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Who's Leading the Pack in Virtual Customer Engagement?

Have you checked your hotel's status on Facebook yet today to see how many more fans you have? Perhaps one of your management staff keeps tabs on the tweets about your hotel, and certainly you are monitoring Expedia, TripAdvisor and other online travel agents and social media sites to see whether your guests have posted comments or reviews about your hotel.
But that's only "incoming." Certainly you are responding to customer comments made on your corporate blog or webpage and dealing (instantly) with customer complaints. You probably are also posting comments and information on your corporate blog and your Facebook page, as well as tweeting about new programs at your hotel.
But wait --there's more. That's only information-related activities. Your guests with mobile devices (that's probably most of them) are looking to use an app to book a room, upgrade a room, change their stay, or check in. Plus, you could post YouTube videos about your property and its surroundings.
In short, you are now operating both a physical hotel and a virtual hotel. This virtual hotel exists on your guests' computers, their mobile devices, and through the many electronic images and communications that relate to your property. Your virtual hotel supports your brand at least as much as your physical building. Of course, your guests will eventually be physically on the premises, but that doesn't end their virtual interaction with your property; and with mobile apps they may never interact with any of those great staff members that you have worked so hard to train.
If you are not thinking in terms of your virtual hotel, then you can bet that one of your competitors is doing so. Although the main body of this article will use hotels as an example, the virtual world extends to restaurants, cruise ships, spas and any other service that people use and discuss via social media.
Applications and hotel leaders
Let's take a look at some aspects of the virtual hospitality industry as we know it, based on presentations at the recent Cornell Hospitality Research Summit. One thing we know we should be able to do is to develop a profile of our guests through their comments on social media. As an example, J.D. Power and Associates does this through a process called travel conversation analysis. J.D. Power vice president Stuart Greif explained that his firm conducts four types of social media analysis: consumer analysis, brand and product analysis, market-trend analysis, and innovation analysis. When you have identified distinct consumer groups, you can then determine which of your brand messages resonate with which consumers, he explained, and you can create detailed profiles of their habits and preferences. You can conduct similar types of analysis regarding the status of your brand and its competitors. J.D. Power's trend analysis discerns emerging trends, based on comments in social media. One example: A growing disapproval of having to pay for hotel Wi-Fi.
That is an example of what you can learn from social media. However, most hotel operators are more interested in what they can do with social media. This is a space so vast that your hotel could get lost in it, so the concept of a virtual hotel is essential. Research presented by Peter O'Connor, a professor at the Essec Business School, analyzed the social media presence of the world's top-50 hotel companies on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr. He found that seven brands essentially do not exist, at least based on their absence from these popular sites. (Compared to the number of Twitter and Facebook hits for Lady Gaga, though, the entire hotel industry doesn't exist at all!) On the other hand, O'Connor found that Marriott has established a strong Twitter following, Holiday Inn scores well in engagement, and Best Western has the best overall social media presence, primarily due to the consistency of its message across all channels.

Perhaps the real lesson of these findings is how quickly the target is moving. Most hotel companies have now perfected distribution via their home pages, but customers have moved on to mobile apps and real-time reservations (even standing at the front desk checking room availability via their phones). Recognizing the importance of mobile apps, Hilton Worldwide has created apps for each of its hotel brands, according to senior vice president Kevin Jacobs.
Beyond hotels
The goal now should be to focus on what has become known as engagement. Two non-hotel presenters at the CHRS conference also pointed to the importance of engagement. They were Steve Levigne, VP, U.S. consumer and business insights of McDonald's, and Adam Goldstein, CEO of Royal Caribbean International (RCI). McDonalds has a three-fold social media approach, based on leading, participating, and listening. The chain has a strong social media presence, with 3.1 million Facebook fans, and more than 50,000 Twitter followers. Among other things, McDonald's uses its social media presence to remedy customer issues on the spot. RCI's Goldstein writes his own blog (with over 100,000 hits) and makes sure to respond to every compliment the company receives. For Goldstein, engagement means having guests assist with co-creating the RCI brand. As just one example, for ships berthed in Miami, RCI can collect comments from guests on one cruise and make any necessary adjustments by the time that ship heads out for the next cruise.
These few examples just scratch the surface of the virtual world of hospitality management. From now on, your virtual hotel will be almost as important to manage as your sticks-and-bricks property. It's essential to maintain your brand promises in both environments, because the virtual world is in many ways just as real to your guests as your physical property.
Glenn Withiam is director of publications for the Cornell Center for Hospitality Research.
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