Cornell Highlights Hospitality's Top Social Engagement Efforts

By Glenn Withiam, Director of Publications, Cornell Center for Hospitality Research | March 29, 2011

It’s hard to think of an industry that is more exposed to the winds of consumer commentary than hospitality. People love to talk about their travel experiences—both good and bad—and social media have now given consumers a megaphone to share those experiences. At the same time, as the operator of a hotel, restaurant, or other travel provider, you have a tremendous opportunity to build a new type of relationship with your guests. Or you have the opportunity to offend them mightily. Let’s look at ideas for building relationships (and not giving offense) presented at the 2010 Cornell Hospitality Research Summit (CHRS), which offered a concentrated track focusing on social media.
 
You cannot ignore social media. The statistics presented by Lorraine Sileo, vice president of research of PhoCusWright, are staggering. More than 600 million people (10 percent of the world’s population) are on Facebook. More critically, 66 percent of travelers are on Facebook. That can be important because Facebook referrals are far more likely to convert into bookings than are referrals from travel review sites, according to Sileo’s analysis.
 
In short, the strategy is to integrate marketing and sales efforts with social media, but this process undoubtedly will require new approaches to marketing. As an example, a study by Peter O’Connor, a professor of information systems management at the Essec Business School, analyzed the hotel industry’s presence on these four top social media outlets: Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, and YouTube. He found that many of the world’s top 50 hotel brands use at least three of those four channels, although seven brands could not be found at all. On the other hand, he found that such brands as Marriott, Hyatt Regency, Holiday Inn, Hilton, and Best Western were well represented. But just to maintain a sense of proportion, hits for “Lady Gaga” totally drowned out anything from the hospitality industry.
 
Top hospitality strategies
Hilton, for instance, has created a mobile app for each of its brands, according to Kevin Jacobs, senior vice president of corporate strategy and treasurer of Hilton Worldwide. Since more than 80 percent of guests travel with a mobile device and 40 percent use it to search travel, mobile apps make sense. Travelers have responded by making more than 340,000 downloads of Hilton’s mobile apps, and booking well over 100,000 room-nights in 2010.
 
McDonald’s is another firm that is making heavy use of social media. According to Steve Levigne, vice president of U.S. strategy and insights, McDonald’s started its social media strategy almost two years ago, partly in recognition that McDonald’s has lots of buzz. Every seven seconds someone is talking about the firm, he said, and this includes people of all ages. The McDonald’s Facebook page has 3.1 million fans, and its Twitter account has more than 50,000 followers. Among other things, McDonald’s has been able to roll out several new concepts based on the comments about those products recorded on social media sites, including its sweet chili sauce and Shamrock Shakes.
 
Given the importance of dominating search engine results, Anil Aggarwal, CEO of Milestone, suggested that by participating in social media, a hotel can saturate the search results page, thereby putting the property near the top of listings. With this approach, a hotel’s Google results page would show the brand site itself, the corporate brand, and then hits for Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
 
Looking at social media use in another hospitality segment, Adam Goldstein, CEO and president of Royal Caribbean International (RCI), said that RCI focuses on engagement, which he views as essential in the current environment. Social media interactions figure heavily in the engagement process, as customers are encouraged to communicate regarding their cruises, and the company responds with both words and actions. Goldstein maintains his own blog, although some customers are incredulous that the CEO would take the time to do such a thing, and RCI has posted YouTube videos of its new Oasis of the Seas, recording more than 700,000 hits.
 
These are just a few examples of the rapidly expanding connection between hospitality and social media. Each company’s strategy has to fit its own brand concept, but there’s no doubt that your guests expect to find your firm in whatever medium they choose—and they expect you to respond in an appropriate way. Just watching and listening isn’t enough. The moral of the CHRS presentations is that it’s time to be an active player in social media of all kinds.
 
Glenn Withiam is director of publications for the Cornell Center for Hospitality Research.
 
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