Starting small and thinking big: How hotels engage guests through social media
"URBN Hotels Shanghai is now following you on Twitter!" appears in my email inbox as I am researching hotels to contact about how they use social media to engage guests and potential guests.
The timing of that email seems to prove a point: That hotels increasingly using social media to pursue and engage their customers and potential guests, promote their brand, and institute customer service best practices in a variety of ways by leveraging website platforms like Facebook, Twitter, KaiXin and Youku.
Some of the ways large and small hotels engage consumers through social media may vary, but all seem to understand that mistakes in the space can be disastrous for a brand, and that approaching social media in the right way -- by closely engaging people -- can have huge benefits.
Brand monitoring and best practices
Sean Seah, Director of E-Commerce at Langham Hotels International says, "At Langham, we are using social media to explore ways in which we can engage with our guests and potential guests in a variety of interesting ways.
"The basics would be simply monitoring our brand online and at its most basic would be the obvious reviewing of what others are saying about us in online comments and customer service recovery. This would give us real time insight."
One way Langham is looking to get that real time insight is by building an internal platform aggregating all their online activity so whatever the communication type, they'll have a way to converse with guests.
Seah says Langham's next step is managing best practices, allowing them to create strategies to inform people through social media. An understandable step to take after last year's Langham Hong Kong viral video "Big Deal" debacle.
Mistakes get made in social media. To avoid major brand damage, remaining active and engaging in discussion is the only way to survive in a world where reputation and credibility are key.
Word of mouth
Angela Wong of Four Seasons Hotel Hong Kong says their social media goals are to generate awareness of their hotels that drive word of mouth referrals, and to develop closer direct connections with their customers, clients and media.
One of the ways Four seasons is trying to achieve this word of mouth and ground-level connection with customers, clients and media is with a string of Facebook (over 38,000 fans) and Twitter (13,000 followers on main Twitter account) pages, one for each Four Seasons property.
Each one of those Four Seasons social media channels are managed individually by that specific Four Seasons property. This allows a more local approach coming from a very large brand.
Such channels help to establish one-to-one relationships by providing more regular communication, feedback, and local news than could be done from a single corporate social media page.
On those individual pages Four Seasons says they provide regular posts about local stories, restaurant and spa promotions, content about what's happening in the hotel, and pictures and videos much in the same way they say their followers are sharing and engaging with them.
Such an approach has paid dividends for Four Seasons. They claim their new spa treatments promoted this summer, Mumbai Spa promotion and Lung King Heen mooncakes, generated lots of feedback and resulted in bookings.
Focusing on locals
While the big hotels have to be conscious of being active locally, smaller boutique hotels are more concerned with perfecting local communication with guests and taking that level of engagement a step further.
In a world where there are hundreds of millions of users participating in social networks, many hotels are only recently catching on to the marketing potential and allocating the resources to make the plunge with targeted local strategies.
Such stratagies are intended to engage and not simply barrage social media users with flyers for room deals.
Victoria Hajjar the marketing director for Shanghai's boutique hotel URBN, say they have only recently set up their Fabcebook, Twitter, Youtube and Kai Xin (Kai Xin has more URBN followers than the other three combined) accounts, and that they have hired a young Chinese PR manager to help reach out through Chinese social media outlets in a more effective way.
Traditional marketing versus social influencers
Despite being new to the social media game, URBN Hotels is already moving quickly and thinking about the benefits of social media marketing compared to that of more traditional marketing.
"For us, social media is something we engage in and think about every day. However, the execution of these types of marketing initiatives are much easier and less time consuming (than more traditional marketing)," says Hajjar.
Unlike traditional marketing, with social media a hotel can't just buy an ad space and check the statistics for how well that ad is returning investment.
It is more about measuring influence, both in terms of people spreading the word and via local social media managers gaining respect and trust in online communities.
While the hospitality business is a traditional business, maintaining a certain amount of tech savvy is needed in the social media space. Langham has actively reached out to bloggers, treated them the same as they do print journalists and have invited them to functions and events to gain credibility in the blogosphere.
That's a complete turn around from last year.
Langham's Seah says, "Their (bloggers) influence is measurable and significantly, almost immediate -- especially those with a strong following."
To measure a blogger's influence, Langham Hotels looks at the blogger's site traffic, number of followers (if available,) the engagement through comments they get from readers, and whether they see an uplift in numbers of reservations after a bloggers positive review hits the web.
Since influence is of high value in social media circles, those hotels that understand how to measure the influence of individuals and social groups are likely to be more successful in their social media marketing campaigns.
Showing the community you are trying to engage that you care about it is another way to attract these influencers into the ranks of followers.
URBN actively promotes green programs and has initiated campaigns online such as their "Penthouse giveaway" where their Facebook fan with the best one sentence idea to improve the sustainability in their home town wins a night in their Penthouse.
But since URBN is still a newcomer to social media they know there is work to do on their fan base before initiating too many contests, events and other interactive projects.
The best platform?
Facebook or Twitter, which is better for hotels? Four Seasons' very polictially correct and safe answer was, "Both of them are very good channels for us to reach our customers."
Though the truth is that the best channel is the channel the target audience are most like to reside in and actively use. These audiences can vary by region, and so can the social media network.
Facebook or Twitter may be the best options in the United States, but in countries such as China the sites are blocked. In Japan where sites like MiXi are more popular than Facebook, a different approach altogether may be needed.
"We provide websites in both China and Japan markets," says Wong. "Presently, only Four Seasons Tokyo at Marunouchi is active on Facebook and Twitter in Japan."
Use it, don't lose it
For the big hotels a major concern with full-on social media engagement is staying on brand.
With the possible damage to a brand equaling the potential rewards, "Staying responsible and being well-prepared for any problems that may come with full engagement is essential," says Four Season's Wong.
Those hotels that understand which platform works best in what region will initially have a better chance at long-term success than those that do not.
The big players like Langham and Four Seasons could benefit from the words of the smaller, new social media player URBN's Victoria Hajjar, "I would say, that it would be important to interact sincerely and personally with each person that shows interest in your company."
Start small, think big.