Private Social Network Aids Revenue Bump for New York Hotel

A little more than two years after approaching branding and design firm 321 Worldwide about an image overhaul, The Pickwick Arms hotel has a new look, new Web site, new tagline and logo, new room keys, and even a new name: The Pod Hotel.

And because it’s 2008, its also has its own social network.

Guests of the Pod, which is in New York City, can now log onto the network, called PodCulture, in advance of their arrival and socialize with other hotel guests, planning shopping trips, nights on the town, casual dinners or even romantic encounters. The site is open only to incoming guests of the Pod, who are given usernames and passwords when they book their rooms.

The Pod’s clientele “was a young international crowd, and so being part of their mindset was very important,” said Alona Elkayam, founder and chief creative officer of 321 Worldwide, which is based in New York. “So the experience doesn’t start when they check in. Instead we can tap into the market before they get there.”

The Pod’s new name and other branding elements debuted in January 2007, along with a public relations effort to promote the new look, resulting in a 500 percent bump in revenue for the hotel during the first year of its new image, said Elkayam.

PodCulture then went live in January 2008, and Elkayam says the social network is responsible for the additional 40 percent revenue increase the hotel experienced this year.

“That was the one thing that changed in 2008, ” said Elkayam. ‘There was no PR initiative like there was in 2007. [PodCulture] is one of the only new things done in 2008.”

Of course, PodCulture wasn’t the only new thing to happen to the hotel this year. According to David Bernstein, general manager of the Pod Hotel, the international financial crisis is having more of an impact on booking at the moment than any Web site, social or otherwise.

“You can stand on your head right now and bookings would still be down,” he said. “Everybody is down from this time last year, so it’s hard.”

To be sure, Bernstein did not refute Elkayam ‘s assertion that the Pod had experienced an uptick in revenue for the year, but clarified that bookings “have been down for the past two or three months.”

But Bernstein does see at least one area in which the social network is making a difference.

“We see people waiting to meet up with each other in the lobby now, people waiting for each other for breakfast or checking in and saying ‘I’m supposed to meet someone here,'” he said.

Guests who log onto the site can perform many of the functions of a typical social network, including uploading pictures, creating profiles and communicating with other members. They can also plan get-togethers under several headings, such as “Drink with me,” “Shop with me,” and “Go out with me.”

Bernstein, who said he conceived of the social network idea on his own before asking 321 to build it, said the hotel monitors all activity on the site itself to ensure guest safety. Network developers Progressive Element perform back-end bulletin board monitoring services for the site.

Both 321 and Bernstein characterized PodCulture as a success in its first year. But with bookings heading south in the hotel business and not likely to trend upwards anytime soon, might they consider selling advertising to other local businesses looking to market themselves to incoming tourists actively engaged in making plans for their stay?

“There’s no need to be greedy here,” said Elkayam. “For this audience, which I believe to be very skeptical of marketing, we wanted to stay away from that. We wanted this to belong to them and keep it private.”

Guests have access to the network until the moment they check in, said Elkayam, when their profile on the site is suspended. The information is only “shelved,” however. They can log in once again after making another reservation.

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