Q&A: Travelodge sales and marketing director Catriona Kempston

Budget hotel brand Travelodge recently came out of a Company Voluntary Agreement and is now investing in a £57m chain refurbishment with the focus on a new bed and interior design. Sales and marketing director Catriona Kempston explains the priorities for 2013.


MW: What is the plan for expansion and rationalisation this year?

CK: There are 49 sites that it’s not feasible to operate so some are being sold or will have be a management contract arrangement. We are planning 14 openings this year and two in Spain so the size of the estate will remain above 500 sites. For the refurbishment we carry it out a floor at a time but we do not shut down a site

MW: What is the challenge now facing Travelodge in terms of positioning?

CK: Historically, with what {rival} Premier Inn (PI) has been doing, our business felt the positioning was much more like the Ryanair of the sector – focusing on the lowest price and how we get to that price, by just doing the basics. Travelodge did a fantastic job with that while PI focused on food and beverage offerings. Recent research over the past six months with customers and competitors showed that the business has not been focused on guests and had become disconnected from the customers. Now the positioning is about being the value brand – but much more about value than the low price. We want to be the smartest product in the sector. Because we have not been able to invest in the product until now staff have been at the sharp end and have at times delivered something disappointing so we have to work hard to win customers back. But we know what they want – they do want to forgive us and they want choice in the market. We are seen to be more family-friendly than our competitors because we offer great value for money.
Research is showing us that customers are more demanding and the goalposts are changing. We are seeing customers are trading down rather than customers getting into hotels for the first time.

MW: How has customer research been carried out?

CK: We have sent customers into test rooms with handheld video recorders. We listened to them talk about things and seen what they pick up and look at. We had webcams as part of the research and videoed guests.

MW: What is Travelodge doing to be more customer-focused?

CK: We have launched a customer experience programme and the hotels are really focused on customer service. We have a process through our customer service team and through hotels for reviews. We are not sharing review son our site at present – we want to get the product right first but we hope to have reviews in the next 12 months, people want to talk about the comfort of the bed and the cleanliness of the room and they are the two areas we are massively focused on. Site managers are emailed all the reviews for their site. Individual hotel managers do not have direct revenue responsibility but are responsible for product and service.
We have two key cross-functional groups – the product forum and the customer experience group. It’s there job to pick up anything from customer point of view and come up with a solution quickly.

MW: What is Travelodge’s strategic aim this year?

CK: This year we really aim to optimise our sales and marketing channels. We have a real opportunity through the digital channels. Previously, the business was not set up for a channel approach to sales or marketing and I feel there is a real opportunity for Travelodge. We are looking at the performance of all channels individually over the course of the year and then we can dial them up or down as we need to – for example via the Online Travel Agents, the travel trade or email. Optimisation needs to carry us through to the point where the business will need to talk about who we are and what we do.

MW: How will investment in the website drive the strategy?

CK: At the moment it does not really showcase what we do with our product to best effect and it remains our biggest channel and important shop window – we want to show how we are changing the hotels. Weve invested in a whole range of new photography and we want out position to be very contemporary and urban. People want reflected back at them a younger, hipper version of themselves.
You’ve go to grab people with the page they land on. People are showing more “hurry sickness” – if pages don’t load quickly or don’t have the information, people will move on. People are savvy and looking a cash back websites and hunting for voucher codes. Its not just about getting a deal but getting the best deal available.

MW: What is the marcomms plan going forward?

CK: We don’t see the need for a big communications campaign yet but we will need to talk about what has changed at Travelodge and the marketing investment will be next year. This year is really about getting our house in order. We wont use traditional media channels this year. By the end of the year we will have refurbished about half our estate. We want to make sure when we go out and talk about the new experience and new Travelodge its all in place for the customer to enjoy. We are building a brand from the bottom up and dealing with the website, hotels and positioning – we are building up to a television campaign next year.

MW: How is Travelodge using social media?

CK: Social media was previously viewed as a transactional channel but its not really worked on that basis. Now it’s a brand channel and another way we can engage with customers. It allows us to talk about tactical offers and they are always very well received. It does have quite an informal feel and people tend to engage with us on a personal level. If you get a heavily corporate image its difficult to shed. Social media now sits within the brand team.

MW: Has the Mr Sleep brand character and campaign now run its course?

CK: The concept of a teddy bar fits well with hotels but the campaign did not really show what customers actually get for their money. At the point when Mr Sleep was introduced we did not have the product to shout about. People have now bought into our personality and we are certainly a brand that customers feel warm about. We also don’t have a strapline at the moment – we did have “Sleep Tight”.

MW: How important is mobile now as a channel?

CK: We have a mobile version of the website and we are looking at how we optimise that. The travel industry is a little behind the curve in being visible with multiple devices but you have to be visible on all the channels all the time. If customers are only in the market once or twice a year you have got to be visible all the time. Premier Inn is on TV all the time and it’s a very expensive way of doing business. We want to use more than mere advertising. We have a significant email database, which is attractive to partners. It’s a very deal hungry and responsive audience. We see a lot of chat on forums about our sales – it’s no a very hard audience to sell to. We’re looking at some of the routes retailers have been using on abandoned basket and email programmes. If they leave the basket we serve an email.

MW: Has the team structure changed at Travelodge?

CK: We have spent the last few months sorting out the strategy and then we built the team. We have moved from a marketing services department to a real engine of the business. We have brought in people with ecommerce expertise and travel expertise. I have appointed a head of brand marketing and introduced the new role of head of ecommerce.

MW: Where do you see opportunity for customer growth?

CK: We have grown the corporate business massively from a standing start, it’s a market Travelodge originally decided it was not going to go after but we reviewed this 18 months ago and have seen massive growth in the sector. Previously, we were just domestic leisure focused but that leaves us at the mercy of one market. Targeting SMEs gives us a better balance to the business. We should also do more with in-bound business travellers from abroad.
In terms of offerings for business travellers, currently we offer free Wi-Fi in our bars and cafes and we are looking at a certain level of bandwidth throughout the sites. We also have ‘fast track’ check out kiosks in a number of our hotels and we are trialling a meeting-room proposition. Weve also launched an affinity deal for business customers. Only 18 per cent of hotels in the budget sector are branded – there’s lots of opportunity.

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