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Social media strategies for a small hotel

Back in 1912, when the Venice Beach Suites & Hotel was built on Ocean Front Walk, the only tweeting going on was among the local bird population.

Today, owner Andy Layman is listening to the online chorus at Twitter and other social networking websites, hoping to join in. Learning to hit the right notes to attract new guests and boost revenue at his boardwalk property is a daunting prospect. “I haven’t really gotten a handle on it,” said Layman, 62.

Yet, done right, he believes social media would be an inexpensive way to find more of the type of traveler who already raves online about his eclectic, 25-room location. About three-quarters of the reviews on TripAdvisor, a major travel website, are positive, Layman said.

Visitors step outside the renovated hotel’s front door onto the Venice boardwalk where fortunetellers, henna-tattoo artists and musicians vie for attention. Tourists and the homeless pass beneath the area’s many murals while locals pump iron at nearby Muscle Beach and young people try out the $3.5-million skateboard park that opened last summer within sight of the hotel.

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In the summer, Layman charges $130 to $305 a night for rooms, some of which have the building’s original claw-foot bathtubs. Guests ride the 1939, birdcage-style elevator to the upper floors. To many guests, it’s a charming experience. To others, it’s too funky.

The hotelier wants to increase sales, which fell 20% last year to about $800,000. Reservations at the four-story hotel have picked up since March, he said, and he expects revenue this year in the mid-$900,000 range. But like a lot of other small-business owners, he is still scrambling to catch up with bills.

Engaging potential customers via social networking could help him boost sales as well as manage expectations for the hotel, said Rosalie Morton, an account executive in the West Hollywood office of Richmond, Va., marketing agency CRT/tanaka. She said the hotel is “having trouble articulating the funkiness of the boardwalk and talking about the homeless population and being able to articulate what Venice is about.”

To help Layman take advantage of social media, Morton and colleague Priya Ramesh, director of social media at the agency, made the following recommendations.

Understand online social networking. Facebook, YouTube and Twitter provide new ways for Layman to reach customers. But it’s not a one-way street. The point of social media for a business is to help customers interact with the company and network with one another online.

The more often that happens, the higher the hotel will rank on search engines and the more new customers will be drawn into the conversation. Postings on one site can be set up to automatically appear on other social media sites. That saves time while spreading the buzz.

Encourage customers to create content. The beauty of social media is that customers can be a major source of content. Layman can solicit comments, photos and videos about the hotel via its existing Facebook page and its website, https://www.venicebeachsuites.com.

Update Facebook. The hotel’s Facebook page has a respectable 300 or so friends, Moore said, but it’s updated only monthly. She’d like new information at least once a day. Customer content will help, but Layman should also post specials, photos and videos, directing visitors to his website, which Moore said could be better organized.

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Use YouTube and Twitter. A YouTube account is a free and easy tool to post videos online. Through Twitter, a microblogging service, registered users can post messages of 140 characters or less. Daily tips about events such as local music festivals or just the latest beach weather are good subjects.

Try FourSquare. This mobile phone application uses geolocation software to track users’ whereabouts. People earn points for posting about visits to new places or old favorites. Layman can sign up to offer special discounts to FourSquare users.

For Layman, creating an effective voice in social media is a worthy challenge. “We’re looking forward to moving forward” on the tips, he said. “Social media and Internet marketing is the future of business.”

If your small business could benefit from a free Business Makeover in the L.A. Times, please e-mail smallbiz@latimes.com.

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