This article previously appeared in Hotel Business Review on June 16, 2019. HotelExecutive.com retains the copyright.

Who and what do travelers trust when they are thinking about planning a vacation, a quick getaway or a bucket-list trip? The current universe of resources is legion. Friends. Family. Social media. Trusted travel advisors. Online review sites. Digital advertising. Sunday travel sections. Travel magazines. Influencers. Page-one paid search results. Paid social. Inflight magazines.

Nielsen’s Global Trust in Advertising Survey, often cited, consistently reports that the highest percentage of influential information comes from family and friends. Yet almost 70% of consumers will trust the opinion of a total stranger—via an online review—more than paid messaging, such as advertising.

What should this tell us? A hotel or resort can truly gain a competitive advantage if it can engender trust in the marketplace. Trust is absolutely key.

Several years ago, we at Mower decided to take this idea of trust and really examine it. We commissioned the University at Buffalo to conduct a study about the idea of friendship, and the results were compelling, leading to an operating philosophy that has guided us ever since: Brand as Friend®.

Interestingly, the study revealed nine scientifically proven drivers of friendship that ladder up to three primary tenets:

Caring, Listening, Surprise = Affection

Story, Style, Connecting = Relevance

Honesty, Advising, Loyalty = Trust

It’s a given that to be effective in the marketplace, brands should have a core message and vision. Mower decided to adopt Brand as Friend as a way for us to help bring this mission and vision to life, not just for our clients, but for ourselves as well. In recent years, we’ve upped the charge to the idea of being Fierce Friends™.

How can hotels and resorts use this philosophy as a roadmap for creating true friendships with guests? Start by thinking of your own friends—people you like, relate to and trust. Those basic building blocks of friendship can translate to your brand’s relationship with constituents. It’s scientifically proven. It works every time. And best of all, it’s sustainable.

To start, think of Brand as Friend not as a single tactic, message or marketing solution. It is an amalgamation of all of these. It is a philosophy of building a relationship with your guests.

While not every driver may be relevant to your property or positioning, the goal is to bring passion to as many of them as you can, rather than focusing on a single driver. You want to set up your brand to be such a good friend to your target audience that the property practically sells itself and keeps guests coming back, along with family and friends who have been sold by word of mouth. Most important: it needs to be absolutely authentic.

Trust wins the day

Let’s begin with trust. Here, the key building block is honesty. When it comes to your relationship with your guests, it’s not just the best policy. It’s the only one. Violate that rule and trust in your brand can be lost forever. Authenticity and transparency are what people expect from brands today. Without trust, there can be no friendship.

Think about how certain airlines and cruise lines have handled unplanned and unfortunate situations in recent months—airline disasters linked to faulty software and training; treatment of passengers on board aircraft; unexpected mishaps mid-cruise. You know from observing these instances when it’s been handled honestly—transparency is evident along with wise counsel to those affected—and when it has not been.

Southwest has been a role model for transparency, honesty and trust. Airlines might take a page out of their book, tailoring it to their own brands, positioning and situations.

Relevance is “sticky”

The tenet of relevance is equally personal. Today’s traveler is looking for more than a comfortable, affordable, appealing place to stay. Many travelers are committed to aligning with the values of the brand. This is where story, style and connecting lead to relevance. Think of your own friends and what attracts you to them: personality, character, expression. We gravitate to those who we just seem to click with. It’s instinctual.

People are attracted to unique and interesting brands like bees to honey. When people discover there’s substance beneath the surface, that’s fertile ground for friendship.

Early in my career I had the fortunate opportunity to be part of the agency public relations team that launched Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts worldwide. We started with founder Isadore Sharp’s story. Son of a modest Canadian home builder, he and his family lived in houses as they were being renovated and then, once sold, moved on to the next fixer-upper. Sharp went on to get a degree in architecture and formed a vision for a hotel company. Starting with a motel on the wrong side of the tracks in Toronto, he evolved to claim a standard-bearing stance in the world of luxury hospitality. Four Seasons introduced the concept of the concierge to American audiences (and taught us how to pronounce it!). Often imitated even as the brand moved on to further innovation, Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts flourishes today, rooted in Mr. Sharp’s personal story, impeccable style and hotel staff’s ability to connect with guests on a human level.

More recently, we have had the opportunity to partner with Pebble Beach Resorts. Legendary for golf, as it approached the 100th anniversary of its storied links course, it saw the opportunity to give everyday travelers (and aspiring golfers) a once-in-a-lifetime chance to play the links while the game’s rising stars competed just yards away. The U.S. Amateur Golf Challenge captured headlines with major golf media and served as inspiration to the next generation of golfers, and Pebble Beach guests. A win-win, to be sure.

Friends listen

In a true friendship, one side doesn’t do all the talking. That’s not friendship. That’s a monologue. To be a true friend to hotel guests, brands must embrace the conversation. It’s a sign of respect and it says that what people have to say really matters. How your brand handles what it hears will be the difference between making friends and losing them. If you want to come out on the upside of the affection equation, it’s worth listening.

When Marriott and Starwood came together, there was great consternation among longtime guests over what would happen with each brand’s strong loyalty program. Thoughtful consideration over many months produced Bonvoy, the new loyalty program that takes the best of each legacy platform to create something new and improved. Marriott listened. Guests will benefit. Everyone wins.

When guests provide less-than-positive comments about your property on social media, don’t take it as a negative. Regard it as a fabulous opportunity to show your chops. Meet criticism head on (and take it offline immediately) and you’ll make lemons out of lemonade every time.

The many ways to make friends

Looking at the nine scientifically proven drivers of friendship, consider these additional ideas:

  • Friends give advice: Look at the success of businesses like TripAdvisor and awards programs like Forbes Five-Star and AAA Five Diamond. How friendly are their constituents to what they have to say? Very.
  • Friends care: I love that British Airways has painted mustaches on the noses of aircraft to mark “No-Shave November.” Don’t you? Consider how your charitable endeavors might play out in a public way. Be light. Have fun with it.
  • Friends surprise you: How about the chocolate chip cookies—warm and fragrant—that meet DoubleTree by Hilton guests? Brilliant. Endearing. Enduring. What are you doing to surprise and delight guests?
  • Friends connect: Hotels that provide workout gear, in-room exercise equipment and themed rooms for spa and/or fitness are putting themselves out there to connect. It works. How might you do that in your hotel (if you aren’t already)? Connect with guests who are looking to stay fit while on the road. Do it your way and you will win.
  • Friends are loyal: Friends stick with you through thick and thin—provided you’ve maintained the relationship and nurtured the bond over time. If your brand fails to do that, you’ll be dropped in a heartbeat at the first sign of trouble. If done right, you’ll get more than loyalty—you’ll get advocacy. Lesson learned: Be in it for the long run.

What excites me about the possibilities to connect with guests, making them not only friends, but true brand ambassadors, is the direct connection that is possible via social media. No longer is the relationship primarily taking place at the hotel, in the hotel. It’s an ongoing opportunity of pure potential that provides the brand—hotel, individual unit, independent property—the real possibility of making virtual friends who become true, genuine, committed, passionate, long-lasting, loyal buddies.

Just imagine the possibilities. And have fun making it happen! Who’s with me?

Happy to connect one-on-one if you want to brainstorm.