Dive Resort Marketing Case Study
Dive resort marketing presents unique challenges compared to marketing products or event more typical vacation destinations. Identifying the target audience, or market segment is relatively obvious–divers. However, within the segment, there are divers in every imaginable category, from beginning reef explorers to gas-switch, accelerated decompression divers, underwater photographers, ecologists, students, families and countless others pursuing very different aquatic interests and goals.
Add to that, divers have widely varying expectations in terms of luxury, cost, security, etc. So, matching the dive resort experience to divers a destination will appeal to, is critical to resort marketing success. Our work with The Reef House Lodge underscores the nature and scope of a successful dive resort marketing effort.
Reef House Lodge is a small scuba diving resort located on the island of Roatan, just off the Honduran mainland. Roatan is a top diving destination, attracting scuba divers from all over the world. The island is small but dotted with dive operators ranging from spartan to luxurious.
Most diving activity takes place to the West, which has the highest concentration of scuba resorts. West Roatan also hosts the occasional cruise ship as well as a number of non-diving and eco-attractions. As you trek Eastward, diving activity diminishes and the island takes on a more local feel.
East Roatan is sparsely populated, yet still within easy reach of the airport. Of interest to divers, East Roatan sees very little diving pressure. Divers enjoy the warm, clear water and lush marine ecosystem Roatan is famous for, but with less diving activity overall. The reef system is spectacular and virtually untouched.
Reef House Lodge
When the Reef House approached us, it was operating as The Reef House Resort as it had for decades. For background, the company began operations as a fishing lodge back in the 1950’s. It still serves a significant number of loyal anglers. Diving operations began in 1971, making The Reef House the oldest diving resort on all of Roatan.
The Reef House has just 11 rooms and can host up to 21 guests on the property. There is a main lodge and bar a few sandy steps from the rooms. Dining is family style. The menu is determined by the chef, but special diets and requests are generously accommodated. Given its age and remote location, The Reef House offers clean rooms, great food, incredible diving and the coolest vibe in the Caribbean.
However, to call the Reef House a “resort” conjures thoughts of sugar sand beaches, fancy restaurants, monogrammed towels and concierge service. The Reef House is for divers seeking once-in-a-lifetime access to the best coral reefs in the world and a great place to hang out with other divers to live and breathe scuba for a week away from real life. Owner David Byrne recognized this and suggested The Reef House Resort would be better promoted as The Reef House Lodge. We agreed.
Marketing Goals and Challenges
The obvious goal for The Reef House is to keep those 11 rooms filled with divers as much of the year as possible. To accomplish that, we knew we would have to create detailed profiles of travelers seeking adventure and one-of-a-kind experiences over amenities. A healthy percentage of divers fit this category, so identifying them is easy. It’s reaching them that presents the challenge.
Our goal was, and still is, to increase market share among divers already interested in Roatan as a destination. Many scuba divers visit the same resort year after year, so our strategy would need to focus on reaching them with a compelling enough message to draw their interest away from where they are already comfortable.
At the same time, there is a very large diver segment that is active and weighing options among destinations worldwide. For these, we must generate interest in Roatan first, then position The Reef House Lodge as the best travel option. Cost-wise, The Reef House is a great deal, so price resistance relative to the resort is minimal. Air fares have been fluctuating on the high side, but still compare favorably with other remote diving destinations.
As part of the country of Honduras, there is concern among travelers about civil issues on the mainland affecting life on the island. In truth there is virtually no evidence of anything that happens there making its way to Roatan. Still, unless these concerns are handled appropriately, it can impact decision-making.
The Competitive Landscape
In total, there are roughly 4 dozen dive resorts on the island of Roatan. Of these, only a handful are well-known, with CoCo View Resort, Fantasy Island and Turquoise Bay Resort being the closest to household names in the dive industry. All of these are larger than The Reef House and have been effectively building a clientele including individuals and groups that return year after year.
The Reef House, although the oldest resort on Roatan, has yet to fully develop its potential as a repeat destination. Of note, The Reef House has accumulated hundreds of 5-star reviews across dozens of websites. Its niche is a combination of relaxed family atmosphere, untouched reefs and smallness.
In recent years, dive operators have become increasingly rigid in their operations. Strict time and depth limits, exact departure and return times and the sheer volume of divers contribute to a rushed feel that is completely absent at The Reef House. Add to that, friendliness, great food and cheap drinks and they’ve created the perfect atmosphere for vacationing divers.
With its limited capacity and out of the way location, crowds simply do not exist at The Reef House—or anywhere on Oakridge Cay. Aside from The Reef House and a handful of fishing guides, tourism is limited to the West end of the island. As a result, Oak Ridge (a village of stilt houses connected by canals), is populated by locals. Their friendliness is real.
We work with a lot of dive resorts and boat operators. Whenever possible, we’ll get onsite as soon as possible to discover what’s unique, meet guests, take pictures/video and dive. Unless a dive operation is a well-known, heavily promoted brand, this is the best way for us to learn how to position a dive business relative to its competitors. Most destinations take a day or two before you find your routine and settle in.
The Reef House is different. There’s no settle-in period. The Reef House absorbs guests like a playground absorbs kids. It’s like you’ve always been there and feel a part of it. It is a feeling that’s hard to put into words, but that feeling is the resort’s unique selling proposition.
In our messaging, we positioned the resort as fun, relaxed, adventurous and pristine. It’s clean and comfortable, and has everything you need for about half the price of a stay at one of Roatan’s other dive resorts.
At the same time, we’re careful not to position The Reef House as “budget” or “low-priced.” The resort is priced below market, so we want to keep the option open if a price increase becomes necessary.
Rebranding the Resort
The Reef House Resort is less-known than other scuba diving operations on Roatan, however its history is much of the attraction to Reef House loyalists. Our challenge would be to update the Reef House brand, facilitate the transition from “resort” to “lodge,” and convey the guest experience without losing the resort’s historic appeal.
To accomplish that, we chose a color palette that reflects the bright color history of the resort itself, along with the stilt-house-and-canal village in surrounding Oakridge. Imagery suggests the local fauna, maritime textures, with a distinct aprés dive feel.
In addition to color and images, typography needed to be perfect. We chose fonts and typestyles that are easy to read, and convey a friendly, island appeal. Our standard practice is to develop typography and color palettes before anything else. This is especially important for the website. By developing the brand as much as possible using text and color, we can rely less on images. This way pages load nearly instantly. It also creates a more reliable mobile experience and a massive increase in our ability to boost search engine rankings.
Reef House Lodge Logo Design
As a rule, we are hesitant to recommend a total logo redesign, especially for well-established brands. There needs to be a very compelling reason to even consider it. Our initial motivation for considering it was the name change from Reef House Resort to Reef House Lodge. Our first thought was to clean the original logo, change “resort” to “lodge” and create vector graphics files suitable for any use.
However, our research indicated the Reef House logo was not as widely recognized as we might have hoped. Also, the scuba tank pictured was not “anatomically correct,” which a surprising number of real scuba divers notice immediately. Finally, the logo was made up of three individual fonts, which were not complimentary. As a side issue, the entire logo had an “extruded” treatment that gave it a “word art” appearance that was popular in the early 1990’s. In short, it looked more dated than vintage, so we decided to pursue fresh ideas.
Our goal was to create a design that “feels like” the Reef House. We wanted lively, but historic. Friendly, but a little edgy. Arts-and-crafts-y, but polished. Our logo needed to stand out above the many entrenched rivals, and scream “Reef House Lodge” even if you weren’t close enough to make out the words.
Finally, Oakridge Cay is a tropical paradise. The Reef House Lodge logo had to look great on a tee-shirt. In dive resort marketing and travel marketing in general, visuals are everything. Wee took great care to get the logo right and make it the central element to the Reef House brand.
The Right Diver Resort Marketing Message
Our project began by sending a team to visit The Reef House before making assumptions about what a week-long diving experience might be like. Prior to that, we spent a lot of time researching the web to lay the groundwork and get a sense of travelers’ experiences from those who’ve been there.
Online reviews for The Reef House are overwhelmingly positive, so we had good reason to expect a well-run resort. That’s great. In fact, online reviews can make or break a company like The Reef House. Having a growing wave of loyal masses tell their stories online provides a boost that’s impossible to fake.
Reef House Marketing Message Elements
The first step in message planning for any business is to understand its unique selling proposition or USP. There can be more than one, but unique is the key. The Reef House has several.
Location: The Resort is located furthest East of any Roatan diver operator. Divers will experience pristine dive sites that you can’t access any other way.
Privacy: Being relatively remote means divers can go an entire week without seeing another dive boat.
History: There can only be one “first” and the Reef House is it.
Low, all-inclusive rates: A week at the Reef House, including lodging, transfers, diving and food can run well under $1,000US. That’s less than half what some competitors charge.
Food: The food is, in a word, awesome—not just another buffet.
These are all tangible attributes. Not every diver cares about these, but those that do, care a lot. These are easy to quantify and present. For some, this list is enough to make a decision. Coupled with the growing list of stellar reviews, The Reef House has third party verification, making its claims credible.
But, this is just a list, and many travelers seek something more distinctive and special than can be summed up in a list. That’s the real story of The Reef House, and that’s what we had to capture. In many ways, The Reef House feels like home. It is relaxed and friendly. There’s structure, but nothing feels rigid. There’s a familiarity unlike any other dive resort. And it keeps people coming back.
We attempted to capture that feeling with the tagline: Come for the diving. Stay for the vibe.
Copy, Voice & Writing Style
Our work with the Reef House includes nearly all of the resort’s messaging, which in a huge way includes the company’s website. We wanted to present the image of a not-too-polished, but well-seasoned, safe scuba diving operation, and frame it as the kind of welcoming experience any level of diver, and even non-divers can enjoy. It is an unlikely mix of attributes, so we rely, not only on what we say, but how we say it.
We took something of a story-telling approach to the website copy, covering details from arrival through departure. The website provides a view of what to expect at the airport, what the journey to Oakridge Cay will be like, along with not-so-small details like the kind of power outlets to plan for.
The website has information about meals, diving operations, instruction, individual dive sites, the resort property and booking, all presented in a fun, refreshing way. The same casual, informative voice carries throughout the Reef House’s messaging.
As a travel planning website, we wanted to take visitors on a mental vacation and help them build a realistic picture of the one-of-a-kind experience they’ll have when they actually visit. The reality of accomplishing that presents challenges on many levels.
First, just over half of all traffic to the website comes from mobile devices (about 2/3 from Apple). That means we would need to build our design around device limitations for the majority of users. These include screen dimensions, bandwidth and the limited capabilities of the most common mobile browsers.
We chose a mobile-first approach, limiting design elements to the absolute minimum that would be required to create the best possible user experience. Emphasis was placed on typography and other low-bandwidth friendly web assets. The most critical information was pushed to the top of each page, and navigation was simplified and optimized for single-handed operation.
On the desktop, we had fewer restrictions. Here, we produced a 21 second video loop that plays on entry into the homepage. It’s a jumbo-sized screen that mixes above and below the water to depict life at the Reef House Lodge. We were careful to utilize technology to detect the screen dimension of the visiting browser and make sure critical information isn’t buried below the fold.
Even with the large-screen video, we were sensitive to excess load time, and reduced all files to the bare minimum, while maintaining quality throughout.
Aside from providing an excellent resource for would-be Reef Houses guests, our overarching goal is to generate online inquiries. Calls to action (CTAs) are prominent throughout the website, without being obtrusive. In addition to typical online forms for visitors to request information, there are download options for a logbook file and visitor guide.
Both the logbook and the visitor guide follow the design principles, look and feel of the website. The logbook uses the industry standard format and come pre-filled with many of the Reef House’s signature dive sites.
Photos and video were captured onsite by the OCG team, and are updated regularly to keep the website fresh and relevant.
We feel that CRM is so important to building relationships that it is included with every website project we develop and/or market. CRM stands for custom relationship management, and provides a means for gathering, sorting and permanently storing every detail about potential customers and their activities, both online and off.
For the Reef House, CRM is used to store contact information gathered online, as well as to respond to it. As an example, our visitor guides and logbooks are sent via email through the Reef House CRM.
As visitors continue to be recorded, email lists are updated and segmented by interest. Emails are generated for promotional purposes as well as conducting surveys and booking details. In many ways, the CRM is an extension of the website. As inquiries accumulate, the CRM plays an increasing role in building and maintaining relationships with prospects as well as past guests.
Email Marketing Campaigns
On an ongoing basis, OCG Creative designs and executes email marketing campaigns on behalf of the Reef House Lodge. These include conditional response emails like those that send logbooks and visitor guides, as well as two types of broadcast emails. The first includes campaigns sent directly to individuals, like past guests and subscribers from the website.
The second group of broadcast emails is sent to industry organizations, dive shops and travel professionals that run group dive trips. An early objective was to build a growing base of travelers that make the Reef House an annual event. Group trips like those organized by dive shops are an idea fit. OCG was able to build a list of around 1,000 dive shops throughout North America, which has become a focal point for generating new interest. So far, the effort has been successful, with what appears to be a bright future for the Reef House as a group travel destination.
All of the Reef House email marketing initiatives have been successes. Moving forward, we are laying the groundwork for advanced, conditional email marketing and more intelligent segmentation and marketing automation using email as well as text messaging for ongoing communications.
SEO & Internet Marketing
A root of our promotional efforts is search engine optimization (SEO). The simple fact is travelers conduct research online. Throughout the buyer’s journey, Google provides access to information about every element related to travel. From specifics about a given destination, wildlife, safety or weather, to information about local customs or reviews, organic rankings make the difference between awareness and obscurity.
At the start, the Reef House Resort had limited visibility online—mostly on review websites like TripAdvisor. For the Reef House to attract a significant volume of visitors online, it would need top rankings in organic search results. That has been a primary effort since the website first went live.
We began by analyzing top-ranked websites related to dive travel to Roatan specifically. We found the Reef house to hold a large number of page 2-3 results, but very few keywords on page one. Most of those were search terms that included the Reef House by name. The highest volume ‘roatan diving’ phrases were several pages down at least.
Reef House SEO Was Complex
The rebrand from Reef House Resort to Reef House Lodge would make SEO efforts even more challenging. Along with the rebrand came a domain name change from reefhouseresort.com to reefhouselodge.com. We could use permanent redirects to signal that change to search engines and make the transition invisible to website visitors. However, reefhouseresort.com had (and still has) a significant backlink profile, compared to no inbound links at all for reefhouselodge.com.
Making things more challenging, reefhouselodge.com was, at the time, a brand new domain. Even now, it is new compared to all of the company’s major competitors. Between the newness of the domain name, nonexistent backlink profile and completely rewritten website copy, we would be flirting with total Internet obscurity.
To avoid that, we maintained website file paths (sometimes called permalinks) wherever possible, and published the new site on the original domain, reefhouseresort.com. That way, we were able to test for ranking results based solely on our changes and factors we could directly control. For the next few months, we continued to monitor and course correct until keyword rankings were solidly trending upward.
With momentum on our side, we felt confident that a domain change could be executed with far less risk of being knocked out of the rankings altogether. We published the domain and went to work contacting the webmaster for every website that linked to us. Our only request was to have the link updated to point to reefhouselodge.com, rather than the old domain.
So far, we’ve recovered about a third of the backlinks that existed prior to the domain change. The rest redirect to the correctly mapped URL, with a status code that indicates to search engines that the change is permanent. In the process we uncovered a few dead links and were able to repair some of those too.
The result is that we’ve had no loss in search engine rankings, and the steady climb we experienced prior to the domain redirect has continued and is accelerating. The Reef House Lodge website generates roughly 60 inquiries per month and represents a major driver for new guests.
Lead Generation & Conversions
Naturally, the goal for any marketing effort is to attract new customers. Since we began working with the Reef House, the design of the website, search engine rankings (SEO), email marketing and other efforts have been successfully reaching thousands of divers every month. All along, we’ve been collecting visitor data and building ranking reports that reflect consistent growth in the number of visitors, as well as a sense of their intent, or reason for visiting the website.
However, turning website visitors into dive resort visitors is the ultimate goal. Traffic and rankings don’t always translate to new customers. The first step is to start a 2-way conversation. The simplest means is to make contacting The Reef House as easy as possible. We utilize online forms and keep phone numbers and email addresses prominent from anywhere within the site.
As an active effort, we use content offers and downloadable items that provide value in exchange for basic contact information. The most unique of these is a downloadable diver’s logbook, pre-filled with the names of East Roatan’s most popular dive sites. The logbook uses the standard format divers are familiar with, and has space for additional dive sites not already listed. It is a fun memento, as well as a tangible reminder for divers that haven’t yet visited.
To ensure the highest possible conversion rate, we utilize advanced analytical tools.
The first of these tools is called a heat map. This technology gives us the ability to “map” accumulated mouse actions. The result is a visual representation of what your visitors pause to view, scroll to or click on. This way, we’ve been able to make design updates, modify calls to action (CTAs) and page layouts based on how visitors actually use reefhouselodge.com.
At a glance we are able to tell if people click on a critical call to action, close your pop-up windows or access your blog. Moreover, these views are cumulative, so as the sample size grows, behavioral patterns become increasingly obvious.
Pictured is a heat map that records clicks on the reefhouselodge.com homepage. The areas in red depict the highest concentration of clicks. Next is orange to yellow, followed by green and finally, blue to purple. Areas with no shading were not clicked on during the sample period.
Viewed this way, the difference between what we want visitors to do compared to what they actually do becomes very clear. What you see here is the result of many generations of tests and iterations leading to a very close connection between the website and the visitor’s decision-making process.
While heat maps provide a pattern view of accumulated mouse actions, session recordings show the exact movements of a single user as he or she navigates your website. Aside from tracking one versus many users, sessions recordings allow us to understand user interactions within the context of time.
By recording actual live website visits, we gain a perspective that would be impossible by any other means. Experiencing reefhouselodge.com through the mouse movements of visitors leaves no question about what elements matter most.
There is a world of difference between observing actual visits and making inferences based on conventional analytics. That’s not to suggest that primary metrics aren’t essential to your planning. But, information about session duration and bounce rate only tell part of the story. It is only through observation that you begin to realize the true impact of decisions you make about content placement, image choices and other website elements.
We refer to session recordings at least weekly. In the weeks after the website first went live, we’d make structural and content updates 2-3 times per week. Today, the website has evolved to a point where it is a close match to the goals of visitors, and conversions rates exceed expectations in most weeks. However, we continue to make improvements, and we use session recordings religiously to optimize newly published content.
Up until now, we’ve concentrated our efforts on marketing fundamentals and strengthening The Reef House’s competitive stance. Having achieved that, we are elevating into more sophisticated technologies that contribute to stronger relationships with past as well as future visitors to the resort.
Automation, segmentation and universal messaging platforms mixing custom web content, email, text messaging and physical mail make it possible to reach out in a manner consistent with personal preferences. The key is to build trust and touch on what motivates and excites traveling divers as unique individuals. The result is better relationships leading to more experiences booked at the resort.