Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts recently unveiled an ambitious $18m website redesign, which makes much of its integration of social media commentary from Twitter, Facebook and TripAdvisor. SVP of marketing and communications Elizabeth Pizzinato discussed the relaunch with the Holmes Report, explaining how the brand has adapted to the social media age, and how economic conditions are changing luxury marketing. 

Your new website relaunch puts social media front and center. How risky a proposition is that, given that you cannot control what is being said on your own site?

That choice is no longer in our hands. For companies of every sort, whether a luxury brand or something more mass, the success of that brand in social media is extremely important and we have believed that firmly for a long time. Most hotels have their own Twitter streams and Facebook pages. Social media is quite an interesting vehicle - for people that don’t engage with it, it seems like a scary proposition. I really believe that true success is through real engagements and conversations. Authenticity is becoming a little bit of a overused word now. You want to know there is a real person at the other end. That, to me is truly what authenticity is about.

The marketing department might be comfortable with that idea, but were there reservations elsewhere in the company?

Not really. We were one of the first luxury hospitality brands to embrace social media and we plunged in without really knowing our overarching strategy. Once we saw that it was a very powerful tool for our consumers - the affluent are extremely active on social media - that initial step really got everybody in the broader company over the hump of “we don’t have control of this channel”. As more and more of our dollars get shifted to digital marketing, the traditional channels where you have more control don’t become less relevant but you use them in different ways.

Is it true that 50 percent of your marketing budget is now in digital?

Correct, since 2009. When there was an economic shift, we really started thinking about what is the most effective way of reaching consumers with a more limited marketing spend. It seemed logical that we would shift some of that spending to digital. It really is about a different level of engagement. The affluent traveller researches a lot before they decide. Most of that research now happens online. If you don’t have a strong online presence in that consideration stage, you have less of a chance to capture that potential guest.

TripAdvisor has become extremely influential but its comments also attract plenty of scrutiny. Do you have any concerns?

It’s easier to decipher if it really is a guest experience. Ideally what we strive to do is engage with that consumer but not necessarily get into a conversation where you are going back and forth in an online forum. The consumer review sites are growing in number - TripAdvisor is the one everybody knows about, but there are a bunch that are specific to a region or destination. 33 percent of our guests tell us TripAdvisor is very to extremely influential in terms of their selection of hotels. I think TripAdvisor has done a very good job in understanding and addressing the concerns. It is very aware that a lot of its credibility comes from ensuring these reviews are real. We do pay a lot of attention to it.

It’s the perennial question. Which department leads social media at Four Seasons?

PR does lead. We’ve moved it around a little bit. Originally social media sat with the digital marketing team. The manager responsible for social media has shifted to PR but both teams work very closely together. We also work very collaboratively with our guest response team - there’s a whole team responsible for responding to emails, guest comments and Twitter. What we’ve done is say, here is the overarching social media strategy, and setting the rules of engagement. Then we enable each person who is managing or responding to do that in the way they do best. We have very specific rules, for example, in terms of response times. It’s really important that it doesn’t sit stagnant and in that regard, at a hotel level, it’s a shared responsibility.

Do you think that luxury marketing is changing because of economic conditions?

On the travel side, what’s very interesting is that we saw in 2010 an unprecedented rebound in the global luxury sector. Nearly every global region has seen significant growth and that has included 2011. I don’t necessarily see a shift - this segment of the market has rebounded really nicely. The way that things are volatile has become the new normal, not just economically but in terms of what happened in Egypt or Japan. The fact that we are well-dispersed and diverse actually helps. Brazil has been virtually unaffected. It is an ebb and flow, and it’s not that different from the way we’ve approached marketing in all the cycles.