Marketing your hotel on the web? Make sure you’ve got a plan 

Most major hospitality companies, hotel properties and resort destinations have had an online presence for at least a decade, so with e-marketing licked, it’s time to move on to the next challenge, right? Maybe not. With big changes like interactivity and Web 2.0 coming, some hotels have yet to master Web 1.0. In fact, many marketing experts are shocked by the number of companies still pushing clunky, poorly crafted e-initiatives.

“It is horrifying what we see out there,” says Patricia Brusha, co-founder of A Couple of Chicks e-Marketing, which specializes in hospitality and tourism. Pet peeves that especially irk Brusha and her partner, Chicks co-founder Alicia Whalen, include sites lacking the title tags that attract search engines, hard-to-find phone numbers, and video interludes that leave consumers twiddling their thumbs instead of clicking with them.

“People use hospitality websites for foraging. They’re trying to accomplish something — find a phone number, gather information,” says Whalen. “When you force users to listen to music and watch pretty images, you’re stopping [that] process and frustrating them.” People interact differently with a website than with traditional media, say the Mississauga, Ont.-based Chicks, and by forcing the user down a set path you’re telling them how to use your site and often sending them on an unwanted detour.

“The first step is to understand the point of a web presence,” says Whalen. “Is it to book rooms? Generate phone calls?” Basically, before you build the thing, you’ve got to identify concrete goals. Brusha even suggests having “WebMax” brainstorming sessions, the same way properties already have RevMax meetings. And invite everyone — sales, marketing, operations and revenue need to be just as involved as technical people and the creative agency.

One example of a highly focused web presence is “Disney’s Passport to Dreams” (, which launched in early November. Intended to clarify passport requirements for Canadian travellers, it also links to general resort info and online booking applications. “We did a printed version last year, [but] if any of the requirements change you’re stuck with it,” says Marlie Morrison, Toronto-based director, Marketing & Sales for Disney Parks (Canada). “Online we’re able to react much quicker and stay up to date. It’s also a lot more interactive.”

The site was created in response to a Disney-commissioned survey that found Canadians were still confused about new requirements for travel. The survey was in turn reported on by the media, driving traffic to the site. Disney also attracted eyeballs by offering free passport photos at CAA locations to the first 10,000 visitors to print out a coupon, and a Canadians-only vacation contest.

Although she wouldn’t divulge exact figures, Morrison says she’s pleased with the number of hits and, ultimately, resort bookings the passport site has attracted, and it’s a bellwether of things to come. “A majority of our spending is still print, TV and radio, but online — especially this year — is becoming more prominent,” she says, particularly at the expense of print.

Using a website to react to changing market conditions highlights another key point Whalen makes about a property or chain’s web presence. “It can’t be an online brochure,” she says. “Your web presence is a living, breathing, eating machine. It needs to be constantly fed — and not with the latest technology, but the basics.”

As marketing and communications manager at W Hotel in Montreal, Sabine Kadyss is responsible for feeding the online beast weekly, if not more often. As a Starwood chain, the overall W brand and website architecture are managed at head office in New York. However, each hotel promotes itself in the local market and manages its own property-specific pages. “I have a reduced budget in print advertising, so it’s a huge tool for us,” says Kadyss, whose local page promotes everything from packages to new menus to seasonal hours at the spa. “I’m careful about having an updated and accurate site, including taking down older offers,” she says. “There are certain changes that I have to send to our head office — resizing photos and so on. But I’m trained to manage the special offers in French and English — that’s my baby.”

Kadyss also says W conducted focus groups on the site, and ended up tweaking some applications. “You have to check how it lands with people,” she says. “Even though our guests want a lot of information, they don’t want to click 55 times to book a room. It has to be easy, and in the end it has to generate revenue.”  

Although some companies still aren’t exploiting the full e-marketing potential of their websites, at least they understand the medium and recognize its importance. But technology being technology, there’s a whole new online world coming: Web 2.0. And like always, your kids and youngest employees understand it, but marketers are still trying to figure out. Not exactly a technological upgrade, Web 2.0 actually refers to the perceived second generation of web-based communities and hosted services — blogs, wikis, podcasts, and social media like Facebook — where the common thread is simply that users can both upload and download content.

“Social media are, once again, changing the way people communicate through online channels,” says Whalen. “Within the next few years there will be no stand-alone static websites — consumers will expect some sort of interactive features. That’s why we talk about ‘web presence’ — something beyond the site.”

Dr. David Martin, Director of the Ted Rogers School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at Ryerson University in Toronto says, “All of this is moving very quickly and we’re just starting to talk about Web 2.0 in marketing classes.” In fact, he says the first case studies are just being written now. But based on these early days, Martin says, “Web 2.0 has become a platform for a lot of people to do things fairly inexpensively. Initially it’s going to be an advantage to the smaller chains or the one-off restaurants and hotels, but even the big chains are seeing it as a way of getting traffic to their site.”

Of these social media, blogs (short for “web log,” essentially an online journal) have been around longest and display the most marketing potential. If you’re not ready to host a guest blog on your own site, you can still advertise on other blogs, many of which appeal to attractive niche audiences. For example, Disney Parks’ Morrison says their research suggests moms typically do most of a family’s vacation planning, so they’re looking at sites where moms connect. “Right now we’re sponsoring a blog on (family-oriented site) Kaboose. But it’s their blog — by no means are we adding anything to it.”

Blogs have been successful partly because they mimic word-of-mouth recommendations. Satisfied customers can get the word out everywhere instantly, but what about the dreaded bad review or anemic score on TripAdvisor? “There’s no way to control social media, and coming from an on-premises background, I understand how it’s a thorn in so many hotelier’s sides,” says Brusha. “But don’t try to control the conversation — join in with them. Think of it as a consumer test group — a way to look at and react to actual users of your product. So many people are afraid, but whether you put something on your site to encourage user-generated content or not, they’re going to talk about you anyway.”

While keeping up with this stuff can feel like shoveling back the ocean, remember it’s a new world, and it will take time to sort out what works. After all, it was a good few centuries after Gutenberg before anyone got the hang of print advertising, and even without the misogyny and smoking, the first decade of TV ads were laughably crude. “We advise people to take it in bite-sized pieces,” says Brusha. “You can test the waters without moving from a static one-dimensional site to a totally interactive social media platform. You can start with a blog. You can add the photo-sharing application Flickr. Don’t feel like you have to take on the whole 2.0 world at once.”                          


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