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Last week we launched Skift50: World’s Top Travel Marketers to highlight the people driving the go-to-market strategies of high-profile consumer-facing travel brands. Along with the list of 50, we’ve caught up with leaders from JetBlue, Visit Philadelphia, Viking River Cruises, and now Four Seasons to dig deeper into how they help their brands work better.
High-end brands have a habit of playing it safe, but Four Seasons has embraced digital marketing with the enthusiasm of a startup — helped along by the deep pockets of a luxury hotel chain. Its website, re-launched in 2012, incorporated destination guides, TripAdvisor reviews, and “Local Experts” advice from staff from across the brand’s 92 properties.
The driving force behind these changes is Susan Helstab, Executive Vice President of Marketing. Helstab had been with Four Seasons since 1987, but took over responsibilities for all marketing in 2009, right in the middle of the worst of the economic recession. Helstab and her colleagues quickly moved to completely rebuild the brand’s digital presence. “When people go through near death experiences they’re prepared to look at the future in novel ways,” Helstab told Skift last week.
In addition to traditional marketing duties, Helstab also overseas a digital media portfolio that includes Have Family Will Travel, Concierge Recommends, the food site Taste, one for weddings, and sites that target Brazilian, Russian, and Spanish-language travelers.
With her inclusion on the Skift50 World’s Top Travel Marketers list, as well Four Seasons’ position at the top of SkiftIQ’s rankings of hotel brands we called Helstab to discuss how Four Seasons recreated itself online and on the ground by reading the digital tea leaves.
Skift: In 2012, half of your marketing budget was digital. What were the results of this investment and how did it affect your 2013 plans?
Susan Helstab: I’d like to go back a few years to answer that. I took in over marketing in January 2009 when we were starting to feel the brunt of the downturn. It was clear at that time there were profound shifts occurring. Everything we did across the company needed to deliver a return on investment and we need to be able to measure it. Everything digital is in the sweet spot of that, so we began zeroing in on digital. It was very clear was that there was an ever-increasing engagement with all things digital.
We realized that we needed to create a platform that we could leverage for all those future opportunities to engage and ultimately transact with our guests.
The other a-ha moment was that with marketing, consumers were going to have control of the conversation. We wanted to be in a place were we could influence that. We wanted to create content and assets that people saw as authentic and that they wanted to share. We need to make sure all of our assets could be accessed through that platform.
So while January of 2012 was when we launched the site, in the preceding two or three years we were ramping up all things digital.
Skift: Would you talk a bit about your content strategy?
Helstab: We had always been focused on SEO and SEM, but primarily around the opportunities of being easy to find by our customers. Especially ones that were really cost effective. We had to be judicious about the search piece of it and we need to optimize our site to turn up at the top of the list.
We focused on building out other kinds of content that could appeal to niche segments of our audience. For instance, our epicurean website Taste basically is an opportunity for people into the culinary world to engage with each other and for us to present ourselves as tastemakers in the industry with our chefs and mixologists.
Skift: How has FourSeasons.com performed for you?
Helstab: Almost from day one it was performing much much better than our previous sites: Visits, bookings, conversion, conversion of availability checks. As those KPIs go up, the revenues generated by website go up. In 2012 and 2013 we saw 20% increase in digital revenues.
All of the additional content we’ve created is significantly increasing visits to our website through SEO. What we’re finding as well is that more and more image-based content is driving engagement and ultimately allowing us to be at the top of the list for search engine efforts.
Skift: You were one of the first hotel chains to work with Pinterest’s new travel effort.
Helstab: We were already getting a lot of experience with photo-sharing sites, but Pinterest provided us with the opportunity to be the first luxury hotel represented there. We were the first in our space to be there and to really build out what we thought were the opportunities there with our trip planning feature Pin.Pack.Go.
We love that our guests and prospective guests are engaged with it. We can connect them to our hotels and our expertise through our concierges. It’s a fun tool that allows travel planning to be more interactive and directly engage with our hotels. Since August it’s also led to a 100% increase in brand-level Pinterest followers.
Skift: When you began rethinking Four Seasons’ digital strategy in 2009 your digital plans probably seemed quite ambitious. How did you get buy-in across the company?
Helstab: When people go through near-death experiences they’re prepared to look at the future in novel ways.
The environment at Four Seasons is very much encouraging of innovation. And given the business environment we were in everyone’s attitude was it’s not business as usual.
There were hurdles but it wasn’t so much around digital where we already had over 15 years of experience. Social was more of a leap in faith. But you don’t need to make big investments to see what was happening there. We could be quite experimental with virtually no risk.
The challenge was distributing social responsibility to hotels. They are managing their own presence in their channel on their own. Creating the infrastructure took a bit of soul searching. It’s obvious to everyone that we have a team that’s excited about doing new things and being first and the best. It’s not just at corporate, but people in the hotels.
[Interview continues beneath chart]
Hotel Social Rankings from SkiftIQ
|Name||Skift Score||Twitter Follows||Facebook Likes||Youtube Views||Instagram Followers|
|Four Seasons Hotels||788||96,157||206,089||1,656,537||25,991|
|Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts||674||11,986||1,118,468||624,951||3,333|
|DoubleTree by Hilton||582||54,360||232,624||9,790,763||1,626|
|Room Mate Hotels||572||90,299||33,825||124,380||0|
Source: SkiftIQ Hotel Brands
Skift: You’ve embraced TripAdvisor and user-generated content the last few years. Why?
Helstab: We never want to over promise. We always want to exceed guest expectations.
I felt that being upfront about user-generated content would demonstrate incredible confidence in what we do. And I don’t believe there’s a guest that’s stayed with us that hasn’t gone to TripAdvisor. They want to get as much information to validate their decision as they can. So we looked at the nature of the reviews and the overall positive nature of it.
I believe that all of that content makes us better. So you try it, and the world doesn’t end.
Skift: What have you learned about digital in two years since your site relaunch?
Helstab: We are interested in how different devices determine engagement. For example, on a smartphone, the conversion we get to a booking is really, really low today. It’s about researching, getting factual info, getting a phone number, and seeing a few images. It’s not about a booking. A tablet device is both about the dream and the research and the reservation. They aren’t booking the same as the computer but much more significant than a smartphone.
Another really big learning for us was that to be successful in the digital world we were going to need to become a publishing company. The desire and demand for content was going to exceed any of our expectations. The team that you create around that can be a challenge relative to the other investments one has committed to in marketing.
How do you repurpose the content? How do you create and integrate initiative around the content? Just when it looks like an impossible task you wake up and realize there’s all that user-generated content out there and it’s growing everyday. How do you tap into that in a way that allows you to tell the brand story in the way you want to?
Skift: What was the process like getting properties to participate in programs such as Local Experts?
Helstab: With a large network of hotels we always have ones that are eager to try. When we are dipping our toes in the water, we go to the hotels going “Pick me, pick me!” You don’t want to give this job to someone who sees it as one more thing to do.
Then it’s just a matter of skilling-up.
On Twitter we get some complaints while the guest is still in house. That means 24-by-7 monitoring and a level of engagement and seriousness around it that you can’t leave to chance. We provide training around the tool and the expectations of the guest.
We don’t require that every single hotel be on every channel. We would like them to be represented, but if the hotel doesn’t have the resources would would prefer they not be there than not do it well.
Discover more of the travel industry’s best marketing strategies at Skift50 – World’s Top Travel Marketers of 2013.