By Jay Hubbs, travel industry consultant, H3 Advisors and member of HSMAI’s Revenue Management Advisory Board
Increasingly, social media is transforming not just how people connect and stay in touch, but also how they collaborate, plan, share information and make decisions. TripAdvisor, Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare have all begun to change the travel landscape, and newer social entrants like Instagram and Pinterest are rapidly coming into their own as the viral, sharing economy compounds. As the next generation of travelers, marketers and revenue managers use these sources to make decisions, it will become even more paramount for hotel teams to analyze the quantitative and qualitative data to capitalize on social trends.
Is social just marketing?
Several recent articles have highlighted the differences between revenue management and marketing – how the latter is about building brand awareness, recall and affinity to drive long-term demand, while the former is focused on matching that demand with price given finite supply to maximize revenues and ultimately profits. Both disciplines aim to make the hotel more money, but at times they are at odds on how to develop and execute social strategies that drive revenue. Under the auspices of “media,” managing social network activity has historically been under the marketing umbrella, and rightfully so. Social media is a purveyor of preferences, locations, experiences and ideas that have been most influential for the dreaming or researching phases of a trip, not to mention experiencing during the actual trip and sharing once the trip is over.
However, as more and more people use these networks to communicate, research will go beyond places and/or prices to include channels and booking windows, which in essence means that soon we will see a proliferation of information being passed through social networks about the booking phase of the trip as well. This has far-reaching impacts for both the marketing and revenue management teams at hotels.
The Internet is all about transparency and reducing market inefficiencies.
Look at the biggest names in the early Internet space and consider what they’ve meant for increasing transparency and reducing inefficiencies.
- Amazon provides a market where one can buy just about everything at volume discount prices.
- eBay creates a marketplace to buy and sell just about everything in a peer-to-peer system.
- Craigslist allows one to really buy just about any tangible thing, and procure services or fulfill other needs via a transparent (albeit anonymous) service.
- Google serves up targeted information (and provides a marketplace for advertisers) based on search requests to understand (and learn) what information every user needs.
Now let’s turn that lens toward the travel sector.
- OTAs created platforms designed to increase both the transparency of travel content and prices, and the efficiency of consumers looking to book travel themselves online.
- Metasearch invented innovative platforms to take the pricing information from both OTAs and travel providers to create a marketplace of even higher price transparency.
- TripAdvisor combined consumers’ need for validation of their travel options with their desire to share experiences in an open format.
- HotelTonight arguably the leader in the last minute hotel booking space, focused on efficiency (mobile, immediate stay need), hotel market needs (last minute revenue) and consumers’ desire for transparency (hotels identified).
With social networks, we get beyond just transparency to an openness and candid dialogue that will continue to evolve, for better or worse depending on your point of view, and begin to directly impact how hotels look at their pricing strategies.
Transparency in pricing – it is anathema to any revenue manager.
Ever sit next to a person on a flight and ask them how much they paid for their seat? A lot of people do it, but once you’ve bought the ticket and boarded the plane, what’s the point? So you feel better about your decision at the expense of someone else, or (heaven forbid) the opposite?
The airline industry is vastly different from the hotel industry, encompassing tighter fences, fewer promotional opportunities, more rational discounting, and a very constrained inventory model. If a friend posts on Facebook that she just got a great deal on a flight to Hawaii including carrier and travel dates, how many of her friends or friends of friends could take advantage of that opportunity?
The flight part of the trip is much more utilitarian. We need the airline to get us and our bags somewhere safely. However, the hotel is a much bigger part of the travel experience, even if we don’t spend much time in the room except to sleep. To that end, the hotel is socially important to the trip. And thus hotels are much more interesting for travelers to connect with friends around, or to run by their networks when making booking decisions. We will begin to see travelers sharing hotel pricing data readily though social networks beyond what is already out there via OTAs or Metasearch players.
To that end, expect an increase in the transparency of hotel rates through these channels. Anybody can find what the BAR rate is. But a screaming deal, promotional offer, or a special rate through a fenced channel (whether a true fence or not) will be shared. And it will begin to have implications for the marketing and revenue strategies taking place in hotels every day.
The data is in – social does matter.
Recently, several studies have pointed to the impact of user generated content (UGC) in the form of traveler reviews as drivers of rate and revenue. Years ago, Expedia told the industry that through their websites, hotels with a full star higher score in guest comments were able to command a 9% higher ADR. More recently, Cornell University and ReviewPro published an article showing the incredible correlation between review scores and RevPAR, with just a one point lift in aggregated review score equating to a 1.4% increase in actual RevPAR. Professor Chris Anderson of Cornell stated, “What was remarkable about the study is that positive online reputation doesn’t merely provide higher pricing power for online sales. It is correlated to higher group booking rates and corporate negotiated rates in addition to reservations made over the phone.”
From a distribution channel standpoint, the impact is clear as well. Travelers are becoming more and more attuned to reading reviews or relying on recommendations from friends on where to stay. Embassy Suites recently released its 2013 business travel survey and over 75% of respondents said that online reviews are “critical” when preparing for business travel. Critical. For business travel.
Reviews are impacting channels that many thought were impervious to social media influence. While some loyalty programs are stronger than others, increasingly they too are affected by social media, with shared content eventually carrying more weight than a loyalty card in the wallet. While some diehard loyalists will stay true to the brand, unaffected by social media, casual preferred brand travelers will begin to weigh social media versus brand loyalty and therefore factor price even more as part of their decision criteria. Some travelers will stay at Brand X hotel no matter what, but naturally some hotels are better than others in a given geography, and the ones with superior reviews or social recommendations will begin to trump the flag outside the building for a growing group of travelers.
One revenue management executive I spoke with recently told me that he can see the almost instantaneous effect of a bad review, with an immediate dip in conversion, which then affects booking windows and channel shift strategies. Layer this on top of shifting demographics of the traveling population, as well as the impact of social on other channels, and the impact goes beyond leisure rates booked directly or through OTAs or Metasearch sites.
Back to revenue management…
Market segmentation is critical to the success of the revenue team as well as the overall profitability of the hotel. It is imperative to understand what is driving traveler demand to the hotel or area, what are travelers’ price sensitivities and booking windows, and the relative worth to the hotel for their desired stay period over the short term and overall lifetime value in the long term. On the positive side, the transparency of the Internet and social media makes some of this segmentation even easier. But on the flip side, what if all of this segmentation – fences, qualifications, unpublished rates – went away thanks to social media?
A pessimist might look at things this way: Twitter complaints escalate into full blown maelstroms leading to pickup by mainstream media outlets. Fenced deals are promoted through Foursquare to business travelers. Facebook friends pile onto a corporate LRA negotiated rate over a convention week. Less-than-flattering pictures of the property end up on Pinterest. Do these scenarios have an effect on revenue management? You bet.
However, through a more optimistic lens one can see taking advantage of these channels as opportunities to grow revenue and market share. Examples could include:
- Tweeting value-adds that will drive travelers to your hotel;
- Utilizing Pinterest to highlight hero shots of the hotel as well as tie into promotional rate periods;
- Activating special offers through TripAdvisor and monitoring your competitors’ willingness to do the same; and,
- Cultivating Facebook followers to find your true promoters.
These are all marketing activities that have a direct tie to revenue management and should be coordinated.
What should hotels do?
Social media is all about conversations, building networks and sharing ideas, thoughts and information. To that end, the action items for a revenue team are pretty straight-forward.
- Involve the team. Set egos and departments aside and have open conversations about what you see on social media and how that affects your revenue strategy. Uncover the opportunities by engaging in dialogue.
- Monitor social media all the time. There are several services available that help hotels monitor the dialog and provide analytics behind the conversation. Some hotels have these tools provided to them by the brands (and many do not use them), while others shop around for the best in class provider out there. Regardless, get help so you can synthesize the conversations.
- Use the data. Use trend and competitive analyses to identify quantitative options. Read reviews and use semantic analysis tools to look at qualitative information. Include this detail in your strategy discussions so you can make decisions and act.
- Test, measure, test, and test again. Know what your goals are, test, measure and test, test, test. See what strategies resonate with your network, see what helps you expand your network and tie those activities to your revenue management strategies.
Social media is a constantly evolving platform to engage with travelers. Hotels that tie that engagement to revenue management strategies and find ways to incorporate this intelligence into their day-to-day revenue plans will lead their comp-sets, and ultimately find themselves ahead on the bottom line as well.
About the Author
Jay Hubbs is a leading industry strategist in the areas of sales, revenue management and distribution. In his career he has worked for Fortune 500 companies, including Expedia and Starwood Hotels, as well as smaller startup companies in the Internet and social media space including ReviewPro. As a consultant he helps clients in the travel industry develop and implement strategies to grow revenue and market share. Jay lives in San Francisco with his wife and twin boys.
About HSMAI’s Revenue Management Advisory Board
The Revenue Management Advisory Board leverages insights, emerging trends, and industry innovations to guide the development of products and programs that optimize revenue for hotels. www.revmanagement.org
- Co-Chair: Jon Eliot, CRME, CHA, Vice President of Revenue Management, Premier Hospitality Management
- Co-Chair: Sloan Dean, CRME, Vice President of Sales & Marketing, Interstate Hotels & Resorts
- Calvin Anderson, Corporate Director of Revenue Strategy, Alliance Hospitality Management LLC
- Chris K. Anderson, Ph.D., Professor, Cornell University
- Bonnie Buckhiester, President & CEO, Buckhiester Management Limited
- Sheila Cosgrove, Director, Revenue Management Ops & Planning, Intercontinental Hotels Group
- Kathleen Cullen, CRME, Vice President Revenue Strategies, Heritage Hotels and Resorts
- Kent Duncan, CRME, Vice President, Sales & Revenue Strategy, Marcus Hotels & Resorts
- Tammy Farley, Principal, The Rainmaker Group
- Neal Fegan, CRME, Executive Director of Revenue Management, Fairmont Raffles Hotels International
- Kimberly Furlong, VP Revenue Management, TPG Hospitality
- Nick Graham, Sr. Director Market Management, Expedia, Inc.
- Jay Hubbs, Revenue Management Consultant
- Burl Hutchison, CRME, Director of Revenue & System Optimization, Sabre Hospitatlity
- Mark Molinari, CRME, Corporate Vice President of Revenue Management and Distribution, Las Vegas Sands
- Garth Peterson, CRME, Regional Director of Sales, IDeaS - A SAS Company
- Mark Robertson, Central Director Revenue Management, Wyndham Hotel Group
- Susan Spencer, Market Director - N. America, ChannelRUSH
- Trevor Stuart-Hill, CRME, President, Revenue Matters
- Paul Wood, CRME, CHBA, Vice President of Revenue Management, Greenwood Hospitality Group
Want to Learn More?
This topic will be addressed as part of the 10-part 2013 Revenue Management Webinar Series produced by the HSMAI Revenue Management Advisory Board and HSMAI University in partnership with HotelNewsNow and STR. Each month a webinar covers one aspect of cutting edge revenue management in today's economy in conjunction with articles written by members of the HSMAI Revenue Management Advisory Board. If you’re not able to attend a live program, archives are available.
Also, plan to attend HSMAI’s 2013 Revenue Optimization Conference (ROC) in Minneapolis on June 24.
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