What hoteliers should know about WeChat and its users
 
What hoteliers should know about WeChat and its users
02 SEPTEMBER 2016 8:22 AM

China-based social media and messaging platform WeChat now has more than 800 million active users, roughly the combined total of Instagram and Twitter. The platform provides hoteliers with opportunities to boost marketing, sales and guest interactions.

GLOBAL REPORT—While many joke they live their lives on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, that ideal comes closest to reality with Chinese messaging service WeChat.

The platform, called Weixin in China, is built around “micro messaging” but has grown to include things like mobile payments and video chat that help it touch on various parts of a user’s daily activity.

Bryan Segal, CEO of Engagement Labs, said that has helped WeChat grow to near-ubiquitous use for its user base, which many other social media platforms hope to emulate.

“WeChat is one platform that has multifaceted functionalities such as (instant messaging), moments, video conferencing, etc.,” he said via email. “With so many services integrated into one platform, WeChat has ensured that users are constantly using it for various reasons, thus establishing it as a lifestyle app as opposed to only a ‘chat’ app. This all-inclusive design and ‘lifestyle approach’ is one that many other platforms have begun to adopt as it presents numerous growth/expansion opportunities for social media.”

Reto Klauser, VP and GM of Shangri-La Hotel, Singapore, said via email that his company has seen significant growth and utility from the platform.

“WeChat continues to be a growing force in social media, and since we launched our account in September 2014, we have close to 7,000 fans today who follow us,” Klauser said. “In China, WeChat is used for just about everything ranging from banking, chatting, shopping, mobile news, headhunting and even as a mobile wallet.

“When we first created our official WeChat account, the intention was to increase the awareness of our hotel amongst the Chinese travelers through content marketing. Stories were created around core topics such as travel tips, destination attractions to visit and the local culture with occasional information on the latest hotel promotions.”

Bruce McKenzie, SVP of operations in Greater China and Mongolia for Hilton Worldwide Holdings, said his company also sees a variety of uses for the platform.

“Hilton uses WeChat both as a content hub and a customer service hub,” he said via email. “It is a place for exploring Hilton products and services with menu tabs for bookings, making HHonors inquiries, and engaging in ongoing campaigns and promotions, such as Huanying and our partnership with Olympic Team China. As a platform for inquiries, guests can receive responses within 24 hours.”

McKenzie said it’s important to take different approaches for the platform at the brand and property levels. At the Hilton Haikou Meilan, for instance, guests often use the app to interact with staff members, including booking, getting information on things like shuttle bus schedules and ordering food.

McKenzie said WeChat is also a useful human resources tool, noting Hilton’s corporate HR team in the region uses it to “engage both existing and potential team members.” There are also HR applications at the property level.

“For example, Hilton Haikou Meilan leveraged on the fact that WeChat is easier to access and promotes quick readability, while allowing real-time, two-way communication,” he said. “For instance, when the general manager notes areas for improvement in the hotel, he can post text and pictures to an account that every team member has easy access to, along with the ability to comment and send messages—all within the same platform that they use for daily communication anyway.”

Scope of the platform
According to parent company Tencent Holdings Limited’s second-quarter earnings report, WeChat’s base of monthly active users has grown 34% year over year to 806 million. That is roughly the same as the combined totals for Twitter (313 million) and Instagram (500 million).

The bulk of the WeChat user base is in the Asia/Pacific region, particularly Southeast Asia and India. While adoption has lagged in North America and Europe, it has seen significant growth in Latin America.

Klauser said in his experience, the most active users are younger than 50 years old and they “use this platform especially actively for transactions like hotel bookings, in-store payments, online shopping, money transfers and paying for cab services.”

McKenzie agreed users skew younger and are largely based in first- and second-tier cities like Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou, but the size of WeChat’s user base makes it almost universal.

“Our WeChat service account users are generally younger millennials, the tech-savvy and business travelers,” he said “But WeChat’s ubiquity in China means that we see WeChat use across a wide range of Hilton customer demographics.”

The ubiquity and ease of use have spurred more companies to try to take advantage of WeChat’s mobile payment functionality, which McKenzie said could be incredibly convenient for guests.

“With the increased adoption rate of mobile, particularly in China, where users are looking toward integrating the multiple touch points of a transaction within a single app, we are exploring the use of WeChat pay at hotels to give our guests more convenience when it comes to mobile payment,” he said.

While it’s not currently available overseas, McKenzie said WeChat’s mobile payments could be particularly useful when users are able to take advantage of it across the globe because it will avoid the need to convert currency.

Adoption efforts
Among Western companies, resort and casino giant Caesars Entertainment is likely the poster child for WeChat adoption.

Caesars’ LINQ Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas first showcased a room fully controllable via WeChat at the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show. According to a news release at the time, guests could “scan a room-specific QR code by using the WeChat app,” which gives them the ability to then use it to control “dimmable lights, blinds and curtains, thermostats, door locks, smart plugs, and more.”

The company took their WeChat-related efforts a step further at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, unveiling “Ben the WeChat Robot,” which acts as a “virtual concierge” and interacts with guests via the platform.

Caesars Entertainment unveiled “Ben the WeChat Robot,” which acts as a virtual concierge at the LINQ Hotel & Casino, at the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show. (Photo: Caesars Entertainment)

Caesars officials said they could not comment further on their recent efforts related to the messaging platform because they are preparing to make an announcement about their new WeChat initiative.

In addition to marketing efforts, Klauser said his hotel also sees WeChat as a useful distribution channel and a vehicle for direct communication with guests. He said the platform’s payment functionality sets it apart from other forms of social media.

“For a hotel, WeChat is a great platform to engage in conversations with our followers and guests as well as to run tactical campaigns as it is a direct booking platform that is convenient and relevant to our followers,” he said. “We use WeChat to share hotel news in very much the same way we use platforms like Facebook and Instagram. However, where Facebook tends to be a purely social space (with users veering away from hard sell offers), WeChat differs slightly as the platform combines both social and commercial functions which allow dining and accommodation bookings to be made.”

Klauser did point out that targeting options for marketing efforts on WeChat are limited compared to other platforms, but that can be overcome by interacting with guests and recruiting them to work as “brand advocates.”

“To increase the usage of WeChat amongst our guests, our strategy focused on existing guests to help us promote our account,” he said. “We have always encouraged our guests to share about their hotel stay and travel experiences through WeChat. They can send us their travel tips and photos post-stay, after which we will reward the most interesting travelogue with complimentary stays and share their stories with the rest of our fans.

“Not only does this increase the engagement with our current guests, their stories also help other followers plan for their own vacation in Singapore. This process helps us to gain quality WeChat followers who are interested in our brand or have the potential to stay or dine with us.”

What Western hoteliers should know
As use of the platform grows, Segal said it’s important for Western hoteliers to verse themselves in the various services WeChat offers and how they can take advantage of them.

“The key to properly leveraging any social media platform is understanding the capabilities of the platform, the audience that is engaging with the platform and making sure you’re leveraging the right type of content on the platform so that people engage,” he said.

“WeChat offers the opportunity to customize functionality—offer promotions, member benefits and more—to a direct audience, with easy setup and payment options,” Segal added. “For hoteliers, especially smaller brands with limited resources, this could be extremely beneficial to offer promotions easily and at specific times without spending too much time on setup and activation.”

Klauser agreed that WeChat is becoming too powerful for Western hoteliers to ignore.

“The important thing about WeChat is that it has grown far beyond a social sharing platform to become, amongst other things, a complete online shopping experience on its own,” he said. “Its social function—which allows customer experiences, stories and referrals to be shared—combined with its potential to reach a very large market and simplicity in offering hotel bookings via very few steps, make this an invaluable platform for all companies and hotels to be on.”

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