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Wanted: Digital Bloodhounds For The Hotel Industry

Kelsey Blodget of Oyster.com photographs the lobby of New York's Trump SoHo hotel. The website relies on tech-savvy workers to create online reviews and track hotel bookings.
Kelsey Blodget of Oyster.com photographs the lobby of New York's Trump SoHo hotel. The website relies on tech-savvy workers to create online reviews and track hotel bookings.

These days, hotels aren't just looking to hire bellhops, concierges and housekeepers. What the industry really needs are digital bloodhounds: people who understand how to use new technologies to track — and attract — potential guests.

One of those newfangled workers is Greg Bodenlos. At 24, he's just a couple of years out of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration. His official title is digital marketing strategist at The Mark Hotel, a luxury hotel in New York City.

But this profession is so fluid and new that Bodenlos had to write his own job description. Other hotels call the same position e-commerce manager, revenue manager, social media coordinator and at least five other titles.

A New World Of Marketing

Bodenlos says he knew that if he wanted to land a marketing job in hospitality right out of school, "it had to be digital, it had to be analytical. The digital marketing space in hotels — or the technology-driven space — is completely wide open," he says. "We are just figuring out how to use the tools that Google and Facebook throw at us every day."

Bill Carroll, one of Bodenlos' professors at Cornell, agrees the field is changing rapidly. "I tear up my syllabus every year,"Carroll says.

A typical traveler today might make a reservation by calling a hotel or going online to compare prices, and many now use mobile apps or Facebook.

This means the role of hotel marketing managers has also changed from the days when they essentially guessed whether a particular magazine or newspaper ad brought in revenue. Now they're tracking behavior by analyzing "click streams" online.

In the future, Carroll says, hotel staff will know, "did you contact me through a call center, through my brand website, to a salesperson and, subsequently, did you execute a booking?"

By analyzing online behavior, an e-commerce manager will be able to figure out the steps by which a booking was made, and then decide where to spend advertising dollars to attract the most customers. "We're not there yet," Carroll says, "but I believe we will be there in five years."

Since the hospitality industry grows at about the same pace as the U.S. economy, typically around 2 percent a year, the main task for these companies is called "shifting share," or taking business away from somebody else.

The Mark Hotel's Bodenlos wants to know how many bookings the hotel is garnering from online travel agencies, "how many from a call center, how many from mobile, how many from social media, and how many bookings from what we really want: our direct website. And how can we shift that?"

One strategy e-commerce managers use is buying keywords on the paid portion of Google and other sites, to push their website to or near the top of a user's search results.

"We all want top page placement at Google," says Bodenlos, "because we know that 97 percent of consumers will look at the top 10 results and that's all."

Online Reviewers Help Drive Bookings

Oyster.com, a company launched in 2009, sends investigators to hotels. They take hundreds of pictures and send in their critiques.

Oyster publishes serious reviews with the material; the site lists some 4,000 properties in 188 cities. That's quite a change from 15 years ago, when glossy hotel brochures often left travelers with little idea of what a hotel really looked like.

Elie Seidman, the company's CEO and co-founder, says technology made Oyster possible: the ability to take lots of digital photos, often in low light, and send them back quickly.

Oyster gets paid because hotel bookings can be tracked back to its site. For example, an analyst can determine whether someone who ended up at a particular Marriott first came to Oyster.com.

Most of the people getting the tech jobs in the hotel industry are what might be called "knowledge workers." Cornell's Carroll describes them as "competent technically, competent digitally." But they're also able to be good collaborative managers, to get along with people and to have a good understanding of traditional marketing.

And Carroll has a name for those multiskilled workers."We call them 'geeks who speak,' " he says.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Margot Adler died on July 28, 2014 at her home in New York City. She was 68 and had been battling cancer. Listen to NPR Correspondent David Folkenflik's retrospective on her life and career
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