How a Small New York City Hotel Put Itself on the Map through Social Media

Did you know that New York City offers more opportunities than the standard tourist attractions? Did you know that there are other hotels beyond the Hyatts, the Hiltons, the Omnis, the Sheratons, and the Marriotts of the world in NYC? I know when my parents come to NYC, they go to what’s familiar. When you go to a conference in Manhattan, you probably seek out hotels that you’ve also heard of. Face it, it’s a competitive landscape out there, especially for tourists who flock to familiar names but perhaps do not realize that there are other options in the city. How does one small hotel possibly compete with these hotel franchises? Is it even possible?

We can say that it is. In fact, the Roger Smith Hotel did it quite successfully. Now known as the “social media hotel” of NYC, Roger Smith is attracting a really incredible bunch of people who have raved about the ambiance and the company’s approachability online. I spoke with Brian Simpson, Director of Social Hospitality, for more insights into how social media became an asset for Roger Smith, and I learned some great things. Brian Simpson is a cancer survivor and discovered Twitter in the spring of 2008 when he endured the grueling process of chemotherapy for a period of 7 months. Twitter, he says, “became my way of talking with a community of people.” He explains that “Twitter allowed me to be social without having to be IRL.” After he joined the Roger Smith staff (as Assistant Director of Food & Beverage), he helped spread Roger Smith Hotel’s amazing stories, including three years of archived video, across the social media space.

Thus, Roger Smith Hotel has made an impression on us through social media, particularly Twitter. Brian explains that he initially built up followers by searching for interests that were relevant to him as the individual performing outreach on behalf of Roger Smith. Once connected, he looked at their friends and followers to see if there was an opportunity to branch out and make new friends. He says, “The use of Twitter was mainly for the brevity and ability to drive traffic to our blog and booking site rogersmith.com. I really found the genuine ability to connect with people valuable and we have continued to use this as just one of many pieces of the funnel hopefully driving people to be more involved with us outside of just booking a room.”

Brian explains that “conversations are happening and it is up to me to either be part of them or not.” Part of this, for him, revolves around being approachable and building up relationships privately via direct messages or on the Twitter stream. He explains, “I listen and try to contribute where it matters most – I never sell… its about people and stories.”

Indeed. But Roger Smith’s story is only part of what we’ve seen in the social media space. Therefore, I asked some people for their impressions of the hotel. Joseph Jaffe, Chief Interrupter of Powered, Inc., said that without social media, there was “not a chance” that he’d have heard of Roger Smith Hotel. Similarly, my good friend Jonathan Fields, who is a NYC neighbor, said that it is “doubtful” that he’d have heard of Roger Smith Hotel if not for Twitter. I personally learned about Roger Smith Hotel at a social media conference and was told that it’s the place to be. The word of mouth has traveled, because Pamela Slim learned about the hotel from Jonathan.

Has it been a success? We think so! Pam says “I think their efforts are fantastically smart from a business perspective. Targeting an audience of social media heavyweights that frequently visit New York City is a really useful marketing strategy. It feels really good that they “get” the social media world and go out of their way to make you feel good for staying at their hotel. I was very motivated to tweet about the hotel when I was staying there, which can only help spur business from my followers.” Jaffe agrees, saying “I think their efforts are great; it’s almost a backchannel in of itself. Today, it appears every retail or business concern says ‘follow us on Twitter’ or ‘be our friend on Facebook.’ Roger Smith Hotel, through their bevy of ‘humans,’ actually participates. They go out of their way to welcome any social media-initiated guests in person. When I want to book, I just DM them and ask for the ‘social media rate.’ I’m not even sure if this exists or not, but it makes me feel special. More importantly, they’ve created a go-to place or space for community. When I was there a couple of weeks ago, Amber Naslund and Chris Brogan were both there at the same time. This isn’t by coincidence.”

While I haven’t really gone for a night on the town, social media has given me a taste of what I’m missing. I’ve learned that Roger Smith Hotel is a boutique hotel with event rooms suitable for parties and workshops. It’s located central to Midtown Manhattan (Grand Central Terminal, perfect for out-of-towners!) and is a “homey and cutesy” hotel with “lots of character,” according to Jaffe. Pam says that she’s experienced great service and low prices (especially with their Twitter discounted rate) — and the “rooms were spacious” too. Apparently, according to Jonathan and Pam, they have great bacon. Jaffe plans to keep coming back and continues to recommend it to others.

Roger Smith has really penetrated a heavily saturated market, and they’ve done so with grace. Pam says it quite well, “Many businesses can learn from the RS Hotel to not just wait for business to come from regular channels, but to reach out to ideal clients who are also heavy social media users. If you court the right kind of people, you can bring waves of great business through your door, and make it really hard for someone else to break up a great business relationship. I have no reason to stay anywhere else when I come to New York, because it feels like my right place.”

That’s a great takeaway. Social media affords you a platform to reach out to people who, by virtue of being “connected online,” can help spread your message virally. As it stands, though, that platform is saturated. Taking advantage not only connecting with people but building relationships with them before selling. Selling should not even be a big part of the picture. At the end of the day, we know most people are active on social networks because they have some reason for being there (be it to make a sale or to establish authority, for example), but through your regular interactions, you need to recognize that these are byproducts of your genuine and authentic involvement. If you’re constantly broadcasting and not building bridges, your social media engagement will only travel so far.

Roger Smith Hotel also teaches us another thing: you should take advantage of your market by giving them opportunities exclusive to their communications channel. Both Pam and Joe talk about the social media/Twitter discount. It’s an “exclusive” opportunity to make members of a specific community feel valued by giving them discounts specific to this channel. Dell has been employing this tactic for years with much success. Add general relationship building to the mix — and aggressively work at it — and you have a recipe for success.

Brian explains that you really need to work at it and have the right mindset, and while you can continue to grow your follower base, having one true follower is really what’s most important. It’s not always about the quantity but about the quality. “Day 1 was all it took. Once we had one follower, I was happy. It has never been about the numbers but more about the people.” Of course, business is a result of that: “Our goal is not to drive sales; it’s to build a channel of people that believe in us as people first. The business tends to follow as people want to trust the people they do business with, and especially in challenging ecomonic times, the relationships become even more important.”

With so many advocates of the hotel, the Roger Smith Hotel way has really paid off. Building strong relationships is worthwhile to their business’s bottom line, but you need to jump in with your entire body. Brian says, “Be real and be patient. These are long term relationships that do not happen overnight. Respect and trust is earned. You cannot force or fake followerships. They will fail if you do.”

It’s true. Be real, be social, and be involved. If you are and if you work at it, the rest will follow.

55 Comments

  • Betsy Kent says:

    i so agree. love the roger smith. would hang there every night if I could. It’s fun!

  • Bsimi says:

    Tamar,
    You have proven where our success is generated. Loyal believers in our product (our people) such as you, Joseph, Pam, Chris et al…
    We at The Roger Smith Hotel appreciate the time you took to write the post and the spirit of its honesty with quotes form other loyal friends.
    We are honored, humbled and will continue our efforts to make people feel important, because they are.
    ~Namaste~

  • Lauren says:

    Right there with you, Betsy. Can’t wait to visit the gang at the Roger Smith Hotel when I’m back in NYC for SES!

    @beebow

  • john knowles says:

    This a great look into what we do at the Roger Smith. It is an open community of creative and passionate people. The culture is growing and as Social Media grows our virtues are shining. The support from the Social Media world has been very exciting. Brian has connected a very important piece to the equation, which is the importance of caring about people. The location where brian floats (Lily’s) could be renamed “Cafe Care”.
    After reading this, I am, as I always have been, proud to be part of the Roger Smith Community.
    My name is John Knowles, and I am Roger Smith!

  • Isaacson says:

    To me this seems like an aberration. There must be hundreds of businesses that are following all the rules the social media gurus throw at them, and really get it, are authentic etc. and still have nothing to show for it. In every business niche the smart people are reaching out to influencers to try and carve out a special place in their heart/blog. The reason this is news is not that they are actually doing something that shows a lot of ingenuity, its that this time it actually worked. That’s gotta be more luck than skill no?

    • Hi Isaacson, actually, I don’t think it’s just “luck.” Hotels in NYC are costly. I think you can learn something from aggressively working at relationship building – doing it often, connecting with people who sync with you rather than your company.

      Maybe there’s some luck involved, but I think that “community building” is more about really working at it with the right “hook.”

  • Bsimi says:

    Isaacson,
    Awesome thought because everyday I wake up I wonder if its luck and rethink every thing we have done to get here. Are the seventy to eighty hour work weeks paying off or are we just lucky…?
    This is a great quote by Thomas Jefferson:
    “I’m a great believer in luck and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it.”
    ;-)
    Thank you for reading Tamar’s post and taking the time to comment.
    Happy Thursday !
    Brian

  • Tamar -

    Great article, with a focus on a business that I love. Is it any coincidence that we all end up there at once? Heck no. Why? They’ve given us a home away from home, something that we can rely on to be a friendly, welcoming experience every time we’re there. I was surprised but yet not to run into Joe Jaffe in the lobby that morning while working with my colleagues. NYC is one of those places that I find myself often, and it’s kind of comforting to know that each time, I’m more than likely to run into a social media friend simply because we’ve all found the Roger Smith to be a point of gathering.

    In a business world – especially the hospitality one – where so many things can be viewed as commodities, it’s actually really fun to have friends like Brian and the sense of affinity for a place that’s “yours”.

    Thanks for profiling them. Will I run into YOU next time? :)

    • Hi Amber, I wish I could say that you will — despite me living a mere 30 minute train ride from RSH, I haven’t been out due to WAHMing all day! (Should I be embarrassed to admit that I’ve been to the hotel ONCE?!) ;) But let me know the next time you’re there and I’ll see what I can do! Maybe I’ll even bring the little one. :)

  • Jason Keath says:

    Great writeup Tamar.

    For the record I had to hang out of the window on what I think was my 3rd floor room in order to capture that photo.

  • Tamar! Good post, and right back to answering comments, :) Ironic that you mentioned Joseph Jaffe, and to have you guys together!

  • Yes, I actually met him on a spontaneous tweetup, and two years later he’s appearing my class! Having you both there was amazing, hope you had fun, and look forward to following you and hopefully seeing you around!

  • Mrunal says:

    Its so true, be social, be real and dont try to sell. If you have a quality product and good at your behaviour, soon you will have a great fan following !!!

    Tamar, I enjoyed reading this case study.

  • Jason Falls says:

    I actually stayed at the Roger Smith for the first time last month at EventCamp 2010. I would never have known about it (and neither would EventCamp) had they not been involved with social media. It’s a really nice place and someplace I’ll choose to stay on my own (not just stay there because the conference is there) the next time I’m in NYC for personal reasons or have a choice where to stay. That’s proof.

  • Thomas says:

    Tamar- Great piece. I love the approach by @RSHotel – “Once we had one follower, I was happy. It has never been about the numbers but more about the people.”

  • Ken Wohl says:

    I think it’s awesome that you covered this story Tamar. Yes it shows the impact that social media can have on a business, but possibly more important, it shows how social media has changed the advertising and marketing game all together.

    For more than 50 years marketing and advertising has been ran by the big guns on Madison Avenue. They dictated what was the right and wrong way to market and advertise. They set the trends for the industry. They also were able to flex their muscles and throw around dollars to buy up all the valuable advertising and marketing opportunities.

    However, things have changed. In the past 5-10 years, social media has come along and changed advertising and marketing from a dollars and quantity game to a quality game. This article is an example of that. For the most part, you can’t buy Twitter followers or Facebook fans. You have to gain them by gaining their respect. The only way to do that is to be personable, listen to them first, and then provide them what they want. And provide it with quality.

    It’s a beautiful thing and I’m glad you took the time to highlight one of the great stories to come from it all.

    • Ken – that is an EXCELLENT point. Don’t you love it that the barrier for entry is lower? You don’t have to have deep pockets. You just need to have a deep genuine desire to connect with people who can spread your message. It’s a great exhilarating feeling and a wonderful opportunity for all businesses.

  • Peter Wells says:

    Tamar
    I live in Cape Town so I aint gonna make it to the RSH for a while…. bit something strikes me about your story …. a company that still believes in attracting customers through honest service. To me, it seems most companys focus on monopolies and then forced purchase of ad-ons without which the product wont work. My daughter loves strawberry jam and the picture on the label suggest this product is all strawberry’s however a count did not turn up one strawberry.

    • I know – isn’t it nice when companies remember that people doing business are exactly that: people? It’s nice when they understand what people want. Thanks Peter for commenting!

  • Tamar,
    I think it’s wonderful that you showed interest and took the time to cover this story. I’ll be looking forward to visiting the Roger Smith Hotel the next time I’m in New York. Great job and congrats on their success!

    Just goes to show how powerful and effective social media is today – if done properly and respectfully, of course. I was reading Ken Wohl’s comment – which I have to say is right on the dot when it comes to the impact social media has on businesses as well as on marketing and advertising (well put Ken).

    If you don’t mind, I’d like to take up some more of this space :) and share a quick story with you, which pertains to the effect social media had on people’s actions and opinions in the following case:

    We’re very big on outdoor advertising where I live (ME) -billboards especially. They’re pretty much plastered everywhere you turn, sometimes even on the coastal shores!

    A couple weeks ago, a hugely successful company here (horticulture & more) , who’s generally known for it’s immensely creative and original ads (by Leo Burnett), launched it’s latest billboard ad campaign around the country. Although the ads definitely had an impact, they were widely criticized around the social media sphere – from parody sketches and comments on blogs to twitter and more… [I personally read numerous blogs and tweets voicing their negative opinions].

    Incredibly enough, the company was listening to people’s comments! Two days ago, they launched a new campaign to replace the old one. Although similar, the message intended and images were slightly altered – and indeed were improved in a big way! Of course our active social media users had a field day with their success but this time praised the company for actually taking people’s opinion into consideration and doing something about it!

    I just wanted to share that with you because I found it truly incredible what tweets and bloggers were able to accomplish – even though I’m not quite sure whether they were expecting anything to change int he first place.

    Had this campaign been launched 5 or 10 years ago and had it not been for social media, I think I’d still be driving by the old billboards.

    In any case, thanks for your time and as always – it’s a pleasure reading what you have to share and learning from you.

    • Ingrid, thanks for sharing that story! That’s really one of the MOST IMPORTANT lessons for effective social media marketing: you MUST listen!

      Listening is really about taking the feedback to the people who can effectuate change, too. It looks like this company nailed it. It was a learning experience, but they’re all better in the end.

      I’m glad you commented and shared that with us. Thanks!

  • Joe Kohli says:

    Thanks again for a wonderful article.

  • Chris Eh Young says:

    I had just heard about this hotel from Chris Brogan a couple of weeks ago and wanted more information. Low and behold, here it is. Awesome story about an awesome business. In my opinion, any business that can create raving fans and viral WOM marketing because of their human touch; whether it be online or off, is doing business the right way. Kudos @RShotel

  • Tia says:

    Wow, very cool. Just today I posted a tweet asking folks to point to articles on how corporations and companies (as opposed to entrepreneurs/solo professionals) can really benefit from social media.

    Looks like basically he used Twitter to drive people to his blog, and part of his Twitter strategy was to target existing social media heavyweights (influencer’s) and make friends with them. It’s pretty specific. It proves that there’s more to social media than just getting an account and chatting. This article also makes me wonder if social media and Twitter are becoming synonymous.

    Thanks for this! Very encouraging and will help me in my current project, too. :)

  • Cate.TV says:

    Just booked our room(s) here for the #140conf NYC – we can’t wait to meet everyone – it feels like home already and we haven’t even been there yet :) Can’t wait to hug the staff – (thinking I wouldn’t be able to do that at other hotels ?:) #justthinking – the little message that Bsimi (Brian) dm me earlier today – “Good morning ;-)” – had me “hearing” him greet me when I walk through the door of the Roger Smith upon my arrival – can you hear him now? :)
    Having over 20 years in Restaurant Management in my “former life” – I still recall/treasure greeting my customers “regulars” on a daily basis – We (the staff/team) knew them/their families – Today, we would either know “of them” (or in the case of the Roger Smith Hotel – “REALLY KNOW them” ) before they even stepped in our front door for the first time –
    Twitter, FaceBook, Social Media et al – thanks for being our virtual Host/Hostess – the staff at the Roger Smith Hotel – thanks for listening/getting the training…..Can’t wait…Hugs, Cate @CateTV and I’ll be talking with you soon :)

  • This excerpt says it all: “When I want to book, I just DM them and ask for the ‘social media rate.’ I’m not even sure if this exists or not, but it makes me feel special. More importantly, they’ve created a go-to place or space for community.”
    This is an great example of a company that gets it and has moved the needle because of it. We recently shared the story to a large group of Dallas hotels. Time will tell if they got the message.
    Congrats to the Roger Smith Hotel!

    Brett Relander
    @BrettRelander

  • Rose says:

    It was interesting reading about a business that has taken advantage of using the Internet to increase their business! I have a “Working From Home” blog myself and it’s always great to read about how other businesses are making themselves more successful – especially when they are using the internet to do so!

  • Eldad Sotnick-Yogev says:

    I love this post! and keep referring to it again and again for a company that gets it. In fact, I’ve referred to it again today.

    Service is a difficult concept to show online and Roger Smith is coming the closest to highlighting their unique approach to service & guest relations.

  • geordie says:

    Tamar,

    I’ve been getting into blogging for a few of our companies, and I know how time consuming it can be. This post in particular, shows a lot of thought, and I applaud your efforts. I agree with you, there’s no luck in hanging out on twitter and making yourself available on a near 24×7 basis. That’s called hard work and dedication, and interacting with your customers like this is likely what’s made this hotel’s success story such a great one. This is an inspirational story, and although we’re early on in the blogging social media game, it gives me just that little bit more inspiration to keep at it, even though we’re not seeing immediate results.

    Good luck with your social media efforts, and great post.

    Geordie
    @gemmsupport

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