Romancing ordinary people into extraordinary advocates through live events with James Kinney Live

In this interview, James Kinney – founder of James Kinney Live – shares how hotels can improve their content strategy and increase social currency through music and live events.

Josiah: Your marketing materials say you created James Kinney Live to “create intimate experiences that successfully communicate the culture and feel of a particular brand.” What does this mean?

James: What I see from a macro standpoint is that brands – if they have a million dollars to spend on marketing, advertising, external communicates – say, “OK. Let’s throw half of it at Google and half at Facebook, and maybe we’ll spend a little bit on mass media i.e. TV, billboards, radio, etc.” But what I’ve found through my research is that people really don’t want to be spoken to that way. People want to be wooed. People want to be romanced by a brand. When that happens, you turn ordinary people into extraordinary advocates.

You can use a shotgun approach out to a million people, but your ROI or your ROE – return on engagement – may only be one to five percent. However, if you make 50,000 true believers, those 50,000 people tell 50,0000 people, and then you’re in a whole new ball-game.

Josiah: Your tag line is “Increasing social currency through music.” What role does music – especially live music and live music events – play in creating these unique brand experiences?

James: Music, as you know, is one of the most powerful mediums that we have in the world, and live music, specifically; there’s a human interaction that exists within live music that is in no other form.

Since we started the Forty Four Live Music Series for Morgans Hotel Group – literally Josiah, every night – we see brand engagement at its finest. We see everything from small children on vacation with their families to businessmen in their 50s and 60s staying an hour or two extra at the Royalton.

Josiah: Do hotels have a unique opportunity to host live music events?

James: Absolutely. Hospitality companies are in an extraordinary position because real estate is king and most established hotel brands have real estate throughout the world. And when you look at the state of the music industry as a whole, it’s lost about half of its revenue. So a lot of amazing talent is looking for a way to market, generate income and gain new fans.

Hotels have an extraordinary opportunity to become mavens of culture, which increases their brand impressions and their bottom line. In the case of the Forty Four Music Series that we have at the Royalton… we’ve had Grammy Award nominees, Grammy Award winners – literally the best in New York City – play right in the lobby of the Royalton and people absolutely have that WOW factor, like, “Wow, I never expected this to be here.” We’ve seen an increase in sales and in their social media and digital assets as well, because the artists are tweeting about the property.

Josiah: How do you match music genres to hotel brands?

James: My content strategy is to first meet with the Director of food and beverage and the Director of nightlife to get a sense of what they think that their brand is and how they want it to be communicated. Then it goes into everything from the cocktails on the menu to the food that’s served, to the actual ambiance of the room.

For example, I know that in Midtown Manhattan, the demographic is very different than it is at Mondrian Soho or at Hudson. The music I program at Royalton is based on how the room feels to me; for instance, if you’re drinking a sazerac or a scotch, that is much more conducive to a warm jazz or soul sound than rock and roll.

Josiah: I get the impression that this is a very holistic experience that’s more than just a marketing play.

James: Oh, absolutely. It has to be; a lot of marketers don’t give people enough credit these days. We’re constantly bombarded with advertising and marketing and what we specialize in is creating an authentic experience. I put myself in the place of some guy who’s been flying for eight hours, just got off the plane, just walked into the hotel, and perhaps his room is not ready and he has to sit in the lobby. What kind of experience is he having at that point?

We try to appease all five senses when a guest walks in. If you can hit at least three of the five, they’re more apt to tell 10 people – or Yelp – about a positive experience.

Regarding food and beverage, we’re there to increase sales. At the Royalton, David Sewell is the Director of food and beverage; we meet weekly to make sure we’re not only increasing food and beverage, but rev par as well. So it is a holistic experience, yes.

Josiah: What steps do hotels have to think through as they’re working with you to launch a series of events?

James: At the project’s inception, I would meet with the President down to the Director of food and beverage. On the marketing side – the CMO of the company down to the Director of Marketing, as well as the hotel’s operational and engineering people.

I want to know from them, “What’s the problem? What are you trying to accomplish here? Are you just trying to put on word class entertainment that people talk about? Are you trying to sell more margaritas between the hours of 5:00 and 8:00? Are you trying to sell more brunch items on Sunday from 10am to 4pm?” Once I identify the problem and what exactly they need moving forward, I design a program that tackles that, specifically.

Josiah: Give us an example. Could you tell us a little bit more about your work with the Morgans Hotel Group?

James: Since November 16th of last year, we have had Sasha Dobson, who did a South American tour with Nora Jones. We’ve had Cedric the Entertainer – one of the largest comedians in the world. We’ve had K.J. Rose, who was on BET’s Music Matters. We’ve had Raphael Saadiq – a multi Grammy award winner who just played with Mick Jagger at the Grammys. This week, we have Jerome Bell, who’s Top 40 on American Idol this season.

On the nights that we program entertainment, we’ve seen a 14 percent increase in sales. In addition to that, our Twitter numbers for @RoyaltonNYC are up 308 percent since we began.

Josiah: A live event almost seems like optimal environment for some social media activity to take place, right?

James: You are absolutely right. Content is key, and there’s this big thing around social media where people go, “Oh, if I tweet that ‘you get 25 percent off of your next drink,’ then I’m going to have a herd of people coming over to my hotel.” As you and I know, that’s not the case. Whether you’re doing music or a movie screening or live dancers or whatever you’re doing, the content itself is how you communicate the property’s brand.

We have so many artists that are on the verge and that are famous coming to the property; when they’re tweeting and they’re taking pictures — “Oh, we’re at Royalton NYC at Morgan’s Hotel,” we’ve automatically increased their content strategy and their social currency and, specifically, their digital assets; all these things are very real in the digital world that we live in. But saying that you have a special on pancakes just doesn’t work anymore.

Josiah: No, absolutely not. Is there anything else you’d like to discuss?

James: I’ll just say, it’s a very exciting time right now for hospitality brands; there’s this whole celebrity culture. Look at how the chef world has just blown; the hospitality world and hotels are an extension of that. The brands are quasi-celebrities in their own right. It’s not just a place to stay anymore. It’s a place to do a movie premiere from Sharon Stone. It’s a place to do a concert from John Mayer, and it’s a place to launch a new chef menu from Bobby Flay.

If I had anything to say to hotel brands out there it’s, “Take advantage of this exciting opportunity to be the creators of content.”

Josiah: How can our readers contact you?

James: Anyone interested in branding their properties and making more money should give us a call; they can reach my cellphone 24 hours, seven days a week (817-675-3122), or they can email me at

Thanks very much, James!

[Click Here to Download the Full Interview PDF]

(And a big thank you to Katie and Alex for turning a Skype conversation into this story!)

4 thoughts on “Romancing ordinary people into extraordinary advocates through live events with James Kinney Live

  1. Hi Josiah and Katie.

    This was truly a fascinating article to read. I really love this out of the box thinking that encourage new ways to engage with the hotel consumer.

    This makes the hotel brand more personal and fun.

    Great interview :)

    Cheers.. Are

    • Thanks so much, Are…

      “Engaging… personal and fun.” – Exactly what we’re going for around here; always happy to hear these case studies and interviews are resonating with our favorite industry leaders.

      Hope you have a fantastic week, my friend!

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