Carter Sowers is the Head of Technology for Southern Resort Group and Sundog Homes. His background in computer science and agile software development are the foundation of his technical leadership. He’s a lifelong learner and believes in growing organizations and teams by demonstrating empathy and compassion in everyday situations. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Carter, to speak about the nuances in being an independent hotelier, and to talk through the unique challenges facing Southern Resort Group and how he works to overcome them.
How did you get into the hospitality industry?
My background is in software development and large software systems. I didn’t have any industry-specific experience before an opportunity emerged to join sort of two companies at the same time. One of them was Sundog and all its various branches. Even though Sundog, at that time, had a vacation rental arm of their business, they had not fully jumped into hospitality. Because of that, I think that the hospitality industry is more something that I’ve grown into.
How did your background inform your work at Sundog?
Sundog was a company with a lot of low-hanging fruit as far as their technology and goals. My background is in how software can support and transform the way people work. A part of my previous role at a different company included collaborating with different departments and figuring out where automation might help people get their work done. I developed internal tools that took some of the busy work out and added some hours back to their day.
I try and take that approach to everything and enjoy looking at how people are working holistically and answering questions like: Where are they spending the most time? Where are the pain points? Then, I find if there is a tool out there that we could either purchase off the shelf or develop internally that could help people throughout their day.
What are the challenges that the Southern Resort Group face in the industry, and what unique ways are you trying to solve them?
There are always challenges when a lot of independent hoteliers are breaking into the market. One challenge is navigating relationships with Online Travel Agencies (OTAs). For us, OTAs really did help open opportunities in the market to get our name out there and start building a customer base. So, in that vein, we are actually really grateful for what OTAs enabled us to do. Obviously, though, that was a very short-term strategy. I think a lot of companies and independent hoteliers may find themselves in a similar situation.
The challenge now is pivoting to focus on our long-term goals. We are hoping to look at OTAs as a one-time marketing expense, where we build out our customer database and then start to market to our customers directly. We are trying to prepare and solve that new obstacle by bringing all of our digital marketing efforts in-house and getting better at them every year. It comes down to a few things like hiring the right people on our team and understanding digital marketing on a much deeper level instead of outsourcing that service to agencies.
As far as digital marketing trends go, in the past year what kind of trends have you seen emerge and which ones have you taken advantage of?
I am not sure how much of a trend this is, but I think that loyalty and rewards programs have been around for a long time and there are new ways to reach customers and give this old trend a new edge. All of the larger hotel chains offer their customers an app. There’s a lot of potential to drive direct bookings when you’re able to target repeat guests on their mobile devices. Today we’re reaching them via their email inboxes. Eventually, we’d like to be able to reach them through push notifications in a mobile app.
Looking forward, what kind of trends do you see for the future and which trends do you predict people really taking advantage of for their own (and your own) strategy?
As far as the Southern Resort Group goes, I know we carved out a niche for ourselves in the condo hotel market. We actually have a new condo hotel coming online near the Clemson University area hopefully by summer of 2019. As I was saying earlier, we see potential in rolling out our own loyalty and rewards program.
The guest and customer experience is very important to us, so when someone calls we want to know everything about them as it pertains to how they travel and stay. Have they stayed with us before? Do they want the same room they booked last time? We want to truly liberate all the data and get it out there so our concierge can answer these questions and really personalize a guest experience. That’s our priority.
What role does Sojern play in your marketing strategy?
Sojern is great in that it allows us to target the specific type of traveler in a specific market and help us wean ourselves off of OTAs. We are able to reach a more targeted group and basically start to build our customer base. And, instead of paying 18% on a booking through an OTA, with Sojern we have had over 400 bookings and over $250,000 in revenue. We’ve paid considerably less in marketing dollars to reach those people and drive direct bookings. So, Sojern just really accelerates our long-term goals. It also allows us to expand our customer database so that we can truly pursue our long-term strategy of marketing directly to our consumers.
How do you think your concerns differ from a bigger chain and how are you attracting the right audiences?
Well, I think the first thing that comes to mind is that being an independent hotelier, we don’t have a hallway full of executives or people who we can task for various initiatives. For us, it’s about keeping it simple on our end and using our own resources as much as we can.
It’s making sure we know exactly who our customer is and the reasons why they are visiting us. It’s staying proactive. We have to stay on top of our marketing efforts and get our ads out at the right time, as soon as our potential consumers are thinking about traveling.
What are you most excited for, and what challenges do you see on the horizon? What are you doing to prepare?
We are in the process of evaluating a few different paths for our call center. I am most excited to have that fully integrated with our CRM tools. This way we can have all that customer data instantly available. It’s a really big initiative for us and we are continuing to explore different ways of achieving our goals and timeline as well.
What is your bucket list trip?
I think my bucket list trip right now has to be traveling to Paris with my wife and kids. We want to do the classic Paris trip, but I would also love to go to the south of France and maybe even Nice. Paris has been on our bucket list for a while, so it is going to be hard for anything else to be a contender.
To learn more about how Sojern partners with Southern Resort Group, check out our case study here.