Ms. Willmott

Sales & Marketing

Online Marketing: Future Challenges for Hotels

By Kristie Willmott, Group Director of E-Business & Customer Development, Jumeirah

The year is 2020; driven by technology undreamed of today, the world of hotel marketing is unlike anything we can imagine. As marketers what will our role be? Will we have any role at all? If the changes in the last five years are any indication, these are wonderful questions to ponder.

Here in the present, we can safely say online marketing has come of age; if it was cutting edge yesterday, it's the norm today. But, what about the future? What can we expect, what do we have to do to be relevant to the consumers of today and tomorrow? Perhaps the only thing we can say for certain is that as long as technology continues to change at blinding speed, our biggest challenge will be just to keep up.

It is estimated that more than a billion global consumers shop online. For most of them it's nothing new, they've been doing it for years now. The Internet has been fully embraced, not by just the young but by everyone. Two-thirds of the 72 million Baby Boomers are online, about the same percentage as the following generation, Gen X. Many of the 60 million-strong Gen Y, our newest customers, have already abandoned such "outdated" communications as email because it's too slow, laborious and restrictive. Consumers and advertising savvy from birth, as the eminent Lalia Rach has observed, for them it's video cellphones and text messaging, iPods, smartphones and UTube. Along with the Internet and email, communications today are dominated by satellite radio, wifi, DVR's, a seemingly endless stream of new portable devices and digital multi-tasking, the simultaneous use of multiple media, as watching TV, playing online video games, talking on the phone and text-messaging. Tomorrow, who knows?

Once upon a time, consumer marketing was simple; the choices were advertising in broadcast and print media, billboards, direct mail and public relations. There were relatively few broadcast outlets to choose from and it was fairly easy to determine what newspapers and magazines our customers read. No longer; technology has changed the rules completely. Consumers are unplugged, completely mobile and in control of what information they receive, when and how they receive it. They expect to be able to interact with us at any time, day or night. They are able, and do by the millions, to engage with other consumers to share ideas and opinions in real time.

Clearly, one challenge for the future is to stay on top of the technology and create ways to use the latest concepts and devices to our advantage. There is little point to sending emails to an audience that is tuned in elsewhere. We need to communicate our message via the technology our customers are most apt to be using, including the latest visual, video and audio systems and devices. As a number of experts have advised: "We need to learn the language and use it." Given the rate at which new technology is pumped into the marketplace, this is no easy task.

Perhaps more important, however, are the ways consumers' decision-making, attitudes and values are being changed by their use of technology, and how this impacts our ability to and success in communicating with them. One of the most interesting themes is what trendwatching.com and other marketing analysts have referred to as "Transparency." Like it or not, we, as marketers, are naked, and it's not likely we'll have clothes to put on anytime soon.

Take TripAdvisor as an example. The site, which features consumer-generated travel reviews, gets some 20 million visitors a month. Over seven million online reviews include those for 180,000 hotels, according to trendwatching. Every one of those reviews potentially influences other consumers, without involving us, the hoteliers, at all. To a large degree, the Internet has taken our control of the message away from us; consumers can obtain virtually any information they want about us, as well as opinions and advice from other consumers, in effect making us transparent. Our products, services, even prices, are discussed, analyzed, praised or criticized by potentially millions of travelers. Attempting to control the content or flow of information about ourselves only serves to raise suspicion.

At first glance, transparency puts marketers at a tremendous disadvantage. Before the Internet, we could communicate our message through "one-way" media - newspaper and magazine advertising, for example, which consumers received but could not interact with. Opinions about us were largely limited to a handful of "critics" and travel writers. No longer; our critics can now be ubiquitous. But, in fact, this democratization of opinion has an upside if we use online marketing wisely. This is because the sheer number of comments and opinions on sites like TripAdvisor means that the truth about us will come to the surface; there are simply too many independent opinions to manipulate or distort the message unfairly.

So, looking ahead, what do we need to do in order to master this transparent "brave new world?" First, we need to market to individuals, not groups. Much has been made of the importance of "generational marketing" and the need to target specific demographic groups. And, there is no doubt that different generations behave differently. Baby Boomers, we are told, search the Web less but send more email than Gen Y. Gen Y will continue to affect older and younger generations through its wholehearted embrace of all things digital.

We have a worldwide aging population that has its own needs when it comes to online marketing, including things as simple as being able to read a computer screen. Many countries are already wrestling with issues of discrimination in regards to the digital age. But, while these and other considerations need to be addressed, it is worth suggesting that generational marketing may have run its course; what we really need to do is redefine our relationship with our customers and develop solutions that target similarities rather than differences.

David B. Wolfe, author of Ageless Marketing, points out that, in fact, there is little difference among generations. Baby Boomers, at the age of 25, had, and expressed, the same needs as today's Gen Y. "Needs, which define the foundations of behavior never change; only the ways in which we try to satisfy our needs change," he says. And, what has changed profoundly is way Gen Y are able satisfy their needs - the amazing, constantly change world of digital technology and global online connections. To the extent that Gen Y is bringing everyone else along with it, our real challenge then is to find ways to impact all consumers by tapping into the needs and themes that resonate with all ages and interest.

Because we can longer control the message, Wolfe has called for a rethinking of the customer relationship. If SRM, stakeholder relationship management, ever worked at all, it needs to be replaced by CSR, collaborative stakeholder relationships, he says. It would appear that the idea that a hotel company can "manage" its customers through marketing in this age of consumer control of information and opinion, is obsolete.

If this is true, then we have a fascinating task ahead: to use the newest technology - and to continue to adapt to ever-newer technology - to engage with the "human universals" that drive consumer behavior, including the choosing of a hotel company. We need to create interactive online systems and strategies that bring our customers into the creative process, that enable them to tell us their story and relate it to us: what their interests and intentions are, what values and expectations drive their decisions. We need to enable our customers to engage with us, in real time, and by doing so, come to understand and trust, on the most substantial level, the truth of who and what we are. From that essential relationship will come successful marketing in the years to come.

Kristie Willmott is Group Director of E-Business and Customer Development for Jumeirah. Kristie heads the online strategy to grow sales revenue and deepen consumer relationships. Kristie has held positions with Le Meridien, Utell and Virgin Atlantic Airways, where she developed web affiliate programs, 3rd party onward distribution, loyalty programs and sales. Kristie holds a First Class Bachelor of Arts Honors degree from the University of North London and is an Executive Officer on the HEDNA Board of Directors. Born in Holland and raised in the UK, Kristie now lives in Dubai, UAE. Ms. Willmott can be contacted at 971-4-3300111 or kristie.willmott@jumeirah.com Extended Bio...

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