Big Interview: When it was ‘sink or swim’ hotel chain Melia turned to social

Big Interview: When it was ‘sink or swim’ hotel chain Melia turned to social

Lee Hayhurst spoke to the Spanish hospitality giant’s Santiago Garcia Solimei

Lee Hayhurst spoke to the Spanish hospitality giant’s Santiago Garcia Solimei about how it’s Hootsuite social media and marketing management dashboard proved vital after the COVID-19 pandemic hit

Leading Spanish hotel chain Melia’s started its digital transformation journey six years ago, at a time when it could have had no idea how important it would be in 2020.

Faced with the devastating consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic Europe’s third-largest hotel group found itself unable to offer anyone any hospitality.

So, the brand turned to social media to maintain that crucial connection any hotel operator must maintain with its guests, and there to assist was its existing partner Hootsuite.

Santiago Garcia Solimei, global director of social media at Melia Hotels International, spoke to Travolution about the success of its social strategy during COVID.

“We faced an unprecedented crisis, not only in our company but in our industry,” he said.

“We realised at the beginning of the pandemic social media was one channel that could have more use for our customers.”

The Hootsuite social media management platform was used by Mela to coordinate the messaging from 127 hotels that have their own social channels and its own brand channel.

Templated, multi-lingual responses were created as part of a centrally managed for its 380 hotels in more than 40 countries which suddenly found themselves having to close.

Solimei said: “We have over 500 different channels. They are all windows of opportunity to interact with our customers.

“If we did not have the tools to consolidate those messages and to report centrally, we could not keep on top of all those communications.

“Without Hootsuite it would have been impossible. Part of our digital transformation project started six years ago was to equip us with these tools.”

In the early phase of the pandemic Melia saw a 170% spike in social mentions and a 154% increase in direct messages as travel bans spread across the world.

Working with Hootsuite, it quickly mobilised a crisis management strategy based on a social-first communications model.

This saw some elements of its social communications automated and constant monitoring of sentiment on social that helped it to keep negative sentiment below 6%.

“We had a more de-centralised approach before COVID,” sad Solimei. “We’ve never had such a big event like this where we had to consolidate our social media presence.

“This whole infrastructure was put to the test and we responded really well. We were very happy with the results and to be able to manage that with a relatively small team.”

A central team of 14 created messages for regional teams globally to send out and controlled a social listening exercise employees throughout the company supported.

Melia says this approach meant it was able to keep up with consumer expectations during this crisis period, both in terms of getting vital information to guests and responding quickly.

Once the early crisis period was over, the emphasis changed to communicating how the brand was a part of the pandemic effort as some hotels became temporary hospitals.

Melia also gave thousands of room night to key frontline workers and social media proved its worth as a channel in which to create a sense of solidarity with people during the crisis.

Solimei said there was no point in Melia creating any tactical sales campaigns, so it turned to community building.

“We could completely shut down and focus on replying to all the messages we were receiving or the other choice was to have a voice on social media,” he said.

The brand looked internally for social content, using its own hotel and entertainment staff to put on cocktail and cookery classes and workshops for parents homeschooling.

And it also turned to influencers to amplify how the Melia experience has been adapted to meet the challenges of COVID and how its premium spaces provide a safe environment.

“Our strategy is based on building the link to the brand which results in customers becoming members of our loyalty programme,” said Solimei.

“You get a best rate guarantee, and perks and a more personalised stay as part of the programme.

“We have more than 11 million members, and they are the ones who spend the most because they see the advantages of ancillary services like the spas and restaurants.”

As lockdowns began to be lifted Melia engaged with 34 influencers over a two month period to communicate its #StaySafewithMelia campaign.

A total of 249 bookings were media use the promo code promoted by influencers, with their campaign posts seeing 1.8 million engagements.

The brand’s digital ambassador programme extend the reach of the campaign securing an additional 6,500 shares of posts by employees for a potential reach of 5.6 million.

How this social reach had the potential to convert into bookings was seen in the immediate aftermath of the UK government’s original announcement of its roadmap it of lockdown.

In the days after that announcement total bookings shot up 54% and bookings taken from the UK went up 245% compared to just 34% and 52% in the US and Spain.

Melia expects social to play an increasingly important role in determining people’s choice of experiences and the accommodation providers that can supply them.

In particular it sees an opportunity to promote it’s more exclusive products that offer private areas and to communicate about its safety protocols and safe stay regimes.

Solimei expects much of what Melia has brought in during COVID-19 to remain once the pandemic is a distant bad memory.

“We feel going forward a lot of things we saw change during the pandemic will remain in the hospitality industry. The focus on digital will increase.

“The number of messages we receive is not decreasing. Social is a channel a lot of consumers are choosing because they feel it’s effective.

“We are working on automation and artificial intelligence so we can handle larger amounts of requests with bots and try to automate the in-stay experience.

“We are seeing out industry has advanced in terms of digital maturity the equivalent of 10 years in just one year.

“Our industry is all about meeting expectations and offering an intense value-add and experience-led hotel stay and I think digital tools can make a difference.”

Melia says the hospitality has been one of the hardest-hit industries as a result of COVID-19 and its push into social was part of a “sink or swim” strategy which has paid off.

“Our planning for digital transformation started eight or nine years ago, many years before the pandemic, but this current situation has accelerated it to a much quicker pace.

“All players in the travel industry are going to have to adapt to this digital reality, which is here to stay. It’s not going to go away.”