The Roger Smith Hotel may be the most social media savvy hotel in New York — if not the world.
There’s a blog. A Facebook fan page. A YouTube Channel. Over 3,000 Twitter followers. A Flickr photostream. And two guys behind all these efforts, both of whom winnowed their way into overseeing online marketing for the property following stints in food and beverage services at the hotel.
We caught up with Adam Wallace, the hotel’s new media marketing manager, and his sidekick Brian Simpson, whose official title is still assistant food and beverage director, to find out how they built a family-run, independent hotel into a digital force to be reckoned with.
Adam Wallace: The Roger Smith Hotel has been here since the early ’30s. It’s a family-run, family-operated hotel. Our current president and CEO, James Knowles, is a painter and sculptor, so there’s a lot of art elements to what we do, both online and offline. He’s very interested in building relationships with people and communities — always has been. The art component is also a priority. That led to creation of an art gallery on the corner of 47th and Lexington called The LAB Gallery, and artwork is displayed throughout the hotel. About three years ago he, together with myself, created a video-based website for the hotel. That has sort of evolved into a whole social media program. Last fall, Brian got involved. He came with a lot of experience in Twitter, a lot of online relationships and a lot of knowledge. We started a blog, Roger Smith Life. I do photography, content production and video. Having Brian here with so many Twitter connections, well, really what’s been exciting in the last eight to 10 months is seeing community built here. We’ve had great success with people coming and staying at the hotel, with booking rooms and events related to social media, and really a sense of community here in the New York social media scene.
Q: You’re leading into my next question. Could you tell me some of the goals of the hotel’s social media campaigns?
AW: Room sales, obviously. We’re looking to see if we can generate revenue from this, which we have. There are lots of people coming to town for whom we’re part of their online lives, we’re part of their streams on Twitter, on Facebook, so we’re the people they end up thinking about. Last winter we started a Facebook and a Twitter promotional rate. We want people with whom we’re connected online to come stay with us. We value those customers because one, we know they’re going to talk about it; but more important they’re going to maintain a relationship with us. And they’re real people. We meet with them in person and maintain relationships. Those people talk about our brand. They built our online reputation, not us. So, rooms is big, events has been huge and is another of our goals. We’re running more social media events. We’ve done stuff with Social Media Breakfast, a national organization, with Social Media Club, we had a Mashable party, an event with Gary Vaynerchuk last week. There’s the restaurant, where the community part comes in.
Brian Simpson: Really what the internet and all these social tools have done for us is we get to do online hospitality the same was we’d treat a guest who walks through our door. We can do that without the walls being up. The second week of September is Craft Beer Week in New York, so I spent this week going through their Twitter page. I made sure I followed those followers and started talking about the week. We’re going to have a beer dinner. We’re really immersing ourselves into their culture, which is what we did with the social media culture. The idea is not to just use the tools; not to have a Twitter account and a Facebook fan page, but to really get connected with the people who use these tools every day. By hosting a party last week [for a Mashable social media event], someone from the Live Strong Foundation sent a note saying how much she loved the hotel. That’s a new relationship. There are stages to this. It’s the introduction to the hotel, getting them to come and see the hotel, and then it’s the loyalty and the follow-up of them becoming fans and friends of the hotel. They stay in contact with us and refer people to us for whatever their needs might be, from three people getting together downstairs at the bar to – and I just got this message a few minutes ago – a Girls in Tech Group is meeting tonight and wants to know if we can set aside space for 20 people at 8:00. Those 20 girls have a million bars they could go to in Manhattan. We know we didn’t connect with every one of them. But somewhere we connected with someone who connected with someone who referred them to us. That’s what it’s about: getting people in the door. The strongest relationship we have are with people we’ve met in person. That may be an obvious statement, but with all the social tools out there today, without the face-to-face connection we aren’t generating a friend.
Q: You’re the food and beverage guy. How did you get all this Twitter experience? And why specifically Twitter rather than some other social media channel?
BS: A year ago I was diagnosed with a severe case of cancer, and spent about six months in chemo wards. The girl I was seeing worked at a digital agency and did social media. I thought social media would be great for hospitality, but for now I’ll use it to get through chemotherapy. So I started to connect with people on Twitter and built up a little bit of a personal brand. As I segued back into the workforce I brought those connections and heartfelt passion to the business. I was at the Plaza Hotel at the time, an iconic hotel, but there were limitations in terms of what social media was going to be able to do and the impact I would have so I left to come to The Roger Smith because of their foray into social media. I knew not only would my voice be heard here, but I was fitting in with a group of people who had the same passion: art, food, events, everything we can offer. I figured out Twitter like most users — by using it.
Q: How do you measure your efforts?
AW: We do a monthly productivity report measuring exposure, engagement, and sales. That last one is the one people obviously want to know, but the first two are exciting to watch. We measure through analytics on the blog, the number of people who interacted with us on Twitter, all the various Web measurement statistics. Every month we report on the three areas of revenue: events, rooms and restaurants. For rooms we do promo codes through Facebook and Twitter. So anyone who connected with us online or who have contacted us online get those promo codes, so we know how many rooms we sell. There are some people who are now loyal customers and no longer book through the promo code but we know they’re coming. We make sure that’s counted as well. Chris Brogan, a big blogger who’s written about us a few times and Julian Smith, the co-author of his new book, Trust Agents, stay with us. But I also still do things the onld fashioned way. We have a party and the next day I ask if people enjoyed it and they start talking about us on Twitter. It’s a little harder to measure the impact, but it’s there. Realistically we can’t count every person who comes here via a social media site. But given the economy, looking at other hotels, looking at our increases across the board, so long as we continue to be busy and people continue to talk about us and the buzz continues to be there and we continue to get new referrals, that’s the most important thing.
Q: How have your in person relationships fed the online component, and vice versa?
BS: It’s one thing to know an internet person and another thing to look them in the eye, see their expressions, learn what their favorite drink is, find out if they’re a vegetarian, or where they work and live. You learn so much more in a personal conversation than in 140 characters. People are more willing to share. When those relationships are built that’s the more genuine relationship. Those are the people who put their faith back into us. I use Twitter a lot to follow up with people. When I see people I’ve met I just shoot them a quick “hey,” or “can’t wait for your next visit to New York.” The people we’ve met, the people we shook hands with, the people Adam and I had breakfast with, those are the people who are going to say, “That’s where I go. That’s where I stay. When you go ask for Brian. Ask for Adam. Ask for Paul the bartender or Emile at the front.” Those are the ones that we’ve really connected with. It’s obvious when you look at the tweets and the messages.
AW: Of course, we wouldn’t have met these people without the online connection. When I meet someone in person I can maintain the relationship online, or if we first meet someone online, we have a much more vibrant relationship when we meet in person. It can’t be just one or the other.
BS: It’s fun to go to hear the question, “Who’s running you social media presence?” It’s literally just Adam and I. But when people come to the hotel, we make 110 percent effort to see them in person, whether it’s for a drink or breakfast or lunch or sending something to their room. That’s what separates us from a Marriott, which has a great online presence and does a good job with sites and exposure. but once you get to a Marriott they don’t really care once you’re through the door. All they care about is that you booked the room. We care that you’re here because we want to meet you. We know that the circle isn’t complete until we actually get to shake your hand and meet you.
AW: We’re rebuilding our website. A big thing is to integrate content across all our platforms: photos, video, blog posts, all the content in different places. We want to integrate it more with our main website, and then it becomes more difficult to measure because it’s less “social media” and more “internet business”. One of my goals is to drive more bookings through our website rather than Priceline and Expedia where they charge high commissions. We should have such a reputation on line, not just in social media, that we drive more people to book directly with us. All the content we’re producing informs that decision, not just social media on Twitter or Facebook.
Q: How much of a unique advantage do you have working for a private, independently-owned hotel over, say, a large chain or franchise? Could you do what you’re doing at the Hilton?
BS: Hell no! I left the Plaza because my blog, which was about the classic history and origins of cocktails, well they told me point blank I wasn’t allowed to say where I worked.
AW: We’re at a major advantage. Not only working at a family-owned place with an owner who’s into creative ideas, but also the speed and versatility with which we can do things. We don’t have a corporate structure to go through. I had a conference call with someone in the PR department of a big national hotel chain a few weeks ago who’s very interested in getting the business involved with social media, and who personally is already involved. The structure makes it so difficult for corporations, and is one of the big reasons we’ve been able to position ourselves as the leader as a hotel in online reputation. No one monitors when we put up a video if it’s going to fit in with the corporate identity, no one monitors before I post photographs on our corporate Flickr site. Our owner pushes for more creative ideas, more creative content, more chaos, more online interaction. We definitely don’t have to worry about the filters other people are dealing with.
BS: I did a sort of Twitter 101 course for a bunch of hotels in the region and I said, “Reach out to this person. Ask them if they’re coming in this weekend. Ask them what they’ve got planned.” I could see them cringing. “I don’t know if I could say that or do that.” We’re as open on our social channels as in our personal ones. I think I’m even more guarded with my personal stuff than I am with the hotel. It gives us the advantage.
AW: Our fans are the ones who talk on behalf of our brand, too. We have a huge number of people who are really brand ambassadors.
BS: I love them! I love everyone who follows us.
AW: But they end up being spokespersons for us. The freedom to explore these channels and be real people makes that happen.
BS: We don’t tell anybody that we’re awesome. We host events and TweetUps, we welcome people to the city and hopefully through their experience they go out and tell people that we’re awesome. And that carries more weight.
Q: Is there anything I forgot to ask, or you’d like to add?
AW: One question that comes up a lot is, “You’re a hotel. So what do you write on Twitter?” Many feel they need to look at the bottom line and therefore do sales pitches. We’ve always been much more about telling stories and providing interesting content about what’s happening here, and we’re lucky there’s so much here to write about and to take photos of, to do videos about. In the past month we had Gary Vaynerchuk shooting Wine Library live for a week, we had a short film festival with six directors shooting films on hotel property, before that we did a live cooking show in the gallery space with our chef. And that’s just this month. There’s so many stories to be told about the personalities and people here that we don’t need to do sales pitches, but we’re producing interesting content that people are sharing and engaging with.
BS: Everything we do here is people-driven. We’re 100 percent genuine. What you see online is what you get when you come here and visit the hotel.