ITB 2024 Special Reporting
Destination Marketing — Internet Forums, The Ultimate Consumer Tool.
By John Hendrie, CEO, Hospitality Performance, Inc.
Thursday, 14th July 2005
Our marketing dollars at work deliver visitors to our area, heads in beds, diners, shoppers and attraction seekers. We spend all this money on the front end effort, hopefully provide a meaningful experience while the guest is with us, and then thanks and good bye.

Few Hospitality Businesses spend much time or money evaluating Visitor/Customer Satisfaction, and Internet Forums, which put a very public face on that experience, are in steady use, and they will affect your business. I am referring to Bulletin Boards and Chat Rooms.

They are powerful, growing in influence and engage a vast global audience. Your Consumer is browsing these sources, no longer willing to believe your promotional claims, because they have been disappointed. They want opinions, evaluations and stories, in order to make an informed decision on where to visit, stay, dine, shop and recreate. These are "wired" word of mouth opinion warehouses and are threatening to be a primary tool to evaluate where to spend that disposable income, for Consumer trust has been trampled!

The Bulletin Board on Websites invites comments to an article or a question. Chat Rooms have been with us on the Internet for years, initially as a forum for the younger generation sharing their angst.

This type of sourcing is second nature to the Generation X, now into their 30's, while the Baby Boomers are quickly catching on and up. As a Hospitality Business you simply cannot neglect the Net!

The audience and topics have shifted dramatically, especially in a political year and, most recently, due to the Hurricanes, where no one could receive reliable information in the Southeast and Caribbean.

The format and protocol is very simple, and even the casual Browser can locate whichever forum they choose. Participants are anonymous with some having no particular regard for the truth. Therefore, many comments tend to be heightened in their language and content, naturally attracting attention towards an ongoing conversation on-line — the "chat", which is live messaging, or a statement on the Bulletin Board, which is not real time.

But, what is shared in these very public forums is information about your Hospitality Business or Destination — good or bad, reliable or not, and, these opinions will help shape a Visitor's decision to book their business with you now and in the future.

There are three means to address this phenomenon, and you must take this seriously, for these public forums will only continue to expand and ultimately affect all business. They can be a reputation maker or breaker.

1. Monitor those Forums of which you are aware that reflect your business or destination, particularly the Bulletin Boards. I spoke recently with a very sophisticated Destination Executive, who has a skilled associate monitor the Forums daily, evaluating the comments, looking for trends, problem areas, mindful of accuracy and prepared to respond to falsehoods — damage control, if you will.

Remember, you can participate anonymously, too. A word of caution, as this is a very dynamic environment you have entered — do not go overboard and flood the Bulletin Board with positives, for this attempt will be seen as transparent, particularly to the discriminating Consumer, who is not a fool. Learn to manage the Forums constructively!

2. Engage you Guest! You need to be particularly attentive to your Guest or Customer when they are actually with you, ensuring an experience which is memorable for the right reasons. Deliver on your Quality products and services. Address problems when they arise. Continually stress your interest in their satisfaction.

In a little more polished fashion than former Mayor Ed Koch of New York, who always asked, "how am I doing?", be responsive and caring of your guest. Listen to them, anticipate their needs, and practice your Hospitality skills.

3. Ensure that you have in place some type of Customer/Guest Satisfaction "feedback" Program in place. The better you understand your Guest's expectations, the easier it is to meet and exceed them. Make sure that your sample is diverse, in order to provide a response rate and information which is relevant. This is an on-going enterprise, for Consumer tastes and expectations do change, and you must adapt or perish, and you certainly do not want to be trashed in these Internet Forums, for it is very difficult to recover. Be preemptive, and, thus, preventative.

You need to revisit your tools for this kind of "feedback" system. Many use Comment Cards. These are rudimentary and provide just that type of information: basic, often skewed, hardly representative. Others use "shoppers", which give that "window" evaluation of your systems, service and product.

Assessment Companies provide a much more in-depth analysis, and they can help your effort towards continuous improvement in the operation. There are also excellent Firms which will gather that information for you, through surveys, focus groups and the like, sort the data, and interpret the results. Whatever means you select must be time sensitive, represent a good cross section and depth of your audience, and provide objective response, which is relevant. And, as your market has spoken, you must act.

Those operations which feel that everything is just fine or believe that they have all the answers are merely grist for the Internet mill. Pride is one thing, arrogance is another.

The Internet is the reality, and the Bulletin Boards and Chat Rooms, much like your website and affiliated sites, are a means to market, inform, influence and create opinion. Be on guard!

About the Author
John R. Hendrie is the CEO of Hospitality Performance, Inc.

HPI measures the performance of lodgings, restaurants, clubs, cruise lines and attractions against reasonable hospitality standards through a comprehensive assessment process, and then helps market the achievement of those standards to a discerning customer.

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