One way great hotels can get even better is to learn from the best.
In this case, we’re proud to be talking about our client, Nihi Sumba, an island resort that has earned the distinction of being the best hotel in the world according to Travel + Leisure readers. As such, James McBride, founding partner and CEO of Nihi Hotels, has a wealth of knowledge that hotel marketing professionals can leverage to grow their own successes.
From big brand to cult destination
James started his hospitality career in the corporate world with Ritz Carlton. From six hotels in 1988, James helped grow the brand, opening 25 new hotels in locations like Hong Kong, Singapore, and Washington DC.
“One of the best things I ever did for my career was joining Ritz Carlton in its infancy,” says James. “That opportunity doesn’t exist anymore with the level of brand saturation that exists today. New companies and brands don’t exist at the speed I was fortunate to enjoy. I loved the culture at Ritz Carlton and it was an amazing experience that really made my career,” he adds.
After his time at Ritz Carlton, James moved on to run the Carlyle in New York and the Rosewood Resorts in the Caribbean, Caneel Bay, Little Dix Bay, Jumby Bay, and the Rosewood Inn of the Anasazi in Santa Fe New Mexico.
In 2011, during his tenure as President of YTL Hotels, his soon-to-be business partner Chris Burch called to tell him about a property for sale on the island of Sumba in Indonesia. This 560-acre hotel and its property represented the perfect opportunity to create a unique and exclusive destination beach resort on the edge of the wild southeast Asian jungle.
“Chris and I went all in,” says James. “We knocked down the hotel and rebuilt it in 2012. We became the number one hotel in the world by 2016, and again in 2017,” he adds.
Understanding the digital revolution
A brand new, remote hotel with an experience on the extreme end of the luxury scale could easily have failed. But, James attributes the success of Nihi Sumba to an early-adopter approach to the hotel digital marketing revolution. “It took everything to get this hotel off the ground,” says James. “It wasn’t just one thing. It was everything. It was digital ads, PR, print, word of mouth,” he adds.
However, social media was undeniably a key, essential piece for Nihi Sumba’s success. “We’ve been on Instagram since 2013. One of our biggest initiatives was a strong Instagram push in the early days of that network. We had Instagram influencers before influencers were common. Just hacking into the power of that network and thoroughly understanding it has been a big part of our success,” he says.
“The reasoning behind such a strong push with Instagram influencers,” says James, “is you have to experience this place to understand what it’s all about. This property is so unique and tribal in nature with an animus culture. As much as you explain that to people, they can’t possibly understand. They need to see it,” he adds.
But, he adds, you can’t forget some of the more traditional hotel and resort marketing channels. “Our number one provider is Amex Fine Hotels and Resorts,” he says, which makes sense, given the higher dollar value, exclusive nature of Nihi Sumba. “You have to experiment some to determine what your best distribution channels are, and then double down on those channels,” he adds.
Focus on character and exceed expectations
By 2016, the hotel had become an exclusive cult destination.
“Sixty percent of our guests are repeat guests. Those that come in July and August have been coming for the past six or seven years. It’s expensive to come here—it’s a $20 thousand dollar trip—but when people try to look for a similar experience anywhere in the world, it doesn’t exist. They can’t find it,” says James.
In this industry, the consolidation of larger hotel brands is creating what James calls “vanilla experiences.” He says, “The acquisition of Starwood by Marriott was incredibly well done. But, the bigger companies just keep getting bigger. This represented an amazing opportunity for Chris and me, and for other independent hotels because people want to discover places with extraordinary character. The world has become vanilla, but people want every flavor of ice cream.”
One piece of advice James has for hotel marketers, even if they don’t have the amazing product that is Nihi Sumba, is to market truthfully what you do have. Hotel marketing is all about setting proper guest expectations. “There’s nothing worse than going to a hotel that promises a beautiful beach, but upon arrival, the beach is small and rocky. If you try to be everything to everyone, you’re going to fail. The key to success is to highlight your unique strengths with amazing content, and then deliver on that expectation once the guests arrive,” he says.
Want to learn more?
Check out @nihisimba and @jameswmcbride on Instagram.
Tambourine uses technology and creativity to increase revenue for hotels and destinations worldwide. The firm, now in its 34th year, is located in New York City and Fort Lauderdale. Please visit: www.Tambourine.com