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How these founders built 2 of the most valuable travel brands with a ‘community first’ approach.

This article aims to provide you with actionable and inspiring ideas for starting, building or growing a community for your business or common interest. Whilst this week’s specific segment is Travel, the idea every week is to showcase incredible brands and leaders in a variety of spaces who might inspire you to think differently about how to add value to your own brand no matter if it’s personal, lives online, on Instagram, on email etc – there’s something new each week for you to learn.

From The World’s Sexiest BedroomsPolly Brown

Given it’s December, and therefore holiday season, there felt like no better time to showcase two of the best brand leaders in the Travel space – to help you dream away more moments before you yourself go away, or, better yet – if you are saving your holiday allowance for later in 2019 – look no further, all the inspiration you’ll ever need can be found at SUITCASE magazine for your destination followed by booking the best luxury and boutique hotel experiences at Mr. and Mrs. Smith.

For context, other than just ‘the time of year’ the reason I’ve led with the story of these two brands is because it’s notoriously difficult to make money in the travel space – the only way to really do so is either winning at SEO and arbitrage on pricing like Expedia or Booking.com do, or to build a brilliant brand with committed fans and an engaged community. Enter stage left today’s experts who have done just that – the founders of these iconic brands, Serena Guen and Tamara Lohan.

So – on to the main questions so we can stop daydreaming and start learning from the best;

Why does your community need to exist for your business – what’s its purpose?

Tamara: At Mr Mrs. Smith, our purpose as a business – and the reason we get out of bed every morning – is to inspire our members to discover new and extraordinary places with the people they love. Having an engaged travel community that share our passion is part of that: we want to show people what’s out there and in return have our members share their experiences with us.

Tamara is Co-Founder CTO of Mr. Mrs. SmithPolly Brown

Serena: SUITCASE aims to inspire people, to help them discover different destinations; in essence, SUITCASE exists to change the way people travel. I built SUITCASE Magazine, for the next generation of travellers who are experience driven and want to get under the surface of the places they are visiting. The content and branding agency, SUITCASE Media, caters to brands and organisations who recognise the new brand of travellers and have a greater mission. We help them connect with their customers on an emotional level rather than just with their wallets!

Serena is Founder of SUITCASEKim Turkington

Who are your customers/members/fans?

Tamara: We’ve got a huge range of members: often people start travelling with us as a couple, honeymoon with us when they get married and then book with us as a family. The prevailing thread is that these are people who go in search of unique experiences and will not settle for cookie-cutter, corporate chain hotels, where you could be anywhere in the world. They demand more from their travel experiences

Serena: Our audience for SUITCASE Magazine is urban, well-educated with a millennial mindset. We are not ageist but the majority of our readers are between the 25-45 years old and go on an average of ten trips per annum (including work). They are intelligent and hungry to explore the world, they want more than just lying on a sun lounger for a whole week.

What’s it’s goal/intention?

Tamara: We want to be the definitive travel club for hotel lovers. The goal and intention of Mr Mrs. Smith is to craft unique travel experiences for our membership base – a three-tiered system, that gives hotel lovers of all budgets benefits when they stay with us. That could be a free bottle of champagne, a complimentary spa treatment or a special dinner on the house. We want your experience to be enhanced because you booked through Smith.

Serena: My goal is to make experiential travelling so easy that people won’t be tempted by that package holiday or enormous cruise ship. Travelling ‘deeper’ has so many benefits from giving back to the local economy (rather than a global corporation) to broadening your own horizons. Travelling provides a continuous education and also has the potential to make the world a more peaceful place – it is much harder to go to war with a country, if you’ve created memories or even friends there.

How deep does your community connection need to be to achieve your goals? 

Tamara: We’re a bit of a matchmaker between our hotels and our customers. In order to do that, we first build a relationship with our hotels: we visit them, understand their place, get a feel for their ethos, and then approve them. This means that we know the insider details about each hotel, so we can connect them with the right customers.

We invest a lot in our offline sales team, too: we send them on familiarisation trips around the world to ensure they have the first-hand experience of our properties and personalised knowledge to share. We also know our members and the way they want to travel, so take pride in connecting them with the right hotels.

Serena: We focus on reaching our audiences in the most relevant places. For instant recommendations a good mobile site is key. We have a section of our site called the Travel Planner which allows you to view our destination guides in list or map view so you can easily locate the best bar near you now…or gallery of course. Our print magazine allows our readers to escape and enjoy long format written and photo stories. Social media provides a quick hit of inspiration.

What platform has been the most valuable in terms of both engagement and revenue targets/value to the brand?

Tamara: Social media has had a huge effect on the travel community, as authentic, user-generated content has changed the way people approach booking a holiday and how they get inspired. We’ve found Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest have helped to strengthen our brand, especially because travel is such an inherently visual experience.

Working with photographers like Polly Brown, who recently captured 35 romantic hotel suites for our new book, The World’s Sexiest Bedrooms, and regularly works with us on campaigns, has also helped to define our brand visually online, drawing people in through seductive, suggestive imagery. Along with our distinct style of photography, we also use high-profile tastemakers and influencers to visit and review our hotels, which extends familiarity with Smith through their networks, as they share their experiences of our hotels.

Serena: Being multi-platform has been most valuable in terms of engagement and as a result most attractive to advertisers. Reader/ brand touchpoints will be spread out and relevant and because of this, many readers will often say that it’s so seamless that they don’t feel like they see much advertising (i.e. they’re having a better experience).

What is your key insight into how you built such a strong following, what is the ‘secret sauce’?

Tamara: For us, the top line has always been trust and curation: all of our hotels have been visited by a Smith team member and given their seal of approval. Once we know it’s right for our collection, we then send out an anonymous reviewer to double check the property is up to the right standard.

Our members know when they book a Smith hotel, it’s earned its place in our collection. Starting from that solid foundation makes it easier to build a membership base, both directly and across social media, as people trust that process and the authenticity it brings.

Serena: Watching how our audience interacts with content (predominantly online) and then using that to keep improving the brand. We started off with a strong fashion/ travel mission but after about five years realised that our fashion images on Instagram were performing poorly. We learned that our readers want authentic experiences that they can relate to and a model on location wasn’t giving them that.

We changed our tagline from Fashion + Travel to The Culture of Travel and took a risk and shot our first print cover ever sans model. The risk paid off as it became our highest selling issue almost immediately. We also opened up to a whole new male audience who had been reading the magazine secretly but felt like they were being alienated by the gender stereotyping. Now fashion is still a strong part of our brand but we integrate it in a more coherent way.

Havana, as seen through Serena’s eyesMatthew K Firpo

What are some of your best tips for starting up a community today – for aspiring travel community builders?

Tamara: Make sure you have a real passion for what you’re doing, that it comes from the heart and that you truly have something unique: there will be ups and downs along the way, but belief in your product will keep you going. When Mr Mrs. Smith started out as a physical guidebook for boutique hotels, we were turned down by publishers at the beginning. We really believed in the product and it only made us more committed, so we re-mortgaged our house and self-published. It’s a dedication that stays with us today, because we believe in what we do.

Serena: You need to decide if you want to monetize this community or if it’s simply a passion project as this will hugely change how and where you build your platform. You need to figure out what value you are adding to these people’s lives and why they would choose to come to you over any other community.

Then decide what your core values are, visualise the kind of people you’d like to join and invite people that fit that profile. Starting with a Facebook Group, Instagram or weekly newsletter are often quick, cheap and easy ways to start testing content and see what people want. Having a few small events at the beginning is another easy way to get feedback from like-minded people as well as potentially producing revenue.

What’s one community you are a part of that you love (and deserves a shout out here that’s not your own)

Tamara: It’s essential to be part of one or more networks as you grow a business. The Foundrs community is great for sharing knowledge: super collaborative, supportive and open. But also, personally, joining a community can be essential for moral support. I also have a network of women, all CEOs of their businesses, small and intimate, so we feel we can share anything and that’s extremely powerful.

Serena: Honestly, Foundrs! It’s comprised of an incredible group of entrepreneurs who leave their egos at the door. I think it caters particularly well to entrepreneurs because it’s email/ Telegram based with the occasional epic event so there’s no pressure to contribute more than you can. Everyone has everyone else’s best interests at heart, no question is too stupid or mundane, I’ve received some of the best business advice through it.

Cap RocatPolly Brown

Where’s your favourite place in the world with a community vibe you most feel at home?

Tamara: Ibiza is one of my favourite places: it’s actually where I grew up, and where I return to every year, to the quieter and more beautiful north-east of the island, away from San Antonio and Ibiza Town. There’s such a warm and welcoming atmosphere underpinning the island. It welcomes everyone from partygoers to families. As well as a wealth of natural beauty – hidden coves, pine forests and acres of almond groves – there’s an energy and a heartbeat that gives me a sense of wellbeing.

Serena: For community – nothing beats my experience in Jaipur. I visited once and was introduced to a friend of a friend who took it upon himself to give me the trip of a lifetime. My first visit was only for five days but I made a whole group of friends for life and have been invited back several times for weddings, festivals and new years. I’d never have thought to take the time to show around a friend let alone a friend of a friend. It’s changed my perspective on hospitality completely, although I’m still trying to live up to his example!

Key Takeaways

  1. Understand what your audience wants and be prepared to change your initial approach.
  2. Diverse but relevant content, across multiple platforms can offer a better user experience and leave customers feeling less “sold to”.
  3. Be clear about what you’re trying to achieve with your community in order to build the most engaging platform.
  4. Being trusted by members is the key here and what keeps people coming back as well as bringing in new users.
  5. If you don’t believe in your product, no one will. Hold on to that passion during the down times.
  6. Be part of a supportive network of fellow entrepreneurs to share ideas as well as learning experiences.

So there you have it; the keys to building profitable stand out brands in the travel space revolve around the ability to build a community of fans that engage in everything you do and become your key advocates. Tune in next week, we’ll be taking a different turn – learning how to build “Massive, engaged and valuable Facebook groups” featuring Josh Fechtner and Ben Southworth, the founders of BAMF – Badass Marketing and Founders (23,000 members) and London Startups (40,000 members) who will be sharing their top tips for making magic happen on the world’s largest social media network.

Until then – start planning…

You can follow Tamara Lohan and Mr. and Mrs. Smith here:

www.mrandmrssmith.com

Twitter: @tamaralohan @smithhotels

Instagram: @tamaralohan @smithhotels

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/tamaraheberpercy/

You can follow Serena Guen, and SUITCASE here:

www.suitcasemag.com

Twitter: @SerenaGuen @SUITCASEmag

Instagram: @SerenaGuen @SUITCASE

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/serena-guen-6057b745/?ppe=1

Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serena_Guen