by: Jonathan Salem Baskin

News that Showtime is following HBO's lead and planning to show its programming for free in Sheraton hotels got me thinking about how hotels are the perfect places for sampling.

It's not as simple as putting new stuff in front of travelers, though; in fact, that would be a really bad idea, at least with business travelers. And it's definitely not smart to muck up anybody's hotel visit with lots of brand names and the associated detritus of marketing.

But sampling doesn't get the credit it deserves in our Age of Digital Everything.

Some brand gurus would prefer to orchestrate a virtual bar of soap in a make-believe MMORPG in which an avatar could trigger a simulation of lather...rather than put a sliver of the real stuff into the hands of real people. Ditto on cars, clothes, and just about anything else getting branded these days. 

Consumers are demanding clarity and honesty in every phase of the purchase chronology, so they'd far prefer some tangible truth about a product than even the most witty, invented simulacra. Reality trumps virtual reality.

So there's a great opportunity here to do something like HBO and Showtime, only better, faster, and more often.

I’d imagine any marketers discussing it would contemplate the following:

  • Match products to traveler segments: Put kid-friendly products in family resorts, business services for business travelers, etc. The Showtime feed is pretty generic across segments, so imagine instead, say, scanners that read entertainment receipts for use in business hotel rooms (not just those impossible to find business centers), or a stain-removing stick in family rooms
  • Match them to needs: The sampling would need to facilitate existing behaviors, not attempt to teach or promote new ones, so as to not be intrusive or overly-commercial. What products would a particular segment need or otherwise use even if they weren't provided? Visitors can be expected to want to watch TV at some point, for instance. That's why it's such an easy step to put it in
  • Create special versions to facilitate adoption: I'm not sure I fully understand Showtime giving visitors access to its various series, as dropping into one without knowledge of the story-to-date doesn't seem like such a smart selling opportunity (though it will host a special preview for "The Tudors," it isn't a special program for guests after that). So maybe the product or service has something unique for the hotel visitor (how it's made, why it's relevant, where it could be used, etc.)
  • Provide obvious next steps: I have never understood why there aren't two bars of fancy soap in the bathroom when I check in, with one labeled expressly for taking home. Couldn't Showtime’s programming offer some incentive to subscribe immediately (or soon after checkout)? 
  • Invent add-on programs: If I can get a catalog of products in the backseat of my airplane flight, why don't hotels compile and offer selections of items, again targeted at specific segments?

Hotels could monetize such activities in any number of ways. Charge suppliers for gaining access to their visitors. Take a percentage of all subsequent subscriptions and/or sales, or get a cut from products sold from one of its catalogs (again, catalogs of relevant merchandise, not endless pages of hotel logo-branded hats, towels, and other nonsense).

You could probably extend such a brainstorm to similar junction points -- when people are stuck doing something they normally do, but doing it in a different place -- like air traveler frequent flyer clubs, maybe even to rental car facilities (if only they could first figure out how to stop inscribing new books of the Bible by hand before giving customers their rental car keys). 

It makes a lot more branding sense than coming up with a funny ad, doesn't it?

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