Before they arrive, visitors to the Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts are enticed by a slew of virtual and real experiences. There are wine tastings on Twitter, the mobile hot-chocolate bar in Chicago and the opportunity to release floating lanterns at a Thai property's tropical festival of lights.
"We create personal experiences," said Susan Helstab, a 25-year veteran of Four Seasons. Named executive VP-marketing three years ago, she oversees global sales and marketing from the company's Toronto headquarters.
Ms. Helstab spends two-thirds of her time visiting the 35 countries where Four Seasons operates. Traveling to exotic destinations like Bora Bora is simply part of the job.
With half of Four Seasons' marketing budget devoted to digital channels, its launch of a revamped website this month is a milestone. It will incorporate user-generated reviews -- still somewhat unusual for luxury brands. Marketers in the category have historically guarded their brands and trademarks closely.
"We've taken a leading position in creating different kinds of engagement opportunities," Ms. Helstab said.
One example is the Twitter wine tastings. Introduced two years ago, the event attracted 14 of Four Seasons' 86 hotels last year. "You can get the wine yourself, and taste it and listen to the description and evaluations [on Twitter], or you can go to the participating hotels," Ms. Helstab explained.
Four Seasons also started a "Have Family Will Travel" blog last year that covers everything from the annual Teddy Bear tea at its Boston hotel to a private tour of Shanghai's gritty tenements. On the Four Seasons chef's blog, foodies worldwide can read about a hotel chef in Los Angeles and his stint on "Iron Chef America," or check out a Hawaiian master's recipe for a popular New Year's dish made with ahi tuna.
"It's about romancing the destination," Ms. Helstab said.
It's worth noting that Four Seasons' digital push is being led by a marketer who says she was initially somewhat "suspicious of technology." Though Ms. Helstab has become an enthusiastic adopter. She has a BlackBerry Torch and an iPad, which has replaced her Kindle because there's only so much room in her suitcase.
But she has limits. Facebook is for personal use, and you won't find her on LinkedIn. "Someone said to me the other day, "So how do you find a new job if you're not on LinkedIn?' And my response was that I guess I'm not looking," Ms. Helstab said.
And who can blame her, with destinations from Budapest to Bali all fair game for business trips?
Advertising Age: How will Four Seasons' new website be different?
Ms. Helstab: We're going to do something that 's really uncomfortable for people who market luxury products and services: import user-generated content. We are going to put up TripAdvisor and other user-review sites' reviews with a direct link to those sites because we're so confident that what we're selling, what we're marketing, what we're offering to our guest is something that stands up to that level of scrutiny.
Ad Age : Who's in charge of your social-media presence?
Ms. Helstab: There are Twitter feeds [and Facebook accounts] at the corporate and brand level, and each hotel has their own. It started in the PR department, then moved to the digital department and this year moved back to the PR department. It's less about technology and more about content, messaging and integration into a marketing-communications campaign -- and that 's led by our marketing communications and PR folks. We have about 220,000 Facebook fans and more than 185,000 Twitter followers [across the different feeds and accounts].
Ad Age : Where do you spend the nondigital half of your marketing budget?
Ms. Helstab: CRM efforts, public relations, in-room magazines. [We do] very little traditional advertising -- none in the U.S., and a little bit in the Middle East and Asia. We work with almost a dozen agencies around the world.
Ad Age : Given the extended impact of the global recession on the hospitality industry, where do you see recovery coming from?
Ms. Helstab: The luxury-travel market led the recovery, and it continues to lead the recovery. The Middle East was the last to go into recession and was coming out of it well until the Arab Spring. Full recovery will probably take until 2013. We're seeing very strong growth on the corporate-travel side for 2012, as well as the meetings and events side. The leisure side stayed stronger through the downturn.
Ad Age : How important are China and Chinese travelers to Four Seasons?
Ms. Helstab: Half of our hotels opening in 2012 and 2013 are in China. Of the eight in the pipeline, four are in China. And Beijing is under construction for 2014.
We're building our hotels both for the domestic traveler and the outbound Chinese traveler.
Several months ago we introduced a Chinese amenity program [outside China], similar to one about 20 years ago for the Japanese traveler -- with materials in the local language, downloadable Chinese newspapers and Mandarin speakers in the hotel. Several serve congee for breakfast and use the right kind of rice.