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Managing the Changing Digital Dynamic: A Conversation with Hilton Worldwide’s Virginia Suliman

The travel industry has a deep heritage in digital media going back to the earliest Web 1.0 days when consumers discovered they could research and book their flights and hotels online.  This simple, yet powerful capability is what initially drew me into the consumer digital world – I’ve been hooked ever since.  Nearly two decades later, the travel industry is tackling the challenges of a more complex Web 3.0 landscape thanks to mobile and social media.  While some elements look familiar to many travel digital veterans, the unknowns triggered by a plethora of digital devices and platforms now require an even greater pragmatic approach amongst travel suppliers and buyers.  To get additional perspective on the demands generated by the changing digital landscape, I recently caught up with my good friend Virginia Suliman, VP Digital Design & Development at Hilton Worldwide, and asked for her to share a few insights on managing the new digital dynamic within the hospitality marketplace.

How did you get into digital/emerging media? What led you to the role you have today?

My career in digital and the hospitality fields began almost at the same time just when eCommerce was starting to emerge.  I was originally working in airline technology systems, which became the backbone of the first hospitality websites.  Honestly, my early foray into digital began as a side project that gradually took on a life of its own.  There were no formal educational degrees around this space initially, so you had to figure out the engineering, marketing, commerce and guest experience pieces all on your own. Back then, it was the ‘blind leading the blind’ in digital.  But that early pioneering experience is what ultimately shaped the course of my career.  I had to put all of the disparate puzzles pieces together.  For example, when search came on to the digital marketing scene, you had no choice but to figure it out for yourself – there wasn’t another department or group of specialists you could hand it off to and rely on. Now that the digital industry is maturing, there is a certain level of expertise available to address each of these emerging spaces.  But for those of us that started in the earliest days of digital, we had to be adaptive generalists. With the advent of mobile and social my experience has now culminated into the overall digital experience design practice that I’m responsible for at Hilton.   I think the industry is becoming much savvier on how we approach the newer channels like mobile and social.

What is the biggest Achilles heel with current B2C digital strategies? What are the biggest challenges companies are facing in order to implement their strategies?

This is something I’ve been giving lot of thought to over the last year.  I’ve been watching the impact digital has had on a large number of mature brick and mortar companies through what I call the ‘Scattering Effect’.  Customers are now scattered across a multitude of digital channels – the marketing and guest experience worlds are not as simple as they were once before when all we had to manage was a call center and our individual hotel properties.  Now marketing and guest experience both involve many more touch points. When you start to look at how the lines are blurring from a digital perspective – things like interactive TV, Twitter chats and mobile check-ins – you can’t definitively say this particular consumer only uses one channel or the other.  When I think about the number of people watching tv with some device in hand, its growing not shrinking.  Instead, all of these touch points and channels start to intersect with one another.  When building your marketing strategy – we shouldn’t be thinking offline vs online or traditional vs emerging.  Its all emerging now.  And once you build the strategy, determining how to spread your investment dollars across the mix becomes the next critical step.

This new dynamic presents huge challenges to both marketing and technology minds because now, we have to figure out how to engage in all mediums that our customers are interacting with at a single time.  Your customer is catching up on TV programming they enjoy but is watching a national event unfold on Twitter at the same time.  So, your brand engagement can easily miss the mark if you are emphasizing a sale during the national tragedy.  Consumers are much less forgiving on things like that now.  Ten years ago, consumers knew your 30-second spot ad used be shot before the tragedy event took place, but now what brands put out in digital channels is generally perceived as real-time.  Marketers are quickly turning to techies and saying: I need something that will help me manage all the scenarios in place and that will allow me to press a button to change all of my messaging on the fly based on what’s going on in real-time.  On the one hand, this new dynamic is fantastic in that it drives more natural dialog between brands and consumers.  But in my opinion, there is still quite a bit to figure out on how all of these scattered experiences can come together.

What will be the role of different platforms and devices in the future to create and deliver truly connected experiences between brands and consumers? What will it take to keep people motivated and coming back for more?  In what way, does the travel industry need to adapt in order to create value and retain loyalty of their customers through these channels?

I tend to take a different slant on this subject which may seem odd to some since I’m responsible for design and building out of digitally integrated guest experiences.  People are human and want to be connected with one another and the brands they patronize.  Mature brands need to stay relevant and modern, but not lose their roots in the process.  That is the heart of the issue for me – not to lose sight of the actual business I’m in.  In my world, the roots of my company go back to our founder, Conrad Hilton, and his vision for creating global hospitality experiences so people would venture out and embrace the world, which is what gave us the ability to be here in the first place.  If I lose sight of that, then as a marketer I will miss the mark even if I have a great digital experience.  As brand stewards, we have to remember we are not and should not try to be something like Angry Birds.  That concept has its place and we can all learn from the addictive nature of gaming and its ability to drive a good consumer experience on a smaller device.  The focus still has to be on the core business, keeping in mind that technology is a driving enabler of it.

In hospitality, the digital experience can be good or bad, but ultimately it pales once your guest walks into his/her room – the right bed, the critical amenities better be there.  If I make digital the star of my brand experience, then I as a marketer have oversold you if the end core hospitality product doesn’t deliver on the promise.  Instead, you must be clear on the motivations for the various digital platforms you choose to engage in such as social media, where guest assistance makes a lot of sense.  At Hilton, we teach our guest /service recovery agents the rules of social media versus teaching social media specialists the rules of guest service.  It’s the same with considering what makes a great iPhone app for managing a guest’s Hilton HHonors account, or re-booking their room due to weather delays, etc.  By putting ourselves in our customer’s digital shoes we are better able to see what platforms make the most sense for each experience we enable.  Technology should be helping brands promote great products with their target audience.

How is the traveller (consumer and corporate) behavior changing as they get more access and familiarity with emerging channels? Do you think travel suppliers and/or buyers are doing a good job keeping pace with their behaviors – why or why not?

I think travel suppliers are doing a reasonable job at keeping up with consumer behavior for the reasons I just talked about.  But where we get into trouble is when we as brick & mortar brands try to compare ourselves to companies that are 100% digital.  Digital travel brands are more advanced from a technology perspective as one would expect.  We as brick & mortar brand marketers should be actively learning from them.  I would give the travel industry a solid B grade in keeping up with consumer demands amongst the proliferation of multiple digital channels, devices, etc.  The expansion of the digital space has allowed more countries and cultures to be engaged in the conversation, which has ultimately changed consumer’s mindset around travel, in particular their willingness to consider exotic, far-away places, how to get there, etc.  Travelers are doing more shopping around. Previously they only had the encyclopedia or local travel agent available to assist them in this process.  Now, we’re seeing more self-exploration beginning with a specific TV inspiration that leads to tablet surfing.

On the corporate side of our business, we’re seeing a similar need for instant response, instant gratification within their digital platform of choice.  Whether its high impatience to have the wi-fi working the minute I’m on property or being to able to see the points I got for a stay once I’ve checked out and barely walked out the front-door of the hotel – the demands are incredibly high.  We recognize that our guests expect to book every aspect of their stay through any channel of their choice and then be able to check in and see their room through their personal device. Consumers don’t care whether you are 100% digital or a brick and mortar business – you just have to deliver on your promise.  We have to remain diligent on digital and not fall too far behind by focusing only on the physical aspect of our brand so the responsibility is much broader and complex.  It’s the corporate traveler that forces me to stay on my toes and innovate physically and digitally.

Do you have a personal giveback project involving digital, emerging media, innovation that you are most passionate about?  How did you get involved and what has been the most rewarding aspect so far?

Several years ago I was given the tremendous opportunity to be asked to join St. Jude’s Research Hospital’s Digital Advisory Council, which I now chair. St. Jude’s two-fold mission is to focus on research and treatment of the toughest childhood diseases while aiding sick kids no matter their financial circumstances.  Target, Dominoes and many other large brands participate on the council, whose sole goal is to help the fundraising arm of St. Jude’s begin to be more successful in the digital space.  I’ve been able to take my personal and processional learning and apply it to their web and mobile experiences and help bring more investment to their organization.  The best four trips I take each year are when I go to visit the hospital and work with other council members and hospital staff.  Its an amazing place.  I am constantly reminded how powerful a digital experience can be in transforming an individual’s life through my experience with St. Jude’s Research Hospital. Its incredibly humbling when I realize the work we are doing is helping a four year old reach their goal of being well and playing outside again and knowing that I’m connected to it in this way.  Who would have thought sixteen years ago when I first got introduced to a website, that the digital world would ultimately give me a very personal way to help a global organization like St. Jude’s to grow their mission even farther and faster.  My experiences at St. Jude’s also give me a view into another slice of the digital world that I bring back to my role and share with my colleagues at Hilton.  Its a win all the way around.

Virginia Suliman is the Vice President of Digital Design & Development for Hilton Hotels Corporation. She currently oversees Hilton’s online portfolio of nine global brands and drives innovation for Hilton and its guests through mobile development and progressive Web tool integrations in social media.  Her work has helped Hilton achieve several No. 1 J.D. Power rankings for the online booking interface.  Virginia was named by CIO magazine as “One to Watch” and Travel Agent magazine as a “Rising Star” in addition to her recently being named Chairman of the St Jude’s Research Hospital Digital Advisory Council. You can connect with her on Twitter @VirginiaSuliman

About Michelle Batten

Michelle Batten is a seasoned digital marketing & advertising leader. She has spent two decades in the interactive arena, working with Fortune 1000 brands + start-ups to define and execute their digital initiatives. An emerging media visionary, Michelle is currently serving as Head of Global Marketing for Mobile & Innovation Intrapreneur for Amadeus, a global travel technology company. She is also the President for the Chicago American Marketing Association. Her passions include culture + tech evolution, mentoring, experiential travel and foodspotting.

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