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Nine lessons the Kimpton Hotel Group offers wineries

Last week, Meghan and I escaped for a night down to Santa Barbara to see David Sedaris perform.  We stayed downtown at the Canary Hotel, a few blocks away from the Arlington Theater where he would be performing. When we checked in, it was during the evening wine hour that Kimpton Hotels are known for, and we sipped on glasses of a local Sauvignon Blanc while the clerk completed the registration.  We were greeted warmly, told that we had been moved to a corner room with a balcony, and then were on our way.

I am not a particularly loyal traveler.  I choose airlines based on the rates they charge and the convenience of their connections, even though I'm an elite member of United.  I pick rental car companies based on price, though if it's close (and it only rarely is) I'll give Hertz and Avis the benefit of the doubt due to their superior customer service.  Between Hilton, Hyatt, Marriott, Westin, and the like, I really don't care and mostly can't tell them apart.  But if there's a Kimpton in town, you'll most likely find me there.  As I was thinking about why, I realized that there are lessons here for wineries, and have tried to apply these lessons to Tablas Creek.  Below are nine lessons I take away from Kimpton's success.

  • Get to know your customers... and show that you remember.  As a part of the loyalty program, you're asked questions like what sort of room you prefer (I like corner rooms because of the light and air flow), what sort of pillow you like (feather), what newspaper you like, etc.  And if you're one of their elite members, you get an even more detailed checklist of what you'd like to see and do.  And when you check in, Kimpton figures out how to make your preferences happen.  It requires both infrastructure and commitment, but the result is that your stays feel personalized.  As a winery, do you know what wines your customers particularly like?  Are you letting customers who have enjoyed a particular wine know when the next vintage is released?  Are you recognizing your best customers?  Are people greeted by name when they check out?  Your systems most likely have this treasure trove of potential information hidden inside.  It's up to you to figure out how to apply it.
  • Be friendly to the whole family. Before we even had kids, still in our twenties, we treated ourselves on the cross-country trip that brought us out to California from Washington, DC.  After more than a week of cheap motels and national park lodges, we splurged a little (it was still only about $100) and stayed in the Hotel Monaco in Salt Lake City.  When we arrived, grimy from a day of driving, with our dog, we were greeted warmly and Maddie even more so.  She was led upstairs, had a special bed for her, a treat on arrival and with the turndown service, and instead of being treated as suspicious (as we'd found in some "pet friendly" hotels on our way out) we were made to feel welcome.  Kimpton hotels are all pet friendly, and all, in our experience, equally kid friendly.  As a winery, have you thought about people who are coming with pets or kids?  We have a small table and chairs where kids can color while their parents taste.  And there's a bowl with water outside for dogs.  The cost is virtually nil, and the gratitude from guests who come with pets or kids is wonderful.
  • Offer consistent value. Kimpton hotels aren't cheap.  They're typically in the $150-$250 range, and there are doubtless cheaper options nearby.  But they pack a lot of comfort and personality for what they charge.  As a boutique winery, that's your job.  You don't want to be the cheapest, you want people to feel like whatever they pay they got a lot of value for.  It's also important that your best customers feel like they're being treated fairly.  This is particularly difficult in the ruthless online hotel marketplace.  If you find a cheaper rate online than Kimpton has on its Web site, they'll match it and offer you a $25 credit.  I'm not suggesting that wineries do the same, but if your wine club members are finding your wines cheaper at their local retailer (and with the Internet, the definition of "local" stretches a lot) they're not likely to be members for long.  Make sure you know what your wines are being offered for online, and figure out how to take action if you're finding that you're falling behind.
  • Make your workplace a great place to work. It's clear in every interaction with Kimpton staff that they enjoy what they're doing.  And the recognition has come: Kimpton was #16 in Fortune's Best Companies to Work For 2012.  For Kimpton, this includes rewarding employees who go out of their way to provide outstanding service, funding ongoing education, encouraging a healthy work-life balance and, most importantly, empowering employees to improvise and make on-the-spot decisions that will benefit their customers.  Working at a winery, particularly in hospitality, is similar to working in hotels in that you're "on" each day.  You see new guests every day, and each day will be many guests' first experience with your brand.  Do your employees feel valued?  Are they given the authority to make decisions?  Are they supported when they come to you with suggestions?
  • Be a good corporate citizen. Kimpton has been a industry leader through their Kimpton Cares program.  They have launched out-of-the-box initiatives like "Great Meetings, Great Causes" that try to bring their message of sustainability to non-traditional venues.  And they for many years offered free parking to hybrid and electric vehicles.  Do these make a difference in the world? Probably, to some degree.  And their commitment seems sincere.  But it has brought them lots of community goodwill and free publicity, which never hurts.  Many wineries are doing well here, whether farming organically or sustainably or supporting community causes.  But there is always more to be done.  At Tablas Creek, we've identified arts in our community as an area to dedicate significant resources to, and now are major sponsors of the Central Coast Shakespeare Festival, Festival Mozaic and the Paderewski Festival of Paso Robles. But beyond what we do ourselves, we've been able to leverage our position in the community.  My father founded the Winery Partners of the Foundation for the Performing Arts Center, a group now in its third year, which has together donated nearly a quarter of a million dollars in recognition of the importance of the venue to the county's cultural life and of the wineries in the county's economic vitality.
  • Focus on public relations instead of advertising.  Kimpton hardly advertises.  At first, this was because (like most wineries) the available funds were low and the market penetration of the stable of boutique hotels limited.  But more and more they believe in the higher return on investment of engaging with customers and writers, developing stories organically, and building via word of mouth.  Social media has only made that task easier.  I think that this is even more true for wineries.  Advertising is a blunt tool, where you reach a lot of people but aren't likely to convince many to take action because of it.  Worse, it's only valuable to the extent that you have already achieved market penetration.  That money that you could spend on an ad in a glossy magazine could almost certainly be better used to develop contacts with writers in the hopes of generating editorial coverage, or reinvested in creative incentives for your current fans to share their enthusiasm with their friends.  Is it more work?  Sure.  But someone else's testimonial for your brand is inherently more powerful than your own.
  • Know your history, and celebrate it. Most corporate hotels feel the same, whether they're in San Francisco or Sarasota.  Not Kimptons.  They make a point of searching out and renovating historic buildings and then imbuing them with the personality of their region.  This doesn't feel like a schtick... the way that, say, a W in suburban Atlanta does with its techno and neon.  Instead, the architecture is thoughtfully restored, the connection between the hotel and its neigborhood celebrated, and the space's history displayed and explained.  As a winery, take a look at the entrance to your tasting room.  What does it say about you?  Are you communicating your essentials?  You might be surprised at the story your facility is telling.  Are you slick or personal?  Fancy or down-home?  Artisan or industrial?  Traditional or modern?  There isn't a right answer, but it's important to know and to make sure that you are creating the impression you want.  For a case study, take a look at the blog post from last spring Telling the Tablas Creek story... without words.
  • Give people who don't know you yet reasons to discover you. Each Kimpton has a restaurant, often among the better restaurants in their cities.  These go far beyond the typical hotel restaurant and while they do provide hotel guests a place to have a quick breakfast or a late-night snack, they cater primarily to the local community.  A vibrant restaurant ensures a steady influx of potential new customers and friends of potential new customers, as well as adding to the prestige and reputation of the venue.  Most wineries won't have restaurants on-site, but it's important to stay visible to customers who don't yet know you.  Are you doing open houses for members of the hospitality trade?  Offering your site as a venue for industry events?  Partnering with non-winery businesses to host their events?  It's easy to open your doors and wait for your customers to find you, but being proactive can bring you so much more.
  • Be generous with the little things. Whether it's the complimentary wine tasting, the complimentary internet access, bottles of water in the rooms, the fruit in the lobby or the goldfish and bowl you can take to your room, things that other luxury hotels charge for are included with your Kimpton stay.  I hate the feeling of being nickeled and dimed.  As a winery, if you're charging tasting fees for people who purchase or event fees for your club members who are coming to buy wine, it's worth considering whether the benefits of loyalty and increased sales may outweigh the small amounts of revenue you're bringing in.

Is this a checklist that any successful winery has to mark off?  Of course not.  But most wineries want what the Kimpton Hotel Group has achieved: respect as purveyors of a consistently high quality product, in classy, comfortable environments, with outstanding customer service and positive impacts on their communities.

Sounds worth emulating, to me.