As Covid-19 restrictions ease, Whitbread, the owner of Premier Inn, is banking on marketing to harness “pent-up demand” among consumers for staycations and to drive the business’s recovery.

With the nation under lockdown and unable to travel for the majority of the past 12 months, Whitbread posted a loss of £1bn for the 2020/21 financial year.

However, the company is forecasting a “significant bounce in leisure demand” as the vaccination programme progresses and travel restrictions ease in the UK from mid-May. It will therefore be investing £20m into marketing over the next financial year.

At the forefront of that investment is Premier Inn’s first major brand building campaign for three years, ‘Rest Easy’, which launched earlier this month after being delayed by Covid.

The campaign, which was created by Leo Burnett, features the voice of Sir Lenny Henry, who Premier Inn says has become “synonymous” with its brand. The ads highlight the ease of the Premier Inn customer experience, from booking to bed.

The multichannel campaign saw Premier Inn return to TV screens, as well as covering outdoor, radio, print, digital and social media. According to Whitbread CEO Alison Brittain, its goal is to reinforce brand consideration for both Premier Inn’s leisure and business guests.

Speaking on an investor webcast, Brittain said Premier Inn is keen to broaden its digital reach and has been ensuring its visibility across search partners.

“Our direct distribution model means we own our customer relationships, enabling us to deliver more relevant direct digital marketing,” she said, adding that customers are then able to book through Premier Inn’s new website, which is driving higher conversion rates through a “significantly improved” user experience.

Whitbread’s focus on marketing comes as part of its “investing to win” strategy. The business expects to invest over £350m of capital this year, in commercial initiatives, room refurbishments and more. However, it still intends to cut £100m in costs.

The strength of the brand

After seeing sales tumble by more than 70%, Whitbread said last year was the “most challenging in our 279-year history”. Recent lockdowns saw its hotels at just 23% of potential occupancy in January and 29% in February.

However, in its full-year trading statement, Brittain points to the strength of the Premier Inn brand as it looks towards recovery.

“Our ability to navigate through this period, with the advantages of our unique operating model, the strength of the Premier Inn brand, and our market-leading direct distribution model, has enabled us to continue to deliver strong market share gains in the UK,” she says.

Whitbread says it will continue to grow and innovate by using the “powerful competitive advantages” of its brand alongside its broad customer reach, while capitalising on the “enhanced structural opportunities” that will exist post-Covid. Those “structural opportunities” include a reduced competitive set, as the business expects to see the independent sector diminish as a result of the pandemic’s financial toll.

The company also points to the most recent YouGov hotel brand index survey, in which Premier Inn came out top for customer satisfaction, impression, value and likelihood-to-recommend.

Meanwhile in Germany, where Whitbread is trying to replicate its UK business model, the business plans to turn its focus to brand building, hoping to drive brand awareness with nationwide marketing campaigns, while new B2B corporate relationships supplement effective localised brand campaigns.

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