In desperate need of a break recently, I decided to check out of my Brooklyn home office and into a Manhattan hotel for a few nights of relaxation. Putting my research skills to work, I spent over a week trying to select the perfect hotel. There were amenities to consider, a location to decide on, and of course, I wanted to find a room within a certain budget. I used a price aggregating web site to find deals and then checked each hotel’s web site to see if I could get a better rate. I also spent hours on TripAdvisor.com and FlyerTalk.com reading customer reviews and user comments, which turned out to be a surprise example of excellent public relations for the hospitality industry.
When I finally decided on a hotel, a boutique inn owned by a small chain, one of the factors that swayed me was the fact that the hotel manager had left user comments on both TripAdvisor.com and FlyerTalk.com. These user comments ran the gamut from thanking guests to apologizing for services they found less than satisfactory. I mentioned this to the manager at check-in. “A lot of our customers say that,” he told me. “It’s funny because I didn’t want to do it at first, but our public relations person made me.”
Ding! Ding! Ding!
It was nice to hear a public relations department get some praise, and it was also nice to hear that a business-generating idea came directly from a PR person. Why every hotel manager is not leaving user comments on TripAdvisor.com, which is outrageously popular now, is a mystery to me. And a bigger mystery might be why every public relations rep in the hospitality business isn’t directing managers and other operations people to respond to negative user comments. (The website provides hoteliers with the capability to respond to reviews, update property details, add photos, etc.)
The irony is that public relations departments have complained that web sites such as TripAdvisor.com hamper their ability to control the message; in fact, these web sites give PR people a great opportunity to manage a brand. By actively participating in a community of consumers, public relations departments can defend themselves against whiners and complainers who have anomalous experiences with a product or service, just the type of customer no one wants to deal with.
As one hotel employee’s response to a review from a complaining customer is instructive: “I’m sorry that this person had such an awful experience. We did our best to meet their demands, but some people are just jerks.”
This response actually caused other customers to come to the defense of the hotel in question.
While my mini-vacation was nice, I need a real vacation at some point. As such, I spent the past few weeks planning a trip to a friend’s wedding out west. Since my hotel is covered by a points-based reward program, I’ve turned my attention to finding good restaurants and the boards on Chowhound.com. I want to take my friend and her soon-to-be husband out for a nice meal, so I want to make sure everything is perfect.
After reading hundreds of comments from customers, I narrowed my choices down to three restaurants. I emailed all three with some questions and mentioned that it was a special occasion. Two restaurants responded via email with boilerplate answers. I had not heard from the third when the phone rang the other day.
The restaurant’s owner called not just to answer my questions, but to offer up some advice and some wonderful perks. He suggested I take my friends for drinks before dinner to a nice lounge near my hotel that is owned by his friend. (“I’ll tell him you’re coming and that it’s a special occasion,” the restaurateur told me.) He also said that he would send a car to pick us up for dinner and return us to my hotel via a scenic route. Finally, he told me about a special tasting menu that could be prepared for my party. By the time he was finished I had expanded my reservation from three people to eight and booked a lunch date with the owner two days prior to dinner.
Why was this restaurant owner’s response so different than the other two restaurants I contacted? Because he worked in the public relations industry for almost 20 years before opening his dream restaurant five years ago. We’ll be discussing this over lunch in August.
I know from my friends in the public relations biz that running any kind of business in the hospitality industry is difficult. What makes it more difficult is when the business is not proactive about public relations, which sometimes simply amounts to going above-and-beyond the industry standard for customer service. Restaurants, hotels, and other facets of the hospitality industry strive to get good reviews from professional reviewers, but they too often ignore getting their message across to the actual customer.
The best way for the hospitality industry to get hospitable PR is by responding to critics, treating all customers like they’re VIPs, and controlling the message through a carefully planned public relations strategy. And that can be as simple as participating in the process that shapes the consumer’s view of your business.
This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.