FEW hotels can be guaranteed press coverage unless they have found themselves the target of an IRA bomb, the scene of a political scandal, the winner of a major award, or have gained a reputation for luxurious facilities or stunning settings.
But there is much you can do to actively encourage consumer journalists to visit your establishment. It demands perseverance, imagination, good public relations and targeting the right publication with the right story. Every journalist needs an angle. Having a budding chef, innovative decor, or BS5750 is not usually enough. Neither is sending a copy of your menu and your brochure to every editor in the land, although there is no harm in issuing various journalists with a personal invitation. You may not get an immediate response from them, but your letter will probably be kept on file and be referred to when the publication is planning a feature about your area or is interviewing someone locally.
For those who achieve good press coverage the benefits are obvious - a page of advertising in a glossy magazine or newspaper could set you back thousands, but editorial coverage is free. The catch is that you don't have any control over what is written about you - however well you have entertained the journalist. But as long as you stick to a few basic ground rules and have realistic expectations, your relationship with the press could prove fruitful.
If you are in doubt about any journalist who contacts you, there are a few checks you can make. First, ask for the name of the publication and of the person who has commissioned the feature. Then if you are still unsure, call the editor to check. Unless you know the journalist concerned, you should not, on the whole, give rooms away if he or she is writing on spec. But if you haven't heard of the publication, don't immediately reject it; its readers may be the sort of people who would love your hotel.
It is important to be realistic about the coverage that you can expect from a journalist and to remember that the number of words written about your hotel does not relate to the number of new customers you may get as a result. A couple of lines in a national newspaper can still work wonders for your occupancy rate.
You should also know, and it is up to the journalist to make clear, that he or she cannot guarantee to be complimentary about you and your business, or that whatever they write will automatically be published. Editors have an irritating habit of filing copy, even if commissioned. It will do you no good to phone constantly to check when an article is due to be published, nor to ask the journalist what they have written.
Unless you pay for an advertisement or an "advertorial", you have no say about what is written, even though you may have invited the journalist to your establishment and footed the bill. A professional journalist, while no doubt pleased with your invitation, will not let this influence his or her comments about your business. They are professional observers and are much more interested in how the other guests are treated than how you treat them.
Over-effusive hospitality can even backfire. Once, when I was travelling alone, I was given the honeymoon suite. My heart sank as I viewed the canopied four-poster and the bottle of Champagne. Fortunately before I had finished unpacking, there came a knock on the door. A honeymoon couple had turned up and I was ushered, clothes spilling out of my suitcase, down the corridor to the single room which I would have preferred in the first place.
Don't assume that all journalists are out to have a good time. Staying in a hotel is not a holiday even though it might be for most of your other guests.
Also give journalists the opportunity to relax and to enjoy the establishment, as it is by doing this that true opinions are formed. Don't bombard them with a packed itinerary starting the minute they arrive.
When you are speaking to a reporter, try to relax. Journalists are not usually trying to catch you out, and rarely have a tape recorder in their top pocket. Being evasive or monosyllabic could be seen as evidence of something to hide. It's far better to express yourself.
Another point to realise is that a review of your establishment is unlikely to appear the week after the journalist has visited. Consumer magazines can take up to a year to publish an article, despite the fact that the copy will probably be written within a week.
Some hoteliers question why publications do not pay the bill for journalists' hotel accommodation. George Goring, for example, proprietor of London's Goring Hotel, confesses to wrongly assuming that the cost of staying in a hotel would be covered by the paper in much the same way as flying a reporter to Bosnia.
The answer is simply one of budget constraints. For many freelance journalists invitations from hoteliers are the only way they can visit certain establishments. Expenses tend only to be provided for staff writers who travel to get an interview. Even when a journalist can claim expenses, budgets seldom run further than the cost of a room in a guesthouse.
However, publications do vary and food columnists are more likely to get their restaurant bills paid by their paper, although budgets are still controlled. Paddy Burt, for example, who writes the Room Service column in Saturday's Daily Telegraph, has her bill paid for her when she stays anonymously in hotels. But she says she "wouldn't visit an expensive hotel often".
While it is important for every hotelier to develop good relations with the press, it should be remembered that not every journalist will respect you for it. Many hoteliers have encountered journalists who have taken advantage. Nigel Chapman of Woolley Grange recalls how he gave a room to a journalist who said she was from a provincial paper, which he hadn't heard of. A local dignitary was in the hotel at the time, and the receptionist, in an attempt to be helpful, suggested they should meet. She directed him to where the journalist and her partner were dining. The dignitary turned out to be the journalist's husband.
At their best, though, journalists not only help with publicity, but give you valuable feedback. Most have first-hand knowledge of your competition which can be used to your advantage. And even if their views are not always flattering, it is better to have constructive criticism than no comment.
Lastly, if you are the recipient of a flattering writeup in a newspaper or magazine - a thank-you letter always goes down well. o