• March 1, 2012
  • By Leonard Klie, Editor, CRM magazine and SmartCustomerService.com

Being Hospitable Means Being Social

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In these financially sensitive times, travel is more of a luxury than ever. Consumers are opting for stay-at-home vacations rather than elaborate trips abroad, and businesses are turning to video conferencing as an alternative to flying executives all over the world for meetings.

That's not to say that the travel industry is on the rocks, but when people do travel these days, they're doing a lot more research to make sure they are getting the most value for their dollars. Social media is a big part of that process.

Research from e-Marketer indicates that nine out of every 10 consumers go online before making a travel decision. Additional research has found that 42 percent of the general public turn to word-of-mouth for making travel purchase decisions and 62 percent have booked hotel reservations online and based purchasing decisions on customer reviews.

"Peer comments do heavily influence purchasing decisions," says Kelly McGuire, director of business development for the hospitality and gaming industry at SAS.

It's no surprise, then, that the top travel and hospitality organizations in the world have been leveraging social media to their benefit for some time. Leading companies like InterContinental Hotels Group, which operates nine hotel chains in 100 countries and serves more than 130 million guests annually, have successfully adopted social media to boost sales.

Marriott and Starwood are also launching platforms that allow guests to post property reviews directly on sites managed by the companies. Ritz-Carlton rolled out a new campaign, "Let Us Stay With You," which allows guests to tell the chain, right from Facebook, what made their stay special. Even Hyatt and Hilton have Twitter accounts that let guests post comments and reviews.

With 56 percent of travel and hospitality industry marketers including social media in their plans, social networking ranks second in a Center for Media Research media planning intelligence study, just slightly behind email (57 percent). That far surpassed their spending on radio, TV, online, and print advertising, direct mail, mobile text messaging, and event sponsorships.

Social is exploding in the travel and hospitality industry, and consumers are driving it. "There's a lot of credibility and value in peer reviews," McGuire says.

But when you're as big as InterContinental, for example, trying to manage the volume of feedback and conversations that can take place on countless social media, blog, and review sites can be overwhelming. Experts suggest starting with a small, passionate group of supporters. For the past few years, InterContinental has operated three private online communities with roughly 300 members each from among its loyalty programs. It recently added a public social community that it started with just its Priority Rewards Club members before opening it up to everyone.

It also helps to let customers see what is being done with the input they provide. Showing customers the changes that their ideas have brought about is a good way to foster more engagement in the future.

To make sure a positive message is getting out in cyberspace, hotels need to pay special attention to consumers with influence on the social media sites. A hotel "can really reach out to them to make sure that they have a great experience while they are on the property," McGuire says.

"People are already out there and talking. They volunteer this information and are willing to share it. Why not make sure it's good?"

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