Social Networking or Social Notworking? Social Media as a Sales Tool for Hotels.
By Daniel Edward Craig
Thursday, 24th March 2011
A basic tenet of sales is to go where your customers are, and yet the hotel sales department has been reluctant to embrace social media, Why?

It's not only individual travelers who use social media to research trips. Increasingly, group organizers and corporate travel buyers are consulting review sites and social networks when making decisions involving group bookings, corporate travel programs, and meetings and events.

Before choosing a hotel, Jeannie M. Wolf, CMP, a partner with Event Elements in New York, researches its website, Facebook page, and LinkedIn profile. "The website and social media work together to provide a clearer picture of the overall experience I, as a meeting planner, can expect at your property," she says.

Yet hotel sales directors remain wary, fearing staff will use social media to waste time, won't be able to measure results, or will use it inappropriately and harm the brand. Social media can't replace face-to-face contact, they argue—and they're right. But at a time when it's increasingly difficult to reach prospects and clients via cold calls and sales calls, social networks provide new ways to connect, to source information, and to build relationships and trust.

But it's not enough to simply "join the conversation". Effective social engagement requires discipline, resourcefulness, and an understanding of etiquette. Follow these guidelines, and turn your sales department's social media activities into a competitive advantage. With expert handling, your social networks can become an extended sales force.

Listen lots, talk little. Salespeople can be big talkers, and putting mass communications devices in their hands is a risky proposition. It's important to provide guidelines for appropriate messaging and conduct. Leave official brand messaging to senior management and the marketing department. The real value for sales is in listening, making connections, research, and market intelligence. Visiting your competitors' Facebook page, LinkedIn profile, and Twitter feed is like accessing an open database of their guests and clients.

Share, don't sell. The quickest way to get tuned out in social media is to constantly self-promote. "People are not interested in advertisements and are not going to share a post that is just selling product," says Adam Wallace, director of digital marketing at the Roger Smith Hotel in New York. 

If sales staff can't sell, what can they do? Says Wallace, "We have found that by connecting with great networks of people and creating good content we are selling lots of hotel rooms and events." If you add value to conversations by sharing local expertise and industry news and putting entertaining spins on promotions, followers will forgive you for the occasional lapse into "24-HOUR SALE BOOK NOW SPECIAL DEAL FOR YOU!!!" messaging.

Social networking or social notworking? Nobody's more vulnerable to social slacking than a sales manager with a quota to fill. A great deal of focus and discipline is required. Constantly ask yourself if what you're doing is important and relevant to your job. If not, move on. Focus on results by recording social media activity in your contact database just like other sales activities, and keep track of leads, contacts, and bookings sourced through these channels.

Love LinkedIn. Whether you're prospecting, planning a sales trip, or qualifying a lead, LinkedIn is a tremendous resource. Use it to search businesses by location, industry, size, and key contacts. The site discourages connecting with people you don't know, but you can get introduced through a third party, mingle in groups related to your markets, and formalize relationships after you've met.

Last November, the Carlton Hotel in New York reportedly sourced $186,550 in new group and corporate business in 90 days via LinkedIn (SmartBlogs on Social Media) Not bad for not even having picked up the phone.

Respect boundaries. If you want to connect with clients on a more personal level, Facebook is a good option. "After meeting with clients, our sales staff send a friend request through their personal Facebook profile," says Zach Glenn, VP of eCommerce of Helms Hotels Group in Texas. "If they accept, we visit their profile and get to know them better, then we invite them to become a fan of the hotel's page. It can be a great way to bond with clients."

Many people prefer to restrict Facebook friends to personal contacts, so send friend requests only to people you've met, and don't be hurt if they don't accept. Promoting your Facebook page might be a better option. "We've made it a priority to have as many of our meeting planners and sales executives as possible become a fan of our Facebook page," says Bob Pfeffer, director of sales and marketing at the Marco Island Marriott Resort in Florida. "This way they receive updates of property promotions and enhancements and [benefit from] an overall awareness campaign."

Expand your Twitterverse. Twitter is a more open, looser network than Facebook and LinkedIn, so it's easier to build a broad network of people who share a business affinity. Use search tools and directories like Twellow and Listorious to find prospects, relevant contacts, and influencers, and keywords and hashtags to monitor conversations.

Avril Matthews, director of marketing and sales at the Inn at Laurel Point in Victoria, BC, says her team uses Twitter to connect with meeting planners prior to a site visit or conference. "It allows us to begin the relationship prior to them getting here and gives them a taste of our personality. It's a very powerful tool for this and is incredibly authentic—that is where the magic is."

Review sites aren't just for individual travelers. Guest satisfaction is largely out of the hands of the sales department, yet has a direct impact on conversions. "More and more meeting planners are checking guest comments on TripAdvisor before selecting a property," says Stephane Morin, director of sales and marketing at the Hilton Bonaventure in Montreal. "They say it saves them a lot of time. It gives them a good indication on what type of services can be expected."
Matthews at the Inn at Laurel Point has noticed a similar trend. "Thankfully, we respond to our reviews both good and bad," she says. "So for the odd review that is less than favourable the meeting planner can at least see how seriously we take that feedback. It has worked in our favour." Sales staff can do their part by encouraging prospects to check out reviews, asking satisfied clients to write reviews, and keeping management informed about how reviews influence client decisions.

Everything shipshape? Social networks can be powerful selling tools for the sales department, but only if they're up-to-date and on-brand. Ensure company profiles on LinkedIn, TripAdvisor, Google Places, Facebook and elsewhere are current and consistent, with fresh content, rich imagery, and compelling stories.

Daniel Edward Craig is a former general manager turned hotel consultant specializing in social media strategy, storytelling, and reputation management for the lodging industry. He is the author of three hotel-based novels, a popular blog, and various articles about issues in the hotel industry. His new e-book, The Hotelier's Guide to Online Reputation Management, is now available. Visit www.danieledwardcraig.com or email dec@danieledwardcraig.com. Twitter: dcraig.

Copyright © 2011 Daniel Edward Craig. All rights reserved - Reprinted with permission.
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