Julie Cary: Data cuts both ways in the hospitality business

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Julie Cary, Executive vice president and chief marketing officer, La Quinta Inn & Suites

Julie Cary,
Executive vice president and chief marketing officer, La Quinta Inn & Suites

On the one hand, hoteliers have an enviable amount of customer data at their disposal—data that can be used to tailor customer service, drive repeat business and increase revenue. On the other hand, social media has ushered in a new level of transparency to the business, allowing dissatisfied customers to vent their frustrations in public forums. This can be especially concerning for a chain of limited service hotels like La Quinta Inn & Suites. Julie Cary talks about her strategy to gain insights from data, drive innovation and expeditiously handle customer complaints and feedback.

What is your primary role as chief marketing officer at La Quinta?

I spend a lot of my time driving strategy and new ideas. I sit in on a lot of the big projects we’re working on, especially in the design and early implementation phase of new projects. My time is divided between new idea development, strategy, consumer insight, execution and then talent management, making sure the team is going in the right direction. Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of my time working on our mobile efforts.

Can you talk about those efforts?

We just launched a new mobile platform and the advertising support for Instant Hold, a patented new feature that allows you to hold a room for four hours with only your phone number from your mobile phone. There’s no credit card information to put in because that’s time consuming on a mobile phone.

Did that idea come from marketing or IT?

It came about very collaboratively. We did a lot of work upfront to inform the creative process, and then we had a meeting with different kinds of people, including people from marketing and IT. Then it took a group of people around the company – revenue management, ecommerce, IT – to really figure out how to make Instant Hold work with our pricing and revenue management systems.

But what was the spark to even call that initial meeting?

Unlike other industries that I’ve worked in, we have a lot of data about our customers. Lots. The data we collect indicated that the majority of the bookings from mobile devices were made three to four hours before the customer checked in at the hotel. So we saw that and said, “Boy, there’s an opportunity there.” It was the insight that informed the creative process that led to the idea. That’s an example of one of the big things that’s changed recently: our ability to collect data and then do something with it in a very strategic way. And that’s really where I see the future going. The biggest problem is that we’ve got so much data—what do we do with it? How do we make sense of it? It can be overwhelming.

How important are analytics programs to that process?

They’re very important. La Quinta is an incredibly analytically driven company. I look at reports every single day, trying to figure out what we could do differently to drive more revenue. So, yes, we spend a lot of time, effort, and money, on analytics. And in the future, it’s going to become even more important. The opportunity comes in using the information to inform our media buys or to inform what messages we show on our Web site. We use data to influence what we show to the customer, how we sell to the customer, what experience we deliver to the customer. How you collect the data is a matter of technology, but the value comes from finding insights that better inform what we do. Look at companies like Amazon and Zappos—they’re already using data in a very sophisticated way. We’re envious because we wish we were there four years ago with our online platform.

Is it common for different people and departments to interpret data differently?

We have a very collaborative environment. Do we have some heated battles and debates? Yes, sometimes. But it’s easier to learn than ever before because you can just go try things and prove things out more quickly through A/B testing, test and control, etc.—the risk of trying new things is lower. And going through that process ultimately drives even more collaboration. But the most important thing to remember is why we’re trying something new—it’s getting people to understand that it’s all about the customer. We need to make sure we’re always focused on the customer.

You’ve been a CMO for almost seven years. That’s a fairly long tenure. How have you seen the marketing environment change during that time?

I think with the struggling economy, the willingness for people to jump and try new things declined. So, there are fewer CMOs wanting to move around. Secondly, I think increased pressure from CEOs has driven the need for smart CMOs to really step up into business strategy. If you had told me five years ago that I would be leading, driving and implementing a large brand experience project at this operationally driven company, all the way down to the operational level of our front desk people, I would have thought you were crazy. But we did that. Part of that is a product of the evolution of our company and our executive team. But that kind of responsibility can be earned. When you’re successful over time, you earn that right. And data can help make the case to take on a greater role, especially at a very quantitative, prove-it-to-me, show-me-the-numbers company like La Quinta.

Social media has brought a new transparency to the hospitality business, providing a forum for reviews and complaints. How has that changed your job?

Social media clearly gave a big microphone to customer complaints and we decided pretty quickly that we had to get a handle on Facebook in particular. People stay in a hotel, if they’re not happy, they go on Facebook. We’ve always done a good job of handling customer complaints, but they never were so public before. So we developed a strategy for how to handle those situations. The first part is critical: taking the conversation offline and making the customer happy. Then we circle back to the hotel, show them the feedback, and then move forward. We hope, then, that the customers will repost and praise the company for following up and addressing their concerns—and a lot of times, customers do just that. At the same time, all this public commentary made it clear that we really had to amp up the overall customer experience.

Is there someone dedicated to monitoring social media or is it automated?

First of all, when people say social media, it’s really made up of different components. There’s brand engagement, customer- complaint resolution and then there’s ratings and reviews. We divided those three areas and the person who handles the first two is our public relations director. If you think about it, it’s really word of mouth marketing, public relations on steroids, powered by technology. The review space is different, because it drives revenue and we know there’s a return-on-investment there. TripAdvisor clearly is the big gorilla, and we took a very proactive approach in soliciting reviews. If you go to our mobile site, you’ll see ratings and reviews on each hotel, and we encourage that. If the guest had a good experience, the general manager might say, “Hey, would you mind giving us a review?” We were the first in the hotel industry to put reviews on our mobile site. We have also added reviews to

If customers are complaining, it’s probably better to have them doing it on your site, where you can manage the conversation a bit. Do you think keeping customers inside the bounds of your Web site will increase the likelihood they book a room with you?

Yes, our goal is to provide access to reviews so that the customer does not leave the site to check out ratings on the hotel. We believe this access and transparency will drive conversion and increased revenue. Our hotels perform very well on TripAdvisor ratings and we believe showcasing consumer feedback is a smart business strategy.

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