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From Stone Age to the Dot Com Era Transforming an Industry
Vimali Swamy
Wednesday, September 5, 2012
This is a story about how a vision is evolving the hospitality segment and enabling hotels and resorts worldwide to capitalize on the internet phenomenon and the growth in consumers booking more rooms online. On the heels of their latest internet marketing achievement, the 2012 Award of Excellence for the Velas Resort's wedding website, we share the journey, dreams, and virtual reality of Milestone Internet Marketing, Inc.

Velas Resorts is a group of four luxury resorts in Mexico. Each resort is a tranquil tropical oasis that combines distinctive services with a romantic coastal atmosphere. The Velas Resort Group sought Milestone’s assistance in creating an online strategy to further maximize the group's wedding revenue with the use of online technologies and an innovative marketing plan. Milestone’s holistic online marketing approach included development of a luxury weddings website optimizing all channels available on the Internet and running a "dream wedding" social media contests resulting in phenomenal increase in wedding revenue for the luxury group. Velas Resorts Group saw a phenomenal impact on all the weddings related online properties. Velas Weddings had 6,733 new Facebook "Likes" and 700 new Twitter followers. Website and blog generated nearly 17,000 additional page views and the sites generated several millions of dollars in incremental wedding revenue in the very first year. This story is not unique, the team at Milestone replicate this story all day long across multiple hotels and resorts around the world.

The Santa Clara, California headquartered Milestone Internet Marketing specializes in cutting-edge digital marketing solutions and software since 1998. Since its founding, the company has had a deep engagement with over 1500 hotels, resorts, and businesses to enhance online presence on websites and social media channels, and drive online revenue and profitability.

From the leading lodging industry brands and franchises to some of the largest management groups worldwide, Milestone has emerged as a preferred Internet marketing vendor for the hospitality industry. With its proven Internet marketing solutions, the firm drives revenue and income for its clients and a significant return on their investment, currently amounting to over $500 million.

The Genesis

Milestone Internet Marketing is the brainchild of Benu Aggarwal, a veteran in the hospitality industry with extensive experience as director of sales, general manager, and sales and marketing educator for the lodging industry. Back in 1998, when the Internet sector was at its peak, she realized there was very little that the hospitality industry did to harness its power for business development. With her vast experience in hospitality management and armed with her MBA in Marketing, and extensive knowledge in Search Engine Optimization (SEO), Benu decided that this was an area she could help hotels capitalize on. Initially, the company began as a home-based business with Benu working as a consultant. By 2005, the company became a full service company when her husband, Anil Aggarwal, joined her. "I had just exited my startup, Zeevo, a wireless connectivity solution provider, which was sold to Broadcom. One afternoon when I returned home after work, I saw that Benu was having a meeting with about 20 executives - potential clients of hers. For every dollar they spent, Benu was delivering a return of $47. I realized there was a lot of potential in what she was doing and decided to join her," says Anil.

From Startup to Small Enterprise – The growth

The couple was quite a combination. Benu tapped into her vast experience and knowledge of the hospitality industry, and Anil brought his forward-thinking technology expertise. But this was not enough! Coming from the semiconductor industry, Anil had to start by first understanding the basics of the hotel industry. Despite his belief in the idea of the company, he still had doubts about the scale to which the company could grow in the hospitality industry, which for him was comparatively a small sector. There was also the idea of husband and wife working together, which almost all of their friends and peers had advised against.

Benu and Anil decided to tread slowly with careful planning. The first 14 months were challenging. They began with putting their combined knowledge on paper. There were days when endless sales calls would sum up to nothing. To make matters worse, they had taken massive pay cut as a family. For the first 6 months, things were looking bleak. "At that moment, I almost felt that it was the worst decision we have taken -giving up a very lucrative career in the semiconductor industry and trying to scale something that I had no experience in," reminisces Anil. But their perseverance paid off. Slowly and steadily, by the end of second year, the company achieved their gargantuan and almost unachievable target of one million in revenue.

Transforming the Hospitality Business

When the dynamic duo began actively engaging with potential clients, they realized that mostly everyone focused on offline marketing. Most hoteliers were leery of investing significant money in the new medium called "Internet," and how doubted how Internet could be used as a powerful business development and marketing tool. The few who did understand the coming of the internet age managed to have their hotel's website up, but because they didn’t understand the importance and need of search optimization, Milestone missed closing a huge amount of leads. "The challenge we faced was how to convince hoteliers to invest in online marketing when the need for search engine optimization for driving traffic to the website was not widely recognized," says Benu.

After convincing several existing clients to invest in eCommerce, search optimization, and internet marketing, Milestone began to see that increasing amount of their clients' revenue was starting to come from online marketing channels. This became the turning point, when the couple decided to target new clientele.

By 2007, they began to aggressively target new clients, however, there were several challenges that they faced:

• How to educate hoteliers on the importance of internet marketing to grow their business
• How to build Milestone's credibility
• How to earn the trust of hoteliers
• How to convince leads that Milestone can do internet marketing better than the competitors

To tackle these challenges, Benu and Anil decided to co-author an Internet Marketing guidebook titled, "Hotels to HTML" with an intention of educating hotel management about the value of the Internet. To promote it, they conducted seminars for several hotel management groups and associations based on the book. Over a period of time they realized that they had made a huge contribution to the hotel industry in many tangible ways. "We were able to define and recreate the products and price points where limited service segments could do online marketing. We also trained their management on digital ads and marketing," says Anil.

The biggest part of SEO was creating relevant content for the clients. The only way to attract customers to a hotel website was if the content matched their general search. "If I am a sales person, I would be focusing on selling to wedding planners, meeting planners, local event planners, and others, but when I am selling online, I would have to create valuable content related to weddings or meetings or sports and such things in order to capture these markets," Benu states. "Most online marketing service providers focused on creating electronic brochures, but we knew that this was not what customers look for when they come to your city. They are looking for things to do, places to host an event, weddings and more," she concludes.

So this required a dedicated content writing team; unfortunately, Milestone could not afford any full-time employees at that time. Therefore, they hired freelancers who could help them write content. Benu remembers a hotel in Oakland that connected with Milestone for online marketing. "With the Oakland Raiders being a huge generator of traffic to the city, search results showed high demand for the local town team. It may have sounded bizarre for a hotel to write content about a football team, but we decided to move forward with this. We found a die-hard Oakland Raiders fan who was willing to write really good content about the team, which was otherwise not available anywhere. As a result, during the weekend, the hotel filled their rooms with Oakland Raider fans," she explains. It was an absolutely new vertical that Milestone opened up. All it needed was some creativity, out-of-the-box thinking, and understanding the demands of the market.

The Growth Phase – Building the Client Base and the Team

Remembering one of the earlier client meetings, Anil recalls an anecdote about a sales call with a hotel executive who asked him about his background. When Anil told him that he was from the semiconductor industry, the client teased him that he would give Anil the business if he could tell him what the cost of his laundry was. The client was up for a surprise when Anil rightly told him the price. "Before starting the sales calls I had done a thorough study of the budgets of the hotel. I landed the deal and realized how far a good understanding of the client's business goes to winning business," he explains.

Since 2008, the company has grown at 25 percent each year. Anil and Benu's previous experiences taught them important lessons about running a fiscally conservative company. Interestingly, during the 2009 downturn, which hit the travel industry hard, while most competitors had layoffs, Milestone continued to add more people. In fact, the company took upon the challenge of sour economy and doubled up on the marketing efforts for its clients. Financial discipline came in handy and the company doubled the investment in sales and marketing and sponsorships, whereas all competitors cut back the marketing budgets. Milestone emerged strong from the downturn with impeccable reputation for driving results, which helped it growing significantly and capturing significant market share away from its key competitors. Today, the company has grown its clientele to include six of the top 10 international hotel groups, such as Hyatt, Wyndham, Starwood, and the likes, and six of the top 10 hotel management companies in U.S. What contributed to their success? It is putting in the effort to understand the industry and the client's need before approaching the clients.

Milestone team has grown from a couple of freelancers to over 120 employees in both the U.S. and India. Due to a significant request in programming and software marketing, we have India teams working dedicatedly on software, network, and research programming fields. In the U.S., we do all the product and client services, design, content creation, product management, and social media marketing. One of Milestone's core values is to keep innovating and offer employees opportunities to learn and grow. Milestone invests heavily in training and education of its employees through ongoing training classes, attendance in conferences, and research. Milestone stays ahead of the innovation curve by investing in employee education and encouragement, and actively promoting cross-functional learning through Agile learning methodology.

Vision Ahead

With many years into the business, Milestone has begun to offer more than just search solutions to clients. The company's product and service offerings now include a sophisticated Content Management System and SaaS based Social Media solutions, that has helped the company tap into a significant new customer base and also penetrate customers across other geographies like Mexico, Asia, and EMEA. "We tapped into the social media platform even before people realized its potential," explains Benu. "Part of our vision is to not only enhance our clients' digital presence but also to provide them with software solutions to enhance their interactions with their digital properties. We are enabling customers to create online properties, drive traffic to these, and offer software solutions such as reputation monitoring and social media dashboard to facilitate a holistic digital experience for our clients with their web and social media assets," Anil says. Milestone is now leveraging its solid strategies and cohesive marketing approach into other segments in addition to hospitality.

Benu and Anil have come a long way from the idea they conceptualized years ago. Unlike many dreamers, they put their will and vision into action. They have fulfilled their dreams of creating a self-sustaining company that has transformed an industry. Armed with expertise and success, they now hope to embark on a parallel journey into other industries beyond hospitality. Given their track record, it's a safe bet that they will be successful in any industry.

Testimonials from Happy Customers

Hyatt Hotels and Resorts

"Milestone has proven to be a great partner for Hyatt. They consistently illustrate a very high level knowledge of digital marketing and are always pushing to innovate and create new solutions for their clients in the digital space."

-Tim Burger, Director of eCommerce for Hyatt Hotels and Resorts.

The Heathman Hotel, Portland

"I have worked with Milestone for six years, and they are the clear global leaders in hotel website design, support, social media, and implementation. The Milestone team carefully balances design with the ever changing world of technology, the guest experience, search engine optimization, and hotel revenue channels."

- Chris Erickson, General Manager of The Heathman Hotel in Portland whose hotel featured recently in the bestseller - Fifty Shades of Grey.

Velas Resorts

"Velas Resorts is a 5-star luxury resort group in Mexico. Milestone's digital marketing services and software have enabled Velas Resorts to become one of the most visible online luxury hotel brands in Mexico. Milestone’s solutions are innovative and incorporate the latest trends in search and social media marketing which helps our sites generate significant online revenue."

- Juan Ramon Celis, Director of eCommerce, Velas Resorts

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