[Social Media in 2012] The Dawn of a New Age

This is an excerpt from an article in the 2012 Hotel Yearbook, a forward-looking publication which brings together opinion leaders from the global hotel industry. Please see the note at the bottom of the blog post for more information.

Over the past two decades, the Internet has transformed how hotel rooms are bought and sold. Before, customers typically contacted the hotel directly for information, or relied on travel agents, tour operators or other intermediaries to suggest properties that might be appropriate.

The growth of the Internet in the late 1990s added greatly to the quantity of information available to consumers. However, despite this new-found access to vast amounts of information, the challenge of credibility remained.

Social media potentially help address this credibility issue.

Since travelers enjoy talking about their experiences, discussing future plans and seeking the recommendations of others, social media sites such as blogs, social networks and review sites have become important information resources.  Such sites provide consumers with easy access to a pool of high-quality, topical and most importantly, unbiased information, generated not by commercial interests but by other consumers, thus helping to reduce, if not totally eliminate, the aforementioned credibility issue.

As a result, social media have had an almost immediate and dramatic effect on how travel is researched, planned and bought. Most commentators agree that social media now act as a key element in the traveler’s research process.

Predictions and trends

Below are some of the developments that I see happening in the short term in relation to the hotel social media space:

Terrific TripAdvisor
Having moaned about the possibility of fake reviews since the site’s launch, 2012 will be the year when hotels finally admit and accept what TripAdvisor does – acts as a fantastic (and free) source of customer feedback, and, when hotels do their job right, as an incredible promotional tool.

Several of the large hotel chains (including Accor, Worldhotels and Premier Inn) have already come to this realization, adding TripAdvisor widgets to their web sites so that customers (and the corporate office) can see the quality of each property, practically in real time.  2012 will be the year when this approach goes mainstream, and hotels start putting their own house in order, focusing on improving customer service and the overall guest experience, rather than wasting time and money ranting about the unfairness of it all.

Vivacious Video
Faced with a client base that has grown up with streaming video and computer games, text and images are clearly no longer enough. 2012 will be the year when hotel companies wake up to the power of multi-media as a selling mechanism. Video, both professional and user-generated, will start to become integrated into the promotional strategies of innovative hotel chains, and will become commonplace within three to five years.

Already we are seeing evidence of the power of video to attract site visitors (and when done well, customers). InterContinental Hotel Group has had incredible success with its Concierge Insider Guides, while there are few travelers left who have not seen the incredible presentation of the MGM Grand in Maximum Las Vegas, Nev.

Today these are the exceptions. Tomorrow they will be the norm.

Superior Social Networks
For years, hotels have been trying to build up a relationship with their customers, spending millions on running rewards (sorry – I mean loyalty) programs in a vain attempt to win the right to speak with their clients and try to influence future stays. Practically everyone (hotels, clients, dogs on the street) agree that most of these programs simply do not work and are a waste of time, money and plastic.

2012 will be the year when the mainstream chains follow innovators, such as CitizenM, and realize that they can build a closer relationship with their customers through the social networks they use every day rather than by giving them points for stays they will never make. Expect a big emphasis on building presence and generating activity on social networks, such as Facebook by hotel companies, even if most cannot figure out the return on investment of their actions.

Lovely location-based services: Even as hotels struggle to get their heads around the potential of social media as a whole, technology and society are moving on. Customers are mobile, and increasingly they expect their social media to be mobile as well – hence the incredible consumer popularity of services such as foursquare, Gowalla and Facebook Places. During 2012, leading-edge hotel companies will start to take baby steps in these arenas, gaining considerable first-mover advantage over their competitors.

Modified Mindsets
I’ve spoken before about the need for a new skill set to successfully manage hotel sales and marketing. The challenge, however, is that the necessary competencies are evolving rapidly in response to both incredible technological advances and rapid consumer adoption.

2012 will be the year when hotel companies begin to change how they hire – instead of looking for concrete skills and x years of experience, the more forward thinking will start hiring based on attitude and mindset. Skills can be easily taught and unfortunately date quickly, but employees that think differently can overcome such challenges easily. As Darwin said, it’s not the strongest or the most intelligent of the species that survives; it’s the one most adaptable to change.

Having hesitated for so long, 2012 will finally be the year that hotels embrace the power of social media as a primary (rather than alternative) customer communications and relationship channel.

It will be the year when they devote the time and resources to using social media properly, rather than simply setting up a Facebook page that no one ever reads.

It will be the year when hotel companies hire creative young people to act as their social media champions, and empower them to do whatever it takes to build, animate and sustain meaningful and authentic presences on the social media channel used by their customers.

2012 will be all of this, and more.

Because if it’s not, we’re doomed.

Peter O’Connor, PhD, is academic director and professor of Information Systems at Institute de Management Hotelier International (IMHI), an MBA program specializing in international hospitality management administered by ESSEC Business School, France.

The Hotel Yearbook is a forward-looking publication which brings together opinion leaders from the global hotel industry and asks them “What are you expecting in your part of the hotel business next year?” The publication is available for a free download for HFTP members. Note that a quick registration is required. A print edition is available at Amazon or on the Hotel Yearbook web site.

Download the Free Copy of the Hotel Yearbook 2012>

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