“Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.” – Niels Bohr
In this article, I wanted to take a slightly different approach than the usual “top trends for 2012″ format, and instead look back at the technologies I saw making the biggest impact in the hotel industry over the past year. Hopefully, these success stories will serve as inspiration for you as we look forward to another year of innovation.
Understanding if a technology is relevant for your audience and effective in your situation is often more valuable than trying to determine whether it’s the next big global trend or not.
Let’s take a look at some of interesting things I saw in travel technology last year, and think if you can put them to work in your situation.
Social networking became more private, with selective content sharing (and consumption) options
It should have always been like this. That holiday photo you want to share with people who attended the party may not be for the world to see.
With different preferences for sharing different aspects of your life with family, friends, coworkers, and clients – social networking needs different levels of privacy.
As Dave Taylor wrote in the Huffington Post:
“As people, we differentiate between our friends, whether we’re youngsters lauding our BFF or whether we’re married, have kids, social, cultural and political groups.
“You know what I’m talking about, it’s the ‘strength’ or ‘depth’ of an interpersonal relationship. It’s complicated, particularly when you realize that it’s not symmetric, either, in that you can view someone as your bestest friend, even while they think of you as a close friend, but not their best pal.”
Tools for sharing pieces of your life with select groups in your social network became increasingly advanced and important last year. In 2011, it looked like social networks finally began realizing your privacy preferences go far beyond private and public.
First, it was Google Plus introducing Circles as a way to share content selectively. Facebook quickly responded with advanced sharing options, and perhaps more importantly for travel companies, the ability to ignore people and brands that are not relevant for you.
This evolution in social networking means people now have more control over the content they see and the messages they receive, making it increasingly important for travel brands to stay interesting and relevant. (Even better, get influential, interesting people to be talking about you online.)
Boring content will become increasingly hidden. If you’re not remarkable, you might as well not even participate.
How do you stay interesting?
Learn from the people behind some of the most interesting, engaging content online today. Marc Schiller, CEO of Bond Strategy and someone who has designed campaigns for everyone from Christina Aguilera to The Economist, said this in an interview with Business Insider:
“As a marketer I focus in on behaviors, not technologies. We really need to look at and adapt to the behaviors of what people do online—how they express themselves, how they create, how they curate. Then, you have to provide value to that. That is the key to success.”
The same is true in the hospitality and travel industries. The curators publishing the most engaging content have their finger on the pulse of what’s new and cool.
Sabine de Witte is a great example of this, connecting with a new generation of travelers that cutting-edge hotel brand CitizenM is reaching out to.
Today’s traveling digerati want more than just information about your company. They want to know about what’s new and cool – and specifically, the people creating this.
“Our readers loved our ‘day in the life’ profile story of a very famous 23-year-old fashion blogger in the Netherlands. People want to hear about more than the superficial: they want to know about other people’s lives.”
According to de Witte, marketers today must live the lifestyle of the people they want to communicate with:
“If you’re living the lifestyle, you’ll know what type of content will connect with your audience, because it connects with you.”
The Roger Smith Hotel is doing something similar in New York with its e-magazine, The Jolly Roger. Suggestions of what to do in New York are provided by not just their marketing team, but by the director of sales, interns, and the general manager.
The result is a glimpse into the real New York by real New Yorkers – and provides a great example of something you could do in your organization.
That leads into the next big thing I’ve seen…
Entire companies became involved in social marketing
This happens when staff expertise is featured to create more interesting social media content.
As mentioned above, the Roger Smith team does a great job at this because they intentionally recruit the right people and them include them in the publishing process.
There are a wide variety of ways to involve your staff in social marketing. It could be as simple as introducing team members – like how the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group highlighted individual staff on its Hong Kong property’s Facebook page:
Or it could be more active, where different staff members participate in producing content. Your concierge team, for example, has a wealth of local knowledge and insider tips that can make compelling digital material – whether this is shared in a blog, on YouTube, through Twitter or on Foursquare.
Mobile photo sharing went mainstream
Design-led companies are beginning to embrace the rapid adoption of mobile-based photo sharing websites such as Instagram – which tap into the hot trifecta of marketing magic today: social/mobile/local.
Hotel groups such as CitizenM and Morgans are sharing not only what’s new and cool in their properties – but artistic shots from around their neighborhoods.
For consumers, these photos often act as a new form of review. People are using these sites to inspire and express their own creativity, so the content is nearly universally positive.
Niche social networks became valuable branding tools
Continuing from the trend above, niche social networks such as Pinterest are proving to be a valuable way to build brands and connect with niche audiences.
By curating cool content, it’s possible to communicate the lifestyle messages that are so important for many brands in the hospitality business. Plus, it’s a powerful way to feel the pulse of what’s trending – and influence some of those trends.
“Think of [our site] as a virtual pinboard,” says the Pinterest team.
Heather Allard explains the opportunity well:
“If you had the opportunity to make your business part of someone’s vision board, would you do it? Pinterest is that vision board. Consider it a visual buffet—a look book—of all the things we crave in life.”
Early adopters such as Gansevoort Hotels have already begun experimenting with image sharing on Pinterest:
Guestsourcing became even more important
The rise of niche social media networks and the dramatic increase in content production and sharing – much of it based on images and videos – leads to another opportunity.
I coined the word guestsourcing in 2009 to describe the trend of hotels using guest-created content in their marketing.
But 2011 was the first year I really saw hotels begin doing this well – often re-purposing content from photo sharing sites for use on other social networks.
InterContinental shared tweeted photos of their hotels on the brand’s Facebook page:
Hotel Indigo does a great job of guestsourcing – using photos that guests have tweeted or uploaded as a Pinterest board:
This concept is very simple, but more people need to be doing it. Just monitor the social web, grab interesting content, and re-post to Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest – or any other site – with credit to the original author.
Individual profiles became more visible (and important) on social networks
In the world where anyone can be a publisher, services that provide some insight into the credibility of that publisher became important.
Leading the way is Klout, which is seeking to become the standard for measuring online influence.
The use of metrics like this became clear to everyone from hotel groups providing service, to public relations agencies identifying people most qualified to spread the word, to marketers looking to build relationships.
Closely related to this trend is the fact that people want more background details on content publishers that will allow them to gather relevant information.
Over the past few years we’ve seen a big shift from the “wisdom of the crowds” to “wisdom of my friends” to “wisdom of my friends with taste”.
This is especially important on consumer-written anonymous review sites: both in understanding our own similarity to the person writing the review to understanding the reviewer’s credibility and history over time. People want experts.
The importance of trust and authenticity is rising quickly. As review sites look for ways to add credibility to their community and content, expect the importance of individual reviewers’ profiles to increase.
The rise of the review economy
Over the past year, we saw insights from customer reviews increasingly used for more than just reputation management and PR. It was used in all departments of hospitality and travel companies: sales, marketing, operations, quality, revenue, and distribution.
This has led to the emergence of what I call “The Review Economy”, an environment where customer feedback plays a central role in all areas of a business.
This effect is partly due to the rapid diversification of customer-created review formats, and also the creation of better analytics that can separate the signal from the noise and reveal insight for action.
In terms of review validity, we’re seeing a shift away from anonymous review sites and toward company-gathered feedback: reviews verified with bookings.
This December, Expedia announced its new Verified Reviews program, which only includes feedback from guests that stayed at a property (review requests are sent in the booking followup email).
“We like to call it the new source of truth, internally,” said John Kim, Expedia’s senior vice president of global products, in a USAToday interview. “People love the idea that our reviews are verified so you can’t randomly leave a review.”
Hotel companies are joining this trend as well. In October, Starwood introduced its own rating and reviews program.
Members of the Starwood Preferred Guest program can review the hotels they have stayed at over the past 18 months – if they provide their loyalty program credentials or the reservation confirmation number for their stay.
Un-edited reviews will be posted to the hotel’s website after at least five reviews have been collected. Starwood executives are doing this to encourage guests to engage with the company more and book more repeat stays.
Many of the hotel marketing professionals I’ve spoken with say it’s highly likely other hospitality companies will follow suit and begin collect their own guest reviews. This, and the fact that more reviews are validated by bookings, provides increased assurance to executives that this feedback can be trusted for making management decisions.
But quality data without the right tools to extract meaning from it is useless. Review collection and analysis technology has become much more sophisticated over the past year, and now we’re seeing examples of hotels doing very interesting things with this.
For example, Cristina Mulet and her team at Melia Hotels do a great job of taking insights from their customers on the social web and using them for product improvement, quality management, and revenue optimization.
Diego Sartori and his team at CitizenM Hotels do something similar, taking online review feedback into consideration for each new property they open. And on the individual property level, Ricardo Samaan at Olivia Plaza used this approach to improve the quality of their breakfast.
In order to use customer feedback to consistently improve product quality and business performance, semantic analysis of online reviews is very helpful to identify major issues that need to be resolved.
Specific, department-level reporting for each manager is critical, as is a workflow system to manage the whole product improvement process. It requires a culture of using guest feedback to guide improvement. Co-creating with customers helps hotel and travel brands build loyalty and create a product that better fits market needs.
Semantic technologies made sentiment analysis a lot smarter
Valyn Perini wrote about the opportunities semantic technology will provide consumers in her Tnooz article this week, but there is also a powerful opportunity for using semantic analysis to understand sentiment from online customer feedback (as Martin Soler and I wrote about back in September 2011).
It’s providing travel executives with valuable insight in how to improve both their business operations and marketing communications, by instantly revealing exactly what guests like and don’t like about the business.
Here’s an example semantic analysis report from a popular New York City hotel:
As you can see, quality, staff, location, and the views are all parts of this hotels’ experience that guests talk about positively. These elements should be present in all marketing communications and mentioned over and over again in the advertising copy.
Meanwhile, we can see that size and price are things that come up as negative. This typically happens when the hotel is giving the impression of something that guests are not agreeing with.
This hotel could increase the effectiveness of their communications by focusing on promoting these elements guests appreciate most, and guide the customer perception of the hotel before the booking.
Promoting these attributes of the hotel through advertising will likely lead to an even better online reputation, since it will help attract guests that appreciate what the business does best.
Short-form and mobile-based reviews dramatically increased in popularity
While written reviews began as the standard in travel planning websites, the rapid rise of social networking and mobile communications has lead to short-format and mobile reviews becoming increasingly important.
I’m increasingly finding myself hesitant to write a long text review of a hotel or restaurant – I simply don’t have time.
But it is very easy to send out a tweet or check-in on Foursquare to leave a tip for my network there while I’m waiting for something. I suspect I’m not alone.
The quickly growing popularity of mobile-based social networking combined with time-starved travelers makes it likely to be even more important in the year ahead.
For companies using the social web for service or reputation management, it’s critical to focus on these types of feedback. And given the real-time nature of the web, response time is critical.
But when looking at all of the tweets and social networking content in aggregate, hotel executives are also extracting valuable operational and marketing insight.
While it’s clear these individual pieces of feedback play an important role in customer service and reputation management, all this data together provides a rich source of business, market, and customer intelligence.
Reviews and social played a bigger role in search visibility
Generating business from the web is often very dependent on how easy your business is to find. Do you appear on the radar of travelers planning a trip to your destination?
For many consumers, search engines are the first stop on this travel planning process. Google research found that on average, every travel purchase is preceded by 2.5 hours of research time and dozens of unique queries.
This has been true for a while. What’s new is that now social activities affect search rankings and search content.
Building visibility and authority in social networks provides a benefit beyond that site…and into search results pages.
While many in the search marketing industry have guessed this for some time, last year we clearly saw social media affecting search engine results pages.
Bing integrated Facebook data as a way to personalize search results based on someone’s social network – such as links or content that friends have Liked. When a person’s friends have not shared any content related to a search, Bing will prioritize content that is popular with the Facebook community at large.
And while Google has been experimenting with social search for quite some time, this week it introduced a whole new approach to including social content – initially from Google Plus – in results pages.
Danny Sullivan of SearchEngineLand called this the “most radical transformation ever” of the Google algorithm in his detailed overview of the changes. On TechCrunch, Jason Kincaid explained why he thinks there are bigger changes afoot:
“This may not sound like a huge deal, but it’s foreshadowing a bigger change to come: Google is going to increasingly become a search engine for all of your stuff….
“The key, [product director Jack Menzel] says, is that Google is getting a lot better at figuring out when to incorporate this socially relevant data. They’re focusing on showing content not simply because your friend shared it — but because it might actually be helpful.”
So both search positioning formulas and the very content showing up in those search results pages is changing based on activity in the social web.
Why exactly is search engine visibility important?
As mentioned above, web search plays a central role in the travel planning and purchase process. Each of these searches is an opportunity to introduce your brand….if people see your website. A few statistics from Hubspot to remember about the importance of ranking well in search results pages:
- The top 3 results get 79% of the total clicks
- Only 3% of searchers go beyond the first page of results pages
Clearly, your placement in search results plays a disproportionate role in website traffic they will receive. If your websites are not near the top of page one of a search results page, the website is practically invisible to potential guests.
The key takeaway here is to invest in building your social media presence and cultivating as many online customer reviews as you can to increase your ranking and drive more website traffic.
Encourage customers to review you on Google Places and any other review websites they participate in. Also, make it easy for people to share content about your hotels on the social web.
From Google Plus to Pinterest, people are looking for material to post – so make this easy for them.
International marketing became very important
With different countries and economies recovering at different speeds, a global communications strategy helped maximize revenues and reach new markets. This is obvious for large, multinational hotel brands, but we saw that even small independent hotels can do something similar.
For example, Isabelle Lozano at the Apostrophe Hotel in Paris creates unique versions of their site in French and English to reach different audiences:
“We noticed that there’s a slight difference between the English part of the website and the French part. The French part has more articles and talks more about things that are less-known than in the English part. We’ve realized that the French customers were really reading alot of our posts.
“After arriving at the hotel, after their booking, they would say: ‘I’m going to go see this exhibition that I saw on the website.’ The English part follows the same idea, but talks more about the hotel itself, because that’s what English clients want to learn about, we’ve realized.
“At first we were just translating, but we asked customers what they thought, and we found out that our English and French customers wanted different things. English and Americans were saying: ‘That’s too much information; we just want to learn more about the hotel.’
“I’m not working only for my own pleasure; my main aim is to please customers, so I keep asking them what they think.
For executives at travel companies that oversee multiple properties in multiple locations around the world, understanding specific cultural travel trends – like this piece from New World Hotels – can be very useful.
I talked about the trend towards image-based social networks in part one of this series, but it’s interesting to note here that a focus on images in your marketing not only taps into a hot trend – what Robert Scoble calls “the currency of Facebook” – but it transcends language barriers to tell your story to potential visitors from around the world.
We saw this with the unveiling of the Four Seasons’ new $18 million website – the pictures do the selling:
Increasing blur of “online” and “offline” worlds
This is increasingly happening with mobile technologies such as augmented reality. Yelp and other review sites launched mobile applications that display a live overview of reviews:
But beyond these technologies, the basic truth is that real life happens offline. It seems the best marketing campaigns understood this – such as the Swiss village that became a worldwide hit after printing out profile photos of all their Facebook fans.
That’s why I expect to see more companies trying to bridge the gap when it comes to online-offline activity:
[NB: Trendwatching has an interesting report on the OFF-ON trend that you may want to explore in more detail]
Real-world events and “Advertainment” becomes critical for branding
Online and offline are more than just blending – offline experiences and promotions are increasingly critical for generating online buzz. Attention is the most valuable commodity today, and companies are increasingly trying to combine entertainment, media, and advertising to raise awareness.
Fast Company recently profiled this trend in its feature, Co.Create Nation: The worlds of Silicon Valley, Hollywood, and Madison Avenue have blurred, and a new realm of business has emerged.
“Once upon a time, entertainment and advertising were two separate lands. Each land was dynamic and cool, in its own way, but their denizens rarely commingled.… And then the winds of innovation blew through. Everything has changed.… The barriers between these businesses [are falling] away…”
Hewlett-Packard launched its Music Influencer program last year as a way to spread the word about HP products through traditional blogs and giveaways. Building on the success they acheived there, the company expanded to real-life parties to engage some of the web’s most influential people.
“We measured success by who we were able to get into the room, the amount of content generated (about 330 pieces) and the reach of that content.”
In hospitality and travel, this becomes even more natural. People like James Kinney have been doing this for a while in New York and beyond through music and events:
“Hotels have an extraordinary opportunity to become mavens of culture, which increases their brand impressions and their bottom line. In the case of the Forty Four Music Series that we have at the Royalton… we’ve had Grammy Award nominees, Grammy Award winners – literally the best in New York City – play right in the lobby of the Royalton and people absolutely have that WOW factor, like: ‘Wow, I never expected this to be here.’
“We’ve seen an increase in sales and in their social media and digital assets as well, because the artists are tweeting about the property.”
“Content is key, and there’s this big thing around social media where people say: ‘Oh, if I tweet that you get 25 percent off of your next drink,’ then I’m going to have a herd of people coming over to my hotel.
“As you and I know, that’s not the case. Whether you’re doing music or a movie screening or live dancers or whatever you’re doing, the content itself is how you communicate the property’s brand.
“We have so many artists that are on the verge and that are famous coming to the property; when they’re tweeting and they’re taking pictures — ‘Oh, we’re at Royalton NYC at Morgan’s Hotel’, we’ve automatically increased their content strategy and their social currency and, specifically, their digital assets; all these things are very real in the digital world that we live in. But saying that you have a special on pancakes just doesn’t work anymore.”
Location-based services grew up
…and they became an important part of how hospitality and travel companies encouraged loyalty, discovery, and service. Again, this is right in the center of all that’s hot in marketing today – social/mobile/local – and it helps hotels and travel companies bridge the online-offline gap.
With the sale of Gowalla to Facebook, Foursquare has become the king in the space and matured beyond checkins to present expanded opportunities for advertisers and a very solid business case. Radar makes it easy to find what’s cool around you. Companies can create curated experiences with lists.
For example, The Ritz-Carlton introduced World Concierge on Foursquare as a way to extend their brand to a mobile audience. The project was a simple concept: taking internal knowledge and making available it outside four walls of hotels.
The team collected the knowledge and the tips from concierges at each property, and collected it all into central account.
The company got the whole team to contribute through close collaboration between the agency, brand, and staff at each property. There are 76 Ritz-Carlton locations around the world – representing a huge infrastructure of knowledge – so it was just a matter of collecting this and putting it online.
Travelers have two ways to access this information. The first is to follow The Ritz-Carlton on Foursquare, where you can see every new tip that is published. The other way is through traditional check ins.
The program was designed to not be exclusively about The Ritz-Carlton, and you don’t have to be a guest to engage with the brand. For example, if you are at the Red Square in Moscow, you might see tip or something special about the neighborhood. Promotional messages are not the priority.
Using location-based services and other similar technologies are a powerful way to create a curated brand experience. Which is crucial, because…
Branding became paramount
As time-starved consumers, we crave direction – and brands often provide this by making buying choices easier. Today, we’re seeing social media increasingly used to define and shape the way successful brands are built.
Product design – and in the case of hospitality, experience design – is an integral ingredient in branding. We’re seeing hotel and travel companies increasingly use customer feedback to share this design process – and then increase the amount of buzz around these great designs.
CitizenM is a powerful example of this in the hotel industry. They aim to provide a new type of hotel experience for a new type of traveler: guests that may not want to stay in their rooms for the entire duration of their stay.
“Our guests just want a good bed, a good shower, and then they spend most of their time out in the city or in our hotels’ social spaces,” says chief operating officer Michael Levie. An innovative building system (hotels are constructed from pre-fabricated modules) in offsite unit factories allows the company to consistently maintain high quality standards while accelerating the building process.
The story of how their hotels are built is remarkable, and the impact of design on their brand, reputation, and overall success is undeniable. Among other awards, citizenM was voted The Trendiest Hotel in the World by TripAdvisor two years in a row – in 2010 and 2011.
Systems for constant improvement
The link between design, branding, and the social web takes place when online feedback is used to guide the design process.
Many of the strongest brands were created through more than just big-picture brainstorming – it is also the result of daily, consistent operational improvement. Constantly refining and tweaking the way service is delivered leads to remarkable experiences – which, as I mentioned – is how the best brands are built today.
Until recently, hotel managers have relied upon some combination of internal guest satisfaction surveys, mystery shopping and intuition to understand sentiment and improve service.
It took a herculean effort to collect these, and since each of these feedback channels is somewhat self-selecting, there are significant structural flaws that can prevent gathering an accurate understanding of satisfaction.
The social web changed that. Today, online travel agencies, review sites and social media platforms have provided the potential holy grail of customer insight.
Since customers now share unsolicited feedback everywhere and anywhere they are, the challenge is now how to collect all of the relevant conversations, separate the signal from the noise, and create insight for action to improve guest satisfaction levels.
Insight for action is key. Your brand is defined with every single interaction each of your employees have. This makes intentional experience design and excellence in service delivery critical parts of this brand building process.
Create that set of tools and operational processes so you can continually incorporate customer suggestions into your product improvement process, and along the way, build a brand that sets you apart from the competition.
The importance of branding is clear once we see how it affects everything social media: the type and format of content you publish, the tone of that content, and the platforms you will distribute it on. In fact, branding activities touch multiple departments:
- Strategy: How will you define the message in a way that instantly communicates what your brand stands for?
- Marketing: How will you distribute this message?
- Operations: How will you deliver on that promise?
- Service and Reputation Management: How will you defend and stay true to that message?
Because the social web plays a key role in each of these activities, it has become the biggest brand-building opportunity the travel industry has had in decades.
In this series of articles, we’ve examined some of the most interesting and engaging opportunities that exist on the social web.
What are you doing to take advantage of this opportunity?
“When it comes to the future, there are three kinds of people: those who let it happen, those who make it happen, and those who wonder what happened.”
You don’t have to foresee the future. You have to create it.