Hilton, Hyatt, Wyndham Execs Talk Social Media Strategy.
By Melanie Nayer ~ Exclusive Column
Wednesday, 8th June 2011
How integral is social media to building customer loyalty? How is your hotel using social media to its advantage? How do you measure the ROI from social media? Is social media really a service-driven investment?

These were the topics of discussion at the NYU International Hospitality Conference, where top hoteliers from Hyatt, Hilton, and Wyndham spoke about the social media craze, and how their hotels are adapting to this new way of doing business.

Whether hotels are investing in a new brand campaign or just using Twitter and Facebook as a customer service support center, the reality is that social media has replaced the traditional forms of media. Today's consumers are simply more savvy, more engaged and more online than ever.

"What we are learning through social media is more about our consumer - what kind of trip they like, what they expect to pay, what activities they are looking for," said Claire Bennett, senior vice president of the Consumer Travel Group at American Express. "When back when, everyone loved to talk about travel- it wasn't the pain points as much as today. Social media is a great space to help share the good."

But with every 'good', there's bound to be a 'bad.' So how do hotels manage the social conversation? More importantly, can it be managed? As hotels are fast discovering (if they didn't already know), the line between social media and brand marketing is quickly blurring.

"We looked at social media and recognized that brand leaders can no longer control what's being said about their brand," said Chuck Sullivan, senior vice president of global online services at Hilton Worldwide. "We knew we needed a relevant strategy to social media so we took  a hub-and-spoke approach that set clear guidelines to brands and properties about what they can and can't do with social media. This provides them the training they need in the space."

Sullivan said Hilton also stablished a cross-brand counsel to share practices from hotel-to-hotel, enabled the specific brand and property to have their own voice over social media with separate accounts, and trained staff throughout the hotels how to respond to hotel ratings and reviews.

"Collectively, our brands our testing different things- from Facebook, to YouTube and Foursquare," said Sullivan. "People are spending about 700 billion minutes a month talking about products on Facebook. We know that consumers are going to be influenced by what they see on TV and what they read on the web."

And as any member of any marketing team knows, there's good influencers and bad ones. Ratings and review sites, for example, allow consumers to post everything from first impressions to dirty rooms and stained carpets. Being able to manage those reviews, however, is one step in managing a successful social media campaign, said John Wallis, global head of marketing and brand strategy for Hyatt Hotels. 

Hyatt is one of the more active hotel groups on Twitter but considers itself an "enthusiastic amateur" on Facebook. The hotel group is still testing other social media networks, but in the meantime relies heavily on individual hotel management to set the tone for effective social media communication.

"Every general manager in the morning receives a note about what's being said about their hotels, and their competitors hotels," said Wallis. "Any time there's been a negative review, we've discovered that if we knew about it [before it was posted], we could have fixed it at the property before it hit the review sites."

The moral of this cautionary tale: social media touches all aspects of the hotel, from the front desk to customer service. It's likely the consumer who posted a bad review on TripAdvisor or other review site also posted about this on Twitter or Facebook during their stay. Had a member of the hotel staff been watching the social media space, they could have addressed the complaint, solved the problem, and likely turned a bad review in a positive one.

But like any business, there's a bottom dollar to be accounted for. How does social media look on a hotel's P+L statement? What is the return on investment? According to these hoteliers, social media is actually one of the best business driving tools in the business right now. According to Flo Lugli, executive vice president of marketing for Wyndham Hotel Group, to be able to tweet to a hotel that you'll be checking in late, or Facebooking with a hotel concierge who is helping to set up your travel itinerary, is not only a new way of doing business but in most cases, a more effective way. In this case, social media puts the consumer directly in the face of the business, and not hidden behind phone lines or firewalls.

The main concern, however, with social media campaigns is saturation.

"I think we've confused the consumer with the amount of noise we've put out there," said Wallis. "We need clearly defined marketing concepts that are pushed through the all [media] markets. The challenge: as we have so much noise, how effective is our marketing message today?"

The answer, simply, can be discovered through social media outlets. Take a look at what's being tweeted about you, or what the review sites are saying. Your consumers are the ones driving the perception of your hotel to other consumers. The days of print ads and TV spots that promote the brand and message are slowly fading. Social media is the newest form of advertisement and can be your biggest return on investment.

"The only thing that's going to improve out of social media is service," said Wallis. "We have to be transparent, because we won't get away with anything other than 'really good'."

Melanie Nayer is a hotel reviewer and expert on luxury travel around the world. She has covered all aspects of hotels including corporate restructures, re-branding initiatives, historical aspects and the best of the best in luxury hotels around the world.

Melanie writes a weekly exclusive column for 4Hoteliers.com
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