Hoteliers: Community building drives loyalty, social ROI

Conference season is in full swing for the hotel and travel industry, with EyeForTravel‘s Social Media Strategies for Travel event early in the week, and mega-show ITB on now in Berlin.

At each event I attend, I love asking other attendees what they hope to get out of the sessions, and it seems the number one answer is always:

“To keep an eye on what everyone else is doing.”

If I had to identify one theme that is emerging consistently across nearly every presentation I heard over the past week, it’s been all about community.

“Community building” is one of those phrases thrown around so frequently in social media strategy sessions that it’s easy to grow sick of hearing it used so often without an explanation on why it is important, and the steps involved in building an online community.

Brands such as the Roger Smith Hotel, Ace Hotels, and CitizenM hotels have long credited their focus on community building as the reason for the huge numbers of die-hard fans each has around the world.

Jason Potter and Vanessa Coleiro at Corinthia Hotels shared in my latest Tnooz article the specific steps they took in building a community at Corinthia Hotels that ended up resulting in CEO Marc Benioff showcasing their work as an example for executives everywhere to follow.

But conversations I had this week with more people behind some of the Internet’s most vibrant hotel-hosted, travel-themed communities have confirmed my belief that this may be the single most important social media objective for hotels and travel companies today.

Josh Pelz, chief digital strategist at the Gansevoort Hotel Group, opened the EyeForTravel conference with a keynote talking about how he routinely passes along requests for advice and opinion about the Gansevoort back to his Twitter and Facebook audience.

By retweeting a question, his fans will often reply to the person asking about the hotel – and say how much they enjoy it.

This is tremendously powerful as a sales tool – having others sing their praises. And it also plays a role in service, extending their reach to sites where they may not be actively participating.

“We can’t always be there when someone has a problem. We’re not everywhere. But our community often comes to bat for us.

“If someone says they can’t get in touch with the Gansevoort, we often have other members of our community saying ’email Josh – here’s his address’. It’s amazing to watch this.”

What causes this level of loyalty in an online community? Often, it’s simply recognition.

Mac Joseph, a senior marketing manager at Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group, shared an example of how he used to enjoy visiting the zoo when growing up in San Diego. He recently connected with the San Diego Zoo Twitter account, and was happily surprised when they tweeted him back. Again, no grand gesture – simply recognition.

So the big takeaway is that it’s very important to make individual members of your community feel special by interacting with them personally. Just sending a friendly “hello” – it doesn’t have to be complicated.

And if there’s one department in hotels that is great at providing that friendly “hello”, it’s guest services.

Andrew Gillespie, guest services manager at Four Seasons Hotels, described how their approach to social media is the result of an internal collaboration between the marketing and guest services teams.

Yes, some of the information posted to their social network accounts is promotional, but a lot of it is conversational and service focused. And the focus on service pays off – very tangibly.

Andrew shared a story of how a guest was bumped from one of their properties – and by providing meaningful, human service through Twitter, his team turned the guest’s opinion from negative to positive… and later found he has 17,000 Twitter followers and visits that city 60+ times each year. I’ll let you calculate the ROI on that.

It’s because of stories like this that I’ve tried to champion the whole “service as marketing” philosophy for long time.

Social networks allow us to be that “fly on the wall” of millions of conversations around the world–where travelers are constantly asking their friends and social network for advice on travel.

The degree to which those of us managing travel companies should listen and respond back to request for information is something that’s been debated for a long time, but it seems increasingly consumers appreciate brands reaching out with advice–if it’s done in a tactful, helpful manner.

Vanessa Sain-Dieguez runs a team of people at Hilton Worldwide that manage the Twitter account @HiltonSuggests.

They provide advice and recommendations based on questions and ideas they pick up from social media monitoring. (They even recommend competitor hotels if they don’t have a property that suits the needs of a person in their audience!) And yes, they now have permission to stalk me:

Finally, community isn’t just about your visitors, guests and customers. It’s also about identifying the personalities and evangelists you have already working for you on staff.

Marco Fanton at Melia Hotels International, one of the most advanced hospitality organizations regarding their usage of social media across each of their brands, shared how the personalities you have on property must be “the engine behind your social communications plan”.

In one of his examples, two chefs they have at one of Melia’s restaurants drive the majority of social media chatter. Whether it’s a chef, a doorman, or a bartender – think about those personalities that your guests love and enjoy talking about. Red Carnation Hotels also does a phenomenal job with this –by intentionally recruiting “colorful characters”.

Some of these concepts may not be brand new to you, but it’s encouraging to see these large hotel brands beginning to understand the value of a service-first approach to social media.

And from an executive perspective, the tangible results in increased customer satisfaction, higher retention and greater loyalty, positive word-of-mouth and expanded web visibility make a strong case for increasing these types of activities.

To be sure, powerful social media listening tools play a critical role in enabling the delivery of this service – but the primary call to action here is about returning to the basics of good business. It’s capitalizing on the opportunity social media provides to amplify the effects of good business practices.

Josh Pelz shared advice we would all do well to put into practice:

“Before you respond to someone online, think about how you would want a company to treat you when you’re having a problem. Flip it around. What kind of response would you want in this scenario? How can you give that to your guests?

“The customer experience is everything. Be (a nice) human. Humanize the brand. Recognize people. Treat people well. Do the right thing. Your fans are going to appreciate and remember that.”

So let me ask you this: How are you building community? Share your thoughts in the comments below…

NB: Global community image via Shutterstock.

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Josiah Mackenzie

About the Writer :: Josiah Mackenzie

Josiah Mackenzie is a contributor to tnooz and works as director of business development at ReviewPro to provide hotel executives with customer insights and business intelligence through online reviews and social media analytics.

ReviewPro reporting provides valuable insight for action in the areas of marketing and PR, quality & operations, sales, revenue & distribution.

By moving social media engagement from a marketing tactic to an operational tool, they are changing the way the hospitality industry can use and profit from the social web.



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  1. Jay Cooney

    Hi Josiah-
    I very much enjoyed this post, and especially appreciate the comments about using SM for listening…being a “fly on the wall”. Our SM program at Omni Hotels & Resorts has evolved into a valuable tool for listening to our guests before they set foot in our hotels, while they’re in their rooms, and as they share their vacation stories with their family and friends. Each conversation is an opportunity, or a “moment” as we refer to them, for us to delight a guest, and ensure a memorable experience.
    Very nice post, I look forward to following you!

    Jay Cooney
    Social Media Manager
    Omni Hotels & Resorts

  2. Steve

    Yes, Robert, thanks for saying that. Social media is surely valuable for a big, nameless brand to be less impersonal and nameless, but I’d like to know whether it’s of benefit, or detriment, to small businesses.

    Us little, highly personalized businesses are actually at a disadvantage because of the phenomenon. Big business, in EVERY sector, tends to squeeze out the little guy, and consumers only realize how great Main Street was when it’s gone and thus too late.

    I would love to see some tips on how the little guy can benefit from social media cheaply and effectively, without ruining what we have, which is authenticity. Making everything public for advertising gains is easy to mask for a huge chain – “hey, they’re responding to me, how cool!”, but for a small company, it looks really lame.

    The ROI on having people recommend you personally is clear. I’ve maintained our business off of just that for more than a decade without every spending 1 cent on advertising. Now, to stay relevant, I have to either pimp by life by sharing it on fb and twitter, to create an online community where a real community already existed, or we have to hire someone to be our “face”. This is not good news for us and I can’t imagine we are alone.

  3. raj

    Generating feedback without sounding tacky is tricky. It depends on how you engage with the guest, for example once a guest has departed the social media person can look up a guest twitter profile and tweet to them “Hope you enjoyed your stay” to initiate that dialogue in a public setting and getting endorsement. I would be happy to respond to a tweet a like this one.

    Also, the ROI debate is never ending. The ROI is in guest endorsements, humanizing a business and an individual influencing their social circle. Social Media is one on one marketing and the day one can tie the revenue directly to an individual who has influenced bookings via family, friends or strangers reading reviews and can measure lifetime customer value easily it will settle the debate, hopefully.

    @Robert Learning from others is key because one can see what is possible and then you put your own
    twist on it to be different. If you stop learning then an individual or business will start failing it is only a matter of time. So, even if one may not get much out of a conference directly, you will meet other individuals who maybe struggling with something similar as you or are doing something you may not have thought of. One bad experience cannot be a measuring stick for every conference out there.

    • Robert Gilmour

      I ca’t help but feel this whole guest feedback thing is contrived. You should not need to ask for a compliment.

      I hear you re the conferences, they are just not my chosen learning platform, and few are in the UK and most of them have a US slant which is not always relevant to me..

      • raj

        I don’t think the approach should be to ask for a compliment. It should be focused on getting real feedback but because of people becoming comfortable with sharing opinions publicly it makes business sense and that is why it is encouraged. Look into Google’s Zero moment of truth about customer behaviour.

        • Robert Gilmour

          I’m not saying for a minute that should be the approach, i’m saying that in this day and age you earn a compliment, and it is given to you on that basis. If you don’t earn/deserve one then you don’t get one. Simple. Well anyway that’s the way i was brought up! i’m only trying to talk practical common sense here. As some commentators have said, there ids an element of unhealthy obsession about this guest feedback thing.

          • raj

            Yes I agree the compliment must given to only the deserving and not everyone deserves it.

  4. Steve

    As the owner of a small hotel, we face a different challenge in utilizing social media that I haven’t seen addressed: We have a decade-old, tight community that we engage frequently with. They have sung our praise and defended us many times as per the example above – now we are trying to find a way to push their positive experiences into a more social setting (like twitter, for example) where it can spread to others. However, when this kind of human rapport that large brands use social media to emulate already exists in a real face to face exchange, or in a more personal, but private, email exchange, how do you make that public without seeming insincere? It’s like making someone happy and then asking them to tweet about it. Kind of kills the spirit of why you made them happy.

    It’s a great opportunity for big business to emulate that personal touch that small businesses can have almost effortlessly. It’ll be a shame if the costs and time involved make it inhibitive for small businesses to compete in this area, having the emulation eclipse the real deal. Good service is good service, and I’m confident that a small, truly personal place, can exceed on how they can express the identity of their brand and interact with their customers. But good service that is pushed through influential social media channels will certainly influence market share even more in the future.

    • Josiah Mackenzie

      I appreciate your perspective here, Steve – and I think this is a challenge that many businesses that excel in service face: how can we encourage positive online chatter without it seeming fake?

      In my experience, encouraging a happy guest to go share that feedback online works in some cases….and seems tacky in others. I like to view social media as just another touchpoint in maintaining and building that relationship.

      So maybe that guest doesn’t have to immediately tweet out how happy s/he is – though it would be nice – but that person might connect with you on Twitter and Facbook long after leaving your property….and the banter that happens months later could be valuable for you. It’s just another way to stay in touch…and if you’ve done a great job with service, chances are good that will be remembered and shared with others.

  5. Robert Gilmour

    I gave up attending these events years ago, it put a right old hole in my time and budget, and i rarely got anything out of them, other than being seen, and listening to other people, not what’ they’re up to, but what they are saying. Actions speak much louder than words for me, and my clients expect me to be creative and lead, not follow, with my company’s actions and solutions. They want me to make a difference, not bring more of the same, or just mimic what everyone else is doing.

    So yes I do enjoy hearing from people who have attended, they do all the work and the communicating and spend the money attending – , i get on with my business! A number of my clients and partners attended last autumn’s Eye for Travel social media conference,they said it was a complete waste to time, just a gravy train for some people. And in the time someone i knew ITB Berlin this week, we got over £10K of business out the door,and got another £5K in. Perhaps things are a bit different in the UK.

    Despite searching all over the planet, i still can’t implement social ROI, loads of people talk about it, hardly anyone really knows and demonstrates workable answers, certainly for the smaller independent hotel with a small time and cost budget – community building and social ROI are just not on their agenda right now, growing revenue and bottom line at the same time are.

    • Josiah Mackenzie

      Robert, I can appreciate the value of “leading, not following” – but game-changing innovation often comes as the result of building on an idea that’s already out there.

      Just saying….


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