Three lessons learned at Starwood Hotels, one social media and two business

I really love Starwood Hotels and I’ve stayed at many of their properties around the world, and enjoyed the benefits of the Starwood Preferred Guest Program. Having spent many nights with them, I was expecting a good experience when we decided to stay local for the Grasshopper yearly off-site planning session, and visit the Le Meridien property in Cambridge, MA.

Even if you pay for 24 nights and a conference room, the hotel’s “free WiFi” is going to cost you

In addition to paying for food, beverages and eight hotel rooms for three nights, we rented a conference room for our sessions. When we arrived early in the morning, I wasn’t expecting my room to be ready (and it was not) so I went right to the 3rd floor where our meetings would be held for the duration of our stay. After I grabbed a bottle of water and something to eat, a few others from the Grasshopper team joined me and we started getting ready to settle in with our laptops. Just as we did so, we discovered that the “free WiFi” that was available in all of the guest rooms and the lobby was blocked. Easy fix right? Wrong.

When we asked the conference manager if we could have the password to access the internet in the conference room, he came by a few minutes later and casually asked if we could sign something. Upon further inspection, that “something” was an agreement to pay $250/day for internet. That’s right: After paying for eight hotel rooms for three nights, for a total of 24 nights at an otherwise empty hotel (with free internet in the rooms) we were being asked to pay for using the internet in the conference room. I gave the hotel the benefit of the doubt and spoke with the hotel manager who referred me to the events and catering manager.

Making excuses never makes a customer feel better

After getting passed off to the events and catering manager, and listening to her many excuses as to why the $250/day price tag for WiFi was justified, and how she couldn’t do anything about it for us, she then told me, “All of the other hotels in this area charge the same or more and we call them every month to verify our pricing is fair.” I was at a loss for words. Looking past all of the problems—that the hotel manager did not care, could not help and just passed blame—I couldn’t believe that the events manager even admitted it was an actual policy to charge this access fee. Worst of all, she actually admitted spending time each month “calling other hotels” to “verify” their pricing!

So, what lessons did this experience reinforce? Here they are:

Lesson #1: Just because your competitors do something does not make it right.

If your competitors apply a ridiculous fee for conference room WiFi, you’re getting an opportunity to be different, so stand out and do the right thing. Don’t do what Starwood did and justify fees by saying that they make you “just like everybody else.” Instead, use the opportunity to differentiate yourself; offer a substantially lower price to use the internet in the conference rooms, or better yet, make it free, just like all of the WiFi in the hotel rooms!

Once giving the hotel and the management a chance to make things right, I turned to Twitter and voiced my frustration with these two tweets to test the Starwood Hotels social media team.

The social media team did respond and ultimately sent me an email and tried to work with the hotel. After explaining my issue, the person from their social media team called the hotel and spoke to “management”—probably the same staff members with whom I’d spoken initially. After all of this, here was the email I got from the social media representative on Twitter:

“Our role is to act as mediators between our properties and our guests, so that we can bring our guests concerns to the hotel level and encourage them to provide the highest level of service possible. Your concern that the hotel charges an exorbitant amount for meeting room internet, while offering the same amenity free of charge for guests in their rooms, is valid.”

Perfect setup for bad news, and the bad news was to come…

“I have spoken with Andrea, the Front Office Manager at the hotel, and explained your concerns. I mentioned that we appreciated the way in which you contacted us online without immediately blasting the hotel, the reasonable nature of your concerns, as well as the potential impact of a negative resolution. She did consult the hotel sales team regarding your comments, and the hotel has made their decision. In the end, their prices are competitive within the region, they will maintain the stance that their charges for meeting room internet use are justified.”

Lesson #2: Having a social media team is useless when they have no power to fix things. Just give them the ability to give $500 courtesy credit at minimum.

I totally appreciate that the social media team tried to make this situation right, and that the hotel had the final say, but the experience did point out some great lessons for any business or entrepreneur trying to understand how social media can help their brand.

If you’re going to go social, make it a serious component of your business, not simply a front that is completely disempowered to make any decisions. What’s the point of interacting with your customers on Twitter if in the end you can’t do anything for them? Make sure that your social efforts match up with those of your business—otherwise, social media won’t do anything for you. People will see right through it.

Lesson #3: Ask a frustrated customer what would make them happy, and you’ll make them a brand evangelist.

The hotel never asked me what would make me a happy customer (all I wanted was free internet, like in the lobby and hotel rooms). Worst of all, everyone I dealt with at Le Meridien in Cambridge seemed totally disinterested in helping me or making their hotel stand out among a sea of options in the Boston area. If they’d just taken the time to find out what would resolve the situation quickly and efficiently, I wouldn’t be writing this post. They also had other options: could have given a $50 discount, given the next day’s internet for free, maybe even tossed some free meals our way, almost anything to show they at least listened.

Final thoughts

So, it’s pretty clear I won’t be raving about the experience I had at Starwood’s Le Meridien property anytime soon, but these are still some excellent (and very basic) lessons for entrepreneurs about creating brand loyalty and respecting your customer. If nothing else, we can take this bad experience and turn it into an enlightening one.

  1. davidhauser posted this