There are more than a few hoteliers who pine for the days before social media. I know this because I’ve had conversations with them. It isn’t that they don’t appreciate the raw promotional fuel that social media can provide, or the ability to freely broadcast a hotel’s amenities or brand message to anyone in the world. Those things are clearly desirable.
The issue appears more around the lack of control that hoteliers now have. In the old days, an unhappy guest would be spoken with or written to, with the ability to (generally) resolve the issue in a rational, an under-the-radar manner. Now though, anybody with a grievance can take to the airways and announce their unhappiness with no filters. Similarly, if you had wanted to reach your customers, you did so through traditional advertisements and direct mail.
In practice, social media is a strange and hyper-competitive medium for hoteliers. If you take a freewheeling approach, it might be possible to punch through the noise once in a while. Something is certainly (or at least usually) better than nothing. But if you want consistent engagement and results, you have to develop a solid social media strategy. You have to devote time and energy, constantly evolving your approach through time.
For smaller hotel operations, these efforts can draw vital energy away from the guest experience and other key aspects of hotel management. The daily ritual of pouring over social media, crafting your own posts, and responding to comments can be exhausting. What happened to the old days, when ensuring the quality of the hotel product was all that mattered?
There are also the dangers inherent to social media. A careless statement can attract the ire of countless thousands of people. A bungled promotion or unpleasant guest experience can be mocked and repeated, spreading like wildfire. If you use social media to build buzz around a hotel opening or promotion, and you underdeliver, the very medium that gave oxygen to your effort can starve it.
That’s what happened to the recently-opened TWA Hotel at JFK International Airport in New York City. The project is a renovation of the iconic wing-shaped TWA Flight Center at JFK, which opened in 1962. There were to be 512 soundproof guestrooms with runway views, a rooftop infinity pool and observation deck, museum exhibits on the Jet Age and midcentury design, a 929 sqm fitness centre (allegedly the world’s largest hotel gym), and even an old airplane converted to a cocktail lounge. Full of historical charm, it promised to be one of the most Instagrammable openings in memory. It wasn’t a luxury offering but it had style, and it would be a supremely handy option for long layovers or early departures in New York.
A disappointing takeoff
After a big buildup, the hotel had a “soft opening” in May of 2019, while some portions of the facility were still under construction. Plumbing and electrical problems followed close behind, including an overnight power outage in June, during which alarms blared sporadically and guests were given glow sticks to help them get around in the dark.
These problems will, of course, be solved – but a wave of mixed reviews hit social media, and average review scores were immediately affected. It wasn’t the beginning they had hoped for. Many industry experts noted that the hotel would have done well to wait until many of the loose ends were tied up before opening its doors to the public.
Highs and lows
The TWA Hotel will likely be fine in the long run, but it’s a good illustration of the power of social media to seize on the mistakes of developers, planners, and/or hotel managers. It shows why some people in the business would look back fondly on a time when their mistakes weren’t immediately amplified by a flood of public images and comments.
Let’s not forget, though, that to think of social media as a kind of misanthropic mob rule is neither correct nor productive. These channels are a powerful tools to further the aims of a creative and ambitious hotelier. At the same time, they’re a pure source of accountability to a thriving hospitality market in which people have an abundance of choice. There’s nothing wrong with nostalgia for the pre-social media age, but it isn’t going to help your hotel – unless, of course, it’s the kind of nostalgia that drives bookings through Instagram.
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