Hotelier Cultivates Web Community With An Eye Toward CRM

  |  March 12, 2009   |  Comments

InterContinental Hotels develops new destination where frequent travelers and guests can rub virtual elbows and get their questions answered.

Can corporate-sponsored social networking actually build revenue? InterContinental Hotels Group is hoping so, and it's banking on being able to develop its enormous loyalty program membership into loyal, if occasional, social networkers.

IHG has had a beta version of its Priority Club Connect social networking site up since last fall, powered by Clearspace Community from Jive Software. About 300 people had joined as of last week, including Jenni Kolshak, IHG's social marketing specialist and the most frequent face of the company on the site.

Only a handful of members have posted more than one message. Most of the message activity is member introductions -- "Ciao from Italy!" -- though a grumblefest was brewing late last week over the scandalous amounts that some hotels charge for parking.

IHG is ubiquitous in the lodging world, running not only InterContinental hotels and resorts, but also Holiday Inn, Crowne Plaza, and Candlewood Suites, among others. It also has the world's largest hotel loyalty program, Priority Club Rewards, which boasts 42 million members.

IHG's theory is that those people need somewhere to hang out online, trade photos and travel tips, and (by the way) pick up special club-only travel deals. "We did a lot of analysis and saw that there was a gap and an opportunity," said Cassandra Jeyaram, social marketing manager, who's been in her position for about a year.

The company has had several private, firewalled online communities for a couple of years already, where small subsets of the loyalty club membership -- for example, top-tier "Ambassador's Program" members, or particular fans of Holiday Inn -- check in to swap tips amongst themselves or give the company an earful on what's bothering them. IHG sends them different questions each week, which fuel about half of the discussions; the other half are user-initiated.

Jeyaram said IHG has used these communities to shape the new effort. "We learned that you shouldn't use a community as a corporate mouthpiece," she said. "We want it to be customer-focused."

Though message traffic is light, Priority Club Connect users have also started to upload photos. IHG takes possession of them under the terms of service, but unlike Facebook, it pays for the privilege -- in Priority Club reward points. "We're using a currency that's important to them," Jeyaram says. The company took a similar tack in its private online communities, and occasionally incorporates users' photo contributions into its marketing materials. Jeyaram plans to offer a similar incentive to induce members to upload a photo to their profiles.

The private communities yielded the occasional customer who was very, very put out about something, and IHG developed a protocol for dealing with such situations. Unhappy customers were referred to a "service recovery team," and while Jeyaram doesn't know exactly what the team was authorized to do, she does know that the customers came back happy. Jeyaram says a similar dynamic, though probably not the same team, will be used with Priority Club Connect to nip complaints before they turn into major gripe sessions.

Jeyaram won't say how much the site is costing, but the company hopes to recoup its costs by the end of the year through selling its members on the site's special offers. By this time next year, "we'd love to see a healthy and robust dialogue with our customers, and a revenue stream."

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