"Community Giving" Has New Meaning for InterContinental Hotels

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Online social networks take many forms and serve a variety of purposes. Their value depends entirely on their participants' interactions with each other. This past holiday season InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) found out that its online customer community's true value extended well beyond customer travel preferences and into real-world outreach to those in need.

IHG's hotel properties include InterContinental, Crown Plaza, Holiday Inn, Staybridge Suites, Hotel Indigo, and Candlewood Suites. The company runs three private online communities (U.S., EMEA, and global) for its loyalty members using Communispace. The primary goal of the online communities is to provide a platform for loyalty program members and the company to interact with one another. Participation is invitation-only to loyalty program members.

During the holiday season IHG was looking to donate to charities, but wanted to align with the charities that loyalty members consider important. In November it posted a "time to give thanks, how do you show you're thankful" message to the U.S. community board, asking the 500 members which charities they volunteer with or give money to. Social marketing manager Cassandra Jeyaram says 50 members responded over a two-week period.

"After a few weeks of reading the discussion thread, we gave each respondent a certificate for 25,000 priority points to donate to their charity of choice," she says. "We had planned to do that all along, but hadn't told the members because we wanted to solicit heartfelt responses."

IHG gave away more than 1 million points as part of that engagement. Some members simply donated the certificate, while others raffled it off for money to be donated or redeemed it for goods like towels, sheets, and socks through IHG's redemption site was that money and merchandise then donated?. "We try to initiate community building as much as we can, so our customers didn't have any suspicion we were fishing around for a donation list," says Ken Bott, director of global consumer marketing and CRM.

It takes a community
The holiday points giveaway is only one example of how members of IHG's online community rally around a cause. Sandi (last name excluded), a member of the U.S. community, has a son with infant scoliosis and needs to visit out-of-state hospitals frequently. For one visit, she was short about 10,000 points and posted a query on the community discussion board asking if anyone would provide their points for her stay.

"There was a rally among members and they gave her much more than she asked for," Jeyaram says. "Not only was there an outpouring of support, but we matched the points our members gave Sandi."

The company doesn't track website hits or other online metrics typical of social networks, but Jeyaram says her team does look at participation and gains insight from watching members interact.

"Ultimately this is creating brand advocates for IHG by building long-term relationships with some of our most valuable customers," she says. "They go and champion our brand for us, which is marketing and credibility we can't buy through advertising or email campaigns."

While an admittedly small sample of loyalty program members join the communities, the company is committed to social marketing and giving customers a voice in how the program is shaped.

"This is defining the future of what a hotel loyalty program is," Bott says. "We see our customer relationships giving us insight and information about what we're doing that's going to differentiate us from the competition."

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