For some forward-thinking hotel companies, social media and enhanced chat technology have become new distribution channels that are cheap and ubiquitous.
REPORT FROM THE U.S.—Hotel companies are moving past using social media to drive bookings and are now beginning to use it to conduct reservations. Although still in its infancy, sources say the cutting-edge approach holds great potential, especially thanks to its low-cost, high-convenience contribution to the bottom line.
In the era of online travel agencies, hoteliers can’t afford to turn down chances to control new distributions networks, especially when those channels are as explosive as social media. That’s why forward-thinking hoteliers are getting in the game now, conducting complete bookings through popular social media engines like Twitter as well as real-time chat.
“With Twitter, we’re able to see how consumers are reaching out and what type of conversations they are having with us. One of the big subject matters is reservations,” said Piper Stevens, director of social media for Loews Hotels & Resorts. “[The conversations were] not necessarily about booking, but wanting to modify reservations, confirm reservations and just inquire about different properties. We felt like there was enough momentum in that area to take it a step further and see if people would be willing to book via Twitter. It’s a great opportunity to drive revenue, because the conversation is so public and can really grow awareness.”
Reservations by tweet
Loews launched Loews Hotels Social Reservations in November, a program allowing guests to book rooms via Twitter. Customers type the hashtag #BookLoews in a tweet to @Loews_Hotels, which is then answered by a brand travel planner. When the guest is ready to make a reservation, the agent tweets him or her a link to a secure chat, in order to process personal and payment information in a secure, PCI-compliant environment.
“We’re really excited about the fact that the conversation can move from Twitter to the chat link, and for the consumer it’s a relatively seamless process,” Stevens said. “They’re talking to the same individual at our reservation center and can continue that conversation, and are able to provide personal information that wouldn’t necessarily be great to be [posted] on the Twitter interface.”
In its first two weeks, Loews booked 90 roomnights via Twitter, and Stevens is confident that number will continue to grow.
“We’re doing something that’s changing consumer behavior, so we know it’s not going to happen overnight, but the amount of conversation and interest in Loews it generated was certainly more than we could have ever imagined. We feel good with the early traction,” Stevens said. “We’re putting some marketing plans in place for 2014 to support Twitter reservations as specific distribution channels. We’ll be advertising and supporting it with our traditional marketing communications, so I think we’ll be able to test it a little more and see how far we can take it.”
The initiative was also a slam dunk from a return-on-investment perspective, according to Stevens. Because existing Loews travel planners monitor the feed, no additional staffing was required, and the company employed the same vendor for its website chat as well as the secure reservations chat originating from Twitter. It was simply a matter of creating an additional chat account.
“From an ROI standpoint, we’re doing really well,” Stevens said. “To be honest, it was one of those great marketing opportunities where it was a pretty simple concept and we just needed to connect all the dots and make sure from a consumer standpoint that it could be launched without a hitch. We feel like it has real staying power because of the fact that it is so simplistic.”
Powered by chat
One of the key factors driving the move toward booking over social media and chat channels is that this method offers a new marketing and distribution channel to hoteliers, which is cheap to use, rapid in response and open to all operators. That can be especially intriguing for unbranded, independent hotels or small chains, which often don’t have the same resources to grow bookings as larger competitors. It’s also an innovative offering for prospective guests comfortable with the medium.
“People don’t want to wait. They don’t want to be on the phone and be on hold with music for a long time. People don’t want to have to go through a reservations agent and complete 10 steps,” said Carl Kitsios, GM of the Waterfront Hotel Downtown in Windsor, Ontario, which recently launched a live chat room on its website. “They want to very quickly text somebody, get in touch with somebody, knowing there is another person on the other side, have that quick communication and get that booking. So it’s fast-paced but efficient at the same time.”
The Waterfront is in the process of transitioning from a Hilton Hotel to most likely a Best Western, and Kitsios said the chat feature is a great way to market the hotel in the interim. Right now the hotel’s staff monitors the chat feed from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily, mostly to answer questions and provide customer service. Kitsios said he hopes those chat conversations evolve into actual bookings as the system matures. And when it does, there will be revenue managers on hand, ready to negotiate.
“The agent will have the [pricing] flexibility,” Kitsios said. “The way we’ve set up our system with the chat, our reservations manager and our sales team sees this chat in front of them, and they can intervene and provide guidance for particular reservations. The live chat has the ability for us to be live while the chat is happening and guide our guys.”
That said, it’s still challenging for a smaller hotel or chain to manage. For the interaction to be truly “social,” a human agent needs to be on the other end of the Twitter or chat feed, and for some that’s more manpower than they have, despite the possible payoff.
“We’re a small brand, so it’s a little different, versus a big brand,” said Wendy Norris, corporate director of revenue and e-commerce for the Valencia Group. “What we see on the hotel level is some frustration [expressed] on Twitter: ‘I can’t get a hold of a manager,’ or ‘our valet parking is taking too long.’ But people will usually call us, because we’re not always active on Twitter 24/7. We don’t have a staff sitting there watching our Twitter line to see what’s going on.”