A question of scale

A short road trip over the holiday season through western Spain and on to Portugal, staying at small rural hotels, brought home to me the tricky task of online marketing for enterprises that are not looking to become a multinational or to grow like unicorns, but instead make a good living from what they do, without losing their essence, and without opening dozens of franchises. Which doesn’t mean they lack ambition, but have simply chosen to do something on a manageable scale.

Scale and the internet is a topic that comes up often in my classes. Many of us think the internet is designed to access markets that would be beyond our reach normally. From what I have seen, most small rural hotels have little information on the internet, because they see it as a risky investment, one that is rarely justifiable. But that former farmhouse now converted into a five or 12-room hotel has much to gain from developing the right online strategy.

People who decide to stay in a rural hotel are generally looking for a certain type of experience, and one that they have a better chance of finding by using the internet. There’s no need for such hotels to have fancy pages that can be both expensive and difficult to manage, but instead they should take a more direct, simple approach, something that tells a story.

The idea is to transmit a sense of place, one that hopefully will be filled with guests so as to optimize costs, and which at the same time is able to make guests feel special. When guests leave, hopefully after having bought some of the local produce: wine, cheese, charcuterie, they feel that they have made a contribution toward preserving local traditions and jobs.

The web doesn’t exist just for businesses that want to reach the farthest corners of the earth and become global giants. There also exists a web for businesses that want to grow at their own pace, without killing the goose that lays the golden egg. There are values that, like people, cannot be scaled up, and that definitely shouldn’t be.

The delightful lady we met in a tiny community on the Portuguese-Spanish border who manages several stone cottages in a historical village that have been tastefully turned into accommodations has no intention of becoming the general manager of a chain of rural hotels.

Instead, what she wants to do is to offer a certain type of lodging for a few people, tell them about some local beauty spots, which wines to try, why the local almonds or honey are so wonderful, and if possible, see them spend some money on strengthening the local economy. And the internet is perfect for that, because those are exactly the kind of values it is so able to transmit, almost through direct contact.

The internet has a lot to offer businesses looking to promote that kind of experience, if they go about it the right way. Some establishments have grasped this, while others are failing to create value because they think that the internet is for other kinds of businesses, for operating on at a much bigger scale. But as I have seen, it is possible to market your products on the web without losing your soul.

(En español, aquí)

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