Ms. Wohl

Guest Service / Customer Experience Mgmt

How to Shine Online: Best Practices for Hotels Looking to Win Customers Doing Pre-travel Research

By Michelle Wohl, VP of Marketing & Client Services, Revinate

Today, we have more access to real-time travel information than ever before. Are you curious about where to stay on your next trip to New York? Your network on Twitter, Facebook or Quora will likely have an opinion to share within the minute. Do you want to ensure that the hotel you're considering will be just right for your romantic weekend? Thousands of reviews for any hotel are available on TripAdvisor, Expedia or dozens of other review sites and OTAs. Want to discuss the pros and cons of one hotel versus another with travel experts? All you have to do is log on to TripAdvisor forums, Flyer Talk or hundreds of other forums to get ideas and advice.

With so many places online for consumers to share lodging information, hotels are quickly realizing that they must be aware of everything that is being said about them as just one highly visible bad review can cost the hotel a booking. And the flip side is that a series of great reviews can mean increased awareness and sales. But staying on top of everything that is being said online can present a problem for busy hoteliers since manual searches are time consuming and usually don't yield comprehensive results. The first step to ensuring a great online reputation and shining online is to know where people are talking you.

Luckily, software services exist to help hoteliers aggregate all reviews and social media mentions. These solutions act as a firehose, listening for all mentions of your hotel name and bringing everything together into a single dashboard. When evaluating ORM (online reputation management) vendors look for a solution tailored specifically to the hospitality industry as there are very specific sources of data that you will need, such as TripAdvisor, Hotels.com, Priceline etc. Many horizontal ORM solutions don't monitor travel-specific review sites. Given the importance of TripAdvisor in consumers' purchase decisions, it's also important that a vendor has a licensing relationship with TripAdvisor, and, if you are a full-service hotel, a solution for both hotels and restaurants.

While ORM solutions typcially cost less than a few hundred dollars a month, if you're not ready to invest in a paid solution, there are some free services that you can use, although you won't have the convenience of single-source monitoring. To capture mentions on blog, video and news sites, you can create a google alert by going to http://www.google.com/alerts. You will need to create separate alerts for your hotel name, your restaurants and anything else you want to monitor. To monitor mentions on Twitter, you can use TweetDeck or, if you are often away from your computer, set up mobile alerts using a free service like IFTTT.com. You might also think about creating mobile alerts for foursquare so you know immediately when someone checks into your venue. Finally, to monitor your online reviews on TripAdvisor and the OTAs, you will need to claim your venue and request email alerts, if offered by the site.

Once you begin to understand all the places where your hotel is being talked about, you need to have an action plan for managing your online reputation. Let's begin with TripAdvisor, the biggest online review site.

Research has shown that people want to read reviews before they book travel. If you, as a hotelier, don't provide them with the ability to read reviews on your own site, they will likely bounce to a review site, like TripAdvisor, to read reviews. If you aren't providing fresh reviews on your site via a review widget or manual process, you need to ensure that when your prospects leave your site to check out your reviews, you are able to maintain their interest in your property. Some things that might throw them off include poor photos, a bad ranking on TripAdvisor, and bad reviews.

When you claim your venue on TripAdvisor you have the opportunity to add photos, which is a critical part of your listing. If you don't add your own photos, TripAdvisor will add one for you. A best practice is to change your primary photo often, depending on the season, to best represent the hotel experience. If someone is looking for a place to spend an upcoming ski weekend and you show a photo of your pool area, you might lose the prospect. Likewise, take a look at the user-generated photos and make sure that they represent positive aspects of your hotel. While you can't remove photos unless they violate the terms of service, they display in chronological order so by encouraging happy guests to post photos, you can push bad photos down, where they likely won't be viewed.

Where the hotel ranks on the TripAdvisor Popularity Index is another highly visible aspect of your listing. If you are not where you think you deserve to be in your market, you can try to improve your ranking by increasing the number of reviews that you receive and improving your quality rating. To increase the number of reviews that you receive you will need to begin encouraging your guests to write reviews. Many hotels have printed a reminder card that is handed out at check-out, or include the link to TripAdvisor in the post-stay email. Other hotels have included a link to share feedback publicly after guests have taken their post-stay survey. While the process of improving your rating is a long-term effort, it's easy to see results since fresh content is one of the factors that goes into TripAdvisor's scoring algotithm and a flury of new reviews will likely trigger a jump on the index.

Finally and most importantly, read the reviews that appear on the first few pages of your listing. If you have any negative reviews, it is imperative that you respond publicly to let prospects know that you are actively reading your reviews and using feedback to improve your hotel operations. And, since TripAdvisor allows you to sort your reviews by star-rating, click on your 1-star reviews and comment on any that are out-of-date or no longer applicable. For example, if a review is about a room that has since been renovated, publicly respond saying that the issues have all been resolved in your most recent renovation.

While TripAdvisor is clearly the biggest review site, you should visit your listings on all the review sites and OTAs, including Orbitz, Yelp, Hotels.com, Priceline, Expedia, Yahoo Travel, Google Places and Booking.com, and any other sites that might be pertinent in your region. Ensure that your photos are up-to-date and your listing is accurate. Also, many sites allow management responses, including Google, Hotels.com, Expedia and Yelp so respond to any negative reviews to show that you're customer focused and attentive to feedback.

When doing pre-planning research, many consumers will access your Twitter account and your Facebook Page to see if you're offering any social media specials or promoting anything new. If you have a Twitter account and/or a Facebook Page the expectation is that you are actively updating your accounts and engaging with guests and prospects. If you have a Facebook page or a Twitter account but aren't actively monitoring and engaging, it's best to take down the page until you're ready to devote the time and resources to the community. From a consumer perspective, there is nothing worse that looking up a hotel's page to find no activity or content, or worse, questions that go unanswered.

What kind of content helps you shine on Facebook and Twitter? First and foremost, guests saying great things about you and posting photos and videos from their stays. Many hotels are now encouraging social engagement with 'Get Social' cards in the rooms that tell guests that they're listening for feedback online and encouraging guests to tweet and post to Facebook. As a result, many hotels are using Twitter for service recovery issues, monitoring in-hotel conference hash tags for issues with the air conditioning, catering, or AV. Nothing looks better to a prospect than seeing a quick response to an issue on Twitter.

Second, your hotel really shines when you clearly use your loyal social community to help you improve. Ask your guests what they like most about your hotel. Create polls around menu selections, décor and spa treatments, for example. Both Facebook and Twitter provide great opportunities to allow your loyal customers to feel like valuable insiders and for you to base decisions on customer feedback.

And finally, monitor Twitter for people looking for recommendations of places to stay in your city. You can search for words such as 'hotel recommendation Chicago' or 'where stay Chicago'. You will see dozens of people looking for advice about where to stay. Respond to the person and find out what he/she is looking for? If your hotel fits the bill, it's ok to provide a rate or ask him/her to contact you to help make a reservation. But, simply sharing a rate before you know if it's a good fit might turn off the prospect. For example, if I was looking for a budget room and I was tweeted a rate of $1200, I might be inspired to make a joke at the expense of the hotel.

To shine across the Web in general, you want to make sure that your hotel and your people are associated with helpful, inspiring content about your local area. Encourage staff to become market experts on TripAdvisor and other travel forums, where they share their knowledge about best places to go and things to do in the vicinity. Search for hashtags on Twitter associated with your city and answer questions that come up from travelers and locals. Remember, you're not doing this as a direct sales vehicle. Rather, you are becoming helpful web citizens so that one day, when someone you helped is looking for a place to stay or providing a recommendation, he remembers the helpful suggestions you provided him about where to take his aunt for dinner for her birthday in your town.

Remember that shining online will take time and resources and should be considered a marathon and not a sprint. But investing in your online reputation will pay off with increased bookings, more loyal guests, and a greater awareness of what guests love and dislike about your hotel. In the end, it's about providing great hospitality, even when your guests aren't on site, which should come naturally to anyone that loves his/her profession.

Michelle Wohl is the VP of Marketing at Revinate, a San Francisco-based software company that helps hoteliers connect with their guests. 23,000 hotels across the globe rely on Revinate every day to understand how online reviews and social media are affecting their performance. At Revinate, Ms. Wohl is responsible for marketing, public relations and university relations. With almost twenty years of technology marketing under her belt, Ms. Wohl has lived through many great bubbles and technology trends. A true dotcom veteran, she started her career in product marketing at GoLive Systems, creators of the first WYSIWYG Web authoring product for the Mac. The company allowed anyone, regardless of HTML experience, to create a Web page and was at the forefront of Web technology when it was acquired by Adobe in 1999. At Adobe, Ms. Wohl led product marketing for the Web products, and later, Adobe Acrobat. Ms. Wohl can be contacted at 415-830-3795 or michelle@revinate.com Extended Bio...

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