Unlike many modern industries, most of what a hotel does needs to happen offline. It’s hard to deliver room service or make beds with a click. But hotels are experimenting with plenty of other ways to improve service and connect with customers using social media. Many of their ideas have serious potential.
“I suspect we are in the same position that we were with online marketing 20 years ago,” says Bill Carroll, a senior lecturer at the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell. “The only difference is that it won’t take 20 years, it will take 5 to 10 years until we really see the impact of interactive communication among consumers.”
Here are six ways that social media could make that impact on the hotel industry.
1. Extending Concierge Services
A concierge with a Twitter feed could be a powerful thing. Instead of making a single stop at the concierge desk to collect brochures, guests could ask questions before they get to the hotel, from their rooms, or while they’re out exploring. They would also have easy access to the questions other guests asked and past recommendations.
Several tourism bureaus have already figured out this strategy. Hotels are for the most part still experimenting.
This month, UK hotel chain Premier Inn launched a trial of a Twitter concierge program. On Fridays, customers can send an inquiry to the concierge via Tweet using the hashtag #PIconcierge. The hotel encouraged its customers to Tweet questions “on anything from local activities for the kids, karaoke bars in the area, directions to the local theatre or even where to find an emergency dentist.”
Hyatt launched its Twitter Concierge service in May 2009. “When we launched this,” says John Wallis, the global head of marketing and brand strategy for Hyatt, “we made a conscious decision that this channel would only provide information and never push out promotional information.”
Although the feed does occasionally handle dinner recommendations, the current conversation is heavier on customer service issues. One person, for instance, asked for help locating a number on his rewards card. Another asked about sending a friend a gift during his stay.
Carroll thinks that the online concierge strategy might be one that sticks. “[If I'm a hotel owner] I’m able to go back and forth with these communications to my customer before they get there, after they get there — so it’s an extension of what the concierge does on a day-to-day basis and that improves service.”
2. On-Site Merchandising
Carroll sees the biggest on-site opportunity for social media in the hospitality industry at the intersection of social media and mobile. If mobile geolocation features alert a hotel that you are in the building, it creates the opportunity for them to pitch relevant services. Perhaps when you arrive, for instance, management will encourage you to come down to the bar and enjoy a complimentary cocktail. When Foursquare users check into the Wynn Hotel & Casino Las Vegas, for example, they unlock a special that earns them a complimentary glass of champagne at Blush Boutique, one of Wynn Las Vegas’s nightclubs.
“Location-based services such as Foursquare and Facebook Places have brought a new level of how people demonstrate that they want to be associated with where they are, and that they are interested in communicating with people in the same place,” says John Wallis, the global head of marketing and brand strategy for Hyatt. “Based on the evolution of these channels, we have the potential to market to customers in a manner that is 100% relevant to their situation at that moment.”
3. Customer Service and Recovery
Interacting with customers using Facebook and Twitter can improve customer service. The idea of personalized customer service was also possible with a telephone number. But it’s vastly easier with social media.
“It’s enabling us to accelerate that conversation and make those connection points in ways that weren’t before possible,” says Andy Kauffman, the vice president of commerce at Marriott Hotels. “But the principles behind it are all rooted in good service and, if something happens, great service recovery.”
Marriott International has two full-time people who work on the Twitter feed. One of them is on the customer service team. John Wolf, the director of public relations, is the other. He says that brand loyalists sometimes point him to people who are Tweeting about problems they’ve had at Marriott hotels.
“We’d rather know that there’s an issue than not know it, and we’d rather be given the opportunity to solve the problem,” Wolf says.
This strategy has successfully recovered previously dissatisfied customers. It also gives Marriott the ability to solve problems for customers as they arise.
Other major hotel chains also have some version of this personalized customer service. In addition to its HyattConcierge Twitter service, Hyatt guarantees answers within 24 hours to questions that are posted on its Gold Passport Loyalty program Facebook page.
“We really don’t know whether [responding to customers on Twitter and Facebook] pays off or not,” Carroll says. “However, at the same time, we do know that the conversations are going on and…that it probably is advisable to be part of the conversation.”