Looking Ahead on User Generated Content (UGC)
By Lisa Ross President & Partner, rbb Communications | November 17, 2019
Today's consumers are socially networked, technologically active and very well informed. The effect is a complete transformation of consumer purchasing habits and Online Travel Agencies (OTAs) have adapted accordingly. To stay competitive, the hospitality industry has responded by evolving how and where it connects with travelers.
Yet, this only represents half of the equation that hotels must have in place if they're to be successful. Independent properties and hotel brands alike have the added task of creating rich experiences that drive differentiation in the marketplace as well as opportunities to offer guests personalized experiences that translate into value add.
According to Deloitte Consulting's white paper Next Gen Hotel Guests Have Checked In: The Changing Guest Experience, "-truly knowing your guests-what they have told you, what they request, what you have learned, and what should be implied-should yield larger results."
Millennials and UGC
In other words, satisfied guests are likely to become loyal guests and the positive user generated content (UGC) that they post to their social media accounts and review platforms like TripAdvisor will have a ripple effect on future bookings by other potential guests. The white paper Talking to Strangers: Millennials Trust People Over Brands, published by The Center for Generational Kinetics, Bazaarvoice and Kelton Research, states that 32 to 39 percent of Millennials won't book a hotel or travel experience that doesn't use UGC marketing.
Not only are peer-to-peer recommendations free, but they also inspire greater trust, helping consumers cut through the marketing and advertising messages with which they are inundated. Then there's also the fact that 69 percent of Millennials experience "Fear of Missing Out" or FOMO and, according to the Eventbrite paper Millennials: Fueling the Experience Economy, UGC hits that emotion head-on.
In the hotel industry, the volume of guests' online comments increase visibility and help bolster a property's position on review sites, OTAs, and search engines, as well as sales and conversion rates. Hotels willing to invest in "social listening" know UGC can additionally provide their properties with insight on strengths and weaknesses that can be leveraged to co-create new guest experiences. If guests are consistently commenting that an outdoor grassy area reserved for complimentary morning yoga doubles as a great kids play space later in the day, the hotel may want to make that an official experience that guests can enjoy during their stay. Conversely, a series of negative comments about a hotel's check-in process may prompt the property to change the way in which they welcome guests.
Co-Creating Richer Guest Experiences
Such opportunities come about when hotels and brands shift the focus from data-driven, company-centric views to the empowerment of guests as far as defining what a personalized experience is to him or her during their stay. The advent of social media and forums like TripAdvisor have certainly changed the control that hotels and cruise lines had over how guests interact with their offerings as guests are no longer wholly dependent on the hospitality provider for information. But as the hospitality industry prizes interaction with guests, it is a business ripe for more co-created experiences, which could also lead to more competitive advantages in the market.
Currently, hotels are increasingly attempting to create narratives in tandem with their guests by leveraging UGC to showcase continuously fresh content and to craft messaging that allows potential guests to visualize themselves on property. Data from MDG Advertising cites 52 percent of Facebook users claim their travel plans are inspired by friends' photos and 30 percent of U.S. travelers turn to social media to find trip inspiration. So it's unsurprising that hotels and resorts are incorporating UGC photos galleries into their website design and their advertising in an effort to humanize the experience and tell the brand's story more authentically.
Loews Hotels created a print and digital ad campaign that used on-property images taken by guests and posted to Instagram hashtagged or with a mention of Loews. Loews added the messaging "Everyone Needs___________" with a call-to-action overlay and the hashtag #TravelForReal. Similarly, San Diego's Hotel Del Coronado features a UGC image gallery on its website, with a call-to-action appearing over each image when website users hover over them.
Reposting UGC on hotel social media channels is also a well-established practice. It's become commonplace to proactively encourage guests to share highlights on their social media channels and online review platforms like TripAdvisor. This is a common request made at checkout, via follow-up emails and on guest comment cards. However, the trend is already moving into its next phase.
Although hotels cannot directly control how individuals go about co-constructing their guest experience, they are subtly finding ways to exercise more influence over how the experience is portrayed on social media. "The Selfie Station," like the oversized gilded frame in the lobby of Sydney's 1888 Hotel, is a dedicated space where guests can pose for photos and immediately post to their Instagram account using a designated hashtag. Plus, 1888 Hotel's reception area has two screens that display a continuously updated feed of guests' Instagram photos with the hashtag #1888hotel.
Properties are now also starting to incentivize UGC through careful food and beverage (F&B) presentation as well as hotel design. VU Rooftop Bar at Chicago's tri-branded Hilton at McCormick Place has about 1,000 bottles of liquor in display cages in the bar area and a lounge with a floor-to-ceiling mural, "Hidden Figures " by artist Todd Murphy, that can only be described as "Instagrammable."
Wedding Guests as Hotel Marketers
Yet, there are so many more opportunities for hotels, together with their guests, to co-create experiences that can stoke powerful, online dialogues. In-house social groups like weddings are a great starting point. Selfie stations equipped with a variety of basic costuming such as hats, sunglasses, or Venetian-style masks are an immensely popular feature of the modern-day wedding reception. Why not offer couples a selfie station themed to reflect the hotel design?
For example, such a selfie station at a beachfront resort could include low cost items such as colorful sunglasses, sun visors, Panama Jack hats and hotel logoed beach towels. Offer a backdrop with the hotel logo along with a designated hashtag combining the couple's name and hotel name and position it as a value-add package inclusion. Wedding guests are already on property. Let them help define the hotel experience for future guests, including those who might be planning an upcoming wedding of their own.
Tap the Local Market
The local market is also important to many hotels, at least as far as fueling F&B and possibly spa revenues. But often, they aren't as much of a priority when it comes to UGC. Yet, they should be. Locals are essential to keeping a hotel bar and restaurant busy during shoulder periods and perhaps Sunday evenings, too. These are ideal periods to invite locals to join the bar's resident mixologist or the restaurant's chef and vote on their new cocktail or appetizer creations to decide which will officially be featured on the new seasonal menu. Give these guests a designated hashtag, tell them the best photos, including the hashtag or mention of the hotel by name, will be reposted to the hotel's social media accounts. The photo to receive the most likes will win a free wine flight or even dinner on the house.
Redefine Partnerships with Local Vendors
Guests, though, are not the only avenue for co-creating unique hotel experiences. Local artisans and purveyors often supply area hotels with kitchen ingredients and even hotel decor. Hotels will typically give the vendor a cursory mention on their own social media channels and return to their focus of promoting the property. But astute hoteliers know that these partnerships can also result in exclusive guest experiences whereby the hotel can make arrangements for guests to meet and greet the artisan at their workshop or tour the local farm that supplies certain products to the hotel restaurant.
Cross-promoting each business as well as the experience is a great way to get the word out. Asking guests signed up for the activity to use a certain hashtag and/or name each respective business in their social media posts will, of course, further the buzz.
Hoteliers operate in an environment where revenue management, operations and sales understandably take precedent and data determines how new experiences can be personalized. So it's easy to shift into default mode when it comes to social media and view it as a rooftop from which hotels sing their own praises or an advertising vehicle or a public forum where dissatisfied guests unfortunately air grievances.
But the reality is that it's guests who are truly driving the conversations that have the authority to convert. UGC is intrinsically richer in value than any content directly produced by the hotel. It only makes sense that hotel guests will have an increasingly greater voice in determining what they want more of from hotels. Those properties that take stock of demands made directly by guests and deliver on those demands will be the winners who take all.
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