Hotels Join in Social Media Conversation

How hotels are listening and responding to social media feedback

How Hotel Chains Listen
About a dozen big, full-service Hyatt hotels in the U.S. currently employ a social media director, according to Dan Moriarty, Chicago-based Hyatt's corporate director of digital strategy. "They're big enough that they have someone who is solely focused on social media," he explains, "sitting there and picking up on this stuff in real time."

As a brand, Hyatt has a customer-relations team that monitors all Hyatt-related tweets from a call center in Omaha, Neb. "Obviously, the connection between the call-center staff and operations is a bit removed," admits Moriarty. "They have to pick up a phone, call the hotel and make sure they're speaking to the right person to fix an issue."

That concern has led to a bit of an about-face. "Historically, the team here at corporate has been responsible for telling hotels what they can and can't do," says Moriarty. "But we realized the bottom-up approach makes far more sense. Some of the best ideas are coming from the specialists at the hotels."

Omni Hotels & Resorts, which owns and operates nearly 60 properties, traditionally has handled all social media activity at the corporate level, simply because the hotels themselves generally don't have the on-site resources. "In social media, if you're not listening and responding, what's the point?" asks Tom Santora, chief marketing officer and vice president of sales for the Irving, Texas-based Omni. "Customers want a quick response, and this approach has been very successful. As soon as a hotel hears that corporate's on the line and, say, there's a problem in the lobby, they move pretty quickly," he notes. "And it's not 'Big Brother' -- it's more about giving the hotels the resources they need for customer service."

Starwood Hotels & Resorts also handles social media communication at the corporate level, despite the Stamford, Conn.-based lodging giant's size -- 1,162 properties over nine different brands. "We have a team that addresses all aspects of social media branding and coverage with the hotels," says Christie Hicks, senior vice president of the Starwood Sales Organization. "While there are things that hotels do on their own, they do so within strict guidelines." The team that monitors Twitter activity is part of the corporate organization and is represented at various call centers; its average response time to posts is less than 23 minutes, claims Starwood. - M.J.S.

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.  

Establishing Protocols
When a four-alarm fire broke out at the InterContinental New Orleans earlier this year, the night crew at social media firm BCV sprang into action. "We notified the GM about the fire because guests had tweeted about it," says Benji Greenberg, founder and CEO of Chicago-based BCV, contracted to oversee the hotel's social media presence. "We coordinated with him to message guests and direct them where to go, and told them what was being done for their safety. And we did that before the GM was even on-site."

Tweeting as @InterConNOLA, BCV staff followed a previously established protocol to provide information, answer questions and keep guests updated. Six hundred people were evacuated without any injuries reported.

"That was the first time I thought,  'wow, this is something that has the ability to move the needle,'" says Greenberg. BCV has similarly kept guests informed in the midst of bomb threats and weather emergencies.

The key to this kind of immediate response -- in the event of a hurricane, bedbugs or even reservation requests -- is a communication protocol BCV sets up with each hotel. "We say, for example, if someone mentions bedbugs at 2 a.m., we will send a message to these four people," explains Greenberg. "If we don't get a response in 20 minutes, we call. Same thing goes for meeting and reservation requests. We have to be able to move really quickly on these before the hotel loses the ability to effectively respond or convert requests to business." - M.J.S.

The element of surprise

It is becoming more common for venues to be tuned in to guests who are on property. Some reward social media exposure with a special perk -- say, a free drink at the bar or a bottle of wine to celebrate a birthday. When a guest tweets a beautiful photo of the view at the Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay, the hotel makes a print and frames it, says Stephanie Leavitt. "We'll send that up to them, along with a little box of chocolates and a note that says, 'Thank you so much for loving our view' or something like that. And it's just incredible to see that they'll then take a picture of that and re-tweet it.  

"This has become an incredible way to have instant interaction with our clients, when a lot of them don't think we're even monitoring what's going on at our social media sites," Leavitt adds.

"Those kinds of things surprise and delight," says Omni's Tom Santora, chief marketing officer and vice president of sales for the Irving, Texas-based lodging company. "What can you do by listening to the customer? What can you do to really exceed their expectations?"

Problems, too, can be addressed by way of quick responses via Twitter. An attendee might tweet to vent frustration, not really anticipating a response. "People like to be surprised," notes the 4-H center's Sarah Vining. "It's something of a test: They want the hotel or venue to respond, but when that happens very quickly, it's a welcome surprise."

While a growing number of guests have discovered that griping on Twitter is a way to get noticed, they haven't yet become jaded, Vining says. They still get excited that the venue is listening and writes back. "It probably happened the first time people used 1-800 numbers. They were so excited that someone fixed their problem just by making a phone call. Now we're in the same state with social media; we're just so happy when they fix our problem."

Tapping into meetings

To date, hotels' efforts have been largely focused on individual guests, rather than meetings. However, as Omni's Santora notes, "47 percent of our brand's business is meetings. So when somebody's tweeting about Omni, there's about a 50 percent chance it's going to be a meeting attendee."

A few properties are making an effort to connect specifically with meeting planners, notes Doreen Ashton Wagner, chief strategist and managing director of Greenfield Services, a consulting firm in Alexandria, Ontario, that specializes in hospitality and trade associations. She points to Fairmont hotels in Eastern Canada as among the front-runners in that effort.

"When we see that a group is coming to one of our hotels, we go the extra step, and we look at their website and see what they're doing on social media outlets," says Michele Guzzo, regional manager for Internet marketing at Fairmont Hotels and Resorts in Eastern Canada. "Then we see where we can start interacting with them." And Guzzo is trying to begin that relationship as early as possible in the process.

"We want to be part of the conversation when they start talking about the event with our convention services managers," he says. "We want to know if the meeting planners are active on social media, if they already have hashtags for the event. For some groups, I or another member of my team can join in on the site inspection."

Once Guzzo's team has made that initial connection with the planner, they begin monitoring the event's hashtag on Twitter. If the group has a Facebook page, the Fairmont team starts communicating there as well. "We can start posting what's going on in the city while they're going to be in town, particularly if they have some free nights when there are no group activities. We can talk about the weather, or what to bring in their luggage." During the events, Guzzo's team welcomes guests who post on social media and monitors the Twitter hashtag for the event.

Liz King, CEO and chief event specialist of Liz King Events in New York City, calls out Manhattan's Hotel Roger Smith as one of the few properties she's dealt with that is really making a difference for meeting planners via social media. She used the hotel for the inaugural PlannerTech event in 2011, an event-technology showcase that King founded to educate fellow planners. In fact, the property initially reached out to King and offered to sponsor the show, since its marketing team already knew about her plans for the event via details released on Twitter.

"They were amazing to work with," says King. "They were finding our attendees on social media and offering them discounts at the hotel -- things like that. Some of what they were doing was really tuned into our hashtag for the event. And they were answering our attendees' questions about what to do in New York City, and things beyond their hotel. There were many times that a tweet came through for something meeting-related, and before I could get to it, the hotel had taken care of it."

Uber concierge

Such hands-on, instantaneous communication is a service hotels can provide to special clients or use to distinguish themselves, says Doreen Ashton Wagner. "People won't necessarily always engage with the hotel concierge anymore," she notes. "They might prefer to engage ahead of time on social media."

That level of service can add real value to a meeting. "If a hotel offered to provide social media interaction," says Wagner, "99.99 percent of planners would say, 'That's phenomenal!' Because when they're on-site, they're way too busy to be monitoring their hashtag or other social media. So it could fill a gap."

That level of commitment really stands out to a planner, adds King. "You would expect that concierge services would be available at the event. You wouldn't expect them to be proactively provided in advance. That takes a lot of time to be trolling the different channels. If you're going to invest your money in a venue, you're going to go with one that's going to go above and beyond in service."