Hotel eMarketing and Internet e'volution - Creating an Online Culture at Hotels.
By Jitendra Jain (JJ)
Friday, 21st March 2008
Are you a hotel eMarketer looking for ways to better communicate, educate and develop the role at your property/ies?

This article explores some of the issues surrounding these efforts, complemented by a dose of perspective and a generous helping of best practices, all garnished, hopefully, by your own ideas and experiences.

Finding Meaning:

Wikipedia attributes the word ‘evolution' to the Latin term ‘evolutio' meaning "unfolding". While the tech and Internet revolution have anything but "unfolded" upon us ("exploded" would be more appropriate, given the short span of time over which most Internet-related developments have occurred), there is something to be learnt from the nature of these changes.

Impact and Perspective:

According to the popular statistics site, internetworldstats.com, at the end of 2007, we had 1 in 5 people on the planet already connected to the Internet…and this number is growing fast. While 80% of the world waits to jump onto the bandwagon, the 20% who're already on it are struggling to hold on for dear life. The Internet is to business today what electricity is to industry and good living…without it there would be chaos!

That puts a little perspective on just how reliant we've become on this relatively new platform…but also how much we stand to gain from it in terms of breaking down communication, transaction and education barriers.

And the pace of development and the evolving uses of the Internet have been dizzying to say the least. Marketers…and your average Internet Joe have been forced to constantly re-learn and evolve.

It may be a challenge to stay on top, but the bigger challenge today is to ensure those who are following you can catch up! In the hospitality industry, the rift between tech-savvy users and those who're just sitting up and taking notice of the Internet revolution is even more pronounced.

E-commerce and e-marketing are just starting to make a mark in the industry, much like revenue management did a while ago (revenue management is quite indispensable in hotels these days, despite the slow initial uptake). The level of emphasis and extent of experimentation varies greatly by hotel group and location, but the growing importance, both for generating revenues, lower costs and online visibility, is indisputable.

So the future of e-commerce in the hospitality industry is guaranteed to be a bright one. And the savvy hotel emarketer has a lot to gain, including room to grow, experiment and "wow" (from SEO to SEM, blogging to social networking, there's plenty to keep the eager hotel eMarketer busy experimenting).

But what about those in the industry just climbing on-board, especially employees in hotel operations and those struggling to make sense of the opportunities and challenges presented by the Internet? What can hotel eMarketers do to ensure interest and support at hotels? How do you create a culture of understanding and mutual growth?

The answer is simple…create interest, excitement and buy-in at your hotels. The path to achieving these lofty goals, however, isn't quite so simple. Let's explore some of the issues and opportunities:

Create an online culture!

Culture is defined as ‘the accumulated habits, attitudes, and beliefs of a group of people that define for them their general behavior and way of life; the total set of learned activities of a people.'

The biggest challenge, then, is to change the habits, attitudes and beliefs of your target audience at hotels (not an easy task, by any means).

  • Habits: A recurrent, often unconscious pattern of behavior that is acquired through frequent repetition. Habits at work may involve always having done things a certain way (classic example "I've done this the same way for 20 years…it works…why should I change?") – changing habits may involve patient education, assistance and reminders on the use of new tools, techniques and channels previously unavailable, hopefully till they are accepted. Assistance in understanding and using seemingly ‘complicated' tools and techniques is another step in gaining acceptance among users. This may be obvious, but reminders to use these improved techniques and tools also work their magic in the long run (persistence!).
  • Attitudes: manner of acting, feeling, or thinking that shows one's disposition, opinion, etc. Attitudes are hard to change…but results work! A typical attitude may be thinking that eCommerce is just another fad…or that not much can be achieved by changing the business model and hotel distribution strategies. Attitudes take slow, persistent efforts to change: buy-in from decision makers, communicating progress and delivering results are failsafe approaches to this challenge.
  • Beliefs: Assumptions about what is true or false that can be testable (family preservation works) or not testable (God exists). An example for Hotel eMarketing – ‘Investing in online research, tools and projects is a waste of money'…or ‘our customers have always been loyal and want things to stay the same.' Testable beliefs are easily challenged with making a case for change (with hard facts) and then delivering promised results.
  • Communication: The catalyst for it all. Hotel eMarketers are great at communicating with external audiences…but often forget their hotel peers. Constantly communicating and building internal relationships are the keystones to success, acceptance and synergy.
Here are some real-world strategies we've tried and found effective in the past in creating an online culture (while most can be applied at any property, some applications may vary based on e-commerce emphasis at the hotel/s and resources the eMarketer has at hand):

  • ‘e'ducate: Take Stock! Audit yourself, identify key tasks and projects that must be completed to bridge the gap between where you are as a hotel and where you want to be in terms of eMarketing prowess. Identify teams, cliques & internal communication flow before you start educating internally. Start by creating a basic understanding of the tools, platforms, functions and possibilities associated with the online marketing & distribution / e-commerce role. If you're just breaking into the role at a new property, try to clear any assumptions or misconceptions about channels & the role at an early stage. Make presentations to senior management as well as the Sales & Marketing team and each time a new concept, idea or project is introduced, release an easy-to-understand overview, followed up with a personal explanation. Another successful technique of gaining acceptance and enthusiasm has been to introduce open "e"ducation sessions where various Internet trends, tips, tools and fun elements are covered in addition to business-related eCommerce issues.
  • Obtain buy-in, communicate and report: Ensure that the decision-makers at the property/ies support all significant projects and hotel department heads are involved if issues affect their department in any way. Implement practices for daily, weekly, monthly and quarterly communication to keep things consistent and regular. Identify what frequency works best for you and inform the team about what you're working on and what's coming up! Attend Revenue, Marketing and Management meetings if and when possible to brainstorm and gain perspective. Present an easy-to-understand performance and trend snapshot using web analytics and reporting tools every month. Communicate the same verbally during monthly departmental meetings. If possible, create and distribute a quarterly e-commerce newsletter (something that goes to all hotel employees and gets people involved, with a quiz / competition).
  • Reach all levels: Perhaps the hardest thing to do in hotels is to reach and communicate at most (if not all) levels of the organization. One solution is to create an "eTeam". We pioneered the first hotel eTeam in early 2007, bringing together carefully selected volunteers (vs. nominees) from each hotel department. The selection criteria? Eagerness to learn, a superb attitude and great communication skills. The eTeam spends 40% of its "e" time learning about eCommerce from the resident eCommerce Manager, another 40% fulfilling their roles as departmental ambassadors for eCommerce and 20% on special projects that help the hotel do things better, faster and smarter (using technology or the Internet). The time spent by members on eTeam activities? 10 - 12 hours per month, aside from normal hotel roles. The impact? Huge! Not only does the eTeam get those who want to learn more involved, but it also fosters an atmosphere of sharing, growth and possibility. Here is a recent example of a fun eTeam activity, where members were tasked with creating a movie illustrating how the internet has changed our lives: www.minaeffect.com/internet
  • Go back to basics: Why should an employee who doesn't have access to the Internet and has never used email concern themselves with the opportunities the internet represents for the hotel? Communicating at all levels may be a noble undertaking, but is the ‘message' being received? Maybe its time to step back from the trees and take a look at the forest? We conducted the first ever "eVoice" survey in 2007 to find out just where we stand as a hotel in terms of internet and computer use.
The survey results were then used to create and justify solutions for basic problems. Examples include:

  • Computer Access: if a majority of employees know how to use computers and most access the internet but at a cost, what can be done to offer free or discounted access to these resources? Aim – to promote use of the Internet at the hotel and provide access to learning resources and sites that can be used for guest referral and better job performance.
  • Understanding the role of the internet in the hotel business - making an introduction to eCommerce a part of the hotel induction process for all new hires to start them off on the right foot.
  • At the most basic level, learning what the Internet is and how to send emails to family and friends. We all respond better to information if we have sort of emotional connection or personal meaning system attached to it… basic training can create an emotional link to the Internet so base-level users are more receptive to other "e" news and information that is communicated to them. This base level training also helps them boost their "e" readiness and confidence.
Rinse and repeat. Persist. Enjoy.

You may not accomplish everything you hoped to…or get across to everyone, but each little success and each new person who develops an understanding and excitement for the role is another leap towards overall success…and satisfaction.

All things considered, YOU create culture by contributing to it. And remember that eCommerce / eMarketing is just part of a much bigger trend that has changed society and the way we live, work and communicate. Help others see the big picture and their role in it. And remember…if it isn't fun, it just isn't worth it. Infusing passion and love into everything you do is the most infectious way of gaining acceptance, understanding and great results!

About the Author: At work, Jitendra Jain (JJ) is employed with Starwood Hotels & Resorts in Dubai as an E-Commerce Manager and handles hotel online marketing & distribution. At play, he is the founder of various online initiatives and free platforms like www.thetalentjungle.com, www.younghotelier.com (among others) that aim to connect, educate and shine the limelight on the true stars of the industry – the people that run it!

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