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Social media can play role in hotel decisions

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Researchers find many travelers are looking for an ‘experience’

When contemplating a destination, some travelers look to how the experience might translate to social media when making their decision, according to a new study by University of Georgia researchers.

They found that the motivations behind where travelers choose to stay while on a trip can go beyond customer service or cleanliness into what they can post online.

Overall, large franchise hotels still continue to dominate the travel market, said co-author Bynum Boley, an associate professor in the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources who studies travel and tourism. In general, hotel chains offer consistent service and cleanliness, and guests generally know what they’re going to get.

“When you have all these choices out there, you’re going with the one that’s the least risky. But service quality is so standardized now—there’s all these reviews online, and service quality is almost a given,” Boley said. “But there’s also a rising influence in people who want a unique experience and also want to be able to broadcast their travel experiences through social media.”

As a result, the “experience” an independently owned hotel offers its guests plays a role in their decision to stay there. This is not the case for franchise chains.

Bynum and co-author Kyle Woosnam, also an associate professor at Warnell, surveyed more than 600 U.S. residents who traveled in 2017. They looked at four factors for why people chose their lodging: the quality of the service and amenities, the price and location of lodging properties, the uniqueness of the experience and the anticipated “social return” of sharing about their lodging experience on social media.

People reported that they stayed at a franchise because it was predictable—they knew what they were going to get. But while service quality was always a factor in choosing a place to stay, those who chose independent accommodations also factored in the “social return” they may get from their stay. In other words, they were also interested in staying somewhere that they could share on social media with their friends, Boley said.

“What you don’t see is people posting, ‘Hey, Hilton was very clean,’” said Boley. “You tell people to stay places that are unique, special or different, and also match an image of yourself that you want others to see of you.”

While Boley said social media is not primarily driving the decisions to stay in independent places, it is among the factors some travelers are contemplating when they make their decisions. In a way, larger hotel chains are already responding to this trend by launching smaller lines of boutique hotels that are customized to their city or neighborhood. For example, Intercontinental’s Kimpton hotels offer boutique experiences tailored to their locations, such as wine tours and farm-to-table restaurants. Similarly, Hyatt’s Andaz properties connect guests with local arts and culture experiences.

By offering these extras, Boley said, hotel chains recognize the problem: Guests aren’t talking about their brand as an experience. “They’re thinking of them as static or predictable; nobody’s talking about things that are static or predictable,” he said.

As the travel industry reels from the COVID-19 pandemic, Boley said the research points to a larger trend that will likely continue even as it begins to recover. There’s already a certain amount of risk in the decision to stay where you do: A franchise hotel offers a solidly low-risk option, but the number of guests willing to try independent accommodations for the experience shows the pendulum may be swinging.

“Franchises become this price-based commodity; it works, it’s fine, but it’s nothing special,” added Boley. “While the independents have some kind of special aspect to them. So, there may be this new risk/reward calculation where you’re more prone to risk the unknown so you can get the reward of a unique experience that is likely to be positively evaluated on social media. Or, you know your friend group is going to put a higher value on staying there than the chain hotel down the street.”