Just 18 months ago hoteliers agonized over whether to start a Facebook page or wait out the passing social-media fad while investing in traditional marketing efforts, recalls Alicia Whalen, principal at A Couple of Chicks Digital Tourism Marketing, based in Mississauga, Ont. Times have changed. “It’s not whether you participate anymore; it’s how you find the resources and do it well,” says the marketing expert. “[Social media] is a living, breathing part of your digital footprint.”

It’s an essential business tool for marketing, customer relationship management and quality assurance. And, that makes sense, says Dorothy Dowling, SVP of Marketing and Sales at Best Western International. “People telling stories about their travel experiences has always been part of hotels. And, travel is a big part of what they talk to their social network about.”

For the Wyndham Hotel Group, the social-media experience has been “very much a moving target,” says Heny Gabay, VP of Marketing and Strategy. The company dove into social computing in 2010 with its Super 8 brand. At the time, it was all about having a Facebook page so that young people — who were ostensibly consuming the new media — could ‘like’ them. Today, Super 8 uses the channel to engage a vast customer base with promotions aimed at its target audience. Its year-long Country-Music-Prize-You-Can’t-Buy sweepstakes — where Super 8 partners with country musicians to offer prizes such as lunch or backstage tours with the singer — is a fan favourite, generating comments and sharing across the web.

Still, “it’s the wild west out there,” admits Whalen. To her, the challenge is the influx of social media as consumers use more channels. The variety of places in which we consume our media today means it’s not just about websites and search engines anymore. We spend our time toggling among Pinterest, TripAdvisor, Facebook and Twitter, among other social-media sites, lingering in those arenas that speak to us the loudest. It’s why hotel operators should adopt a best practice for ensuring the content and the means to engage their target audience across multiple mediums and communities is in place.

Facebook is the predominantly adapted social platform being used in hospitality. Ideally, hotel operators treat their Facebook pages as mini websites that serve as extensions to their web presence, with tab sections that include calls to action, compelling creative, spot-on messaging and more. “[It’s] a blanket must-do,” advises Whalen. “Facebook is the most highly adapted.” However, many hotel operators take a risk by focusing on Facebook exclusively. It’s just as important to interact with customers on Twitter, Pinterest or anywhere else they are spending time. Case in point: there are examples of wedding-focused hotels successfully communicating with brides on Pinterest.

Either way, hotel companies need to choose which social-media channel to use based on the audience in question. Just as with any other marketing vehicle, it’s important to define your target audience and go where they go. As a brand, Travelodge Canada talks to travelling sports teams, given that much of its clientele is itinerant baseball leagues and hockey squads. And, so the brand execs built a Facebook platform that’s tied into the Ontario Hockey League. Whalen confirms that introducing a dialogue is a great way to use brand elements to speak to your target audience in social-media channels and create the desired tone.

Fair enough. But managing multiple channels means the hotelier has to be involved in every digital juncture to listen, respond and engage. So, suddenly the marketing department has to expand its portfolio, provided it has the strategic talents to sustain the ongoing digital conversation. “We constantly have to re-allocate our resources to what is most effective,” says Wyndham’s Gabay. “And this re-allocation is going to have to happen more and more often.”

It creates uncertainty, but hotel teams such as the one at the Hilton Whistler Resort & Spa have successfully integrated social into an overall web presence, working to brand standards while establishing a property-specific personality on Facebook and Twitter. “It allows us to branch out and connect with a very active, youthful clientele who wouldn’t necessarily think of Hilton first when planning their mountain-biking or snowboarding [vacations],” says Tara Colpitts, director
of Sales and Marketing. Hilton Whistler partnered with on-site mountain bike and ski-rental shop Summit Sports to reach the mountain-biking community through Facebook, Twitter and Summit’s blog, Pinkbike.com. Biking enthusiasts were invited to submit a video explaining why they deserved to win a mountain-biking trip to Whistler to the hotel’s Facebook page. “All of a sudden, we’re part of different mountain-biking communities. That’s the biggest benefit of using social media,” says Colpitts. Meanwhile, the independently run Drake hotel in Toronto, which attracts a young hipster crowd, is building an abundance of digital goodwill with its target audience, successfully incorporating multiple communities within Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram. “[Twitter] is probably our most powerful social-media platform,” says Shannon Elizabeth Murphy, the Drake’s content and community specialist. With more than 40,000 followers, the Drake uses this channel to demonstrate its cultural awareness. So, whether that’s sharing information about a hotel event or celebrating an art show opening in Brussels, so long as the material is “on brand,” it’s fodder for culturally relevant tweets. One recent tweet read: “The end of plain plane food? Find out which NYC restaurateur has plans to elevate your in-flight eats.” It was posted with a link to a magazine article on the subject.

Above the din of social media, there are many ownership groups and stakeholders questioning its “ROI.” They should save their breath, says Whalen. “You have no choice but to communicate with your guests in the medium they want to communicate.” She adds: What’s the ROI of picking up the phone?

Whalen believes the success of social-media channels should be a measure of the traffic they generate and the engagement that follows (the number of retweets, for example or the knowledge gleaned from Facebook Insights about how content resonates with target clients). “It’s not just about having people like you,” Whalen intones. “The number-1 goal is always the transaction.”

With that in mind, social-media experts are beginning to facilitate transactions with the development of various deal-closing tools, including booking widgets, which hotel operators can import through TripAdvisor to Facebook pages and websites.

Like it or not, the profusion of consumer-powered review websites are undeniable components of the social landscape. And, while the prevailing hotelier opinion about them has historically been less than favourable, the tides may be changing. Recent studies suggest that higher scores on sites such as Expedia and TripAdvisor translate into increased revenues. For example, a 2012 analysis by the Center for Hospitality Research at Cornell University in New York reveals that every one-per-cent bump in a hotel’s online reputation score translates to a 0.54-per-cent occupancy bump that can lead to a 1.42-per-cent increase in revenue per available room.

Super 8 has posted TripAdvisor reviews on its website for a year-and-a-half. “If someone leaves your website, the likelihood that they’ll book decreases,” explains Wyndham’s Gabay. “So, if we can have them stay, but still have access to reviews that are useful for them booking travel, we will do that.”

Mobile was likely the biggest game-changer in 2012. And, Framingham, Mass.-based IDC, a global market intelligence firm, suggests that by 2015 more people will access the Internet via mobile devices than through desktop computers. So, “hotels have to be sure they’re part of the conversation,” says Whalen.

Dowling agrees. At Best Western, the marketing team immediately considers what material best suits a particular mode of communication, rather than repurposing content designed for other forums. This summer, the hotel held a promotion in partnership with Disney’s Teen Beach Movie. It featured extensions across Disney’s paid and earned media to engage travellers, and the company added a mobile dimension via Aurasma, an augmented reality platform that blends the real world with videos and animation. It meant fans could download the Best Western app on their mobile devices and take a picture that gave the impression that they were hanging with a celebrity from the film.

“Most hotel firms have an app now — the first foray into a mobile-enabled website,” says Wyndham’sGabay. “But, I don’t think it would be a huge leap for hotel companies to use mobile as one of their primary sources of revenue once the consumer habits get [there].”

Video, propelled by the mobile revolution, is set to be the next big thing in the social media. “People are reading less content online,” says Whalen. “We want more sound bites and images and video.” Gabay continues: “To prepare for that, we need to start working more with video assets. And, we’re not just talking about banners and ads but video assets that we can utilize more effectively across platforms.”

Experts agree social media will be the marketing norm in a year or two. In fact, a hotel’s electronic presence will be a highly integrated identity in which these discreet channels will be seamlessly folded.


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