An elegant young woman buys a coffee, flashing the barista a smile as she pays with her smartphone. Later, she goes for a drive, using her phone as a satellite navigation device, before calling a friend. Finally, she heads back to her hotel and, when she reaches her room, pulls out her handset one final time to open the door with a quick swipe.

The young woman, the focus of a Starwood advert that celebrates its keyless check-in, may be unrealistically glamorous, but the way she lives her life is increasingly common, especially for those, like her, that fit roughly into the age group known as millennials, or Generation Y. Behind the buzzwords, members of this generation are becoming increasingly important for hotel operators – and, as the advert suggests, the best way to reach them is through technology.

The bigger hotel operators, such as Starwood, are well aware of this. Steven Taylor, vice-president of marketing for Starwood Europe, Africa and the Middle East, says there has been a fundamental shift in how hotel groups talk to their customers and, in particular, their younger customers. "The way in which we connect with that consumer is through digital innovation," he says. "We’ve seen huge digital growth: 42% of our site visits are now through mobile, which is up 16% from two years ago.

"The type of content that we create has fundamentally changed and expanded. Take our video strategy, for example: we’ve produced more than 100 videos over the past two or three years, and in just the past 12 months, we’ve had three years’ worth of views. The way that brands engage with millennials, and guests overall, has had to fundamentally change."

Michael Menis, senior vice-president of digital and voice channels at InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG), has a similar view. The digital revolution has affected the customer’s interaction with hotels in every possible way, he says. "Over the past few years, guests have changed the way that we do business. Through the rise of mobile and social media, their expectations of us have evolved; as a result, our strategy continues to evolve. When we think about digital at IHG, we think about the role that digital plays through the entire guest journey. That’s a significant evolution."

"With millennials, there’s an expectation that you are present for them to connect with. They will connect with us through multiple social channels. You need consistency of presence and content through multiple channels."

Let’s get digital
Social media clearly plays a key role in digital strategy. Starwood’s videos can be seen on YouTube, and other operators use the site in a similar way: Doubletree by Hilton, for example, recently launched DTour, a channel that allows travellers to post videos. The likes of Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, Foursquare, Weibo and WeChat – the latter two being massively popular in China – can be equally significant, according to Taylor.

"It varies depending on the market," he says, "but the likes of Weibo and WeChat are huge because they have millions of users. Then there’s Pinterest, which is a really interesting channel highlighting the power of imagery.

"With millennials, there’s an expectation that you are present for them to connect with. They will connect with us through multiple social channels. You need consistency of presence and content through multiple channels."

Key to achieving that is careful monitoring of social media, says Menis. "We’re very active in not only monitoring social media for messages related to our brands but also being a part of the dialogue. Our social strategy really understands the role of that vehicle in every step of the journey.

"The role of social in the dream phase, in understanding where we want to stay, might have one approach, while the role of social in the planning stage might be very different, reflective of a guest wanting to hear recommendations from their network," he says.

"Social’s role in planning is different from the role while staying at the hotel, when it might be about service recovery or adressing any consumer needs that may come up. We’ve got a social strategy that allows us to stay connected, while also encouraging and managing sharing all the way through. That leads to encouraged dreaming."


Anti-social behaviour warning
As Menis suggests, peer reviews have become absolutely crucial. Where once brand marketing might have played the key role in influencing a choice of hotel, now peer reviews – and sites such as TripAdvisor in particular – are the main influencer. It’s a realisation that has fundamentally changed Starwood’s approach, says Taylor.

"Our focus has shifted from broad above-property marketing campaigns to investing in branded experiences that drive conversations through our guests, who then amplify that message through social media in a much more authentic and viral way," he says.

"Aloft [the Starwood hotel brand] is a very good example. We have a variety of programmes, but a lot of them are focused around music – the Artist Spotlight series, Live at Aloft events. That’s where we give local emerging artists and some of the hottest bands in the market the opportunity to play at our hotels.

"There’s a dual benefit: it helps us support artists and creates an experience for our guests. Experiences are the new form of currency."

When social works, it’s a fantastic way of reaching the customer. When it doesn’t, it can be cringeworthy – and hard to brush under the carpet. The popularity of lists like BuzzFeed’s ’18 biggest social media fails of 2013′ demonstrates how a social media misstep, such as when British Gas staged a Twitter Q&A shortly after announcing a huge price increase, can live on for months after the initial error.

Even if companies avoid this type of disaster, there’s always the risk of coming across a bit ‘groovy dad’, as Taylor acknowledges.

"It’s about programming, ultimately," he says. "You have to be authentic and relevant. If you are pretending to be something you are not, you will be found out. That’s where the ‘groovy dad’ syndrome comes from – when brands don’t have the passion for what they’re communicating. If there is a gap between marketing and operations, in today’s socially connected world, brands will be found out and exposed brutally and ruthlessly, with delight, by millennials.

"Our focus is very much on programming, creating experiences at the hotel level that are then amplified by not only us but also our guests. We aim to produce conversation-worthy moments, with no disconnect between operations and marketing."


"“You have to be authentic and relevant. If you are pretending to be something you are not, you will be found out. That’s where the ‘groovy dad’ syndrome comes from – when brands don’t have the passion for what they’re communicating. "

Follow the threads
The way the digital revolution has swept over us means it would be wrong to think of it as an arena solely for the young, according to Menis.

"I think that the adoption of technology has really spread across all generations. It’s no secret that millennials may be more adept, but with the expansion of smartphone adoption, almost everybody is connected, and they have expectations for how we will manage that connection," he says. "It’s a great opportunity to stay connected to our guests. We’re excited about that.

"I was recently planning a vacation with my family. You’re thinking about where you want to travel, where you want to stay, looking at things you’d like to do, managing the process, planning an efficient stay in a hotel. You’re sharing experiences and making decisions based on others’ shared experiences. Digital threads all the way through that."

Taylor agrees. "We focus more on a mindset," he says. "We build our guest experiences accordingly; we talk about ‘Generation C’, we go beyond demographics. They’re a type of customer focused on creation, curation and community; 80% of millennials fall into Generation C, but I don’t think we should just focus on millennials, because 50% of the people between the ages of 50 and 60 are active on social media."

Smartphones are absolutely central to this, having grown hugely in significance with every passing year.

"The impact has been exponential," says Menis. "We pride ourselves on being innovative and early adopters; we were the first company to have apps for every kind of device, for Apple and Android. We were very early.

"Smartphones have had a big impact in industry, and they’re now evolving to drive an efficient stay experience. We’re looking past the booking and research stage now, to understand how to stay connected to drive an efficient stay.

"I go back to my family: it’s not only about deciding where I want to stay, it’s about learning about things to do in the market, about an efficient arrival, our needs in the hotel. Smartphones lend themselves to that. It’s a really exciting evolution," he adds.

Perhaps the biggest sign that digital is the future can be seen in how much captial hotel groups are investing in it. At Starwood for example, the IT and digital teams have doubled in size – and that’s not all.

"It’s a revised approach," says Taylor. "We are recruiting from companies like Facebook and Google to make sure we’re at the absolute cusp of digital invention, we’re planning to invest more than £100 million in mobile research and development.

"Aloft Smart Check-In [which allows guests to bypass the front desk] is indicative of the direction we’re taking. Mobile is no longer just a booking platform: it’s a tool and a mechanism whereby you can add incremental value. Enhancing through mobile is absolutely essential for us."