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Hoteliers versus the rise of web 2.0

The first Internet revolution upset distribution channels, forcing hotel groups and an entire industry to review their sales models and technological investments. Mastering the mysteries of a channel and negotiating with operators is one thing, having to face up to the expertise of web users themselves is another, much more delicate issue. The widespread posting of comments encourages transparency, and even seeking it, in order to avoid being outpaced. Other tools are also beginning to play a role in customer relations: blogs and sites for sharing videos. An interesting exercise for marketing managers…

Internet revolution in the hotel world

Facebook, with 80 million members, is the largest social network on the web today. Could it also be an efficient means of communicating with customers? The impact is yet uncertain. But Facebook offers certain perspectives, starting with the possibility of speaking on behalf of the brand to a community of members who are close to the brand. Through this channel a hotelier may announce innovations or create special offers. There is one question however: will users of Facebook, a social network par excellence, accept the intrusion of messages that are of an advertising nature within their private spaces? While we don’t yet have an answer, some hotel groups have begun testing the water. “We are only at the beginning. We are waiting to see if people appreciate it or not,” explains Jessica Svensson, Senior executive EMEA for online marketing for Starwood Hotels. Often a pioneer, Starwood Hotels and its brand Le Méridien each have a thousand or so fans on their page. Westin is close to 200. Other groups have begun such as IHG which has 164 fans or Three Cities with 73 members. Ian Schrager is further behind with 7 registrations. In order to recruit new followers, hoteliers prove to be creative. Thus InterContinental launched a program called “Hey Get a Room” to share with friends. For the moment it has only 23 fans, mostly from Atlanta (the original HQ of Holiday Inn in the USA). Tablet Hotels has taken an original initiative with the program “Name That Hotel” which has 69 fans. This game-competition, in which one must identify a hotel from a photo, makes it possible to win points leading to a free stay. In order to accelerate the collection of points, Tablet Hotels distributes complementary points to players when they successfully recruit new fans from among their friends.“Vox populi, vox dei”. It is difficult, if not useless, to try to escape public opinion. While this has always been true, the explosion of Internet and its sophisticated and community- oriented version Web 2.0 is now transforming the web into a gigantic global agora where internauts don’t hesitate to speak out. The travel world saw thousands of critics rise up out of the ground as they recounted their experiences in their blog spaces. And the hotel world saw its customers metamorphose into millions of mystery shoppers who posted their evaluations for the eyes and ears of the world.Launched in 2000 and bought in 2004 by InterActive for close to 400 million euros, TripAdvisor developed a solid reputation based on this word of mouth. Not only does it now host more than 15 million commentaries, but it also has emulators. Its growth has been exponential when we consider that less than a year ago there were only 10 million commentaries. The site’s soundboard is enormous with 25 million visitors each month. In the midst of all this, all online travel agencies have added their own sites with comments and annotations for hotels: those belonging to the InterActive galaxy such as Expedia and Hotels.com, but also Priceline, Venere, Lastminute, Orbitz...Social networks are beginning to influence consumers as much as, if not more, than television or magazines. “Consumers are feeling their growing impact when confronted with brands,” observes Laurent Durgeat, spokesperson for TripAdvisor in France. “From prescriber to customer, we have shifted to a situation where the public is addressing the public,” adds Laurent Serfaty, editor in chief of the travel portal Easyvoyage. When it comes time to organize a trip, customers could find a variety of information useful for choosing a destination, hotel or package on the old Internet. Today, with Web 2.0, an additional source has entered the decision making process: the opinion of the guy next door. And customers trust this source more than marketing or advertising campaigns.Hoteliers haven’t shown the same appreciation for this approach. When customers began climbing upon their soapboxes and exposing every slightest defect of properties, the latter cringed. In fact prior to the emergence of Web 2.0, dissatisfied customers could only share the problem with a dozen or so people in his entourage. That was already damaging. Today, the entire planet knows when the air conditioning doesn’t work or if the receptionist was unpleasant, when the swimming pool has not been refurbished and decoration is outmoded. This practice can generate a formidable viral counter marketing, particularly when the hotel finds itself on the infamous list of the “10 dirtiest hotels” established by TripAdvisor in the United States and United Kingdom.This manner of spotlighting hotels has not escaped criticism. TripAdvisor’s hotel ranking method generated by carefully guarded algorithms is not immune to aberrations. Palaces, which are not as highly visited and thus receive fewer comments, may be found in positions that are completely out of line with their renown: the Bauer ranks 58th best hotel in Venice, the Dorchester 77th in London and Le Meurice ranks 85th in Paris. In this little game the independent hotels take the lead. In these three cities, the most popular hotels are the Al Ponte Moncenigo in Venice, the Soho in London and the Ares Eiffel in Paris. Nonetheless, proof of the growing influence of this ranking lies in the fact that hotel groups are happy to use the good scores they receive from the internaut community. The Mercure Cardiff Holland House Hotel and Spa ranked well in Travelers’ Choice 2008 and Accor was quick to make this known.Another no less significant grievance has been expressed about these travel web sites: the legitimacy of the comments. An article from Reuters cast a stone into the pond, stating that false commentaries were circulating on TripAdvisor and Priceline. And that at both ends of the criticism spectrum: praise written by the hotels themselves and bitter criticism from ruthless competitors. The principal accused defends itself. Unlike online agencies who interrogate their customers by sending them a score card, TripAdvisor recognizes that absolutely anyone may post a comment on its site. But it says it is able to track the source of comments thanks to IP addresses. When systematically laudatory comments come from an address belonging to the hotel in question, TripAdvisor is able to react by placing an annotation on the hotel’s page concerning doubts about the credibility of comments; or removing the comment.Another argument from the defense: even if such comments that are too good to be true remain online, such attempts are likely to be lost in the crowd. “We explain to hoteliers that it is not in their interest to pollute the website with false comments. Transparency is the rule on Internet and the community is stronger,” explains Laurent Durgeat. An article from USA Today confirmed the danger, as told by Christine Petersen, marketing director at Tripadvisor. One hotel sent its customers an offer for cash in exchange for favorable comments. The hotel’s efforts were rapidly revealed: the email received from the hotel in question was posted online by site users.But it is difficult to turn back time. For hoteliers, the key is to take heart in the face of bad luck and learn as soon as possible to play along with this phenomenon that is made to last. A Pandora’s box has been opened and closing it again will not be easy... The galaxy of participating sites specializing in travel is growing every day (see p.37). The leaders of e-tourism 2.0 are becoming the darlings of private investors: Fastbooking raised 35 million euros, Farecast 12 million and TvTrip 4.8. Stronger still, Kayak bought its rival SideStep for 200 million dollars.“While most hoteliers are aware of the importance of this subject, very few of them manage the matter in the best way,” remarks Peter O’Connor, academic director of the Institut de Management Hôtelier International (IMHI).What solutions are available to them? A first: speak up since TripAdvisor allows hoteliers to answer. The industry has long preferred to keep its dirty laundry to itself, but now that it’s been hung out in the square, its time to show efforts being made to rub out the spots. And such transparency can pay… “Perfection is rare and customers appreciate when a hotel recognizes its mistakes,” explains Peter O’Connor. Kimpton Hotels and Starwood thus recommend that their collaborators ensure they respond to negative criticism. Another example is ResortQuest Waikiki Beach in Hawaii which has a customer relations manager whose job it is to keep an eye on comments posted on TripAdvisor. His role: to thank clients who praise the property with a kind message while encouraging them to visit again, and to respond to unfavorable comments by recognizing the problems and explaining the efforts being made to resolve them.Some hotel brands reverse the problem by drawing strength from these comments and letting their customers speak. Worldhotels uses a tactic that is dear to Jean Cocteau: “since these mysteries are beyond us, let us pretend we created them”. On its own site presenting its hotels, the voluntary chain includes the last five comments posted on TripAdvisor. Suitehotel, the midscale brand of the Accor group, also supports criticism with its SuiteAdvisor zone on its booking site. This is an uncensored space for free expression. Thus last June 14 the following comment was posted about Suitehotel in Nancy: “personnel are not very polite and the meal for lunch was not on a par with its high price”. “We decided to be transparent and accept the risk that comes with it, but also, on the positive side, it strengthens the brand’s loyalty,” explains Gwénael Le Houérou, Chief executive officer of Suitehotel.Customers’ opinions are becoming a sales pitch. The architecture of Sheraton’s website launched two years ago is entirely developed around the experience of its clientele. Accounts about stays together with photos are posted at the center of its Home Page. “Of course Sheraton keeps an eye on what is sent. A team has been selected to choose them and we do not accept comments that may be offensive. And when a customer goes to other websites and finds the same kinds of accounts, then he feels good about his choice,” explains Jessica Svensson, Senior executive EMEA for online marketing for Starwood Hotels. Fortunately, most of the comments posted on sites are positive and those that are not are equally instructive. “It helps raise our awareness of bad experiences that we would never have learned about otherwise,” observes the executive of Starwood Hotels group. The team in charge of the site points out negative comments, so the hotel may contact the discontented client by telephone, and, if necessary, offer compensation.But e-tourism 2.0 is not just a matter of positive or negative comments posted on TripAdvisor. It opens the doors to increasingly numerous and diversified forums resulting in closer communications and more focused marketing. The explosion of the blogosphere thus offers new perspectives for public relations. “Identifying influential bloggers by their niche is important. An eductour for travel agents can convince a hundred people. A blogger can influence many more and in a more credible manner,” emphasizes Peter O’Connor. The use of a community network such as Facebook can promote welltargeted marketing through the brand’s fans. The impact of the distribution of videos of hotels via YouTube or photos on Flickr is still beyond our suspicions. For now, hotel groups are feeling their way around and exploring the possibilities. The use of these new media is only just beginning. “But in the future, we must be ready to speak to our clients through the means they prefer: be it via blog, Facebook or chat forum such as the one implemented by Westin Malta. This requires a change in mentality and not all groups are ready yet,” remarks Jessica Svensson. With the speed at which Internet is changing, latecomers beware...Blog or not blog?Like millions of internauts, hotel groups are entering the blog era. Everyone is doing this on their own initiative. Led by its Environmental director Jo Harbisher, the British chain Apex opened JoBlog at the end of 2007 with its resolutely “sustainable development” approach. Since the beginning of the year, “Geraldine the giraffe” has been welcoming visitors and presenting the news about the South African group Three Cities. Hotel leaders are no different. Travelogue was launched by the brand InterContinental in September 2007 with a goal to “showcase what the brand represents,” explains Jennifer Ploszaj, Global director of brand communications for the group. The last example to date: Yatt’it created by Hyatt at the end of March. The goal of this latest industry blog, also available on mobile devices, is to be practical. It is a tool where clients may reserve their rooms and receive information about flights underway thanks to a partnership with Flightstats.The core of the blog consists of advice about destinations based on experience that has been gleaned from hotel concierges and Frommers. But the group relies on the active participation of members of its Gold Passport program to enrich Yatt’it. Its vocation is first and foremost to breath life into the Gold Passport. Always very innovative when it comes to new technologies, Starwood Hotels opened its first Aloft in the virtual world Second Life. It opened a highly realistic virtual hotel and used all the comments to create the real version that opened just a few weeks ago. A competition was held to win real stays in exchange for improvements proposed in the virtual world. The American group was also the first to enter the blogosphere with TheLobby.com. Like Yatt’it, its goal from the start was to strengthen the feeling of community belonging for members of the loyalty program SPG.Lead by professional writers and collaborators of the group, this blog is enriched daily with general information and videos about the destinations. Hotel blogs are first and foremost practical guides or travel journals about destinations where a hotel by the brand is located. But do they fully achieve their goals? Are they real blogs? Nothing is less certain. It may be observed that there is little participation and few comments by internauts. Peter O’Connor, Academic director at the Institut de Management Hôtelier International (IMHI), has his doubts: “a blog is personal by essence. When the blog begins to look like another form of advertising or marketing for the brand, the client becomes skeptical.” Following are a few initiatives that stray from the beaten path:Marmarafit.comAlongside its house blog, which is very informative about the brand’s news, the tour operator Marmara opened another site: Marmarafit.com. This blog is a space dedicated to “marmaramis” (friends of Marmara), Marmara club vacationers. The goal is obviously to strengthen the community spirit of the clientele. Positive and negative testimonials populate the forum on this site. Photos of vacationers play continuously on the Home page. Marmarafit.com’s strength is that it offers vacationers a means to stay in touch with people they met during their stay and even to meet people before leaving. A small icon indicates which "marmaramis” just returned home and which ones are about to go.Mysuiteblog - Nomadsphere:SuiteHotel, the All suites brand of the Accor group, launched two initiatives parallel to its official website. The site Mysuiteblog offers up to date information about the brand. This interactive blog is a platform for exchanges between the brand and customers, starting with the Ambassadors Club. Local collaborators feed the site with good deals and comments about hotels in the SuiteAdvisor zone. The site regularly organizes quirky competitions to strengthen the perso nalization of relations. The most recent one incites guests to photograph themselves jumping on the bed. Nomadsphere, meanwhile, meets another goal: create a community between customers but with no direct relationship with the brand. Its sponsorship by Suitehotel is discretely mentioned in the information on the site. It proudly posts nearly 45,000 members who share “good deals” in cities. Nomadsphere also offers a magazine about news in terms of wellbeing, life in society, high-tech and culture. Each member has his own space that may be personalized (flux RSS from favorite sites, mail, weather) where guests may stock their files thanks to an ftp link.Marriott on the Move:Bill Marriott in person has become the blogger-in-chief for the American group. Since January 2007, the dashing seventyyear- old sets the example an gives his advice about everything: the latest Indiana Jones that he saw with his wife Donna, the immigration policy in the USA, his birthday celebration at the JW Camelback Inn, one of his favorites that is currently under renovation. Of course, Bill Marriott also comments about the evolution of the group’s brands. The scheme would appear to please since Bill Marriott’s interventions generate many comments. Following in the footsteps of its leader, at the beginning of the year the American group launched Marriott In the Kitchen in which the group’s CEO, Brad Nelson, comments on his gastronomic experiences and gives his advice. The last born in Marriott’s blogosphere, Gocourtyard was launched last March. Brian King, the brand’s director, describes the evolution of the implementation of theses new lobbies.The Five Spirit:The blog of the hotel The Five in Paris has a particular way of recruiting its readers through an original way of saying goodbye to its clients. Rather than close on a financial exchange, The Five takes a photo of its clients! With their authorization, its posts these photos on the hotel’s blog, of which the customer becomes a full-fledged member. One third accept and thus maintain a tie with the hotel. The Five Spirit became a tool for animating the hotel’s guest file. Launched in September 2007, the site has 700 members. The contents (photos, events calendar) targets trendy thirty-year-olds. While some members are active, the hotel has just hired someone full-time using several identities in order to “prime the pump,” in the words of Philippe Vaurs, the owner, “to get it flowing until the site starts fueling itself when the network has grown.” The community should rapidly grow with new members following the opening of two hotels in the same spirit this year.Youtube or the power of the moving pictureThere is nothing like a picture to give a clear image of a property. Hoteliers understood this a long time ago and filled their websites with 360° videos. Today, independent sites specializing in hotel videos - Tvtrip, Trivop - are meeting with success. But the leader in this field is incontestably YouTube. Owned by Google, this global crossroads of online videos can prove to be a formidable soundboard for properties. The brand InterContinental, which made videos staging the concierges of each property presenting their city, turned toward the online video solutions platform TurnHere to take it a step further and popularize these videos. “By distributing videos on YouTube or via niche travel portals and websites, we want to reach a clientele who is in the first stage of his decision making process, when he is still planning his needs,” expressed Vanessa Healey, Global director tactical marketing for InterContinental after the signature of this partnership last May. “I know a hotel chain in the Middle East that lends a camera to its clients at checkin so they can film their stay. When they leave, the hotel offers to show them the film and post it on YouTube,” explains Peter O’Connor, “the result: not only is the guest happy to see his holiday again, but the whole world can see it too!”Facebook: how to create a community?

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