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Irish 'sociability' is way forward in the digital age

Our resilience, determination and relentless passion for success will help the country to bounce back as a business destination, believes Robert Nolan of The Four Seasons Hotel

'Going digital means interacting through all the platforms to reach the consumer in a way that is seamless and intuitive...'

WHEN I left these shores 16 years ago, the country was on the upswing and people wondered why I was leaving. Now I am returning and it's the opposite sentiment -- but then again, I've never been someone to follow direction.

Of course, there's an acute awareness of the plight, the woes and the worries of Ireland -- perhaps something to ponder! Has our legendary hospitality and charm been eclipsed by the domestic turmoil? How far has this affected our sociability in every sense of the word?

On arrival, walking through Terminal 2, I recognise the faces of Ireland depicted on the glass walls. Instantly I was reminded of the character and soul that has resonated in our country over the many generations; their resilience, determination and a relentless passion for success reflected back to me. I felt renewed optimism thanks to these faces -- I was instantly reassured.

This was proved even more so, when Ireland was reported in the press last week as "bouncing back" as a business destination with significant improved global rankings in our competitiveness. It seems to me that the sheer ease of doing business here, with our pro-trade initiatives, has kept us looking to the future with true resolve. All of these enhancements are attracting the new generation of companies such as Google, Twitter, Facebook and Amazon to set up their European headquarters here in Dublin.

Our sociability no longer consists solely of going to the pub for a pint to get the "download", it's now all about plugging yourself into your device. With 60 per cent of Irish people using smartphones and having downloaded 22 apps on average, we are now a nation that is virtually and physically connected. This has helped us embrace the growth of a diverse and cosmopolitan urban culture.

Ireland feels younger and revitalised. Areas such as the Grand Canal Square are full of multinationals such as State Street and Citibank. These corporates sit alongside new venues such as the Bord Gais Energy Theatre and Dublin Conference Centre offering world-class entertainment facilities in the heart of the city.

We must not, as an industry, be afraid to infuse technology into our businesses and further the expectation of the customer. So what is it they really value today? How do they find the information they need? What makes them choose to use your services over one of your competitors? "Going Digital" really means authentically interacting with an audience through all of the platforms that make sense, in order to reach the consumer in a way that is seamless, intuitive and enhances brand identity.

"Our guests have signalled a clear choice for brands that have recognised the larger role digital is playing in their lives," says Susan Helstab -- executive VP marketing at Four Seasons.

As a result we have fostered an environment of innovation and excellence in digital engagement that resonates with our guests at every touch point.

In my opinion, the following key considerations are pertinent to the hospitality industry's successful navigation of "socialising" in this digital age and could equally be applied to other industries:

• Be a rule breaker -- have no aversion to risk. The customers' expectations are ever evolving and it challenges us to rise and exceed those expectations. What was good today may not be good tomorrow. Being complacent will leave you in their wake.

• Be innovative. Value the entrepreneurial spirit and continue to seek out new ways to deliver intuitive customer experiences that reflect your core brand principals.

• Be receptive to feedback. Embrace all the various channels, optimise them to your benefit. Seize the opportunity to engage and respond in a timely manner thus creating a more meaningful relationship with your customer.

• Be true to your core values. At Four Seasons, we have simplified this to reflect the key pillars of our business model -- quality, service, culture and brand. This is exemplified by our philosophy which is ingrained in all of us: "Respect and be respected", the foundation of all interactions. In essence, we believe that the infectious spirit of support needs to be at the forefront of all customer engagement.

• Be at one with social media. Word of mouth has always been a key driver in consumer-making decisions. But do consider what word of mouth means -- it's not just the opinions and sentiments of family, friends and business colleagues but those of everyone. The latest data shows that 1.3 million Irish consumers use social networking sites to gather testimonials before committing to a service or product, therefore highlighting the force that is social media.

• Be relevant and live virtually. Create compelling experiences with your digital content given that customers are looking for intrinsic value and a more meaningful relationship with your brand to become, in effect, your brand ambassador. Likewise, our global website -- fourseasons.com -- integrates real-time search, videos, Twitter, reviews, blogs, news, Facebook, maps, mobile and is regionally relevant and sensitive to draw guests to each of our hotel's website.

• Be human. Despite technology enabling consumers to do more in less time and access an infinite amount of information at the touch of a button, there is a place for hi-tech and hi-touch.

A Four Seasons global survey revealed that 71 per cent of our guests bring their smartphone and 61 per cent bring a tablet device on their travels. One size does not fit all so be mindful of consumer preferences. The survey also revealed that 78 per cent of respondents favoured touch screens in the hotel lobby to access boarding information while only 32 per cent prefer a self check-in option.

Looking to the future, Ireland has a fantastic opportunity with a huge number of iconic sporting events this year to further enhance its image -- be more social and play to its strengths.

Leinster's historic win of the Heineken Cup showcased that success to a global audience and we have the same chance over the summer with the Irish presence at the forthcoming Olympics, participation at Euro 2012 and the Irish Open. This represents a credible platform for businesses to leverage customer centricity through social media engagement and position them centre stage.

I'm delighted to support Tourism Ireland's The Gathering initiative, which I believe is exactly what we need to leverage our profile as a world-class destination.

Without a doubt, we have all been affected by the crisis -- but we are a nation of people beyond these shores and the rallying call to support Ireland has been heard around the world.

We appear to be taking control and managing our way out of the crisis. We need to continue to work together to promote Ireland as a destination that befits everyone. We are one of the most social hubs in Europe. It's no surprise that we are a fan of social media, the new means of connecting with each other in the digital age. We are riding the wave and are becoming highly literate in this realm, which will position us as a European leader in hospitality.

Robert Nolan is the new general manager of the Four Seasons Hotel, Dublin. Ph: (01) 6654000

Sunday Indo Business