How a Boutique Hotel Became a Digital Leader (and Kept Its Team Lean)

By BrainStation June 19, 2019

How does a century-old boutique hotel stay ahead of industry trends and emerging technology? 

In the case of the Gladstone Hotel in Toronto, you focus on storytelling, community building, and digital skills training. We spoke to Tara McCallum, the hotel’s Director of Marketing and Communications, to find out more about how the Gladstone has stayed at the forefront of the hospitality industry.

BrainStation: What challenges is the Gladstone Hotel, and the hospitality industry as a whole, facing right now?

McCallum: Hospitality is definitely a volatile industry – luckily we are located in one of the most booming tourist destinations in the world. The city had a record-breaking year for visitors in 2017 and the numbers are expected to continue growing.

At the Gladstone, our two biggest challenges are our love/hate relationship with Online Travel Agents (OTAs) who take a substantial commission for every booking but are excellent for awareness, as well as vacation rental sites like Airbnb and VRBO who attract our target demographic. To add to this, there is increasing competition from boutique hotels popping up all over the city!

The Gladstone Hotel was built in 1889, how do you bridge the gap between maintaining the historical elements while trying to keep up with digital trends?

The Gladstone Hotel is a contemporary and forward-thinking brand housed within a meticulously restored Victorian building. We take our mantra from Jane Jacobs who famously said: “New ideas must use old buildings.”

As an artist-run hotel, we approach our digital presence a little differently. We’re always questioning “digital trends” and only employ tactics that fit the strategic objectives of our business.

Art installation at Gladstone Hotel

What would you say are the core elements of the Gladstone Hotel’s digital strategy?

We’re storytellers first. As a mixed-use space that functions as a hotel, art gallery, event venue, restaurant, and bar, we have no shortage of content. As an independent business, we can’t compete with the paid campaigns of hotel chains and OTAs, so we use our content to our advantage by concentrating on content marketing fueled by targeted SEO.

We’ve also included earned media into our digital strategy, and have had success with earned media, link-backs and of course online reviews. Our email newsletter and social media platforms are also key in engaging our audience and getting eyes on our content.

You have a lively presence on social media, with a strong following. How did you go about building a community on these platforms?

In the physical space, the Gladstone Hotel is a community meeting place – we’ve tried to replicate that on social media. We’ve maintained an accessible voice and have rejected the generic “stock photo” aesthetic of many of our competitors.

Gladstone Hotel events

We try to keep our social media presence as authentic as possible so our community feels connected to the culture of our hotel. Just as we do on the ground, we partner with local businesses and fellow B-corporations on social with the goal of building a diverse, socially-minded and creative online community.

As a boutique hotel, your team must be relatively lean. How do you manage to implement your digital strategies across multiple channels?

We’ve automated predictable campaigns – for example, we’re currently working on campaigns for 2020 that we’ll set and forget, giving us more time and flexibility to make adjustments and work on real-time campaigns. We schedule and plan as far in advance as possible and work with local photographers and artists to keep our content fresh and relevant.

You recently sent three team members to BrainStation for digital skills training in SEO, Web Development, and Social Media Marketing. What were some of the reasons why your team sought out this training?

In the past few years, we’ve used external digital marketing agencies to assist with paid campaigns. We weren’t seeing the results we hoped for, so I wanted the team to educate themselves so we could ask the right questions of our third-party service provider(s).

The SEO/SEM and Social Media Marketing courses gave us the baseline knowledge we needed to restructure our existing campaigns and properly define expectations. The Web Development course was excellent professional development for our graphic designer and will be helpful as we move into a complete website redesign with a local web design studio.

We don’t claim to be experts in any of these fields quite yet, but it’s given us the ability to have a better and realistic understanding of what we can accomplish in-house and where we need to seek help from third-party service providers.

What sort of impact has this training had on operations?

We’re able to work much more efficiently in-house and use our external vendors more effectively. It has also been great for team engagement and has motivated us to keep learning and sharing.

How do you see the Gladstone Hotel’s digital strategy changing in the future?

We plan to continue to lead with content and put a larger emphasis on more traditional digital tactics such as our email newsletters and blogs. We are also extremely excited to launch our new website this fall/winter which will be a game-changer as we’ll finally have the content hub of our dreams!

What roles/skills do you believe to be most important going forward for the digital strategy to continue to be effective?

Many platforms we’ve relied heavily on in the past (e.g. Facebook) have become increasingly expensive and difficult to navigate as a marketer. In order to maintain our reach and engagement, we’ll have to continue to use an omnichannel approach which requires the skills of marketing generalists and content creators.

Marketing generalists are key in a small organization as they can see the larger picture and won’t beat a dead horse trying to make one tactic or platform work. Content creators bring the brand to life and build brand loyalty while inspiring action!