Diving Into Digital

Sara Beth Ashbaugh

Finding herself in the hospitality industry was a “happy accident” for communications and marketing expert Sara Beth Ashbaugh. Finding herself becoming immersed in the complexities of the world of digital, though, was no accident.

“I started my career wanting to go fully in the PR direction, focusing on media relations, but I found my way into digital marketing because I had no choice,” said Ashbaugh, director of brand, communications and marketing for Woodside Hospitality Group. “There’s no way to do excellent work for a client today without working in the digital space.”

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Digital communications, whether it’s a website, a Facebook page, or one of the newer video-focused social media platforms, has become an essential tool for hospitality. Knowing how to use it effectively is indispensable for players in an industry that are not just competing with one another for guests, but often just trying to break through the noise of a digital world.

“I think we’re all constantly fighting for the attention of the same audiences,” she said. “You compete against retail, food and beverage, and every other kind of service.”

Ashbaugh got her start doing traditional PR and ad agency work, as well as stints with Fairmont and Rosewood Hotels. While working for larger brands, she kept herself focused on staying current on emerging trends in communications and doing “a lot of independent learning.” She leans on both her background and her penchant for evolving her knowledge to lead her company’s digital efforts, with the help of some specialists on her team. That’s important because most of the properties in the Woodside portfolio are boutique and aren’t likely to have digital marketing teams on the property level.

In fact, the hospitality industry tends to lag most others in the degree to which it embraces social media and digital marketing. “Hotels aren’t always at the front of innovation,” she said. The best places for companies or properties to look for inspiration may not be a competitor; instead look at “a brand you admire and use it as a real-world example. If you see a strong retail brand jump into a strategy, pay attention, because if it’s not a trend you’re seeing widely now, it will be in time.”

At the same time, she cautions against jumping onto every new trend or developing a presence on every new social network. What’s more important than being new and hip is “staying true to your brand, relevant to your audience and genuine,” she notes. And don’t forget that many new digital platforms are more fads than long term prospects and can “fade before they start.”

For the seven boutique properties in the Woodside Collection, her goal is to keep their online presence just as individual as the properties.

“The Woodside Collection represents seven hotels and seven very unique brands, so I like to assign a personality to each hotel to make brands feel more human,” she said. It could be an actual employee, or an invented personality that fits the property’s look and feel, a formal concierge for one or “a pool attendant in a Hawaiian shirt” at another—a personification that connects with guests and potential customers. Being aware of that persona can help avoid finding yourself on a platform that doesn’t fit well: “If you know your sweet spot is guests ages 50 and up, it probably doesn’t make sense to pour resources into a platform like TikTok,” where short, edgy videos appeal to younger users.

At the same time, there are ways to stay true to a more old school and formal brand yet get creative with digital marketing. If a property is trying to drive a lot of weddings and considering diving into TikTok, Ashbaugh recommends a marketer “be present on TikTok yourself, using your own personal account” to see examples of content that might work for your brand.

In general, Ashbaugh advises her team to focus on mainstream and more popular apps—and to be aware of how fast things change and the kinds of controversies that can affect platforms. TikTok is being banned on some college campuses and there have been calls by lawmakers to ban it altogether. Twitter has been controversial since Elon Musk purchased the company, and many aspects of how the platform works have changed as well.

Other platforms like Facebook change their algorithms for what people see all the time, so “as soon as you become familiar and comfortable with your marketing strategy for that platform, a new algorithm rolls out” that forces you to change. One platform that Ashbaugh uses widely for now is Instagram, and Pinterest is undergoing a sort of resurgence. Yet it’s important to stay up to date, follow the news, and “always be ready to pivot your strategy.”

Three other things she recommends to help make the best use of social platforms for brands: Be prepared to keep your content current— with at least 2–3 posts per week, mapped out and ready a month in advance. Don’t try to be too polished or “salesy.” And take advantage of user-generated content: Guests typically love it when they post about their stay on their own channels and a hotel reaches out to ask to repost it.

“We’re going back to a space of authenticity online, even with digital marketing,” she said. “On social channels, you don’t have to post professional photographs, just a short video shot on your phone with some music behind it will perform well. I think it’s a positive shift where people have gotten tired of seeing perfection on their social channels.”

As complex and constantly changing as digital is, Ashbaugh sees the alignment between the new digital platforms and the old-school core of hospitality: Building relationships.

“I love it,” she said. “because the root of it all is social connection.”

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