Bria Schecker is the Director of Events and Media at 40Berkeley, the largest hostel in New England and top 10 hostel in the US. She will be speaking at the World Hostel Conference 2012 in Jerusalem about the US hostel market and technology innovations within the industry
The hostel industry has never been in a time of such rapid change.
From low-tech dorms origins, it has re-invented itself as technological innovation trendsetter. I have seen travellers’ attitudes change too, from mistrusting technology to now fully embracing it.
This paradigm shift can be attributed to the ubiquitous nature of connected devices, coupled with improvements in network connectivity.
It has meant hostels are often among the first adopters of technology and social media.
After all, our target audience is the tech-savvy 18 to 35-year-old ‘constantly connected’ generation.
This demographic has grown up with the internet, expects it to work seamlessly, and assumes that they will be connected at all times, wherever they go.
The “constantly connected” generation could be perceived as a double-edged sword; on one side, it has pushed the hostel industry to the forefront of the technological revolution. On the other, it’s difficult to keep up with the ever-changing tech landscape.
I often compare social media to spinning plates on wooden sticks.
It has the potential to look very impressive, but without the right strategy there will be a lot of broken pieces to pick up.
The key to implementing a robust technology strategy is understanding your customers’ buying behaviour.
For instance, our customers travel on a budget. They regard hidden charges like paying for internet access as a big negative.
So we are committed to free Wi-Fi at 40Berkeley. We also provide a number of computers and iPads for clients to browse at their leisure.
Social media plays a significant part in our technological strategy. Done correctly, it’s a clear competitive advantage both as a brand-building exercise and as a way of generating more transactions.
From my experience, travel is inherently social. It’s no secret that there’s a clear correlation between people actively engaging hostels via social media and those going on to book a holiday.
The constantly connected generation identifies strongly with brands, and are much more prone to ‘like’ a brand on Facebook.
Social media engagement increases significantly on vacation – you only need to look at Facebook to see people sharing photos of their trip and updating their status.
Twitter and Facebook are just two platforms I advocate, but there are others such as eventbrite.com, which aregreat for managing our events and collecting attendee demographics – perfect tools for finding new potential customers.
If there’s a new community, I want to be the first to figure out how best to utilise it.
Similarly, blogs and bloggers are a valuable resource. It’s essential to regularly target travel bloggers and key influencers on Twitter, as they equate to third party endorsements.
We provide a rolling scale of incentives for influential bloggers and Twitter personas, ranging from tours and attraction passes to free accommodation in exchange for blog posts and tweets. We have found this has really paid dividends, as blogs are a trusted and valued source.
It’s important to maintain editorial independence – the process has been very positive. Some write on our blog ‘Boston on a Budget’, which shows we are in-touch but also promotes our digital strategy by improving our SEO.
Apps are another useful tool and certainly fashionable, but developing apps can be expensive. I believe we are about two years away from the ‘tipping point’ when more people in the US search via mobile devices than desktop. Eventually this will translate into more bookings made via mobile.
Nevertheless, before going down the app route, it’s first essential to develop a mobile optimised website. Customers will go there first and expect a seamless and enjoyable experience, especially if they are going to book via your site.
Only after our website was mobile optimised did we develop an app. I chose a web-based app rather than a native app because it was quicker and cheaper to produce and is able to work across all OS (operating systems).
When designing it, we had our customers’ needs in mind such as making it free, providing maps and tours, and integrating it with our social media.
It’s undoubtedly an exciting time for the hostel industry, but it’s a delicate balancing act; let all the plates rotate too quickly and then they all full down.
So, hostels need to keep adapting and updating their strategy in order to remain ahead in the technology revolution and keep all their plates spinning.