Getting the message in the age of social media

That sentence is 113 characters long. An experienced tweeter (one who uses the social networking site Twitter) could go on eviscerating your hotel for another 27 characters if they so chose. But at 113 — or even less depending on the length of your property’s name — the damage is done. Such is the new reality for hotels operating under the constant glare of the ‘twitterazzi’, a fickle set of web-savvy travellers who, with the stroke of a button can publish comments, flippant or otherwise, for a worldwide audience.

It used to be that newfangled technological innovations on ‘the interwebs’ could be dismissed by the hospitality industry’s old guard as something the kids are into these days, but, thankfully, of  little consequence or resonance with grown-ups or customers. However, with the worldwide explosion of mobile social media like the aforementioned Twitter, Facebook, TripAdvisor, YouTube and others just waiting for their respective tipping points, the web has fundamentally changed how customers interact with the industry. In short, they’re not just getting information about your property or your brand from the marketing mavens at corporate HQ, but from their friends, acquaintances and fellow travellers across the globe.

“There are several distinct stages people go through in terms of their contact with a property,” starts D’Arcy McKittrick, partner with Toronto-based The Tourism Company, a management consultancy firm. “At first, they are a searcher; then they become a prospect, followed by a customer and, if everything goes well, they finally become a fan. Social networking has the biggest impact on that final fan level. If your customer has a fantastic experience, they can broadcast it to a huge network.”

And broadcast they do. From tweets and Facebook comments, to full-blown travel blogs or image and video-rich content on TripAdvisor and YouTube, the industry is now looking at word-of-mouth, version 2.0.

“I like to think of it as word of mouth on steroids,” says Mike Taylor, manager of Public Relations for Fairmont Hotels, a company that has a significant presence in the social media arena. While the image of a twentysomething twittering away in the stately lobby of the Banff Springs hotel may seem like a jarring juxtaposition, Taylor says that view of the brand is antiquated. Fairmont saw little choice but to join the social media fray. “Our market research shows that our core customer is male, mid-30s to mid-40s, so to be getting involved in social media, we’re really not skewing too far from that age bracket. Nevertheless, as a heritage brand, the proof was in the pudding. Once you get involved with social media, you find out just how many of your customers are already there — and already talking about you,” he says.

Being a part of the scene, because your customers are already there is a big reason why Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts has placed such significance on social media moving forward, says Cherry Kam, director of Interactive Media for the Toronto-based company. “Social media is very important because it touches on everything from marketing to corporate communications to customer service,” she says. “It’s a new way of looking at how we interact with guests.” According to Kam, her involvement with the nebulous world of Facebook and Twitter was not so much a choice as it was a necessary reaction for a company that seeks to forge stronger bonds with its customer base. “Our commitment is to build a deeper connection with our guests,” she adds. “If this is the way they want to connect with us, or about us, we’ll just be there for them.”

While ‘Being There’ may have earned comic legend Peter Sellers a golden globe and an Oscar nomination in 1979, in today’s online world, insiders say that simply opening up shop in some form of social media isn’t nearly enough. The medium demands almost constant activity and a sense of authenticity.

“First and foremost, you must be engaged, or you’ll quickly get lost in the shuffle,” says Taylor, particularly when wading into the constant, often raging stream of Twitter messages. “If you’re just posting something sporadically, it will be down and off the screen before anyone has a chance to see it. You can’t make an impact on Twitter as a casual user.”

Staying doggedly on the ball isn’t just important within the offhanded 140-character-or-less world of Twitter; it transfers to almost all forms of social media as well. McKittrick says if you’re not monitoring these avenues of customer-to-customer communication, you’re simply going to miss the opportunity to impress. “If hoteliers are prepared and active, they can pick up on and get involved in that conversation.” In fact, McKittrick says it may even lead to a ‘Holy Grail scenario’ — where an operator can actually help solve a problem for a ticked-off tweeter, and solve it via their media of choice. “You have the opportunity to change the conversation,” he says. “It’s a chance to go above and beyond and exceed your customer’s expectations. But it has to be timely. Social media demands immediate responses.”

The immediacy factor can place a great deal of strain on a hotelier (or hotel company) who is likely busy enough, before having to monitor a tweet deck or their fan page, thank you very much. But there are some reasonably low input, low cost methods to turn to. “The good news is there are tools and companies out there to help,” says McKittrick.  For more advanced and in-depth analysis, a specialized provider might be required, but in terms of getting started, he says something as simple as setting up a well-articulated Google Alert system is an immediate leg-up. “Google Alerts can be used to search for your property’s mentions online, even through Twitter feeds. It’s an easy, low-tech option,” he says. “You have to be careful with what terms you want to search for [so your inbox doesn’t get flooded] but that’s a way to get started.”

In terms of jumping in, new social media devotee, Anthony Annunziata, vice-president, Marketing and Development, at the recently expanded Hilton Hotel & Suites Niagara Falls/Fallsview, says the learning curve was tricky. “We realized a while ago that the way people want to book and research travel is evolving, and social media was emerging as the champion, particularly on the validation front,” he starts. “I found it difficult at first. There was no playbook to follow and no template to work from. But we’re learning and finding it quite effective,” he says.

Being as effective as possible within the social media sphere is certainly an attainable goal, but most experts believe there’s a culture that needs to be understood. First, you have to think of social media users as the Holden Caulfields of the online world. And, much like The Catcher In The Rye’s infamous protagonist, they’ll spot phonies a mile away. “There is no sense in going on [Twitter or Facebook] and just punching out your marketing messages, because people are going to see through that pretty quickly,” says Fairmont’s Taylor. “It’s got to be about more than that. Initially, the best thing to do is to just listen. Go in and see what people are saying; study how they post and only get involved once you’ve seen how others communicate on the platform. We didn’t post anything for about the first three weeks.”

Now that Fairmont is an active user, Taylor says his company uses the platforms to promote certain aspects of its hotels and surrounding areas, but also to garner feedback from other users. For example, he says a Twitter travel package was developed that asked users to choose the activities or amenities they wanted included in a bundle; at the end of the month, the top choices became an advertised travel package to Whistler. “It’s great to ask open-ended questions or encourage user feedback,” he says. “You just have to be genuine and authentic.”

Twitter-based marketing is simple to deploy, it’s incredibly quick-moving and, when it’s done right, and the initial message is adopted and ‘re-tweeted’ by highly connected and influential users, its reach can multiply infinitely. Best of all, it’s free.

Annunziata says most of his Twitter and Facebook activity is centered on promoting events in the area, as opposed to just advertising special rates at the hotel. “It would be disingenuous to just talk about the hotel. You have to use that forum to talk about what’s relevant to the user,” he says. And, in terms of finding that all-important online etiquette, the solution is simple. “It’s about honesty. If you’re not being honest, it probably gets out quickly, and people realize it’s not genuine.”

Positive or negative, comments, photos and videos posted online by a new generation of discerning traveller is fundamentally changing the way those in the hospitality business communicate with their guests. The conversation is already going on around and about you — all you have to do is join in. Plus, with the relentless introduction of new technologies like the iPad and other advanced handheld devices, access to social media on the fly, with the ability to bombard those sites with increasingly sophisticated content, can only compound the issue for hoteliers caught on the sidelines. But confident managers like Annunziata say that exceptional properties have nothing to fear from Facebook fans or the Twitter set. However, that poise comes with one important warning. “With the popularity of Facebook and Twitter, you cannot afford to deliver to a level that is not up to the customer’s expectations. If you do, these forums will call you out in a hurry.”


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