Relationships, Storytelling and Influencer Marketing: Interview with the team behind the Ritz-Carlton’s influencer marketing success

Over the years, influencer marketing has gone from experimental to a key part of the majority of every travel brand’s PR and marketing strategies. According to our State of Influencer Marketing Report, 66% of marketers have already introduced an influencer marketing strategy into their plans. For 80% of these marketers, reaching these influencers’ often niche audiences is one of the top reasons they choose to work with these online creators. One travel brand that has been executing sophisticated and robust influencer strategies for years is the Ritz-Carlton. I spoke with Kristin Bartholomew (Director, Brand Marketing) and Laura Troy (Senior Social Media Manager) from the team to learn more about their influencer marketing philosophies and tactics.

SIGHTSEER: To kick things off, what do you see as one of the most important keys of influencer marketing?

TROY: “I think really the best way to do influencer marketing is to have a strategy in place. Ask yourself the questions, ‘What do I want to achieve? What type of content do I want to get from this? Is it just awareness? Am I hoping to get content I can use after?’ Really think about what it is you’re trying to achieve, and then from there you can pick an influencer or multiple influencers to work with. They could be someone with a large international following or someone from a local level. You just want to think about where you can potentially get business from and then invite influencers that have impact there.”

S: How do you vet and select the influencers you end up working with?

T: ”It’s not necessarily about the size of their community. Obviously, the larger the size means you get more eyes on the content in theory, but the first thing we look at is engagement rate. Then, we look at their content. What type of content are they posting? What type of messaging are they putting out there, and is that aligned with our brand? We also look at what other brands they’ve worked with in the past. Are they working with other luxury lifestyle brands or are they working with more mass market brands? For the brand, we always look for someone with a global presence because we are a global brand. Although, for properties, you want to make sure that you have a mix of regional influencers. I think the rise of micro-influencers is very important and something to watch.”

S: A lot of marketers complain that they have difficulty finding influencers they want to work with. What advice would you give there?

T: “When searching for influencers to work with, we’ve had a lot of success reaching out to the network of influencers we’ve already worked with. Once you’ve found someone who shares your values and passions, don’t be afraid to look at their network because there’s a good chance they feel the same.”

S: One of the influencers you’ve worked pretty extensively with is Trey Ratcliff. How did that partnership kick off?

T: “A few years ago, we saw that Trey was in Dubai at a competitor hotel, and tweeted that he was asked to leave for taking too many photos. This was also before the big rise of everyone taking photos and before the rise of influencers. We saw that tweet and engaged back with him by saying something along the lines of, ‘Trey, you’re allowed to take as many photos as you want at any of our hotels around the world.’ From there, we started an online dialogue with Trey and had conversations back and forth. So our relationship definitely started out in the social space. Then, in 2015, we saw that he was doing these photo walks around the United States and coming to DC, and we thought that would be a perfect opportunity to get involved, meet Trey and to see what type of collaborations we could potentially work on together, and that’s when we began collaborating.”

S: How has this relationship impacted your marketing?

BARTHOLOMEW: “The partnership spans a lot of different mediums for us. It’s social but it’s also amazing photography at an attainable price point, whereas the beautiful work would normally be out of reach for us. But it’s also video and blog posts. It’s reaching his audience in a unique way with our message, but it’s also introducing him and his point of view to our audience.”

S: How do you compare the effectiveness of influencer marketing versus a more traditional paid strategy?

T: “A good strategy includes both. Depending on how you do paid social, some can look very much like ads, and that may not emotionally connect with someone versus having influencer content that is able to connect better.”

B: “A lot of the time we’re partnering with these individual influencers for their perspective or their talent. If they’re an artist for example, we’re working with them because they have a unique skillset or perspective that we as a brand may not have access to otherwise. From the paid media or paid marketing side, we’re still looking to tell stories but it’s also more internally focused on stories that happen at our hotels. It’s still storytelling and we still want to make sure they’re authentic and real stories being shared, but it’s the perspective of where the story is coming from is the difference there.”

S: When it comes to measuring success, what matters to your teams?

T: I think it goes back to what we’re trying to achieve from each campaign. A photowalk with Trey would have very different goals from a person doing a hosted stay with us in Cancun. For me, what I’m looking at is the type of content they created - did it really speak to the magic of the brand? Did it entice and inspire someone to want to stay with us? I also look at different KPIs like engagement - likes, shares, comments and what they’re saying in those comments. Are they saying they want to go there because it looks amazing? And then also, are we able to share those on our own channels and were they able to capture something that we might not be able to capture on our own?

B: In brand marketing, the things we like to focus on is how the story is told - if it fits well with our positioning. A lot of the influencer partnerships we engage in are about the content and the types of content we’re able to receive. Using Trey as an example, that photography we just wouldn’t have access to otherwise, and we can use a lot of that in our own marketing channels, and that’s been a huge help for us. We also look at reach and how much his fans are liking and engaging with the content.

T: “Definitely set up your KPIs ahead of time so everyone is aligned. Your senior leadership should know what you’re trying to achieve along with your hotels so there isn’t any confusion.

S: Looking forward, what do you see as the future of influencer marketing?

T: I don’t see it slowing down because I think influencers in the travel space have definitely helped to increase awareness of destinations that maybe you knew about but now it’s like, I have to go. If you look at the rise in popularity of a few destinations, for example the Maldives, Bali and Greece. All those places people went to, but with the rise of influencer marketing, you’re constantly seeing photos from unique destinations you might not have seen before and it’s increased their popularity. I feel the trend is going to continue for the next few years because the way people connect with influencers. They have a real emotional connection and are a huge part of people’s lives today - they look to them for inspiration.

S: Lastly, any advice for marketers reading this who aspire to launch or grow their own influencer strategies?

T: Start with the strategy. What do you want to achieve? What’s the business objective you hope this influencer will help to achieve. Number two, think about the influencer and who can best tell your brand story in their own voice. Then, the relationship. I think the more you can build that relationship and the more the influencer is able to be really part of your story and be collaborative with you, the better the content will be. Finally, setting expectations is huge, that way you both understand the expectations.