlds: a SaaS model dedicated to hotels, with full service design agency skills.


Which of your tasks are the easiest, and which are the most difficult?

Difficult to say. I like to network and be among people at roadshows, hotel camps, conferences, trade shows, etc. It helps me stay up-to-date and better understand the daily tasks hoteliers face and how they see new ideas and processes. The approach we take is to educate people, share knowledge and experience, and build trust. It is certainly a great moment when it becomes clear that people would like to learn more about what we do or consider starting a project with us.


We sometimes assume hoteliers have the same knowledge level in our specific fields, and we don´t understand why they don´t handle things in certain ways. But just imagine being confronted with guests, complaints, staff issues, revenue management, PMS solutions that are many years old and not integrated with other tools, online distribution, online reputation handling, and many more topics on a daily basis. Then, at the same time, you’re expected to keep up-to-date with industry trends and new innovations, take calls to discuss the latest tools or ideas, like beacons, tablets for your rooms, an app for team organization, or repair management, or the Cloud…. It certainly is a lot!


Which of your tools could you not do without?

I prefer not to be so dependent on tools, but rather on great colleagues. We do use tools, though, such as Dropbox, WeTransfer, Google Drive, Evernote, and for online screen sharing. For communication, we have What´s App, Skype, Facebook Messenger or Mailchimp. Currently, we are looking into slack for better communication within our team for projects. Hubspot is nice as well but has limitations when using Mac and not Gmail or Outlook.


What would you say is your “secret weapon”? How do you use it?

I don´t think we have a secret weapon. Basically, we try to over deliver to our customers’ expectations, create win-win situations with all our partners, and use our in-depth hospitality industry knowledge for better services and results. There are hundreds of agencies out there that do a great job, but we have the advantage that a hotelier does not need to explain to us how a hotel operation works, or what technical solutions are in use, like PMS, CRS, IBE, GDS, OTAs, channel manager, RMS, etc. We already speak their language.


If you look into the future, what will hotel marketing look like?

In my humble opinion, it will be more about creating compelling content across all channels, including nice texts and great photos and videos that are produced in different ways for different channels. Especially with artificial intelligence tools, the design of websites might become less relevant, as the quality may become fairly comparable. At that point, focusing on emerging markets, apps, and solutions might be a game changer. For example, having a significant presence within WeChat, in case a hotel has potential for the Chinese market, might be a new approach, and it opens up a completely new market. People in China might not look up your website or find you on Trivago, but they use WeChat the same way we use Facebook, Google and What´s App combined. By the way, we are currently looking into services in that direction and are very interested in working with a great partner to enable hotels to get on WeChat within the Chinese market!


Is there anything that you would like to tell the hospitality industry?

Hard to say. On one hand, I completely understand how busy hoteliers are with day-to-day tasks and that it is really difficult to stay up-to-date with the latest developments. Sometimes, too, it makes sense to give new developments time and see what others do…that’s totally fine.

On the other hand, I think it is crucial that hoteliers take a step back, probably with the help of someone external or friends not involved with the business, and think about what their core values are, what they stand for, and how they differentiate their hotel from others. Finding their USP and communicating that more clearly might also help in finding the right guests for their property. That could lead to happier guests, happier staff, better reviews, even more happy guests, better ADRs (average daily rate) and even happier hoteliers in the long run.


In addition, if there is a conference, a hotel camp or roadshow with interesting people and/or providers close to their location and hoteliers can allow themselves to leave the business for one or two days, they should do so. Participation in these events will basically pay for itself, even if just by exchanging information with other hoteliers about what works for them. I think many people would be surprised how much hoteliers can help each other by sharing experiences they have had with providers and service partners.


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Daniel Zelling lives in Cologne and is the happy father of an almost three-year-old son. He enjoys traveling throughout Europe for meetings and conferences and especially likes to interact with other industry professionals in camps and at conferences, sometimes even hosting events himself. He describes himself as a networker, storyteller, and very bad, but enthusiastic, tennis player.




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