Why the secret to marketing your small business…might just involve a rather big ball of twine.

This past week, I had the extraordinary pleasure of speaking to members of the Wisconsin Bed & Breakfast Association, kicking off their annual conference at the Abbey Resort is Fontana, Wisconsin. Special thanks to Kerri Thiel, Ed Svitak and Susan Smolarek for connecting me with such a wonderful group! I must admit, my wife and I have often talked about how fun it would be to run our own Bed & Breakfast someday. And while for us it seems “fun”…I am in awe of the immense effort I know it takes to maintain, promote, much less decorate these types of properties. As a small business advocate, I started my speech by thanking them for the valuable contributions they make to their communities, as well as their dedication to delivering something unique to a modern consumer that can be a bit of a moving marketing target to say the least. It takes special kind of crazy these days to be in business for yourself. For those of you who are doing it…you know exactly what I’m talking about. And for those who have never done it…it’s almost impossible for you to completely comprehend the depth of the overall experience. The risk. The reward. The sense of accomplishment when it works…and the level of disappointment when it doesn’t. It was in that light that I shared with them some key strategies to help them compete in a marketplace dominated by big data and the digital dominance of the deal.

The overarching strategy is fairly simple, not all that new, but it’s still something so many businesses miss in their overall customer experience. Here it is. The businesses that communicate and reinforce on a personal level, their value to customers…will win. So in my speech I asked them…are you doing everything you can to document, display and share the stories that make your business worth patronizing? Are you focused on establishing the kinds of human connections that define truly personal service experiences? Does the design and decoration of your physical location facilitate engagement with your value story? Or, is your environment, like so many I see today both personally and professionally, a hollow exercise in decoration that trumps style over the substance of the experience you offer? Now more than ever, you have to give your guests something different, something authentic, and an experience they’ll want to share with others. I reminded them it’s amazing how far people will travel to experience something they haven’t before. In essence, what was their “big ball of twine” experience, and did their design act as a catalyst for guests to REALLY engage with their story?

The following is the shorthand of my presentation to the WBBA, that I believe has an application not only for other businesses looking to engage customers, but also for anyone interested in creating authentic interiors with a mix of both substance and style.


Start by documenting YOUR original story: Rule #1-Don’t assume people already know it…or remember it.

  • Do your homework. Dig up your history! The people, places and significant events or milestones that have shaped your establishments unique journey.
  • No history? Newer establishment? Then tell the story of WHO you are and WHY you opened it. Sometimes that story is best one to tell.
  • Grab everything you can find, photos, letters from guests, reviews, awards and articles. Do your research and get personal. Authenticity is often times the emotional currency that buys someone’s attention.
  • Recipes and remembrances count…write it, photograph it, and keep it. You never know when you might want to use those items to create an experience.

Borrow stories you love!: Rule #2-Let the story of your Region or Area help build your value:

  • Again, do your research. Tell the guests the people, places and significant events that may have happened in or near your establishment. Local history offers an inherently personal and original experience.
  • Maps are awesome. Both functionally and visually. Orient your guests! Encourage them to explore.
  • Your staff needs to know the stories. Take the time to teach and train. Lack of knowledge of the inn and the area…equals a lack of interest in the mind of the customer.

Display: Best practice example-The Wickwood Inn: Saugatuck, MI (https://wickwoodinn.com)

  • All of that great documentation can be turned into engaging artwork that helps the customer connect! Themes, legacy walls, weird collections…ALL of it matters.
  • Think cohesive and curated. Framing and professional presentation is so important. A cohesive, well-crafted visual tells people they’re some place special.
  • There’s a reason why museum displays look the way they do. Curate! Pay attention to detail, and make it easy for the customer comprehend your story. True hospitality means your guests shouldn’t have to work for it.

Develop the relationship: Be mindful that every guest, every event and every micro-interaction with your staff is an opportunity to reinforce your story.

  • Invite your guests to become a part of your history and continuing story. This is where social media posts, offering to take your guests picture, and a digital guest book are so important. These are automatic and easy opportunities to engage!
  • Start your own, or promote tradition(s) that are unique to your inn and your area. When people travel they’re more apt to try new things. And most everyone enjoys an interesting tradition. Do you have a signature “When in Rome do as the Romans” experience or tradition?
  • Ask for feedback on something more than a card or email. Think of customer feedback as a double sided coin. The information on both sides can make you more profitable. Yes, tell us what we’re missing? But also ask them to share one of their favorite moments. “Hope you enjoyed your stay.” Or “ Thank you for staying with us.” Is not a personal goodbye.
  • Digital mailing lists and personal data, are the new currency of marketing. And small businesses can no longer rely on just their own charm, or the charm of their town to carry them to success. People forget. You need to remind them why you’re relevant…and that their next great experience is waiting for them.

I guess in a way, our homes are our own versions of a bed & breakfast. Both should be designed to inspire excitement and relaxation simultaneously. And in this Season on Giving…what kinds of stories is your interior offering? At The Design Coach…we can actually show you our big ball of twine. So gather up and display your special stories, and before your know it…you’ll be spinning them into an experiences people will never forget.