Twitter: What Hospitality Execs Need to Know

By Vicki Powers | August 10, 2009

There's no doubt that Twitter is changing the landscape of business as more and more people turn to this micro-blogging site to share their 140-character messages with their "followers," as they're known. In fact, the number of U.S. adults on Twitter is expected to double to 12 million by the end of 2009 compared with 2008, according to eMarketer. But what kind of impact will these "tweets" have on hospitality?

Twitter is already changing the hospitality industry, according to Nathan Egan, a social media expert at Freesource Agency (www.freesourceagency.com) who holds a degree from Cornell's School of Hotel Administration. Restaurants, airlines, and hotels are employing Twitter for customer service and beyond. If used correctly, the potential for new business growth is tremendous, Egan says.

"Twitter allows you to globally connect and engage with people in ways that have been traditionally cost prohibitive," he states.

Egan points to three ways that Twitter can have a positive impact on the hospitality industry: enabling marketing budgets that are more targeted and more effective for less money; maximizing customer outreach and helping to attract top talent; and providing easy access to real-time feedback that helps companies improve customer satisfaction and drive down overall operating costs.
   
Build a community
J.R. Cohen started using Twitter with interest and skepticism back in August 2008 for Coffee Groundz (www.coffeegroundz.net) an independent, Houston-based coffee house.  Coffee Groundz is thriving in this down economy, and competes with a Starbucks just three blocks away. Cohen, Coffee Groundz's general manager, has built a strong following on Twitter (6,799 followers as of 7/09) by building a community with current and potential customers. Through his community, Cohen organized a charity food drive, which raised nearly 300 pounds of food for a local food bank, as well as two clothing drives and a blood drive. His Houston Tweet Ups (social gatherings through Twitter) keep growing, the most recent of which drew in nearly 300 attendees.

"People follow because there's a personality behind the business," Cohen says. "I tweet as myself."

In March 2009, Marketing Restaurants Online ranked Coffee Groundz fourth in national restaurant chains on Twitter based on its number of followers. This puts them above Burger King, Popeye's Chicken and Jason's Deli. Cohen adeptly manages his followers by interacting and communicating with them one-on-one. Although Cohen admits that he did not know what he was doing when he started on Twitter, he's definitely a Twitter hospitality success story and credits a 20 percent to 30 percent increase in sales because of his Twitter presence.

Build a brand
The people behind the hotels and restaurants who Twitter are a wide variety, ranging from general managers to marketing executives and even chefs. Matt Gordon, executive chef and managing partner at San Diego's Urban Solace (www.urbansolace.net), wasn't sure what to think of Twitter when his PR agency set up an account for him on behalf of his restaurant. But today he's definitely hooked at 1,373 followers strong. Gordon focuses his "tweets" on restaurant specials and menu changes rather than using it as a personal forum. Gordon sees Twitter as a tool to build his restaurant's brand, among other goals, which is important for Urban Solace's future expansion plans.

"We have plenty of out-of-towners who visit Urban Solace," Gordon says.  "It certainly doesn't hurt to start building our Twitter-base nationally now."

Twitter proved to be a fantastic way for Huddle House (www.huddlehouse.com), a neighborhood diner with 420 locations in 17 states, to interact with its customers, create buzz about the brand, and enable customers to promote the brand on their own. The 45-year-old restaurant realized it needed to innovate through social media and turned to Twitter and other outlets in September 2008. Susan Franck, vice president of marketing, says with 45 percent of Twitter users ranging from 25 to 34 years old, it's proved to be a good demographic for the restaurant, with 1,930 followers.

Huddle House targets its tweets to talk about specials, connect with customers, and share contest promotions. It searches for mentions of Huddle House on Twitter to listen in and join the conversation. Franck believes Twitter has definitely taken marketing to a different level, because it's so personal and in real-time.

"If nothing else, companies need to watch what's being said about them to be proactive and not reactive," Franck says.

Not surprisingly, ducks represent the Twitter icon for The Peabody Memphis (www.peabodymemphis.com) which joined Twitter and other social media outlets to build brand recognition in October 2008. While it first started promoting its rooftop parties by targeting a younger demographic through Twitter, its growing follower base of 1,287 yielded unexpected benefits.

"We didn't realize the things we would be able to do with Twitter," says Kelly Earnest, director of public relations. "We didn't imagine, for example, that local groups would tweet about their conference being held at our hotel. We like to listen and respond without being intrusive."

Earnest tweets for The Peabody Memphis as one facet of her job. She focuses on exclusive Twitter deals, contests, pictures, and videos to promote the hotel, restaurant, and the famous Peabody ducks. She also searches for mentions of the hotel, Memphis, and rooftop on Twitter to follow conversations.

While The Peabody Memphis is still trying to figure out the ROI of Twitter, Earnest says she definitely sees an ROI with the rooftop parties. Before Twitter, 700 people would be considered a huge turnout for their rooftop party. Today the average number is 1,000 to 1,200, with upwards of 1,700 in attendance. Earnest says Twitter has certainly proved successful in promoting events for the hotel.

Connect with customers
Some hotel companies maintain a variety of Twitter accounts to encourage executives to personally connect with customers. Kimpton Hotel & Restaurants' (www.kimptonhotels.com) chief operating officer Niki Leondakis wanted to connect directly with customers through Twitter and started her own account; this took place just as Kimpton's marketing department was brainstorming the same idea for her.

"Twitter gives Kimpton and me a whole other platform to connect with customers," Leondakis says. "My updates are based on my personal interests and tie into the lifestyle and interests of our customers. It makes the message more authentic through my voice."

Kimpton maintains a corporate Twitter account as well through its marketing department.  A small team works together to scour Twitter for guest tweets, flag relevant news articles to share, and create thoughtful tweets that can potentially improve someone's perspective or their day. While Kimpton is still trying to determine metrics around the value of Twitter, Leondakis admits that Twitter has become a great part of her own lifestyle.

"For me personally, the single biggest value of Twitter is having dialogue in real-time with customers and providing them a service or surprise," she states.

Egan believes the hospitality industry is just starting to scratch the surface regarding this free marketing vehicle.

"Companies that begin using Twitter now will be able to build a competitive advantage over those who are not yet using it," Egan remarks.
 

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