Get Ready For the Web 2.0 Guest

HITEC, the annual gathering of hotel tech geeks and tech shoppers, is rarely a hotbed of innovation. This year was no exception, save for a few key product announcements (see the August issue of Lodging Hospitality for Carlo Wolff's recap of the event). However, several key trends emerged from last month's HITEC that probably won't be fully realized until several years down the road.

The most tangible trend was the arrival of the long-awaited digital convergence technology that marries data, video and voice through a single Internet connection. Several key hotel technology players debuted systems at the show that, once perfected, will allow hotels to offer cutting-edge in-room entertainment at lower costs than what's currently on the market. Hotels will finally be able to offer the same kind of technology in guestrooms that customers have at home and increasingly demand while on the road.

I spotted another more subtle, but probably more significant trend at HITEC, although it took a little digging to recognize. Some out-of-the-box thinkers such as Scott van Hartesvelt of gCommerce Solutions see an industry future that combines the power of technology and the so-called social networking phenomenon sweeping the Internet. Simply put, van Hartesvelt believes hoteliers need to leverage the way many users, especially Gen Xers and those younger, use the Internet to make decisions of what songs to download, what TV shows to Tivo and how to spend their leisure time dollars.

Members of this Web 2.0 tribe love to talk among themselves and the key is to engage them in the language and medium that makes them what van Hartesvelt calls “co-creators” of a hotel property. Using tools as rudimentary as blogs and video diaries, as well as more sophisticated Internet marketing tools, smart hoteliers can create a community of enthusiasts that consider your hotel their hotel. If you give them the tools and opportunities to help shape the physical and service attributes of your property or chain, they'll become your most ardent advocates; in effect, they'll be your 24/7/ sales and marketing staff.

To truly tap into the power of social networking, however, you must engage in an encompassing strategy, not just employ a single tactic, like adding a blog to your website. Web 2.0 aficionados can quickly spot the difference between simpatico and exploitation.

An end or a beginning? Two years ago, I wrote a cover story about Lajitas, The Ultimate Hideout. This unique resort along the Rio Grande River in south Texas was the brainchild of Austin millionaire Steve Smith as a luxury getaway for wealthy but stressed-out executives.

Word came earlier this month that the resort filed for bankruptcy protection after a creditor threatened to foreclose. At first, the story seemed to be one of a developer whose vision didn't match economic realities. Smith poured about $100 million, much of it his own money, into the project but it never caught the fancy of his target audience.

But in true entrepreneurial fashion, Smith recently said he believes he can save the resort and is willing to do what it takes to make his dream come true. The difference this time, Smith says, is that he plans to seek additional financing rather than use his own money. A valuable lesson. I hope he succeeds.

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