While my experience with doing business, keeping connected, sharing my experiences live via social media, and the immediate feedback loop and power of writing reviews, live-tweeting, and live social media sharing when you're abroad, as restaurateurs, hoteliers, diners, and hotel guests, is limited in this particular scenario, I do have some influence and expertise in the space.
If you run a small hotel, restaurant, cafe, or small business, you can win my business away from Marriott International by just being awesome and having all your guests gush about you online in authentic, open, persuasive, and passionate reviews and testimonials.
And, over the last week, I have had an amazing experience with a local hotel that should never have earned me as a guest but did. And, I fully intend to return. And this is how the charming hoteliers did it.
Just a week before needing to fly to my common law brother's, Mark Harrison's, destination wedding to Jacky Baumgarten. It was last-minute as well as high season in Costa Rica and there were very few choices.
My girlfriend was looking through Expedia and discovered the Finca Buena Fuente Residence Hotel for only $90 USD-per-night, compared to $400-$600/night for the condos and rooms at The Westin Playa Conchal, where the wedding was held. Yikes!
What made her fall in love with Finca Buena Fuente, though, were the stellar reviews from dozens of devoted guests who simply gushed about the Italian owners, Luka and Livia, the amazing meals, especially breakfasts, and the tranquil and quiet experience of a very lovely Costa Rican style hotel as opposed to a Napa resort that happens to be in Playa Conchal, Costa Rica, taking US dollars and offering elegantly curated experiences, protected from Costa Rica's authentic pura vida experience or any need for any Spanish at all.
So, the time comes. I arrive in Liberia, Costa Rica, rent a sedan, and head the 1 hour that my GPS indicated, over fine roads, then end up on a rutted dirt road, then up a hill, then into a property. I hailed a man I learned later was Luka, owner of the hotel. He led me to my room, he guided my car through light off road, and to my free parking.
I had free Wifi. No password. I had amazing cell service. When I checked in, the guest book was filled with paragraphs of praise and thank yous. While the room was spartan, while there was no room service or 5 star amenities (I really could have used a hotel bar), it had what I really wanted and needed: a bed, air conditioning, and sweet well water to guzzle (I really didn't need a drink, I needed hydration).
What I notices over the next few days was revealing.
A couple days later, Expedia asked me via email how I liked my stay. I wrote a stellar review, as I had two days under my belt to experience the amazing view of the night sky and the trillions of visible stars (zero light pollution at Finca Buena Fuentes), the homemade bespoke breakfasts made with confections mostly made by Livia: homemade bread, yogurt, butter, juice. The eggs are local, the steak salad I had was local and grass fed. The juice was fresh watermelon, the watermelon, melon, pineapple, and papaya was locally picked.
I wrote such a review but commented that my single bed was terrible, the mattress didn't support me, the size was too small for my very big body. I submitted the review, finished breakfast, and left for the day.
When I returned, Livia found me, brought me to my room, opened a door, and showed me the adjoining room with its king size bed. She offered me the room as a free upgrade in order to make sure I had the quality of sleep and comfort I deserved as a guest.
That review that I did found her real-time and she adjusted her behavior immediately, and before the end of the day I was hooked up with much more comfortable sleeps.
If you're not the Westin Golf Resort & Spa Playa Conchal, or similar top-shelf properties, you live and die by your reviews and you live or die by making it as easy as humanly possible to encourage people to write and share of their experiences on your property as well.
It was super-windy when I was there and the WiFi was either spotty or accessible from my room, but that kept me coming to their dining area to catch up. I don't believe it's intentional on their side, but after I secured their WiFi password (12345678), I was on and I could turn off my data plan while roaming and then sync my photos and upload all my pictures and experiences to Instagram via #latergram, posting my trip asynchronously the moment I could get back online.
Compare that to the Westin Playa Conchal property, which took up hundreds of acres near the beach: you're either a guest who can charge the WiFi to their room or be willing to pay for access while you're there. Their property is obviously very gorgeous. A 5-star international resort with condos and hotels and a golf course and spa, restaurants, a gorgeous beach, lots and lots of wild Coatimundis, howler monkeys, and all that fun stuff. But I couldn't live share any of this to Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, real time, so I wasn't feeling incented to take photos there, really, or not nearly as often.
I was so impressed as to how well Luka and Livia responded to my needs, my discomfort, and were willing to respond almost immediately.
Of course, one must admit that when it comes to the social media most important to travel and tourism, it often comes down more to that metanet known as travel review sites. From my cursory search, TripAdvisor rules, Expedia is a top player, and Yelp dropped the ball by not being in Costa Rica at all. Google is still trying to catch up with its own reviews, and I did write a review for Google as well. That said, Google does dominate search, and their meta-listing at the top of a Google search might make the review there quietly essential. TripAdvisor is also the main feeder for most travel aggregator and bookings websites.
Okay, so on the last night, the wedding party went out together to a restaurant called The Spot Brasilito, owned by at least one French man. While they did have a password-protected WiFi, there were two WiFi spots that were free, open, and unprotected. All of us quickly joined that network and were were live sharing, live Tweeting, posting to Instagram. I generally have no problem asking my server for passwords, but it's always much nicer to have access for free without restriction or password protection. I should check my bank account because these networks might very well be honey traps to collect our data; or, I would like to think, that they may be a service offered by the Costa Rican town of Brasilito. Who knows.
I am sure, if I were a guest of Westin Playa Conchal Resort, I would have complete WiFi access. But if the Westin is also a destination for weddings, for restaurants, for golf, and other events, and since the Westin is so remote and covers hundreds of acres and at least a hundred meters of beach, I feel like the greed associated with not allowing unfettered access to property WiFi is just money-grabbing and downright antisocial, especially when most of your guests are foreigners who probably don't get to lean on their wireless data bandwidth bundles.
But, what does the Westin care? If you bundle them with their new parent, Marriott International, they've got a $24 billion dollar valuation. This experience and advice is was more essential when you're competing for attention with an entire industry that's rigged against you.
Out of nowhere, I booked a ticket from our kitchen table in Arlington, Virginia, and ended up staying in a little Costa Rican hotel owned by an expat Italian couple, Luka and Livia, who have such a positive following, such a gushing fan base so willing to write their praise down, that they're a very bright light, a strong beacon, and powerful attractor, in a country that I am sure is super-saturated and rife with little pension hotels, pensiones.
If you do your work and make sure you empower the people around you, if you heavily invest in all the travel sites and social network business pages, and if you have the unending support and devotion of everyone who has ever visited your little Northern Italian restaurant and little hotel, like Luka and Lilian obviously have, then you, too can bubble up out of obscurity and develop, easily, an international reputation.
I know that I will go back and I want to share Finca Buena Fuente Hotel with my friends and even my girlfriend, if not for a long stay, at least for a meal, a breakfast, a visit just to see Luka and Livia.
But also remember, the success of the Finca Buena Fuente Hotel is not simply Expedia, Trip Advisor, Google+, Facebook Pages, or even Search, it's the cult of personality known as Luka and Livia. So, that's your first step: stop being so professional and open your heart and allow your visitors and guests to get to know your very own Luka and Livia. Everything will ripple from there.