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Get Social, or Get Left Out

One of the most significant recent advances in consumer-based information technology is the introduction, and extremely fast adoption, of social networking tools. Today there are more than 350 million active users on Facebook, according to the site, with its popular "friending" approach to making connections. Fifty percent of these users log into their accounts on any given day. More than 35 million users update their status daily; 65 million use a mobile device to access the site; and more than 2.5 billion photos are uploaded to Facebook each month.
In the business arena, more than 700,000 local businesses have active pages on Facebook and those pages have created more than 5.3 billion fans combined. Twitter, with its 140-character "tweeting" approach to getting the word out, is powerful in its own right, with an estimated 32.1 million users in 2009, a growth of nearly 2,000 percent over the 1.6 million users in 2008.
Marketing rules used to dictate that a happy customer would tell three friends about your establishment and an angry customer would tell 11 friends. This is no longer the case; in both instances, whether happy or displeased, customers can easily reach tens if not hundreds of contacts. Given the vastness of their connections and networks, this can quickly multiple into thousands or more potential customers with word-of-mouth insight into your products and service.

Hotels & restaurants in the fray
Many hotel and restaurant operators are aware that these tools can and should be leveraged for their businesses, but they struggle to identify specific ROI. In fact, according to Hospitality Technology's 12th annual Restaurant Technology Study, while nearly one-half of restaurants recognize that there is value in Twitter as a marketing tool only one-third of restaurant operators use it. There exist, however, many successful examples of hotels using social networking sites to generate awareness and additional revenue opportunities. As of press time, Seattle's Hotel 1000, as a single property, has about 1,000 Facebook fans, and Excalibur Hotel  and Casino in Las Vegas has more than 10,000. Hilton Hotels has more than 25,000 and Sheraton Hotels has more than 30,000 fans, while Olive Garden Restaurants has more than 220,000 fans.
While the size of the fan-base is important, the true value is in the interaction. A quick scan of these Facebook pages shows two factors for success: first, they have personality and build emotional connections; and second, people do respond and interact on these pages.
Strategies for success
Social networking tools can be used for more than connecting to external customers. Companies also use these tools to find employees, and to solicit feedback from current and potential customers on menu items, decorations, room design and more. They can even be used as a venue to prompt customers to suggest new menu items. If encouraged properly, employees can be ambassadors of your company in their own social networks.
One creative example of a hotel's use of social networking to boost guest participation is demonstrated by Pod Hotel New York's own social networking site, The Pod Community Blog. When guests make reservations online they are invited to become a member of the Pod Community; there they can choose a login and password and participate in an array of forums: Drink with Me, Eat with Me, Shop with Me, Go Out with Me, etc.
Though social networking tools are powerful, they must be well planned and carefully implemented to avoid pitfalls. If you ask for customers' opinions, listen to them. What's more, managing social networking tools will take time. For this reason, each company should assign personnel to the task of monitoring and regularly updating its social networks. Some hotel companies are recruiting managers dedicated to online services and e-commerce initiatives. Many are combining this responsibility with a revenue, marketing or front office manager.
My recommendation to all hotels and restaurants would be to connect to their guests, employees, families, and vendors through different social networking tools. If you are not doing this already, you are behind the curve.
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