Career profile: Katherine Birch, director of marketing, Hotels.com
Katherine Birch, director of marketing for Hotels.com, chats to Marketing about ditching science to go backpacking and working her way up from the kitchen to a marketing directorship at a billion-dollar global travel business.
A science degree is what awaited Katherine Birch after high school. She had passed her exams, applied, enrolled and was all set to begin three years of lectures, lab coats and jotting calculations in triplicate carbon copy books.
Except, it wasn’t to be. The decision to defer university in favour of travel would prove fateful. Backpacking around Australia at 18 years old, Birch ended up in the Whitsunday islands, paying her way by taking on jobs in resorts. Tropical islands then turned into London – and that was the end of the science degree. “At the end of that year, I thought, ‘There’s no way I want to do a science degree – I want to work in tourism’,” she tells me.
And work in tourism she did. Climbing her way up from gigs in bars and restaurants, to cocktail waitressing, to fine dining and front office work, in locations ranging from the Whitsundays to London to Japan to Thailand, Birch spent six years in total travelling and working on the front lines of the hospitality and tourism industries. During that time she completed a degree in Asian studies as an external student with Southern Cross University. A passion for Asia motivated that, but it was a particular advertiser – Tourism Queensland – that cemented her desire to promote travel as a tourism marketer: “They were doing some really funky advertising. This was back in the time where everything was very colourful. All their campaigns were very bright – lots of pinks and fluorescent yellows – and very eighties style.”
Returning to Sydney, Birch found it difficult to land a marketing role without formal qualifications. She was working in international hotel sales, but without a marketing degree kept getting knocked back. So, she went out and got one.
Fast forward to 2012, and Birch is Australia and New Zealand director of marketing for Hotels.com, part of the multi-billion-dollar Expedia, Inc. It’s a far cry from the days when a company’s only requisite digital presence was a website, 11 years since she took on her first full marketing role at the Sydney Convention and Visitors Bureau (now Business Events Sydney), selling Sydney and New South Wales to the world.
Now she gets to do the funky stuff. But these days that involves things like 5-star camping – or ‘glamping’ – installations, and the twice-yearly ‘Hotel Price Index’, almost a travellers’ confidence index for hotels.
Marketing: When you started out, as you were saying, digital was a minor consideration and that fact has completely flipped on its head. For Hotels.com, it’s in the name, it’s a digital company, how do you look at non-digital advertising these days?
It’s still an important part of the marketing mix, it’s just not as big a part of the marketing mix as it was previously. These days as well, the marketing mix is so fragmented. Unless you want to be a specialist, if you want to move through the ranks you really need to have knowledge of all of those different marketing channels and understand them. It’s really quite broad these days, and I’ve found in my career that it’s been across multiple roles, because the landscape has just changed so quickly.
Did you start out in a specialty area?
I started out in a general role. However, at that time, digital was a very small percentage of the mix, and traditional marketing was more important. So we’re talking about magazine brochures, print advertising, TV advertising, and really the digital part of the mix was managing the website and even then it was quite a basic website with a content management system. These days you have entire teams looking after website content. The only other digital component was an enewsletter which 12 years ago was pretty fancy digital marketing. But these days it’s just another part of the mix.
Is there any role you won that you would consider your break in marketing?
I would say there are two times: the first is when I went from a pure sales role in hotels to the Sydney Convention and Visitors Bureau, and that was a marketing executive role, pure marketing, so not sales orientated. That was probably the first step. The second step was leaving the Bureau and going to Hotel Club, which is pure online. So that was my jump from traditional into digital. Both were pivotal in my career and where it’s taken me now to where I am with Expedia.
The jump from sales to marketing, was that a challenge?
Yes, it was a challenge, because marketing is very much focused on deadlines, identifying what their needs are, and communicating that message to them in order to get a response, whereas sales is more relationship based and it’s longer term, so you build a longer-term relationship with a client, and as a result, you get a sale. It’s a very different mindset.
What made you want to make that leap?
I always wanted to work in marketing, and happened to be given, when I was in hotels, a sales role, and I thought it was a natural progression. I wanted the experience first before going into a marketing role, and I find right now, when I’m hiring a marketing person, I would much prefer them to have had front line experience and sales experience. If they’re a pure marketer, sometimes they don’t have the other experience I find is very very useful in the role for them to make decisions.
And life experience as well. That for me is vital. When you’re young, I really think getting out there and trying new things and getting involved in different cultures, working in a different culture, no matter what the role, that knowledge and life experience is so much more beneficial than perhaps someone that’s come straight out of uni, done their marketing degree and then gone straight into a marketing role. You actually find that most people in marketing roles didn’t start off in a marketing role – they’ve come from somewhere else.
I have found that as well, actually. The backgrounds are always very, very varied as well – marketing is kind of an interesting profession that way.
Exactly. But these days as well, there’s a lot more skill involved because the different channels have different metrics and different benchmarks. It has become a lot more skilled than it was, just even in the last 10 years I’ve seen an enormous shift.
That increasing need to justify marketing activities and prove ROI before doing anything – are you seeing that move towards a greater need for measurement in your role as well?
Let me answer that question in two parts: in an online business, you can track absolutely everything that you do, so it is mandatory. However, offline marketing – television or a print ad, or even a brochure – it’s a lot harder to track. You can do it, there are various methods that you can use to do it, but it’s not 100 percent accurate, because [for example] not all people will redeem the offer via the channels that you’ve asked them to redeem it by. It’s very, very hard to track it accurately, whereas with online you can track it absolutely – there is no grey area, it’s black and white. You had an ad, you got this many clicks, and then as a result, you had this many sales. Before we even start a campaign, we have to analyse the return on investment.
That’s always been the case. But it’s not like before [when] you could easily put some money and try something out to see how it goes – these days it’s much tougher or much more – tough is not the right word – you’re held to every cent you spend, and every cent must be attributed to the dollar that you spend.
SAS: In your role at Hotels.com, what impact is customer intelligence having on things like strategy and planning, campaign execution, customer experience and cross-channel effectiveness?
Data is a very powerful tool, the trick is to know how to effectively leverage it. Customer intelligence plays a role in every aspect of our business. The needs of the customer are constantly changing and we need to make sure we change with them to make sure our product and offering stays relevant.
Marketing: I wanted to ask about taking on a profit and loss responsibility for the first time. Coming from marketing doing that, it has got to be a challenge.
I guess there are challenges, but I think it really depends on the company that you work for. Expedia and Hotels.com have an appreciation for differences, and as you may be aware, Hotels.com rebranded in March 2012, and the Asia Pacific region was the first region to change, followed shortly after by Europe and Latin America. The US was already red, and so the branding was only tweaked slightly there.
Prior to March 2012, the effort was very much one of collaboration with all of the different regions in building guidelines that could be used across the globe. So while there are sections of our brand book that are mandatory and must be used across all regions, such as the red colour, or the font, there are many variations to the brand, and one of the most Aussie is actually our tag line.
We did research or focus group work in Australia and New Zealand, for example, to find out what it was that Australian travellers wanted and to understand their thought process and the psyche of when they’re looking for a hotel. And that’s how we came up with ‘Find your perfect place’.
So that’s different in other countries?
It’s different in other countries. There’s ‘Finding you the perfect place’, and there’s ‘Be smart, book smart’. There’s many different variations because that needs to be market specific.
The other piece of that puzzle is in the US we have a mascot for the brand called Smart, and that has not been rolled out in this region, and that is because the Asian market in particular feels it’s totally the wrong fit to have a red-headed Caucasian male be the mascot. As you can imagine, in Japan, that wouldn’t really work.
So we absolutely have a lot of flexibility to localise where we feel it is better for the brand. One of the benefits of working for a global company is that we can learn from other markets, and we absolutely do that, especially when we are trialling new marketing channels.
Any examples of that?
Yes, I have a good example of that actually. Recently, globally we launched a video promoting our mobile app, and in Australia we launched a YouTube campaign last month. And from that campaign, we’ve taken those learnings and shared it with every other country director in the world to see the results, that they can then make decisions about whether or not they will invest in the same type of advertising.
The guidelines are exactly that, they’re guidelines, and where possible, we have to work within those guidelines. Where we require flexibility, then we consult with the team that manage the guidelines, and have those variations approved when there’s a market specific need.
Online travel is a fairly crowded category – there’s a lot of options for the consumer, and it’s very price driven. How do you approach that at a strategic level, maintaining differentiation from competitors?
That’s a really good question, and it absolutely is one of our challenges. I guess our most valuable value proposition is our Welcome Rewards program, which is our loyalty program. It is best in category when we compare against our competitors, and even hotels directly. It is self funded, as well, and most programs charge the customer for the reward by including it into the margin, whereas we fund the reward. It’s essentially 10 percent off.
The other part of that is we run promotions whereby the customer actually has a choice to take 10 percent off immediately or to get a free room night after staying 10 nights. That is by far our greatest value proposition. In Australia, the program is nearly two years old. We turn two next month, and will be running a lot of promotions around this event.
Going back to your question… yes, all the sites seem very similar, [but] we’re doing a lot of work and a lot of testing around the customer experience on the website to ensure that it is the best experience that they can have, and that it’s a localised version of the website. That means if Australian customers prefer to have lots of deals on the home page, then we have the ability to do that. In China, if they prefer to search by a map, then that will be more prominent.