Digital Marketing Helps Resort Thrive During Pandemic

LAGUNA BEACH, CA—As COVID-19 caused hotels to close or downsize operations, Surf and Sand Resort and the JC Resorts team knew that despite the economic impact of the pandemic, they would need to maintain some level of brand awareness in key markets during this time in order to rapidly secure market share once things opened up again.

Working with GCommerce Solutions, the property focused all of its efforts on digital channels, including the resort maintaining a steady, reassuring presence on social media. Basically, it was a “keep the lights on” strategy while many others went completely dark on digital spending.

“During times of crisis or economic recessions, the first line item that companies cut is their sales and marketing,” said Lindley Cotton, president/partner, GCommerce Solutions. “However, from our own data collected back in 2008, as well as a Cornell study, we can conclusively say that those who can continue to invest in their marketing will come out the other side faster and far ahead of their competition.”

Cotton said that following a stock marketing playbook for the property would not work because of the unprecedented times. “Our marketing efforts needed to capture people as they were dreaming about future travel as well as have a deeper focus on top-performing markets,” she said. “We revised the paid search campaign strategy by removing out-of-state locations and increasing bids on top in-state markets. The demographics largely remained the same though more emphasis was placed on top age groups and household income.”

The overall budget was reduced to align with less cash flow on property, but enough to continue targeting brand keywords, market-based keywords (i.e. Laguna Beach hotel), and wedding keywords.

“Our team homed in on the idea that people were dreaming about when they could travel again and served a consistent message focused on the property’s beachfront access,” said Cotton. “We also laser-focused on markets we knew were continuing to perform. We revised our media strategy to remove any out-of-state locations and increased our bids on top in-state markets. The top-performing ad focused on the property being a family-friendly destination and the perfect opportunity to escape city life and, of course, highlighting the beachfront access.”

As the state opened, the hotel increased the budget and continued to focus targeting on California and the drive-to market, pushing a significant amount of the budget into market terms to generate brand awareness as consumers started looking for places they could travel to.

“Navigating COVID-19 has taught us all the importance of being nimble and responsive,” said Joanna Bear, general manager, Surf and Sand Resort. “Surf & Sand’s open-air, oceanfront footprint facilitates a private escape that has allowed us to continue to promote the destination and ‘keep the lights on,’ so to speak, through digital promotion avenues. Our partnership with GCommerce has guided the resort through marketing as we navigated constantly changing news and helped us to set the foundation for success and growth in a post-COVID-19 travel era.”

The resort said that the marketing efforts paid off significantly in the end, with July occupancy far outpacing competitors and other California hotels still sitting in single-digit numbers.

Transactions continued throughout all of COVID with the low being the week of March 31 (but still with positive gain for web bookings) to a high the week of May 19. The resort generated positive revenue via the website every week even when closed completely and even generated a minimum return on advertising spend (ROAS) of 10:1 on paid search throughout COVID, ending June with a record 180:1 ROAS.

“When we compared three other four- and  five-star beachfront resorts in Southern California, we saw a minimum 37% decrease in sessions and 64% decrease in revenue over May and June vs. the 19% increase in sessions and 88% increase in revenue year-over-year that Surf & Sand realized,” said Cotton.