Social Media events are a great way for hotels and restaurants to gain easy, free exposure. Though offering up freebies to a large audience could initially feel like a loss rather than a gain, the potential ROI of doing so in this context is uniquely unprecedented.

A little over a year ago, the Hilton Orange County/Costa Mesa hotel was interested in hosting and garnering some attention from the social media sphere.  A handful of Orange County businesspeople, all of whom met initially through Twitter, came together to begin planning an event. The group established their mission: to connect people that met online in real life. They coined the name “ConnectOC” and got to work.

ConnectOC: A Social Networking Group in Orange County, California

What started out as a small get-together ended up turning into a massive networking of 400 attendees, goodie bags for the first 200 along with thousands of dollars in donations from local businesses for the goodie bags and silent auction. 100% of the money raised went to a local charity. The first event took place in February 2010 and another similar one of greater caliber (more attendees, money raised, etc.) took place in September.

Hilton sponsored the event for free, and also donated a fantastic buffet with a huge variety of options. They staffed the restaurant and bar areas and created specialized, social media-themed drink menus. The out-of-pocket expense for the hotel was hefty, but the value in having hundreds of social media-prone people checking in and tweeting all about their experience at the hotel made it worth it.

It may seem counter-productive to invite locals into a local hotel, as hotel business relies on over-night visitors and obviously, people who live in the city where the hotel resides aren’t going to be staying over there. But many hotels also require business in other fashions, like renting out their meeting and conference space, and drawing customers to their restaurants and bars.

The majority of the people who came to the first ConnectOC event had never previously set foot inside the Hilton, because they never had to. But because of the event, they now can visualize the hotel’s gorgeous restaurant. They’ve now tasted the food. When considering where to dine in the future, the restaurant is going to stand out in numerous ways: in terms of ambiance, taste of food and generosity in donating so much to promote people coming together for a worthy cause. Many people tweeted about returning to the Hilton at later times to dine.

Hilton Lobby and Restaurant Packed During Social Media Event

The event also familiarized people with abundant amount of meeting space the hotel has available, and several parties ended up booking future meetings. Prior to actually going to the hotel and actualizing all of its amenities outside of the guestrooms, these businesspeople hadn’t really thought about it being perfectly suited for their future business needs.

The fascinating thing about this particular kind of event is that it was promoted and leveraged entirely through social media. ConnectOC doesn’t even have a website; their main form of contact is their Facebook page, as well as their Twitter and LinkedIn portals. While the events did receive great local media coverage, those articles were circulated on the web via social media. The audience they reached is numerous and broad, and its members were subsequently able to both meet new people and expand their networks, all while helping a worthy cause. And because Hilton supplied the venue, they were able to reap a ton of benefits from this local, expansive introduction.