Chris Gabaldon: Ritz-Carlton ventures onto Facebook and into China

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Chris Gabaldon, Chief sales and marketing officer, The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company

Chris Gabaldon,
Chief sales and marketing officer, The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company

The rise of social media may be a global phenomenon, but that doesn’t mean one social media strategy is sufficient for all marketers. Chris Gabaldon, chief marketing officer for luxury hotelier Ritz-Carlton, explains how the company differentiates between Twitter and Facebook around the globe—and how to approach the most important emerging market of all, China.

A luxury hotelier doesn’t seem like a natural fit for the chatter on social media, and yet Ritz-Carlton has a healthy presence on Facebook and Twitter. Are you leading or following your customers into this space?

Oh, I think it’s naturally a little bit of both. Affluent consumers are a highly mobile and highly connected group and they tend to be early adopters of technology. The difficult part is trying to understand what content they want and what will resonate. A lot of companies focus on social because they think it’s a new frontier. For us, it’s just another channel to tell our story. If the story isn’t authentic or true to the brand, it falls apart. Anybody who believes that he or she can create something out of just social media is off. It needs to be rooted in the value of the brand.

What’s the story you’re telling?

Our tagline is “Let us stay with you,” and our story is about how great memories are created at Ritz-Carlton. Social media works so well for Ritz-Carlton because travel is inspirational. It’s motivating. It’s about experiences and about sharing those experiences with other people. You want to share your experiences and you want people to share their experiences with you. Channels like Facebook and Twitter give us the opportunity to tell those stories. We have more than 500,000 fans among 30 or so Facebook pages and almost all are Ritz-Carlton customers who have decided to engage with us. The other side is Twitter, where we have 37,000 followers across three accounts. That’s a completely different channel. The vast majority of our followers are either media or travel agents. Some are very influential and they’re able to help retell our story.

Ritz-Carlton properties tend to be beautiful, but the brand seems to be more about high-touch service. How important is employee education and monitoring to ensure that the service remains at the highest level?

Our employees have to believe that they’re in the business of creating memories for each individual guest and creating these great and indelible marks on our guests’ lives. The reason the brand message rings true is because every day, three shifts a day, we conduct a lineup in our hotels. We talk about the same message and we reinforce our gold standards. I would challenge you to find another company that can say that every day, 99.9 percent of its employees around the world are standing at a lineup and reviewing the same service value for the day. They bring these stories to life and they talk about them. I actually led lineup this morning at the corporate office. It was my job today.

How do mobile and social media factor in?

Social media definitely has a role to play. We’re trying to use social media and mobile to enhance our service by wrapping it around what we already know about our guests and solving their problems. For instance, think about a guest who just got off a plane in Los Angeles two hours late. A mobile strategy, especially linked to our rewards program, can help us engage with that customer so that she knows we care and that we can resolve her issues—maybe she needs garment pressing services or to have room service waiting for her or maybe something to help her prepare for a business meeting that night.

How do you measure weak links in the chain?

We respond to every guest letter and comment that we get, but that’s not really the core of it. We look at every single process in the hotel in incredible detail. And we evaluate by conducting in-depth surveys and reviews with our guests. So, on an aggregate level we can determine where we have a breakdown and identify whether it’s a matter of training or the type of person that we’re hiring. Is it a physical breakdown or is it a resource breakdown? We do that at every hotel and across the brand.

Do you respond to complaints on Facebook or Twitter?

The social space is incredibly important, and you want that to be true, authentic and real, but if there are issues that need to be addressed, a public forum isn’t always the most positive place to do it. If we see serious individual circumstances, we try to take those conversations offline and engage that customer and resolve his or her problem.

The Chinese are clearly emerging as key consumers of luxury products. How important is the Chinese market to the company?

By 2015 China is predicted to surpass the United States as the largest traveling population, so to be in the travel business and not be earning brand loyalists in China now would be almost sacrilegious. There are three areas that we have to address in China. The first is simply building awareness and developing engagement. Whereas in the West we spend our time strengthening our level of engagement with our audience, over there it’s about starting that process. The next piece is determining how we position the total portfolio of 80 Ritz-Carlton hotels. How do we get China’s affluent to start considering our properties as they travel outside of the country? The third piece of the puzzle is positioning our Chinese hotels in country. Many Chinese have never even seen a Ritz-Carlton hotel anywhere in the vicinity of where they live, so we need to let them know that we’re there. Beyond Beijing or Shanghai, we operate hotels in other cities, such as Guangzhou and Shenzhen, and we’ll be opening hotels next year in Chengdu and Tianjin. We have five more hotels in China under construction right now.

How do you build that awareness in China where sites other than Facebook and Twitter are popular?

We built a property page on Weibo [China’s largest micro-blogging site] for one of our Beijing hotels as a test. We haven’t really done anything with it yet and it already has 160,000 fans. That’s just one hotel and yet it has more fans than the Ritz-Carlton’s main Facebook page. Aside from sharing brand news, information and updates, our plan is to work with key Chinese influencers in terms of travel and business, and maybe partner with someone from the technology industry. Another idea we’ve had is to invite Chinese video journalists or photojournalists to a Ritz-Carlton destination. We’ll put them up and hope they give us a little mention in a global travel blog. The motivation is really to open the doors of the world of travel to the Chinese consumer. For the Weibo pages, we also want them to speak about the craftsmen we have at our hotels. We’ll be posting a series of 10 films online by the end of October about the passion they have for their craft and sharing it with our consumers. Also, you’re going to see Ritz-Carlton educating people about luxury. The Chinese want to buy brands that teach them something. They don’t want to buy a bottle of expensive wine simply because of the price or label. They want to buy that bottle because they’ve learned something very subtle about what makes it a great wine. So, we’ll start to expose them to our experts and craftspeople through Weibo.

What have you noticed about the way the Chinese use social media?

We’ve been measuring online Mandarin-language conversations for a little more than a year. The main difference we see is the way the Chinese talk in the social environment. In English, people tend to express their feelings or a sentiment about what they think or feel. So someone might write, “I was at a Ritz-Carlton hotel and I loved it,” or “I had a fabulous time,” or “I was disappointed with an experience.” Only one-third of the comments are what would be considered neutral, something like simply, “I was at the Ritz-Carlton.” In Mandarin, 95 percent of the conversation is neutral. In English, we’ve managed to convert most of the commentary to positive or extremely positive by jumping in, starting conversations, getting involved, focusing on digital influencers and getting our communications people talking in the space. And that’s what we plan to do in China.

How do you keep on top of positive, neutral or negative sentiment—in China or elsewhere?

We’re constantly monitoring the social media landscape, trying to understand how the world is talking about Ritz-Carlton, judging by probably 20 or 25 different criteria. We look at that on a monthly basis in a couple of languages. We get a good feel for how positive or negative the conversations and comments are and for the volume around certain topics. We also try to make sure we’re engaging and stimulating conversations around items that are important to us. For instance on one of our Twitter handles, @RitzCarltonCSR, we may tweet about a particular charitable event at a Ritz-Carlton hotel or about our work with a group like America’s Promise Alliance that offers underprivileged children great work opportunities. We’re not tweeting about how Ritz-Carlton is the most luxurious resort in the world and that you should come stay with us.

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