by Michael J. Shapiro | September 01, 2013
A few months ago, when author and sales guru Larry Chiang arrived for his seminar at the Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay, in California, he checked in via Foursquare. The hotel immediately welcomed him via Twitter and asked if there was anything he needed. "I'd love Mexican Coca-Cola in a bottle," he tweeted, "but more realistically, my conference attendees would like Diet Coke."

Diet Coke was promptly delivered to the meeting room. "If we could have figured out a way to get the Mexican Coca-Cola, we would have," notes Stephanie Leavitt, director of sales and marketing at the property. "But we delivered what his attendees needed."

Such service via social media is playing an increasingly significant role for meeting attendees and leisure guests at the hotel, according to Leavitt. Another recent example: A conference attendee at the property tweeted in frustration about a weak Wi-Fi connection. "We reached out to our engineering department," says Leavitt, "and they restarted the servers and routers around the hotel. Within a couple of minutes we responded to the attendee, saying we were looking into it. He re-tweeted to say, 'Oh my gosh, it's running at 100 percent. Thank you so much!' "

Engaging through social media channels around the clock is a tall order for many hotels, straining resources and adding yet another laborious task for staff that typically handle sales or marketing. At properties such as Leavitt's, with its proximity to Silicon Valley and tendency to host events for social media-dependent attendees, it can be all the more time-consuming. Nevertheless, a growing number of hotels are finding ways to listen and respond.

For its part, the Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay, contracts the work out to Chicago-based BCV, a full-service social media provider for hotels, which offers round-the-clock management of social channels. BCV not only establishes a social media presence for nearly 50 hotel clients, but monitors and responds to social media interactions 24/7. (See "How Hotel Chains Listen," below, for a look at how some major chains are managing social media.)

Engaging the audience

A coordinated, full-time effort at the property level is still relatively rare, but even one active participant in the social media space can boost a venue's visibility and customer service levels.

In her previous role as marketing manager for the National Conference Center, in Leesburg, Va., Sarah Vining was blogging for the venue, writing about tips and trends in the meetings industry. By using Twitter to publicize her blogs, she became well-known to planners who use the #eventprofs hashtag. "I just jumped into conversations," says Vining. "I wasn't trying to sell anyone on our conference center. I was just trying to be a great resource for them, have conversations with them and not necessarily think of them as potential customers. I just wanted to create a dialogue."

As a result, she cultivated relationships and strengthened the venue's reputation. "We were able to position the conference center as a thought leader in the industry," she says. "Maybe the planners hadn't been there, but they all knew all the great initiatives that we had taken on, whether it was green, food and beverage, or the like. Also, we learned what others were doing."

In her current role with the National 4-H Youth Conference Center, in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Chevy Chase, Md., Vining interacts with guests and planners in a slightly different manner, continuing to engage with #eventprofs but also reaching out directly to tour operators, school groups, religious organizations and nonprofits. She has learned, too, that her venue's attendees want to talk about the destination -- Washington, D.C. -- at least as much as about the event itself.

"It's rewarding to follow along to see what our groups are experiencing even when they're not on property," she says, "and to share their photos or their quotes on other channels, too."

Vining searches Instagram for attendees' photos from the event or the area, and asks permission to repost them on the conference center's Facebook page.