Kids marketers book extended stays with the hotel industry

Roasting marshmallows over a bonfire. Playing catch on the beach with Dad. Family vacations have probably given birth to some of the best childhood memories people have, and a growing number of marketers are recognizing the potential of intrinsically associating their brands with these experiences.
September 1, 2004

Roasting marshmallows over a bonfire. Playing catch on the beach with Dad. Family vacations have probably given birth to some of the best childhood memories people have, and a growing number of marketers are recognizing the potential of intrinsically associating their brands with these experiences.

On the other side of the fence, hotel chains know that kids are playing a more active role in vacation planning these days, and family trips represent a much bigger business now than they have in recent years. According to the U.S. Travel Industry Association, Americans are shelving their fears about terrorist attacks and economic downturn to give into wanderlust again. Domestic travel was up 3.5% last year and is pegged to increase by 5.8% this year and another 4.5% in 2005. And kids under 18 tagged along on one in four household trips Americans took last year; almost all of these family outings (91%) were in pursuit of leisure.

To connect with kid travelers, more and more hotels are hooking up with popular entertainment properties to spice up their kids services and activities. But they’re also exploring the boundaries of what these licensing relationships can entail in order to stand out from their competition. And that translates into some pretty exciting promotional opportunities for licensors.

At a basic level, many hotel chains are on the hunt for partners who can help create free activity and gift packs for distribution to all their kid guests. L.A.-based marketing firm The Regan Group helped coordinate this type of deal between Doubletree Hotels in the U.S. and Nelvana’s The Berenstain Bears earlier this year. Berenstain Bears kidsCAREpaks – branded knapsacks containing a 32-page soft cover book (exclusive to the hotel and published by Random House), an activity book with crayons, a magnetic Berenstain Bears photo frame and a mail-in offer from Random House for a free book – were given away to all kids ages three to 12 who checked in between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Although at first glance the initiative seems to be all about providing some added value to kids, the packs also served to give parents some downtime by keeping the kids out of their hair for a little while.

Embassy Hotels also runs a well-established kids Summer Pack program, built on a three-year cross-promotional partnership with Nickelodeon that just ended this year. Nick’s properties did a bang-up job at bringing in and entertaining younger kids, says Embassy director of marketing Jennifer Huffman-Jones, but the chain wants to attract a wider range of youth travelers. She says Embassy’s family bookings, which represent just under 50% of its overnight business, bring in a very broad range of kids, and there isn’t one particular age group that dominates the check-in books.

So this summer, Embassy turned its program over to Sony’s Spider-Man property, which has the ability to play younger (via the vintage cartoons and a new consumer products program) and older (current movie franchise and comic books). The range of freebies also spun a wider demographic web, with a puzzle block, a toss-and-catch game and a plush toy with suction cups for younger kids, and a reusable camera and coin purse for tweens/teens. Just as the Regan Group created the Berenstain Bears giveaways, Embassy called on L.A.’s Equity Marketing to manufacture its Spider-Man promo items, with Sony and Columbia Pictures approving each one. Embassy and Sony split the cost of producing the Summer Web Pack, and shared equal branding presence on the products.

Tweens, who are too old for toys but too young to appreciate most hotel amenities, are a more difficult target to connect with. Jennifer Tully, VP of marketing at The Regan Group, says one good tactic for reaching families without alienating tweens is to center promotions around music or computers. She anticipates that hotels will soon start looking for partners to sponsor free Internet rooms and complimentary movie nights for older kid guests.

Boston’s Onyx Hotel, the newest boutique offering from the Kimpton Group, seems to have hit on the right equation. The hotel’s highly touted Britney Spears suite is decorated by the pop star’s mom to emulate Britney’s childhood bedroom. The suite features white and gold princess furniture, a bathroom decorated with fairies and a mini-fridge stocked with Brit’s favorite munchies (including Pop Tarts and Red Bull). Onyx sales director Tracie Gunning says the room has been a hot property, with many parents willing to fork out the US$349 per-night rate. ‘We have mothers calling on a regular basis, using the room as a bribe to get their kids to do things like go to camp.’

Gunning approached Spears’ managers after learning that the pop star had coincidentally named her summer tour The Onyx Hotel. Noting the success of the Jerry Garcia and Santana celebrity-themed rooms in Onyx’s sister hotel in San Francisco, she reckoned that a Britney room might bring in more family visitors to Onyx, which is otherwise more of a corporate business establishment.

Although Spears’ management provided DVDs and videos featuring the pop star, Gunning says the hotel footed the bill for everything else. Onyx donates 10% of the room’s revenue to fund a performance arts camp run by the Britney Spears Foundation.

Hotels typically go to the brands’ consumer products licensees first in search of the right décor and furnishings. Sue Schlough, associate manager of partnership marketing at Crayola, says when her company first partnered with Howard Johnson four years ago for a themed room based on the crayon brand, the hotelier purchased generic, brightly colored curtains, carpets and bedspreads. HoJo then supplemented the room with licensed gear like giant crayons and Crayola easels that come with markers and crayons, which guests are encouraged to take home with them.

The deal now covers 100 rooms in 50 hotels and generates three streams of revenue for Crayola. First, the company sells HoJo the small packs of in-room giveaway crayons and the extra-large décor crayons. Then there’s a Howard Johnson fun pack filled with co-branded Crayola gear for all guests ages three to 12. And finally, some hotel franchises sell Crayola products like new-issue markers and crayons, bringing revenue back to the brand and its licensees. As is typical with most cross-promotions, Crayola doesn’t receive any revenue from the hotel room itself.

Taking the themed accommodations trend one big step further is the US$20-million transformation of the Holiday Inn Family Suites Resort Orlando into a ground-breaking Nick-themed hotel. When it opens in spring 2005, the Nickelodeon Family Suites by Holiday Inn will feature units with three TVs and separate Nick-themed sleeping areas for the kids, sit-down breakfasts with Nick characters, and a kids spa with services including manicures and temporary tattoos.

Howard Smith, VP of Nickelodeon Recreation, says the deal with this particular Holiday Inn franchise follows a typical licensing model. The partners collaborate on the positioning of the hotel, with Nick looking after its brand and Holiday Inn ensuring the hotel keeps its 800 rooms booked with happy families. Nick and Holiday Inn are also courting additional partners to occupy space in the hotel’s Mall, an on-site shopping facility with fast-food outlets including A&W, Barney’s Coffee and Pizza Hut Express.

Regan Group’s Tully believes that tie-ins with hotels are only just scratching the surface of innovation, and her company has kicked around ideas from branded reading libraries, to teen clubhouses with dancing and live music. Of course, the earlier a licensor comes to the table with an idea, the more able the hotel chains will be to fully incorporate it. Conversations for branded giveaways typically start six months out, but more creative ideas can emerge from talks that start as early as one year ahead of the promo.

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