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The hospitality industry is Facebooking its online marketing

The social network is providing an online platform to the hospitality industry that is now a “must” for every hotel chains. Whereas before, its uses were limited to increasing a brand’s digital footprint, today the stakes have gotten critically higher when Google decreed that Facebook could increase SEO of a company’s traditional website. It is also a way to create and animate a community of “fans”, close to a loyalty programme membership. Furthermore, developers have also created different tools allowing guests to directly reserve their rooms through their Facebook page, therefore making it a direct POS. However, the hospitality industry still has catching up to do compared to other consumer goods industries.

Facebook was founded in a university dormitory in 2003 and by 2007, Microsoft announced that it had purchased a 1.6% share of Facebook for $240 million. By November 2010, Facebook's value was $41 billion (more than eBay), becoming the third largest U.S. Web company after Google and Amazon and the social network reached the one trillion pageviews mark in June 2011. On May 19, 2012, Facebook was publicly introduced at the New York Stock Exchange with a global trading value above $100bn, making Mark Zuckerberg, founder and chairman, the youngest multi-billionaire of all times.For those not so familiar with the concept: Facebook is a free social networking service and website with more than 900 million registered users. Users must create a profile before using the site, after which they may add other users as friends, and exchange messages, pictures, videos, and links. Additionally, users may join common-interest user groups, such as work-place, or school. Companies, such as hotel groups and chains, have their own profile as well, and users can “like” a company or a hotel, making the establishment a common- interest group. A user officially becomes a “fan” of a chain or hotel by clicking on the “like” symbol associated with each profile and a declaration is published within that user’s network. The hotel or brand that is “liked” will have access to that individual’s profile and will have the ability to send that user messages. This is one basic step to creating a community of “fans”. The hospitality industry is a little behind on Facebook popularity compared to other industries. To give an idea of the epic proportions that these special interest groups (or Facebook pages) are taking, McDonalds has 19,573,645 fans; Coca Cola has 41,827,328; and Michael Jackson has 48,621,056. Thus far, in the hospitality industry, Best Western is the reigning champion with 477,102 “likes”, way ahead all of its competitors (Hilton Hotels and Resorts come in second place with +300k fans). However, Expedia already has more than twice the number of fans as Best Western (1,181,091). A hotel can have a Facebook page on different levels. A single establishment can have its own individual Facebook page, which is very popular amongst consortia and franchises, as the hotel’s owner is responsible for keeping up his/her establishment’s publicity and sales, making a Facebook page a perfect means to increase exposure. A single establishment can be doubly represented by having its own individual Facebook page, and being encompassed within the brand’s official page.An example of this is the InterContinental Moscow Tverskaya, which has 1,303 followers in its own right and is technically part of Inter- Continental Hotels and Resorts brand, which has 35,458 fans. In addition to this, a group can create a page for its loyalty club, like Club Carlson, which has 47,252 fans whilst the regular Carlson corporate page has only 551. It is not uncommon to have loyalty club pages that are more popular than corporate pages. Hilton Worldwide and Wyndham also have corporate pages that have less than 6,000 fans whilst the Facebook pages for their respective loyalty programmes have many more. Hilton Hhonors has over 200,000 followers because it encompasses all of its brands. Sometimes, a hotel group can have a distinct FB page for its recruitment/human resources that is separate from its corporate page. For example, Accor Hospitality has a very developed corporate Facebook page that has 92,339 “likes”, but the French hospitality giant has decided to create an independent FB platform for its recruitment called AccorJobs which has 2,720 fans in its own right. Often times, a Group’s brand’s pages are much more popular than the group pages they belong to, since it’s the brand that is the interface between the client and the Group. For example, even though IHG does indeed have a corporate FB page, its number of followers is at 27,636 and the information posted is geared towards the industry. IHG’s brands’ followers exceed those from the corporate page: InterContinental brand has 7k more followers than IHG and Holiday Inn has three times the amount of followers as IHG. In relation to the company size, Meliá Hoteles is probably the most successful hotelier on Facebook. The Spanish firm is extremely active, launching contests (such as “The Social Suite” or “Life Management”) that have brought it above the 200k mark for followers, reaching proportions higher than Sheraton and Super8.Campanile and Kyriad recently launched their Facebook pages last year and Louvre Hotels Group is quick to recognize the impact that this online visibility has on sales and marketing. Nathalie Duneau, Head of Marketing at Louvre Hotels, tells Hospitality-on, “Facebook is one of the ways our customers look for information on a daily basis, and this is why brands use it more and more as a sales and communication tool. We launched the Campanile and Kyriad Facebook pages last year, which allow us to let our fans know our latest news, to build a more interactive relationship with our customers, and to increase our online visibility.”Choice Hotels has a strong corporate page with over 77,000 fans, but simultaneously works on each one of its brand-pages. Mark Pearce, Senior Vice President, International Division for Choice Hotels International, tells Hospitality-on: “We look at Facebook from a local point of view. Of course, all the brands have got Facebook pages, but we work individually with each one of our markets on a domestic level so that their Facebook pages are relevant to their respective markets. This is an area that is explosive. You can’t rely on it solely, but it can help an independent hotelier be successful, so Choice is putting out recommendations of how these markets should approach these media.”Marketing and Search Engine OptimizationOriginally, the hospitality industry used Facebook as a means of communication and marketing to increase its brand’s notoriety. Once the brand convinced people to “like” their product, they could then send them messages in their newsfeed which is an evolved form of direct marketing. Some recent examples of these types of programmes include “Win a Stay” at Hotel Martinez in Cannes or B&B Hotel’s contest where they gave away a year’s worth of free weekend stays at their hotels. In exchange, both chains requested that participants in the contest click on “like” to endorse the product. Facebook converts customers into brand advocates. Companies, and hotel chains in particular are striving to increase “likability”, which is the main way the social network measures how appreciated a brand is by its users. In addition to “likes” Facebook provides third party developers, which hoteliers have commissioned, with a platform (a set of APIs) to integrate applications on Facebook.com. These can take the form of a video game, and in exchange, the user agrees to divulge his Facebook information to the application’s operator, thus providing a rich data base for marketing campaigns and studies. An example of this is Best Western’s Virtual Accelerator. The hotel consortium was giving away reward points last fall redeemable at Best Western Hotels though a "Virtual Accelerator" video game available through Facebook.A third tool that is available for hotel marketing in Facebook is the “check-in” option. Instead of “liking” a hotel, a FB user can simply “check in” to a hotel virtually through the “Facebook Places” application (a GPS tool that maps out businesses in one’s vicinity) through a hand held device. It has nothing to do with an actual check-in at a hotel; the expression was borrowed by Facebook from the travel industry. A FB “check in” merely states (within the social network) that a user is physically within the walls of an establishment. This makes users living endorsements of a hotel because they announce to everyone in their network that they are in a hotel, whether staying in a room, eating in the hotel’s restaurant, or waiting for a friend in the lobby. This increases the hotel’s digital foot-traffic, and therefore, its notoriety. This digital-traffic is extremely valuable to hoteliers to the point that they’re giving away incentives to people who “check in”. For example, the UK’s Radisson Edwardian hotel chain launched a unique FB campaign last summer allowing guests to check out two hours later if they announce online that they’re staying at the hotel. The setup was fairly simple — guests click the “check in” button for the hotel on Facebook Places. Whilst allowing the guests to stay late does incur an indirect cost to the hotel, Radisson Edwardian asserts that the free advertising provided by the social network will give the campaign a solid return on investment, especially since the chain views this as providing an additional service to the guest rather than a deal or discount, which would directly pull down rate. Many chains have launched some type of FB campaign with an aim to increase its number of fans. They are all based on the same principle: become a fan, and you will/might get something in return, usually a chance to win a free night’s stay or loyalty points.Today, hoteliers are looking way beyond direct marketing when talking about Facebook, especially when it comes to SEO: Search Engine Optimization. SEO is the process of improving the visibility of a website in search engines through algorithmic (or free) search results. A natural way to increase a hotel’s website visibility, and ranking on Google, is simply to update it frequently, which can be done by integrating a blog, guest reviews, a newsroom… or a Facebook page.In November 2011, Google announced a new algorithm on its official blog which affects websites around the world, especially the hospitality industry’s links with Facebook. Whilst Google normally introduces around 500 changes in its algorithms each year, according to Amit Singhal, a software engineer at Google; only certain raise eyebrows. The American search-engine giant introduced freshness factors which would yield the way for more interactive websites in a search engine result page (SERP). In other words, a search for a key word would automatically give priority to those websites who have recently modified their website. This new algorithm is a development of what the company has baptized their “Caffeine” web indexing system, which Google launched in 2010. Concerning last November’s freshness algorithm, the search engine stated, “Today we’re making a significant improvement to our ranking algorithm that impacts roughly 35 percent of searches and better determines when to give you more up-to-date relevant results for these varying degrees of freshness.” Google specifies three types of searches that will be affected in a SERP ranking: recent events or hot topics, regularly recurring events, and frequent updates. It’s the last of the three types of searches that mostly affected the hospitality industry’s relationship with Facebook.So basically, hotel websites must be kept upto- date at frequent intervals so as to not be relegated to an “old” pile. To keep the top spot, hoteliers are now developing ways to remain more interactive and comply with the freshness algorithm, such as incorporating blogs in their website or posting guest reviews. Others are collaborating with social media by integrating a form of Facebook (or Twitter) in their websites, which is a sure way to keep information “fresh”. This is some of the most important added-value a Facebook page brings to hotel chain.Hoteliers should note that since the general public can post comments on a Facebook page they “like”, it can become a forum for unhappy guests who wish to express their discontent out loud in a format similar to TripAdvisor. For example, an unhappy guest complained on a hotel’s FB page: “Had a bad stay in [Hotel]. Does not justify a revisit” In this case, the hotelier replied, “Thank you for reaching out to us. We are sorry to hear you didn't enjoy your experience. Please email details to [email] so we can follow-up with hotel management on your behalf.” At first view, this negative review might seem like something a hotelier would want to delete immediately. However, by having a Social Media Marketer (this post is increasingly becoming a necessity to monitor Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other blogs), the chain positions itself as transparent and in-touch with its clientele. Furthermore, an e-exchange like the one above meets Google’s freshness algorithm, therefore rendering a higher spot for the traditional website on a SERP.Online salesA year ago, Omni Hotels and Resorts became the first chain in the world that allowed its guests to book directly from its Facebook page. In February 2012, Best Western also developed a booking tool allowing future guests to book directly through Facebook. Best Western refers to data research that found that 45% of social media users are at least “somewhat comfortable” about buying online through Facebook whilst 34% of social network users are more likely to share information with people they know about something they bought on a social network page (as opposed to a purchase made on a regular e-commerce webpage). Furthermore, an estimated $1 billion in goods were sold through social media in 2011 and experts believe the amount is going to triple in 2012. Both Omni and BW were pioneers that took advantage of Facebook’s by tapping into the social network's 900 million omnipresent users through the creation of a special booking tool. This marks the turning point where the social network has become a direct POS for the hospitality industry (booking tools where users were redirected to a hotel chain’s tradition website already existed). Dorothy Dowling, Best Western's senior vice president of marketing and sales, stated, "We're embarking on a new age in media… It requires different thinking. Best Western is focused on being where the customer wants to be."Once a guest has directly reserved a room through the Facebook tool, they'll receive a private and secure confirmation email, the same way had they booked on the chain’s website.Other hoteliers currently allow users to reserve via their FB page, but this redirects them to the reservations page found on the chain’s traditional website. This method covers two points: it increases reservations and increases traffic to the traditional site at the same time.“As well as the exposure Facebook pages allow our brands, they also generate business, as they are linked to our online reservation system,"states Nathalie Duneau from Louvre Hotels. Ms. Duneau continues, “Even though the reservation system is on our website rather than Facebook, the system functions smoothly for the web user.” Like Louvre Hotels, Meliá also has a booking link, though the user needs to “like” the page in order to access it.

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