Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Checking Out

As said, the analogies between newspapers and hotels are not endless. But both hit a wall of transformative change. The downtown hotel business as people had known it for decades was revolutionized. And after the revolution came the hotel business that we have now known for decades. New ideas such as boutique or designer hotels come and go, but change is gradual, not done with a scythe as happened in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Those wanting to run downtown hotels had to accept that they couldn't win by masquerading as motels. The problem was that they were really bad motels -- inconvenient parking, long walks from the car, locations well off the highway. The "motor hotel" era faded quickly. Print newspapers' relationship to online news is different, but newspapers must figure out how to be better at what they are and not simply try to be worse examples of something else.

Downtown hotels had to accept a smaller place in the lodging business and figure what it was. Exit 4 of the New Jersey Turnpike now has more than 20 hotels. Like the railroad, like newspapers, downtown hotels once were (with resorts) basically their entire industry. The Penn Alto Hotel in Altoona and hotels like it once had to be nearly all things to all people -- cheaper rooms for salesmen, better rooms for higher paying guests, permanent rooms for residents, ballrooms, meeting rooms for the chamber of commerce. As the pie gets broken into more pieces, you have to choose your piece. You can't just say, we're the Penn Alto Hotel and we've been here for years. Or the Daily Resister-Informer. You have to figure out who the customers are who want your product. In doing so you have to be realistic. You might want the trend-setters or early adopters, but chances are you won't get them. That's not your business. Sorry.

Going downscale may pay the bills for now. But it may not work for long, as many old hotels lost all their business except for those getting welfare checks. An older technology inevitably has a sense of "tattered" to it and is spurned by those who love the new. The resurgence of older downtown hotels was in part fueled by evoking the glamour of the past -- by redefining the older product as more attractive, not outmoded -- and realizing not everyone would respond. The newspaper business still keeps looking for the magic bullet that will please everyone.

The growth in new downtown hotels came as well from people willing to pay more. A chain like Hampton will often charge more for a downtown location than a highway one -- and people pay it. If you can't compete on free parking, offer valet parking. Rick Edmonds of Poynter recently challenged publishers' insistence on keeping prices low. He noted that in Europe, the business model expects subscribers to pay more. If our business model is really broken, why do we still insist on restoring the 80-20 split? Print newspapers, even among the young, have a core of people who see them as useful. Purposefully combine the best of the old and the new. Use them and their preferences as a base for growth.

Throw out old business models and practices that no longer work. The old hotel stood alone. Today's hotel business is dominated by brand names, for identity and ease of making reservations. But most of the Westins aren't owned by Westin; they are owned by independent operators, just as was the case 50 years ago. Some things need to change, some don't. Newspapers probably won't benefit from a national brand, but they do need to constantly make it easier to buy ads and deal with delivery problems.

Finally, newspapers need to get over their phobia about adverse reactions. I can imagine a hotel executive trying to update the property and being told, "But if we change the entrance, we might lose the Cotton Farmers' Cotillion, and we'll never get it back!" "Oh my gosh, we can't do that. I know last year they only had 40 people, but I'll never hear the end of it." Editor & Publisher, which this year admirably praised the print enthusiast and pay-us-what-it's worth businessman Walter Hussman, has an editorial in its May issue (behind the wall) chiding the industry for not looking to successes in other countries. It notes that in Canada -- hardly a different culture -- newspapers have been more progressive in adopting different methods of audience measureement and are starting to move to modular advertising, as U.S. newspapers "strain to squeeze and stuff yesterday's solution, the Standard Advertising Unit, on shrinking broadsheets." And it asks why the "conversion of big-city broadsheet dailies to reader- and advertiser-friendly compact formats seems forever five years away." Why not? In part inertia, in part fear that "we might lose ABC Liquors if we did that. He insists on a 5 by 18."

What might the reaction in your community be to a print newspaper like this, particularly among younger readers? What might the reaction be if you did 25 percent of this? Not simply, what might the reaction be among our older readers? Would ABC Liquors really say, the heck with you? Maybe they would. But would this position you better for the years ahead anyway?

And now it's time to check out of our hotel.

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