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Jun 14, 2005
Case Study

Travel Marketing Online: How Hard Rock Hotel Vegas Uses Web Cams & Viral Games to Increase Bookings

SUMMARY: 'Tis the season for hotel and vacation destination marketers across North America to get insanely competitive. They not only have to beat each other but also online booking sites that take a slice of every referred sale. Discover how Hard Rock Hotel Vegas uses a powerful combo of three interactive features:

live web cams
viral games with visitor photos
message boards (old fashioned but still popular) to gain incredibly loyal online fans who translate into significant online room bookings as well as real-world traffic.

Includes data, creative samples, and useful vendor hotlinks.
"Online we're essentially competing with ourselves because we sell hotel rooms directly and also through wholesalers like Expedia," notes Hard Rock Hotel & Casino's Internet Marketing Manager Bethany Swain.

Rooms sold through wholesalers are less profitable because the middleman gets a cut, so Swain's main goal is to get as many consumers to book direct.

Only problem -- Expedia et al. have much deeper pockets including giant search marketing and TV ad campaign budgets. How can you compete?

First Swain stopped expensive search engine arbitrage by setting a rule that no wholesaler could buy search ads against terms that featured her brand name. One refused, so she got tough and dropped that particular relationship completely. (Bravo!)

But, even with relatively cheap search marketing (ads without competition under your brand name nearly always get great clicks), Swain needed more traffic sources and she had to ensure the site enticed visitors to return multiple times until at last they booked a room.

Swain and the Web development team invented as many "fun, gimmicky site toys" as they could dream up. The rule was, the toy had to be interactive -- not just in allowing visitors to play with it, but in allowing visitors to add their own personal stamp to the site itself.

Gimmick #1. Web cams the team placed two Web cams by the hotel pool and two more in the hotel's Pink Taco restaurant. That way, if it's too cold or too late to see much pool action, there may be some excitement indoors.

Viewers could interact with the Web cams not only by zooming around the images but also by posting their own comments to images to be placed in an online gallery. Some bloggers also copied images for their blogs (link to sample below).

Key notes:

o Swain posted signs on location and added info to hotel room guest books to alert guests that they were on camera)link to sample signage below).

o Live cameras are not allowed near gambling per Las Vegas rules (to stop possible cheating). Swain does have one camera near a video poker machine, so she disabled zoom on that view.

Gimmick #2. Viral game

Every Sunday the hotel throws a pool party for guests called "Rehab." So Swain asked the Web development team to invent a microsite viral game that Net users could play to feel like they were at the party. Features included:

o New photos from the latest parties (generally of nubile beauties in bathing suits) o Choice of soundtracks o Drinks menu o Fun clicks -- you can interact with a cartoon of a PG-rated group massage

Gimmick #3. Message boards

After discovering that collectors were trading Hard Rock items like crazy on eBay, the team decided to add message boards to the site so the collectors could form a community and communicate directly -- within easy clicking distance of hotel reservations.

Swain carefully posted "keep it nice" rules about acceptable messages. "You can't badmouth us or our competitors. If someone says something was bad and I concede it to be a realistic experience, I'll leave it. But, if somebody says, 'Your nightclub smells like dog poop,' that's unwarranted and obviously incorrect." Swain made an executive decision to restrict access to all three of these gimmicky toys to registered users only. Registration was free and in most cases only required email (with permission to be sent blasts) and possibly zip code.

Requiring emails in exchange for access is nearly impossible these days for most promotional sites to get away with because consumers (especially the cool 20-somethings Hard Rock wanted to attract) are surfeit with email offers.

But Swain hoped the content would prove irresistible. And the team designed the registration forms carefully to make them as fun-feeling as possible. (Link to creative samples below.)

Swain only mailed the list when she had a superlative offer (tickets for a top band or seriously discounted rooms). Email creative matched the feeling of the site -- sexy and rock 'n' roll poses against black backgrounds. (Link to samples below.)

Currently a full 14% of all Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Vegas' room bookings are coming through its own site. (That includes walk-ins and offline bookings.) That's up substantially over last year and the figure continues to grow steadily.

29% of unique site visitors in 2004 visited the online reservation section. Swain expects that number to rise later in 2005 as she's adding more prominent cross-linking to the reservations page on other popular pages in the site. She also plans a reservations form revamp to help increase conversion rates.

In 2004, 78% of unique visitors came directly to the site from direct links such as their own bookmarks and emailed campaigns. 11% of traffic came from search engines and 5% from former parent company site (Thus building a case for keeping good link relations with former business partners and sites with names similar to your brand's.)

The Web cams are a huge giant draw. 59% of measured site traffic goes directly to the Web cams pages. As you can imagine, the poolcam is the most popular with 37 (!) average pageviews per unique visitor. The Pink Taco cam gets 12 pageviews per unique visitor.

Does cam viewership translate into rooms sold? Swain says, "I did a survey on the boards to ask if Web cam viewers had visited the hotel. I got lots of feedback with people saying, 'Oh yeah totally. I stay here every time I can and I never knew of it before the Web cam.'"

In addition, the Pink Taco cam has become a popular real-world destination for GPS Scavenger Hunt hobbyists (link to info below). Swain says, "You post pictures of yourself at different GPS parameters. We see a lot of people staring into the Pink Taco camera and waving while they're on their cell phone" [presumably talking to a friend surfing for the live pic online].

Only 4% of site traffic goes to message boards, but those who use them are fervently loyal, often posting repeatedly. These thousands of extra pages of content may give the site an extra edge when Swain invests in formal search engine optimization later this year. (Sites with more pages of relevant content often win the search engine wars.)

The Rehab viral game is hosted by a third party, so Swain doesn't include that data as a percent of overall site stats. However she can say, "it was getting insane volume and usage." So insane, in fact, that her host began to complain about the huge amount of server use they were dealing with. The management team agreed to up their hosting investment because it was worth it.

The email campaigns to the names collected from various Cam and game registration forms get a slightly lower-than-average open rate of just under 17%. This makes sense because the names aren't always very qualified as buyers.

However, those who open messages click through to consider purchasing rooms or event tickets at an unusually high 30% average. So these self-selecting names are extremely interested in ordering online.

Which email creative works the best? Swain says wryly, " We definitely get more clickthroughs when we use sexy imagery (duh)."

Useful links related to this article

Creative samples and screenshots from Hard Rock Hotel's site and email campaigns:

Web Cam Plaza -- one of many Web cam fan sites that link back to Hard Rock Hotel:

TrueLook Technology -- the software that powers the Web cams:

Geocaching -- useful info site on the GPS scavenger hunt phenomenon:

phpBB Group -- software that powers the bulletin boards:

IdeaWork Studios -- the Web design firm Hard Rock Hotel uses to design and revamp its site:

Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Las Vegas:

See Also:

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