Interview: Iryna @ PO Choices

Recently we had the pleasure of sitting down with Iryna, the owner of PO Choices, a hospitality concierge and consulting agency based across Europe. With considerable experience working with hospitality brands, we wanted to pick her brain about the things both new and established brands should be thinking about

Tell us about PO Choices and what you do?

PO choices is first of all a hospitality platform which works as a consulting agency on one side and as a travel concierge on the other. As a consulting agency we provide mostly creative services for hospitality brands, helping with everything from building the brand and their visual identity, designing the website, organising social media and all the content including professional photography. We are also working with influencers to help brands increase brand awareness and can help with organising special events and generally guiding hotels through the process of developing their identity into a successful and recognisable brand.

What made you decide to start your business?

It started as just an inspiration page on Instagram where I wanted to share places that I love, because I find there are not only so many places to choose from, but when using the likes of booking.com, it can be tough to find something good, or that matches your specific taste. You also don’t really get a sense of vibe, those places where you can feel the owners spirit and the atmosphere of the place. I found that I had saved so many unique places and I just wanted to share that, and recommend them to friends and family members and everyone really! So initially PO Choices was just an inspiration board, but while doing that I was also working as a consultant and the two things just seemed to work seamlessly together. 

My first job was in hospitality consulting and I was working with a friend who has a restaurant consultancy in London, with whom we are partnering currently, and I decided that I wanted to create a consulting agency where we can provide not only creative services that help hospitality businesses to create a cohesive brand and really sell the unique experience that they offer, but combine it with the other aspects that are often involved with the travel and hotel industry, and provide a full-service approach, including accommodation, restaurant consulting and unique experiences. This then led to the idea of the Travel concierge because sometimes I was helping with organising trips, creating mood boards on where to travel, where to stay, where to eat etc, and it seemed like it would be useful for clients who are after that special experience but don’t necessarily have the time. So we wanted to create a platform that felt a bit more bespoke that would cater to these customers, where they could see a clear vision and trust that whatever hotel they booked, it would be unique and exciting with a fantastic atmosphere. We want to make it an inspirational destination where people can trust our vision and recommendations and know that they’re in for a truly special stay and be confident that whatever their needs, we can accommodate.

What would you say are the most important investments for brands just starting out in the hotel industry and luxury travel as a whole?

I think service and the ‘soul’ of your business should definitely be the first priorities, as old fashioned as that may sound! I think sometimes businesses can forget about that, focusing on having a beautiful identity, website, Instagram feed etc, even a beautiful building. But if customers visit and the quality of service is lacking or the hotel feels soulless, the overall experience will fall short of their expectations leaving them disappointed. Visuals are certainly important too, with such a huge amount of competition online, but I think service is something that can often be overlooked and it’s absolutely essential to building an excellent reputation both online and offline.

Instagram is also incredibly important right now, because people use it for so much, whether it be shopping, ordering food, booking a hotel, bnb etc. Many customers do all of these things directly through the app as it’s so convenient, so including that as a key part of your customer experience, being authentic with how you present your brand, and engaging with their comments is very important. Also using your instagram account to tell your story, and really giving customers an idea of what they can expect from their experience of your brand is vital as this is what sets you apart from the corporate hotels or big restaurant chains. I think now, particularly after Covid, we want that personal touch and to communicate with someone who is real, and often with the big hotels you don’t get that warmth or personal experience. You don’t get to ask the chef where the catch of the day was caught, you can’t really have a chat with the owner or manager about how the hotel was started, you miss out on creating those connections that can make the difference between an average experience and an exceptional one. So storytelling is also hugely important I think, and how you can portray who your brand really is across the different touchpoints that your customers interact with.

What do you think hotels should be thinking about to help them stand out from their competitors?

I think similar to how I mentioned earlier, service and providing that connection is so important. Word of mouth marketing does work, and we now live in an age where people will share images or post specifically to share a positive (or not) experience that they’ve recently had with your brand. By focusing on your own unique story and how you can best tell that story to your customers or guests, you are providing that unique experience and connection that automatically sets you apart from your competitors as nobody else has that same story to tell or does it in the same way. I think also engaging with your audience regularly and authentically, whether it’s through Instagram, your website etc, sharing your story and reels that excite them also makes a huge difference in helping people feel like they are already there and that they know your business and what to expect from the experience.

I think nowadays word of mouth is even more important, and even more scary if brands do something wrong because now thanks to social media we have followers and everything we do can be broadcast to the whole world. If a brand does something wrong everyone will know which can be very daunting, but on the flip side it’s an incredible tool to leverage in terms of gaining brand awareness and really creating that exceptional customer experience that your audience and guests can’t wait to rave about. 

How do you think consumer behaviour is affecting luxury travel? There seems to be a recent shift towards more unique / engaging experiences?

Definitely, I think there is a shift in the way that people are starting to move away from visiting the larger, more corporate hotels and the ‘standard’ experience that people expect from visiting them. Not everyone of course, but I think there is a feeling emerging that people want to feel special and that we’re getting an experience that feels unique, not something ‘cookie-cutter’ or something that all of our followers or people that we follow have experienced in exactly the same way. We want something that feels a bit more tailored and unique to us, and I think this is where boutique hotels can really excel. Often they host far fewer people at a time than the larger mainstream hotels, which in itself leads to a much more personal, intimate experience. Their small size also allows them to be more flexible and adaptable and provide a more personalised and memorable service, be it in food, drinks, accommodation or activities recommended.

How important do you think digital is for hotels and luxury travel brands looking to grow in 2022?

I think digital is already becoming hugely important for many businesses during 2021, but there’s no doubt that video in particular is going to continue to be an essential tool for 2022, something that’s more engaging where you can really feel what it will be like to experience that restaurant or hotel and not only know what to expect before you visit but actually get excited about it right from the start. Video allows hospitality brands to take their audience on a journey and make them feel like they’re already there even before booking! I think that’s a hugely powerful tool in getting your customers invested in your business right from the start. It also provides excellent opportunities for free marketing as social media followers can engage directly with your videos and share them with their own followers and communities.

Tell us a little about how the process goes when working with you?

For the consultancy side, brands can come to us at every stage they’re at in their business, whether you’re right at the start of your project and need help identifying your philosophy and vision, along with your name and identity, or whether you’re more established and need help refining a certain aspect of your business, or perhaps are not sure how to attract your audience. We can create a way of communicating with your audience in your language, or look at other services such as influencer marketing, developing your instagram presence etc plus any other services that will help you to develop your brand story and impress your guests, including brand collaborations and events. It really just depends on the stage that you’re at and what you need our help with as we tailor each project to what your specific business needs. 

PO Choices works both as a concierge for guests and as a consultancy for hotels themselves, what are the benefits of this integrated approach?

I think the main benefit is that we can see the hospitality industry and the customer’s journey from both sides, i.e from the perspective of the customer and the perspective of the hotel owner. We can really focus in on providing services that the clients love, and make the whole process of marketing and promoting and attracting guests much easier for the hotel itself. For example if a brand comes to us at the beginning and needs help with their logo, website or IG presence we can have the potential customer’s viewpoint in the back of our minds to ensure that it appeals to them and makes the whole journey of choosing and booking that much easier and enjoyable. Having also visited the property, we will know everything about it and can promote it on our own site / instagram feed, thereby giving the customer the knowledge they need to decide to book, and additional exposure for the brand itself. We can also provide exclusive discounts for clients that they would not find anywhere else.

When clients come to the travel concierge, we can also see trends that are emerging – what people are looking for from their stay, what is important to them and what we can do differently. For example everyone is providing transfers, but if we can see that there is a trend for people wanting luxury transfers or a particular mode of transportation, we can pass these insights on to our brands so that they can tailor their offering accordingly. When you are so close to both sides of the business you can see very specifically what people are asking for and how we can help to differentiate your service from every other hotel in the area.

And finally, who are some of your favourite hotels that we should all be visiting now that international travel has resumed?

You know I’m a big fan of Aman and Belmond, who despite being larger chains and therefore provide a different experience to say staying in a small finca, are still providing exceptional luxury experiences for their clients. They also manage to maintain a sense of uniqueness with each of their hotels having a very unique and location-specific personality which many large chains aren’t able to do, so they are well worth visiting (when the budget allows!). I also love the Hotel Lou Pinet in St Tropez, as well as a hotel in France, La Bastide De Gordes, which is part of the Airelles Collection. One more, I think you know it, is Castello di Reschio in Umbria which is such a gorgeous hotel. When I start thinking about it there are so many that I can recommend and every time I open my IG I end up finding more but these ones are definitely a few of my absolute favourites. I also love Marrakech, for its culture and beauty, and have always thought that a Moroccan Riad provides a perfect venue for a unique stay as they often have a small number of rooms allowing you to rent the whole riad for a special occasion and get to know their owners and immerse yourself in the Moroccan culture. 

If you’re a hotel or hospitality brand that would like work with Iryna and her Travel Concierge PO Choices, you contact her directly through their instagram @pochoices

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