Hotels: It’s all about the experience

As hotels in Reno continue to battle the twin battles of weakening air service and race-to-the-bottom room pricing, they’re increasingly focused on providing an experience, rather than just a place to stay.

The new Whitney Peak Hotel in downtown Reno, for instance, combines big climbing walls with indie-rock concerts to create a memorable experience for the millenials in its target market.

Atlantis Resort Spa, meanwhile, spent three years on researching and designing a spa that’s been a big hit with Baby Boomers who want to pamper themselves.

Those sorts of experiences will become increasingly important as the tourism sector in the Reno-Tahoe area — across the state, in fact — battles the challenges of a hotly competitive market.

“Everyone has gaming. We have to differentiate the experience,” said Eric Bello, vice president of sales at the Las Vegas Sands as he led a discussion of experience-based marketing during the annual Governor’s Conference on Tourism last week.

For Whitney Peak, development of a differentiated experience was the focus from the first meeting to discuss redevelopment of the property once known as Fitzgerald’s in downtown Reno.

‘We asked ourselves, ‘What does Reno not have?’ recalled Niki Gross, managing director of the 157-boutique property that opened four months ago.

The answer: A non-smoking, non-gaming hotel that targets outdoors-oriented younger consumers, as well as older customers who want to share that vibe.

A 164-foot climbing wall on the façade of the hotel sets a theme that’s supported by amenities such as schedule of yoga classes.

Gross said the hotel’s occupancy rate has been steadily rising as it targets the leisure markets in northern California.

As Whitney Peak also is beginning to gain some traction with planners of business meetings, its owners are preparing to begin development next month of the five floors of rooms that initially were left unfinished.

So far, Gross said, Whitney Peak has managed to keep itself above the price-cutting that leads to rooms for as little as $39 (sometimes less) on weeknights around town. The boutique hotel’s base rates are $119 to $129.

“There are a lot of people who don’t know this market and don’t have an expectation of a $39 rate,” she said. “In fact, a $39 rate turns them off.”

The Atlantis, meanwhile, has found that its spa experience is a strong draw on its own, said Kimberlee Tolkien, the assistant general manager of the south-Reno property.

“It’s not meant to be a foo-foo pampering, but a complete experience in itself,” Tolkien said.

She said those sorts of experiences – whether it’s a million-dollar spa or a know-your-name greeting from a hotel employee — are critical as Reno-area properties battle to overcome the declines in air service. Strong customer experiences will help hotel properties hold their rates, and stronger rates will generate dollars to help the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority market Reno and Sparks to vacationers worldwide.

And she said Atlantis places heavy emphasis on personal relationships even as many of its customers spend much of their lives on social media.

“On-line is one thing, but we’re into person-to-person experiences,” she said.

It’s not just hotels and resorts that need to be keeping a close eye on the experience they provide to customers, said one of the spotlighted speakers during the conference on tourism.

Jim Gilmore, the author of “The Experience Economy” and “Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want,” said the shift into an economy in which consumers seek fruitful experiences is as profound as earlier shifts into manufacturing- and service-oriented economies.

And that plays out in lots of subtle ways, Gilmore said.

For instance, he listened to discussion during the conference on tourism about the declining numbers of Americans who take their full vacations from work. That may be true in a traditional sense, Gilmore said. But he suggested that workers take lots of mini-vacations every day — a half hour at Starbucks, time shopping online during work hours.The challenge for traditional venues, he said, is learning to compete in a highly fractured environment in which consumers take time off in lots of little bits.


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