Indeed, panelist Richard Doumeng of the Bolongo Bay Beach Resort in St. Thomas said that he had taken great advantage of new methods of communicating with his customers online. Because the conversation is virtually instant between customer and hotel, he said, it was possible to talk directly and quickly about the hotel and what it offers.
He said that it had enabled him to compete with bigger chain hotels including Ritz-Carlton, who may not be able to move as quickly in talking with their customer base. In January, 2010 Doumeng was named as Caribbean Hotelier of the Year. He said he felt that distributing of information online was very cost effective and a great way to track where bookings had originated.
Businesses on Cayman have joined the social media revolution over the last couple of years. Always active are Ocean Frontiers, whose Stephen Broadbelt said that there were two main areas that had been particularly effective for the dive company.
“Our Facebook page was facebook.com/caymanscubadiving, which is a business rather than a personal page. We’ve built quite a following of over 8,000 fans [over the last year] which, in more conventional terms, is an eight thousand people mailing list. But I prefer to refer to it as an audience, which is what social media is and what some people don’t get.”
Consultant Tom McCallum agrees: “No matter how much people are doing on Facebook, they need to do more. Like AOL was ten years ago, it’s a closed system and if it’s not the biggest single use of the internet now, it’s in the top three. Ignore it at your peril; it’s only going to get more and more important for business and it’s not about just status updates anymore.”
A large part of the social media seminar dealt with how businesses can communicate with their customers, which is central to the process. It is paramount now to engage with customers, rather than sell to them, said panelist Richard Tams of British Airways, who drew on a statistic that showed whilst only 14 per cent of respondents trusted advertisements, 78 per cent said they trusted peer recommendations. This represented a fundamental shift in the way people communicated, he added.
Key to business
Caymanian developer and online expert Garth Humphreys said that there are certain bullet points to consider when engaging with customers, although all are flexible dependent on the business. Being in the same space as the audience was key to Cayman business, he said, as was responding to queries in a timely manner. Other elements to success include avoiding spamming, using a personal and friendly but professional tone and engaging customers by asking them questions. McCallum adds that good old email remains a vital part of connecting with past, current and future visitors.
Recently the Department of Tourism restructured its United States operations, cutting twelve staff and closing physical offices in Miami, Houston and Chicago. In their stead, five home-based specialist workers in digital media marketing were employed. At the time, acting director of tourism Shomari Scott said that the new workers would concentrate on everything from web bookings to social networks.
“Our promotions actually drive consumers to online landing pages and booking sites. It’s to tie in all of our marketing efforts so that we get the most out of our marketing mix; TV, interactive, print, and so on,” said Scott, whose department has in conjunction with private sector bodies created campaigns based around web-only competitions, viral media creatives and an increased presence in social networks. Although the cuts were in part made for economic reasons, this opportunity to rethink marketing strategy was an important one. Developer Humphreys notes that the digital world does not necessarily have opening and closing hours.
“If you are going to do any form of social media consideration must be given to customers expectations. And that is typically not only between 9 to 5, or Monday to Friday. So make sure you have resources and staff in place to maintain your social media image in and out of working hours.”
“There is a huge focus for [any] government agency in terms of headcount; historically those agencies are trying to maintain advertising spend but the world is changing very fast in how to get the message out.
“These things need fewer hard dollars, less cash spent on adverts and more spent on human beings to monitor and engage. Social media is about online engagement and to do that you need people. As a starting point, for travel, cut 15 per cent of your advertising budget and hire the right people to do your online engagement.”
Cayman is now competing in a very different tourism marketplace; in contrast to previous years, the potential customer can now pick and choose from any number of destinations online with a few simple clicks of the mouse. They can also easily access TripAdvisor, the site much in the news after a furore concerning the online reviews that anyone can submit about destinations or hotels. Policies vary regarding responding to negative – or positive – reviews. Stephen Broadbelt says that Ocean Frontiers does engage with the site in this way, but counsels that over-moderation is counterproductive.
“We respond to customer comments in a professional, polite manner; the philosophy seems to be that if you’re good you’ll rise to the top and there’ll always be a few bad reviews. People know that, and in fact if you have nothing but perfect reviews, users actually become suspicious. People will go through the comments and make their own opinion based on that. TripAdvisor, for tourism, is the 800-pound gorilla in social media; people seem to just want to put Twitter, Facebook and the others in their social media strategy – but TripAdvisor is a forum platform.
“Forums are the original social media which have been around since the internet began. If you only have time to do one, I recommend any business focus on TripAdvisor because from a tourism point of view, right now, that really yields the most results in dollars.”