My dual careers as a hotelier and novelist couldn’t be more different, and yet they’ve overlapped in unexpected ways. As a hotel manager, I learned to pay close attention to detail, to be more decisive, and not to drink on the job. As a writer, I’ve learned to be focused, how to cope with a bad review, and how to invent clever excuses for missed deadlines.
Surprisingly, it’s the storytelling skills I’ve developed as a novelist that have helped me most as a hotelier. Hoteliers are natural storytellers. We can often be spotted at social gatherings regaling crowds with tales of impossible guests and improbable situations, all the while carefully editing details to ensure discretion and inflate our importance.
Hotels are a rich, virtually unlimited resource for stories, and social media has created unprecedented platforms and audiences for sharing them. And yet this storytelling talent isn’t always apparent in social media, where hotel content often leans toward the bland and unoriginal.
The challenge is, when we’re already scrambling to keep up with the technical and operational demands of administering a social media program, who has time for creativity? And yet as travel research and purchasing increasingly shifts online, our ability to communicate our unique offerings, to drive advocacy, and to build loyalty has never been more important. And nothing accomplishes this quite like good storytelling.
To that end, I thought I’d share a few storytelling principles I’ve learned as a writer that have equal relevance to social media in the hotel industry.
Why tell stories? In the age of social media, to stay relevant online we need to think like a publisher and communicate like a storyteller. Travelers are telling stories about our hotels on review sites and social media platforms, and while we can’t control the conversation, we can influence it, and we can own our own story. The more interesting and relevant the content we produce, the more it will be remembered and shared, and the greater traffic it will drive to our website and booking channels.
Start with your core story. A good story has compelling characters, an appealing setting, an intriguing plot, and an easily identifiable genre. For a hotel, these elements are your staff, location, guest experience, and style of property. Write these elements into your core story and post it to your website and social media profiles. Then share fragments of this story on social media channels that compel readers to click to find out more. The subtext to every story? Your brand promise, key value propositions, and core values.
“In crafting your story, work as a group to imagine the stories you want your guests sharing with others once they leave your hotel,” advises Bill Baker of BB&Co Strategic Storytelling, whose clients include Relais & Châteaux. “Envision what you want those guests doing, thinking, and feeling to create those stories and, most importantly, get your staff to see their role in making those stories happen.”
Dramatize description. Lists of features and benefits are helpful but a bit dull; they’re far more compelling when woven into stories. Packages are great for this, as are slice-of-life updates on Facebook and Twitter. Like this Facebook update from Brewster House in Freeport, Maine: “Cute couple got engaged here last night. Now enjoying champagne and blueberry-stuffed French toast.” The subtext? Romance, excitement, and scrumptious breakfast.
Speak to your audience. When we read a book or watch a movie, if we identify with the universal needs, desires, and values of characters, we form an emotional connection. Similarly, travel shoppers want to know how they’ll fit into our story and how we’ll fulfill their needs and desires. Ultimately, our guests become our critics, assessing in reviews and social media feedback how well we communicate and deliver on expectations through the stories we tell.
Take a page from the book of online reviews. Travelers tune out hotel marketers because of our propensity to tell fairytales and fantasy. Instead they turn to online reviews for the real story. Reviews contain all the elements of good storytelling: a gripping lead, a strong point of view, lessons learned, humor—and yes, occasional myth and melodrama. Use these techniques and a healthy dose of reality in your stories to capture the attention of travelers and earn back their trust.
Show, don’t tell. Online we have the attention span of three-year-olds at Toys ‘R Us: we’re drawn to shiny, moving objects and repelled by large blocks of static text. Use imagery to bring your stories to life; video in particular takes the guesswork out for travel shoppers. Video content doesn’t have to be slick on social media channels, but it should be professional, entertaining, and on-brand. If your budget allows, get it professionally produced.
Resist the urge to explain. Be concise, and let words and images speak for themselves. Advises Martin Soler with Hotel le Seven in Paris, “Treat content like a news story. Break it down into sections and give it to them bit by bit to maximize yield. If you do a photo shoot, write that a shoot was done, and then a little later release one photo, then a few more, then the restaurant photos, now the single rooms, etc. Don’t just dump the stuff on them.”
Editorial, not advertorial. Blogs and social media platforms are often used as dumping grounds for media releases, specials, and the latest discounts on discounts. Those aren’t stories, they’re commercials. Put a unique, non-salesy spin on promotional content, and balance it with original, editorial-style content. And remember that the most compelling, authentic stories are told by your guests. Listen to them, learn, and encourage them to share. End of story.
A few examples of good storytelling:
- The fantastical Faena Hotel + Universe in Buenos Aires takes storytelling to a new level by presenting its core story in storybook format.
- L’Apostrophe Hôtel in Paris tells its story in video format by accompanying une jolie femme around the city, creating a powerful sense of place.
- La Basse Cour in Normandy and Fort Putney Road in Vermont create intrigue by sharing the story of how they came to be innkeepers.
- Story Hotel in Stockholm lets guests do the storytelling by scanning their handwritten notes and posting them to its website.
- Diverse and engaging content by Hotel le Seven in Paris has helped attract over 12,000 Facebook fans.
- Hopton House’s blog in Shropshire, England conveys its distinctive pastoral setting and appreciation for nature through compelling photography.
- Best Western’s vintage videos show that someone at the company has a sense of humor (and that there were some seriously bad hairdos in the 70s).
- Sheraton and Fairmont have created online communities for guests and staff to share their stories on Better When Shared and Everyone’s an Original.
See highlights my Storytelling & Social Media presentation at the Professional Association of Innkeepers conference.