Managing Social Media: In Pursuit of Happy Guests in Real-Time.
By Eye for Travel's Social Media for Travel conference
Friday, 2nd March 2012
When it comes to brand management, marketing and social media platforms there are clear challenges and opportunities for the travel business.

Hayley Mitchell, Social Media & Community Manager for Fairmont Raffles Hotels International (FRHI), believes that hotels should be putting the spotlight on location-based services.

Her argument is that the industry needs to look beyond ‘engagement and listening' and focus on the customer service requirements of social media in order to avoid opportunity costs and gain happy guests in real-time.

Here she talks to Pamela Whitby about this global group is going about it.

EFT: Social media has taken the travel business by storm. In your view what are the main issues facing the industry today and how can businesses prepare for the future?

HM: One of the biggest challenges is working out exactly what you should be involved in. It's tough to narrow down what tools will be effective in the long-term and where to put your efforts. That's the biggest issue in an ever-changing environment and it affects us every day here at FRHI.

Looking to the future, however, we feel we definitely need to look more closely at location-based marketing. We know that everyone uses their mobile. And when people check-in on a mobile device they're letting the marketer know that they're physically on the property. We can use that to increase sales by targeting someone who is on the property with offers. But we can also use it as a customer service tool which is, I believe, what the travel industry needs to focus on. While there will be new sites popping up all the time online, mobile is the future.

So when someone makes mention on a location-based service that they're unhappy, that is your chance to contact them and fix it right then and there. You can get their experience back on track, avoiding them leaving angry and ready to write negative review on a more widely accessible website like TripAdvisor.

EFT: So it is about reputation management?

HM: Yes this is a big focus. Reputation management has always been an issue but now that everybody is online it is so much more visible. Reviews, reviews, reviews…

I can't stress enough that we have to make sure we have our voice inserted into the online conversation and that we are monitoring it in real time.

EFT: How do you achieve that?

HM: There are a lot of tools, such as Radian 6 that crawl the web looking for key words about what is being said. These send instant alerts. So if something negative is being said, I'll get an alert saying, for example, ‘Fairmont, poor service'. I can then deal with it immediately.  

EFT: In terms of resource, how many people do you have monitoring this sort of thing and how do you train them?

HM: Some companies have a very big social media team, but at a corporate level, ours is actually relatively small. We rely on our extensive team of social media champions around the world to help us monitor and engage online.

At every property [100-plus] somebody is responsible for responding, reviewing and inserting answers into the online space. Our corporate social media managers provide support to our property champions through custom guidebooks on each of the tools we use; policies to ensure brand consistency; and an open forum for conversation and support at all times.

EFT: What is the key to staying on top of your online reputation?

HM:  It is about making sure that the people reading your online reviews understand that your brand is participating in the conversation. So you're just not letting people write reviews, you're thanking people for positive reviews, offering an explanation or apology for poor reviews and actively answering questions.

Travelocity, for example, now has a question & answer section. So instead of just offering reviews, customers can ask questions like: ‘Is there parking available – how much is it? Is there 24-hour room service?' If you ignore questions like this it is tantamount to a concierge ignoring questions at the front desk of your hotel. You wouldn't do it on a property, so why would you do it online?

EFT:  How do you go about responding to reviews? How important, for example, is the tone of your response?

HM: We are lucky in that around 85 percent of our reviews are very positive, and 10 percent are good to neutral, but the small percentage that are negative  may affect someone's decision, so we need to be on top of them. It is really important to respond authentically and also to respond to all negative reviews.

We always thank people for taking the trouble to comment because it does help us in the long run since we try to see if there is anything we can learn from their feedback. Importantly, we always try to take the discussion offline to get additional information from customers. What we don't want is a lengthy online discussion.

EFT:  Looking to the future, will travel companies have to increase social media budgets?

HM: Yes I think so because a lot of customer service budgets are now going toward social media. Instead of making a phone call to complain, today customers will post on Facebook or TripAdvisor, for example.

That is much easier to do. So a lot of the budget going to customer service may shift or companies will have to budget for more social media monitoring, whether it's automated tools or more staff. 

EFT: A question that comes up often is how to measure a social media campaign's success. Any thoughts? 

HM:  People who are involved in social media and travel always say that the return-on-investment question is impossible to answer. And yes it is tough to actually come up with numbers that directly affect revenue.

This is especially true for travel because we know that people spend a lot of time on numerous websites doing research before making a purchase. To know exactly which online review site or social media sites got them to make that booking is impossible. We track all our social media links and sometimes we do see direct bookings as a result of a review.

That said social media is really a way to influence and engage with potential customers; it is less about measuring exact returns. But it's not just revenue you're assessing. And there are plenty of ways to qualify returns depending on the goals of a particular campaign. If it's a ‘fan-drive', then growing numbers matter! If you want to get contest entries, again numbers is the game. If you are looking to boost conversation online about your brand, tools like Radian 6 are useful. The list goes on. It really depends on what metrics matter most to you.

EFT: Should your website reflect the social media strategy?

HM:  Of course. It should also have a lot of links to social media platforms like Twitter or Facebook, which is an indication of confidence.  A lot of companies now link to their Tripadvisor reviews because they're proud of them.

EFT: FHRI has hotels all over the world. How do you manage your social media strategy in foreign markets? 

HM: This is a tough one as we have to realise that Facebook is not the only tool out there especially since it's not even allowed in countries like China. The Chinese market is massive and they're active travelers, so of course we want to market to them as well. That means widening our horizons.

To do this we do a lot of research on our own, and also tap into our regional colleagues who help us choose what social media tools we should be using. We can't ignore Weibo and Daodao – essentially the Twitter and Facebook of China.

EFT:  Looking to the future, what are the steps you need to take to ensure your social media strategy stays on track?

HM: One of the challenges, as I said earlier, is knowing which tools we should be focusing on. Take Pinterist, for example which launched in March 2010 and now has nearly 11 million registered users. But the question is: is it going to last and do we have to participate? A lot of people jump too quickly and, as a result, end up spreading themselves too thin and wasting valuable time that could be spent on proven tools with proven fans.

As a mature brand, we need to ask ourselves some questions and do some research first. Pinterest, for example, has an 80 percent female demographic aged 22 to 44, which doesn't really reflect our customer base accurately. So we need to consider the long-term potential and if this demographic might be valuable to us in a brand-awareness sense, even if it's not our exact targeted buyer.

We always have to ask, is it right for our customers or are we just following the hype?  Then there is Google+. Because it is Google-based it affects search engine optimization so we can't ignore it. We come up with strategic point-of-views on anything we are considering using. And there are a lot of things to consider: how much labor do we need, what's our goal, which path do we want to head down? It's hard to say what will be the next TripAdvisor, so we need to monitor new review tools all the time and decide where we want to participate and where we want to insert our voice.

Hayley Mitchell, Social Media & Community Manager at Fairmont Raffles Hotels International will be speaking at Eye for Travel's Social Media for Travel conference http://events.eyefortravel.com/social-media in San Francisco, March 5-6, 2012
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