The Hospitality Suite

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I like cornbread. 

Actually, that’s an understatement—I adore cornbread, a hankering that can perhaps be traced to my Midwestern roots and frequent family outings to a now-departed restaurant in my hometown that was known for its complimentary baskets of cornbread.

Years later, a colleague and I found ourselves attending conferences in different cities, communicating over the microblogging service Twitter. She was bragging from New Orleans about a great spread of Southern food. From the Gaylord National Resort just outside of Washington, I twittered a response: “I would kill for some cornbread right now, but something tells me that’s not Gaylord National’s specialty.” 

Forgetting, as many twitterers often do, that my tweet was public, I was surprised to find a reply just a few minutes later from @GaylordPalms, one of the company’s Twitter handles. The company not only told me I could find cornbread at the hotel sports bar, but offered to wrap some up for me since I was supposed to be leaving for the airport shortly. Unfortunately, I didn’t see the tweet in time, and failed to snag the moist and buttery cornbread for my cab ride. 

But wait—there’s more.

Flash-forward four months: I’m attending another conference, this time at the Gaylord Opryland Resort in Nashville, Tenn. A few minutes after checking into my room, I receive a knock on the door. I open it to find a server with a tray of—you guessed it—cornbread, delectable spreads, and a handwritten note from the hotel: “Just in case you still have a craving for cornbread. We hope you enjoy your stay. From all your friends at the Gaylord Hotels.” 

I then did what any journalist would do: I ate three pieces of cornbread and proceeded to blog about my tale. (See http://sn.im/dcrmblog051109.) As I wrote about the experience, I became increasingly amazed by what Gaylord had accomplished. Not only had the company conversed with me in real time and extended our relationship in a relevant manner, but the staff went above and beyond to delight me as a guest, taking a tiny bit of information about me and using that detail to make my stay memorable. In fact, my cornbread comment and the Gaylord’s eventual cornbread delivery occurred at two different locations, indicating enterprisewide collaboration. Gaylord also monitored social media for mentions of its brand and responded in a timely manner—an effort likely to serve the chain well in the future. 

Amy Atkinson, Gaylord Hotels’ vice president of leisure marketing and public relations, says she remembers the cornbread event well. “One of our six service basics on which all of our [service reps] are trained is to ‘Discover and Delight’ our guests,” she says. “If we can ‘secretly’ discover something about our guests, then delight them with that personalized something that makes their stay more memorably wonderful, then we are all encouraged and empowered to do so.” 

I venture to say that Gaylord’s customer experience efforts are not merely fostering appreciation among guests, but also creating lifelong brand advocates among them. After all, my first instinct—after digging into my treat, of course—was to tell my friends. I wasn’t merely more likely to recommend Gaylord (the metric made famous by the Net Promoter score); I actually made that recommendation. My blogpost about the experience is user-generated content permanently available for everyone to see. 

Social Media Accommodations

Gaylord Hotels is hardly unique in its Twitter efforts. In fact, hotel brands are setting up shop on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter by the truckload. In addition to creating their own accounts, hotels are tapping into third-party sites, such as TripAdvisor and Hotels.com, to refresh their views of customers as well as the competitive landscape. 

With more content than ever available to leisure and business travelers alike, consumers can score better deals and truly find what they’re seeking before setting foot in foreign territory. This firehose of information puts more pressure on travel companies to give their guests “something to write home about.” The real pressure comes from the viral nature of ratings and reviews: Rather than pin their hopes on reining in negative chatter over social networks, travel and hospitality providers should realize the only way to win the arms race is to provide the positive reviewers as much ammo as possible. (See “Postcards from the Edge,” Customer Centricity, June 2010, for one hotel’s counterintuitive approach to negative reviews.)  

There’s plenty of room, as illustrated by Gaylord’s efforts, for hotels to join the conversation, use social media feedback to fix problems, and tap into events that will not only delight customers but make them loyal. As is the case with social media across all sectors, most travel companies have yet to find their footing on the social Web, but some early adopters are thriving. 

The Roger Smith Hotel (RSH), a boutique venue in midtown Manhattan, seems to have unlocked some of the gifts of social media. It doesn’t hurt that the company has a smart duo making sure its engagement strategy is up to snuff and that no twitterer gets left behind. Adam Wallace, the hotel’s director of digital marketing, says the social media efforts really began in 2006 when James Knowles, the company’s president and chief executive officer, suggested videos be included on the corporate Web site. From there, the RSH added a blog, called Roger Smith Life, which soon led to accounts on both Facebook and Twitter. To spearhead efforts on those social networking sites (as well as on ones more travel-specific, such as TripAdvisor), the hotel eventually felt the need to hire a director of social hospitality.

The social media efforts aren’t huge in scale, but they may not need to be: Small touches make a big impact. Brian Simpson, who landed the role of social hospitality director, says the RSH encourages patrons to visit TripAdvisor after checking out to leave a review. There have even been impromptu tweetups convened in the lobby after a Twitter conversation with guests. 

Chris Brogan, president of new-media marketing firm New Marketing Labs—and an Influential Leader in the 2009 CRM Market Awards—cited the RSH as an example during his presentations at a recent Web 2.0 Expo. Brogan recounted how he had prepared for a New York trip by asking his large Twitter following for hotel recommendations. A few followers recommended that he stay at the Roger Smith, praising the venue’s “blogger discount.” Within minutes, Brogan remarked, the hotel had not only contacted him, but booked him a room and even upgraded him to a suite. 

The Roger Smith Hotel, it turns out, is a social media mecca. Simpson admits the RSH has been fortunate in being recognized by a number of influencers—Twitter personality and founder of Wine Library TV Gary Vaynerchuk, he says, often hosts events there—but impressing the Twitterati is no longer the hotel’s foremost goal. “Moving forward,” he says, “it’s less about the big influencers and more, ‘How can we get the average person who is on Facebook to stay with us?’ We never really said, ‘If we can be friends with Chris Brogan, won’t that help us?’ It’s more about who stays tomorrow night or next weekend and truly becoming friends with the people we meet.” 

Wallace and Simpson credit a company culture that they describe as innovative, cutting-edge, and a bit alternative. “[CEO and President] James [Knowles] has remained consistent in that he wants us to continue to do things that are pushing the envelope,” Wallace says. “He personally is not interested in [a return on investment]. A lot of businesses are paralyzed by having to show a return on everything they do. As long as we can make our customer base have a better experience, that’s where the win is for us.” 

RSH employees say that, although chatting up guests is great, there are benefits to just being present on the social sites. In Chris Brogan’s case, Simpson points out, it wasn’t that the hotel’s @RSHotel Twitter handle jumped in and marketed itself—rather, Brogan’s friends and followers first proposed he stay at the hotel. “We have brand ambassadors on our behalf,” Simpson insists. “People are now looking to their social network for purchase decisions.” 

Feel at Home at Any Budget

The resources available to independent and luxury hotels have always seemed to provide an edge in going the extra mile to improve the customer experience—perhaps until now. “Who leads in superior customer care? The Ritz and hotels at that magnitude come to mind,” says Michael Morton, managing director of education and customer care for the Best Western hotel chain, the world’s largest, with more than 4,000 hotels in 80 countries. “We don’t have shiny marble, but we have great people.” 

And yet top-notch amenities, Morton insists, aren’t the only things that keep customers coming back. “If we can understand the needs of our customers, then we can lead in superior customer care,” he says emphatically. Three years ago, Best Western chose to overhaul its customer relationship strategy, revamping its training and support programs to pay much more attention to what customers want. Morton, brought on board to boost customer care programs, dove in with Medallia’s technology for enterprise feedback management (EFM). 

The Medallia EFM system deals with solicited feedback—the kind epitomized by guest surveys. Morton admits that surveys are by far the hotel chain’s primary source of customer feedback, but it’s not a one-way gathering operation. Best Western uses Medallia to push survey data out systemwide—Morton reports 97 percent usage across Best Western’s 4,100 hotels—to share potential areas of improvement with all managers. 

Soon after implementation, for example, the EFM system revealed a clear step Best Western could take to boost satisfaction scores. Customers were placing a surprisingly high importance on cleanliness and maintenance, and survey results indicated customers were more likely to return if they experienced no problems whatsoever. 

From those findings, Morton says, Best Western undertook a program that focuses on deep cleaning and maintenance resolution, and plans to roll out significant changes to its maintenance-training program over the next 18 months. Although most of the changes have yet to unfold, Morton says Best Western’s contact center has already seen a 70 percent decrease in complaints in the last two years. The reason, he says, is plain and simple: “We understand customers better.”

Best Western may not be a match for the Roger Smith Hotel’s level of social media efforts, but the chain is taking notice of third-party review sites and the impact those sites have on customer decisions. “Our hotels don’t have the time to check different hotel sites every day,” Morton says, “so what we need to do is go out and harvest information for our hotels and come up with a turnkey approach so we can pass it on to managers, and tell them, ‘This is being said about your property’ and give them the tools to respond correctly.”

Check-In Loyalty

With 11.2 million members, Best Western already has a large-scale loyalty program, one that Morton says delivers huge benefits to the company’s bottom line. In fact, loyalty members accounted for 22 percent of the brand’s total revenue in 2009—and Morton says he expects to see that figure grow. The success of Best Western’s loyalty program is hardly an anomaly. According to Colloquy, a research firm specializing in loyalty marketing, overall loyalty-program activity continues to rise—but membership in hotel programs has, for the first time ever, surpassed that of their airline counterparts. 

And the shift in balance is actually accelerating, with hotel reward programs expanding by 26 percent while airline frequent-flyer memberships are up only 9 percent. Colloquy Partner Kelly Hlavinka says that hotel loyalty is witnessing a real growth spurt, one that began before the recession and continues now after it—but it’s particularly impressive given that the travel-and-hospitality industry might have reasonably plateaued after essentially inventing the loyalty-program concept decades ago. “After leading the charge for 30 years and being on the forefront for so long, you’d think they might be getting tired or stale,” Hlavinka says. “But this is one of the most vibrant sectors. Travel has proven that they understand these programs.”

Hotel and airline loyalty programs tend to get thrown into the same bucket, Hlavinka says, because they share similar business models. There are differences, however. “Hotels are probably doing a better job right now in really harnessing the data and using that to be more relevant,” she says. “The airline industry still has a ways to go.” 

The Hilton hotel chain, for example, has made some inroads with loyalty data to better target its members. Members of Hilton HHonors MyWay register their preferences, such as whether they’d rather rack up airline miles with each stay or earn points toward things like room upgrades. “What’s really interesting is how [Hilton is] collecting other pieces of information that gives new insights into customers,” Hlavinka remarks. She says that, after telling Hilton she was interested in golfing and vacationing in Latin America, the next email she received was about Costa Rica. On the Web site, she now sees information about golf resorts. “They’re really listening to me,” she says.

According to Forrester Research Vice President and Principal Analyst Henry Harteveldt, business travel has been in decline for the past two years. “The 45.7 million people who travel for business have dramatically changed how they get from point A to point B—and many turn to technologies like videoconferencing as a substitute for taking business trips,” Harteveldt writes in a recent report. The analyst urges travel companies to “think like a consumer” and “never underestimate the importance of details.” For example, he suggests, companies should provide online visitors with visual content such as pictures, video, and contextual information. Attention to the little things, after all, can make a difference between a good experience and a great one—or a customer’s intent to make a recommendation and her actually making one. 

Hotels—big and small, luxury and economy, independent and chain—are coming to grips with a new breed of consumer. They are finding ways to interact in new-to-them channels and they are—as all companies should be—listening to reviews, conversations, and mentions of their brand. It isn’t easy to make every guest feel like a VIP. But it is easy to watch, listen, and pay close attention to what customers are saying. 

And if all else fails? Try feeding them some cornbread. There’s a good chance they’ll be coming back.  

Associate Editor Lauren McKay can be reached at lmckay@destinationCRM.com.

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