How hotels can use social media to help stranded travelers

A historic blizzard slammed Chicago Tuesday afternoon, dumping 20 inches of snow on the city by Wednesday morning. The storm made for a perilous commute home, to say the least.

Yet the storm also created a new kind of opportunity. Thanks to the rising popularity of social media, local hotels were able to identify, reach out to and ultimately help stranded travelers.  By Tuesday’s evening rush hour, several Chicago hotels announced special blizzard rates targeted at commuters. A handful of hotels stayed online with travelers throughout the storm, alerting them of special rates and pointing them to other resources.

With the storm now behind them, we checked in with social media strategists at three Chicago hotels.  Here’s their advice for hotels that need to plan for major storms, be them blizzards or hurricanes.

Create a plan in advance.

“It could be compared to a crisis PR plan,” says Molly Lynch of the Lynch Communications Group. “Crisis happens right in that second and it’s the same way with storms. You cannot predict a snowstorm and have to act very quickly.”

Lynch and her team manage social media for Hotel Felix, a boutique hotel located in downtown Chicago.  By Monday afternoon—a full 24 hours before the storm hit—Hotel Felix decided to create a special blizzard rate of $79.

“We realized early on there was going to be a lot of canceled flights and a lot of people who at the last minute decided they would rather stay at a nice hotel if the rate was right rather than venture the treacherous route home,” Lynch said.

By Tuesday afternoon, Lynch’s team was promoting the blizzard rate in full force across Twitter, Facebook and Hotel Felix’s blog, HappyNaturally.com. One tweet read, “Snowy, Special Rate! We’re here to help during this blizzard! Just $79 per night! Go to www.hotelfelixchicago.com,… http://fb.me/PW7bijFm

George Jordan, area general manager of Hotel Felix, was pleased with the results. “The special rate got picked up by a number of other agencies and then spread out; it had a ripple effect through the community,” he says.

Set up a social media monitoring system.

To get the word out and see what people are saying about the storm, social media monitoring software is essential. Lynch personally swears by Hootsuite, a browser-based software that lets her monitor several Twitter streams.

Revinate is a new software specifically designed for hotels. Launched last March, Revinate lets hotels manage multiple social media streams, as well as read all reviews and online mentions of the hotel.

“There’s a great opportunity for hotels to start to form relationships with customers that are stranded,” says Michelle Wohl, Revinate’s vice-president of marketing. “Hotels can be a source of information about what’s going on in the storm.”

Jump into conversations where they’re happening.

“We knew that conversations about the storm were going on and we wanted to get into this conversation,” Lynch says. “The whole point of social media is to be in the discussion. It’s not a one-way street, it’s a two-way street.”

So by Tuesday evening, Lynch’s team jumped into conversations happening on local sites like Chicagoist, Yelp and CBS-Chicago. They left comments like, “Hope you’re staying warm during the snowstorm. If you’re stranded or not wanting to commute home, Hotel Felix has a great rate of $79.”

Lynch says such comments weren’t spam. “They were related to topics people were already talking about,” she says. “And people had fun with our comments. One person said, ‘I’m allowed to work from home and don’t think I can justify that expense.’”

Be available around the clock.

Jennifer Kedinger is the social media manager for Hyatt Regency Chicago, which is also located in downtown Chicago. She stresses the importance of having somebody support a hotel’s social media 24/7—especially during a storm. “By supporting our guests through social media, it also helps us keep a good pulse on the guests’ experience,” Kedinger says.”They’re actually ecstatic to see that we have this level of social support.”

During the blizzard, she saw that a guest checked into the Hyatt Regency Chicago on FourSquare. She tweeted back, “@djphiction noticed ur check in on #4sq – welcome to your safe haven from #snowmageddon. Tweet us if we can assist you w/ anything.”

For Kedinger, social media is also a great way for hotels to stay aware of what’s happening across their facilities and to fix any problems that may occur.

“One time a meeting planner contacted me via Twitter for a screwdriver they needed in one of the meeting rooms,” Kedinger said. “Now instead of picking up the phone, our guests can pick up a cell and send us a tweet.”

Extend your customer service online.

The Peninsula Chicago, a five-star hotel on Michigan Avenue, also used social media during the storm. Like Hotel Felix and Hyatt Regency Chicago, the Peninsula promoted its own special rate of $275. When Chicagoans tweeted that they were looking for open restaurants, the Peninsula at-replied that its restaurants remained open Tuesday and Wednesday.

Interestingly, booking more rooms and filling more seats was not the Peninsula’s overall goal.

“People don’t want to be sold on social media—they are already inundated with ads throughout the day,” says Marc Anderson, director of marketing for the Peninsula Chicago. “Our tactic is to provide another customer service tool for our guests. We want to customize and personalize every one of our guest’s stay. Social media helps us to do that.”

That’s not to say social media can’t drive revenue. Both Lynch and Kedinger’s efforts during the storm paid off. Their online promotion of the special blizzard rates brought in $3,600 and $13,350 for Hotel Felix and Hyatt Regency Chicago, respectively. Of course, that doesn’t include room service.

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