The hotelier's guide to mobile marketing

How five-star hotels are boosting reach through marketing strategies

The Peninsula Hotels? mobile marketing strategy includes the use of advertising on selected magazines? mobile applications, and those of third parties.
The Peninsula Hotels? mobile marketing strategy includes the use of advertising on selected magazines? mobile applications, and those of third parties.
Four Seasons started its mobile strategy in 2008 and invests time in understanding user trends.
Four Seasons started its mobile strategy in 2008 and invests time in understanding user trends.
Management at Starwood's W Hotel Doha in Qatar is among the hoteliers to embrace 'QR codes'.
Management at Starwood's W Hotel Doha in Qatar is among the hoteliers to embrace 'QR codes'.
Four Seasons Hotel Doha
Four Seasons Hotel Doha
Ritz-Carlton Riyadh
Ritz-Carlton Riyadh

Karen Osman finds out how deluxe five-star hotels are incorporating mobile marketing into their strategies, yet still retaining a sense of exclusivity

Few people would deny the fact that mobile phones and other hand-held devices are a big part of many people’s lives; even young children are seen navigating an iPad at an unbelievable speed.

As a result, there are a plethora of mobile-marketing methods such as text messaging (SMS), quick response (QR) codes, mobile banners, apps and location-based tools such as Foursquare that can be used to communicate with existing and potential guests.

The speed of technology can make it difficult to keep up but with six billion mobile subscriptions recorded at the end of 2011 according to The International Telecommunication Union — equivalent to 87% of the world’s population — it pays to be in the know, especially as this figure is led by China and India — important markets for many hoteliers in the region.

So how well is mobile marketing understood and to what extent is it being used in the region? Prashanth Kumar, digital strategy director at Tonic International, admits that the Middle East lags behind other markets.

“The MENA region has always been of interest to mobile marketers. We’ve found that clients with a presence in more mature markets like the US, UK and South East Asia are well aware of the potential.

Japan is way ahead of the rest of the world and some emerging economies in Sub-Saharan Africa have been doing some wonderful things with mobile marketing. Asia has always been ahead of the curve and mature markets like the US and UK may have reached saturation point,” says Kumar.

“The Middle East is slightly behind the rest of the world but this can be a good thing as we don’t need to make all the mistakes ourselves! We can see what works in other places and customise it for our audience here. We have the infrastructure; we have the smartphone penetration. All we need is savvy marketers who are willing to push the envelope a little bit more than is common,” he suggests.

At Ritz-Carlton, which as an organisation has seen online bookings grow by around 35%-40% year-on-year across the portfolio, Asian markets such as China lead the way, although this region is advancing.

“When you look at the statistics of the Middle East, you see that it’s the region that is trailing, although still increasing year-after-year,” explains president and chief operations officer, Hervé Humler.

According to Mayank Garg, creative technologist at Innovations Digital, the slower take-up of mobile marketing techniques comes down to a lack of education and understanding.

“There is a wide gap in most agencies’ understanding of how mobile platforms should work in the region. In the Middle East, the first goal is to create stunning looking apps, which makes most mobile offerings very limited in their functional use of what a user needs,” says Garg.

“Quite often, I find that clients are suggesting mobile apps that are mere clones of their website and/or repositories of data. Until we can define what a user needs and address those in terms of functionally-strong apps, we can’t really say that the region is even breaking even with the rest of the world.”

Paul Parsons co-founder of DigitALL, who has worked with a number of hotel brands in the Middle East, agrees: “I think the biggest problem in this region is there are a lot of marketers who still see mobile marketing as distributing 100,000 texts.

Once they understand the capabilities and the instantaneous element of it, that’s when they’ll actually start to see the benefit.”

It’s easy to see why this perception about SMS may exist; in 2010, 6.9 trillion SMS messages were sent worldwide, according to Portio Research. As Garg explains, however, the numbers associated with SMS don’t necessarily equal results.

“It has the ability to reach the largest audience and serve the most impressions. However, just like the series of annoying email blasts that hit an inbox daily, we see low conversion through this push,” she says. This is perhaps why some luxury brands have decided against this approach.

“While Jumeirah has experimented with SMS marketing, there is still a perception in the Middle East that this method is more intrusive than email or other targeted messages,” discloses Terry Kane, director of digital strategy. “We are a proud proponent of ‘permission marketing’ and take our responsibilities very seriously. As a result of this, SMS marketing is no longer a part of our marketing mix.”

What's the code?
Quick Response (QR) codes are another popular method of mobile marketing and are proving serious competition to SMS. Similar to a barcode but able to hold a lot more content, consumers simply scan the code with their device and are directed to additional information, such as a website or social media page.

Many hoteliers have been keen to embrace the codes including W Doha Hotel and Residences which saw an additional 113 page views of its Facebook page in just over six weeks.

Similarly, Jumeirah uses QR codes as part of its strategy, as Kane explains: “QR codes will naturally become a part of print call to action and is the natural bridge between print, outdoor and mobile, online. We see continued growth in this area.”

It sounds straightforward enough but a couple of factors need to be considered in order to avoid frustrating the customer, as Parsons outlines: “There are two main elements with QR codes.

It needs to take you to a mobile-friendly end product and there needs to be an explanation of what the code is for. If there’s no explanation, you’re not going to entice that user to scan the code.”

The end goal
With so many options, planning a mobile marketing approach should be relatively easy but like any strategy, will only be effective if a clear objective is defined.

The top priority for most luxury hoteliers is ensuring it fits their brand and is in line with customer expectations. As Kumar advises, the balance between technology and brand alignment is achievable.

“The great thing about a digital channel like the mobile is that it allows for a tremendous degree of personalisation, especially when you talk about mobile marketing in general and things like apps in particular,” says Kumar.

“My recommendation to luxury hotels would be to focus on creating something of lasting value for their guests. Give the customer an app they will really use; make sure that this app helps them simplify their lives by demonstrating how it can save them time or money or both.”

Ritz-Carlton capitalised on exactly this theory when it introduced World Concierge on Foursquare, the popular location-based social networking website for mobile devices. The application locates nearby landmarks and the user ‘checks in’ from a list of venues.

“We launched a campaign called ‘let us stay with you’ and a brand film was developed to show on devices,” says Humler.

“As an extension of that, we launched World Concierge in the mobile space. It was designed to be part of the ‘let us stay with you’ platform to say ‘let us travel with you’ when you’re on the road.

You don’t even need to be staying in Ritz-Carlton — as you’re checking into key landmarks around the globe, the first thing you see is a tip courtesy of the Ritz-Carlton concierge.

There’s no financial return, no call to action to drive booking revenue, but we are simply taking our service and delivering it to someone on their mobile device with a view to deepen the engagement and the relationship, which is our full priority when it comes to our digital strategy.”

Four Seasons, which started its mobile strategy in 2008, invests a lot of time understanding consumer trends in order to drive its initiatives. Robert Simon, director of interactive marketing, observes: “One thing we have become really focused on is techno graphics and that is understanding, by region, what types of devices are in the hands of our consumers and what device mix we are seeing on

Globally, 90% of any mobile web session is an Apple-based product with 60% of that being the iPad and 30% of that, the iPhone. For the Middle East, between February 1-12, 2012 the iPad device generated 28,000 page views while Blackberry 9900 generated 114 page views. We love that consumers have made such a clear choice as it makes it easy for us to commit to optimising the service levels and focus on the experience.”

Such statistics reflecting the lean towards tablets could be especially relevant for the luxury hotel sector. Sean Hart, client services director at Ogilvy One explains: “The luxury sector is best experienced on tablet devices due to their rich media interfaces and the fact they have larger screens than your average mobile device.

In addition, luxury consumers spend more time browsing on tablets and immersing themselves in the look and feel.”

Define your strategy
While there are some disadvantages to mobile marketing such as privacy issues and the need to create different campaigns for different devices, the experts are in agreement that the pros outweigh the cons.

Indeed, the real advantage lies in its measurability, which can be done in a variety of ways, as Garg explains: “The true success of the mobile approach comes from the activation of the offering. If a hotel generates an X amount of reservations and bookings from a mobile user base, the success of the medium is already quantifying itself.

“However, if you can now attach the value of the product or services paid for and the guest’s feedback, you can add further layers and quality to how you assess the success”.

The mobile strategy of The Peninsula Hotels, which includes the use of advertising on selected magazines’ and third parties’ mobile apps, is measured quantifiably.

Simon Yip, vice president, sales reports: “Our strategy places focus on both smart phones and tablet devices, hence in addition to the booking channel on the website, we have also launched a mobile and tablet-friendly site at the end of 2010. We don’t expect high volume of bookings to immediately flow, so traffic volume to the mobile site as well as redirected to the main website, will be key metrics.”

At Four Seasons, the use of consumer testing means the measuring process starts before the campaign has even launched.

“The most important input is consumer testing. We do it Doha, Shanghai and different places in the US, so we’ve created a culture of product management, whether it’s web or mobile, that’s about being really consumer-centric,” explains Simon.

The Ritz-Carlton takes a slightly different approach and when reviewing the results of the World Concierge, Humler explains what success means to them: “The media value of the PR launch was fantastic because at the time there was so little coming out from iconic institutions.

In terms of the service industry, we were the first to come out with something so that’s always a big driver; how does it re-cement our position in the market place and how do we want to be known. The motivation lies in deepening our engagement levels.”

The power of mobile marketing cannot be ignored; the numbers simply speak for themselves.

Ogilvy’s Hart concludes: “In a recent survey of MENA mobile internet users by Spot on PR and Effective Measure, 85% of users have downloaded apps, 57% plan to buy a tablet device, 70% of smartphone users are likely to upgrade within 12 months and 41% of respondents in the GCC own two or more smartphones.

“All telecommunication companies in the GCC report increased profits due to increased data traffic (people accessing the internet from their mobile) specifically video, social networks and games. This shows there is still a large opportunity gap that is not being exploited,” asserts Hart. What are you waiting for?

What future mobile trends will we see?

“Near Field Communication or NFC (whereby smartphones and similar devices can establish radio communication with each other by bringing them into close proximity) is long overdue in this part of the world. Augmented Reality or AR (meaning an element which is augmented by computer-generated sensory imput such as sound or video) is also gaining traction. I predict more intelligent apps and better usage of NFC and AR to create seamless marketing solutions.”
Prashanth Kumar, digital strategy director, Tonic International

“Personally, I’m eagerly awaiting the launch of Google Wallet and the entrance of NFC into the market. With the presence of micropayments through smartphones, it will become easier for customers to use their smartphones for much more than just social networking and gaming. Revolutionary credit card readers such as the Square have not entered the Middle Eastern market yet and will make for interesting payment systems.”
Mayank Garg, creative technologist, Innovations Digital

“I think another big trend for this year will be hybrid apps, so being able to create an app that references HTML type content. One of the biggest ones will be mobile commerce – actually generating revenue directly from a mobile device, so booking online with your credit card details on your mobile and using apps to pay for things.”
Paul Parsons, co-founder, DigitALL

How to get started in mobile marketing

Define your objective
What is it you want to achieve in terms of return on investment?

Useful information is available online, for example but nothing compares to testing out the various options yourself in order to assess the user accessibility.

Talk to the experts
There are several agencies who specialise in mobile marketing and can advise you on strategy, cost and manpower. We spoke to DigitalALL (, Tonic International (, Ogilvy One ( and Innovations Digital (

Know your markets
Match your strategy to the behaviour and demands of your key markets in order to create the biggest impact.

Get the basics right
Ensure that your current online communication, such as your website, is optimised for mobile and/or tablet users.

Case study
Hotel Group: Ritz-Carlton
Initiative: Launch of World Concierge on Foursquare
When: June, 2011
Objective: To deepen engagement and relationships with customers as they travel the world.
Results: At the end of 2011, 160,000 check-ins had been recorded

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