When it comes to guest expectations, hotels must deliver tech on-demand

NATIONAL REPORT—If you need a ride, you can open your Uber app, request a car, follow its progress on a map and know exactly when it will arrive. If you’re hungry, you can use OpenTable to make restaurant reservations, or you can choose Seamless, who will deliver food directly to you. If you feel like a massage, service platforms like Soothe will send licensed therapists to wherever you are. And that Amazon order? Depending on where you live, Prime Now can get it to you in just one hour.

Life has become more convenient, more on-demand and, with that, we’ve become accustomed to having higher expectations. And those expectations permeate beyond our everyday lives. We’ve also set the bar high for when we travel—which means we expect a lot more out of hotels.

citizenM guests can use iPads to control everything in their rooms.

“Today’s customers, digital natives, have everything accessible at their fingertips,” said citizenM’s CMO Robin Chadha. “All we need is a WiFi connection and a device. But you also see people are getting more impatient. As soon as you land somewhere and Uber is not available, you’re frustrated. If you can’t download a movie fast enough, you’re frustrated.”

Vicki Poulos, global brand director, Moxy Hotels, added, “Consumers’ expectations have increased. We need to be able to cater to those needs immediately in both human interactions and in terms of technology.”

“People are looking for the friction to be removed from travel. They want it to be easy, seamless,” said Tim Sullivan, chief sales and marketing officer, Cendyn, an integrated technology platform that provides CRM, digital marketing solutions, event management and hotel sales solutions.

Nikhil Nath, CEO of Knowcross, a hotel management software company with a range of products designed to increase efficiency and improve guest service, underscored the importance of technology. “Our phones have become indispensable, almost an extension of the human body,” he said. “They are creating expectations of technology to work in a certain way.”

Alexander Shashou, founder and president of ALICE, a hotel service management tool that handles front-of-house, back-of-house and guest communication in one platform, boiled it down to two big shifts: e-commerce and consistent mobile access. “These broad shifts have brought about a foundation that has built multiple technology trends that are starting to impact guest experience in hospitality,” he said, noting it’s being led by industries surrounding hospitality, most notably on the consumer-facing side.

“The trends we’re seeing are service-on-demand, mobile request applications, open platforms, personalization, messaging, social and mobile payments,” Shashou continued, pointing to companies such as Amazon, Netflix, OpenTable and Airbnb. “In delivering those trends, they’ve built a new consumer experience—one of self-sufficiency. We are, as a consumer, and thus a guest, increasingly self-sufficient because through these technologies, we’ve become more efficient and sophisticated.”

Self-sufficiency is a concept Poulos echoed in how Marriott International approached Moxy as a brand, which was “to offer guests everything they want and nothing they don’t, but to do it in a do-it-yourself-type of world.” Poulos pointed to everyday life. “You pump your own gas, use self-checkout at the grocery store and go to an airline kiosk to get a ticket,” she said. “For this type of consumer, this mindset of self-service is the best type of service.”

One way that Moxy and many other hotels are catering to self-sufficiency expectations is through keyless entry. “That traditional transaction of walking up to the front desk goes away,” said Poulos, noting that even if guests aren’t using keyless entry, the experience is different. “Even if you need to walk up to check-in, you’re getting a free drink. It’s about the experience.”

“I don’t think guests expect their phones to act as keys yet, but as soon as we start seeing some successful experiences with early adopters of that kind of technology, it’s going to rapidly become an expectation,” said Nath, noting that guests do expect an efficient check-in.

Chadha agreed about efficiency, citing wait times at check-in and checkout as a huge pain point for guests and a reason why citizenM aimed for one-minute check-ins and checkouts. “All the critics told us when we first started that it’s not possible, and we found ways around that and we’re busy now developing our app,” he said. “If you’re a registered citizen, on the day of arrival you can choose your room, go straight up, open the door, and control the room.”

Another important tenet of citizenM’s guest experience? Technology to integrate all functions in a room: lighting, TV, temperature, shades, etc. “We have an iPad mini in every room that has all functionalities on there,” he said.

Nath noted that when it comes to solutions such as this, being as phone-like as possible is critical. “If hoteliers put out technology that interfaces with guests much in the same way as they’re used to on their phones, you’re likely to have tremendous success because they’re already habituated to using it that way,” he said.

Of course, not all guests are exactly the same, but there are some other hospitality trends that experts agree are becoming must-haves when it comes to meeting expectations and creating a good guest experience. WiFi, of course, is number one. “It’s table stakes to have wicked fast and free WiFi,” said Poulos, noting that abundant opportunities to plug in and recharge are also a must.

“When we started eight years ago, having free WiFi was revolutionary,” said Chadha. “Now, it’s how fast it is.”

Streaming is also important. “When you finally do get into your room, it’s not so much that consumers want to find something on the TV, but they want to stream the content on their laptops or Netflix accounts,” said Poulos, noting that the brand offers screen casting. “They want their own content—not someone else’s.”

Chadha noted that citizenM added streaming capabilities from Android and IoS devices because of guest reviews. “We picked up on a few reviews saying they wished they could cast. We saw the trend that people are traveling with their own content,” he said.

And like keyless entry, mobile payments is another expectation Nath sees the average guest soon adopting. “That is happening in other industries,” he said. “I don’t think those payment mechanisms have quite reached hotels yet, but they will. Using your phone as a wallet will be a takeoff point sometime in the next 24 months, and then people will expect it very quickly once it happens.”

Communication is one of the biggest expectations guests now have and it will become increasingly important in the future. “One of the most inconvenient things to do is to speak to the concierge to get information about the hotel, to inform them my arrival time changed, etc.,” said Nath. “All of that is extremely cumbersome today in a time and an era where we are so used to instant communication with each other. Very few hotels have actually done something to change that and that’s a point of frustration for most guests.”

Technology such as Knowcross’ and ALICE can help hotels handle guest requests and problems more efficiently

“If you’re not in your room or in front of a staff member, it’s hard to make a request,” added Shashou. “There’s that expectation gap and you’re going to go on Google and figure it out yourself, so the hotel is missing an opportunity to do business with you.”

It’s something that hotels are working on. Marriott, for instance, is piloting the ability to request amenities and chat through Marriott’s mobile app. Commune Hotels & Resorts utilizes SMS messaging for this; and select Aloft properties have added an emoji room service menu—and that’s only a few examples.

The lack of good communication tools also means interactions between the guest and the hotel lacks transparency. “You don’t know what is being done for you and when,” said Shashou, noting that guests like to know when their room is being cleaned, when to expect room service or when their laundry will be returned, for example, to make better use of their time. “In some respects, it’s what FedEx did to the postal service. By digitizing it, you give the guest access,” he said.

Nath agreed. “Today, even if I call back to know what’s going on [with my request], they’ll just say we already reported it to maintenance, but they can’t tell you what’s actually going on. More sophisticated ways to interact with the hotel will become more prevalent,” he said. “There’s going to be an expectation that when I ask for something or report a problem, I get an update on my device through a message.”

In addition to communication, Nath noted that back-end technology could help guests in ways they don’t think about. “You’ve got to check-in at two and checkout at noon,” he said. “That whole paradigm is really bizarre and it comes from inefficiency in organizing housekeeping. If you get that efficiency in housekeeping through software, then you can start to change a lot of things for guests. Guests can send you their check-in time and you can make sure their room is actually ready. You never have to make guests wait.”

Shashou noted that guests are willing to pay for transparency. “There’s a reason I’ll pay more for an Uber than a taxi at certain times because I know what to expect,” he said.

How does hospitality get to the point where all of this is seamless? Shashou noted that companies such as Uber and Netflix have an advantage that hotels don’t. “Most of these technologies are platforms so they own both sides of the equation; they’re able to make a lot more of it seamless and integrated,” he said.

Chadha reflected on flexibility. “Because we’re an owner/operator model, we’re able to do things quickly and brand wide if we’re willing to make the investment. The traditional industry is mainly focused on management contracts, so you’re dealing with a multitude of owners, and some are more willing to invest than others.”

“Hotels are complicated,” said Shashou. “Conway’s Law says that organizations that design systems are constrained to produce designs that are copies of these communications structures. In layman’s terms, if you’re going to build something to solve a specific problem, you’re always going to be biased to fit your solution into that problem. When these new technologies came out, they didn’t have an existing infrastructure. They got to create their world from almost scratch.

“The way hotels have built technology is in a fragmented manner: Let’s solve this housekeeping problem, solve this concierge problem, and because it’s all built in an isolated and fragmented manner, it’s all one communication problem,” he continued. “None of it’s connected… If you’re not going to build an entire platform itself, at least open it up so it can be integrated more easily.”

Integration of technologies also brings other benefits. Technology enables the ability to aggregate data. If hotels have a way to record what drinks guests always order at the bar, what types of room they choose, or whether the guest books spa or golf appointments, then the hotel has the ability to build a guest profile and better serve that guest in the future.

“Right now, guest profiles are limited to booking and maybe pre-arrival preferences and Facebook,” said Shashou. “They’re not capturing your habits, what you do when you’re on holiday. To truly know and understand the guest, all the technologies in the hotel, from booking to operational tools like ours to checkout, really needs to feed the data into a universal and centralized guest profile that is being kept in a CRM. All of the systems contain a small piece of the guest profile that if you put together, it paints a much better picture.”

Sullivan agreed. “Travelers are leaving a tremendous amount of data, but the challenge is, they’re interacting with all of these different systems: call center, PMS, app, POS, a spa system, a marketing system. All of these are creating data silos. Each one may hold a sliver of information about those guests, but unless it’s all stitched together in a meaningful way, you’re not going to have that single version of truth. The more you can pull that data together, the more engaging you can be through electronic digital communications and face-to-face interactions.”

With a complete guest profile, hotels will be able to provide a better guest experience—and meet expectations guests don’t yet have. “Think of it like this: When you’re a guest, you want to feel valued,” said Shashou. “There is information on you for that to happen. Staff can’t remember who everyone is, but when you do ask for restaurant reservations and they ask for your room number, it is possible to look up where you’ve eaten before. They can ask if you’d like the same restaurant, or a new one. When you walk up to a bar, wouldn’t it be great if the bartender asked if you’d like your favorite drink? That stuff is really accessible. It’s not big data. It’s the simple things.”

Nath noted that the big hurdle for this is implementing the technology. “The reason why a bartender recognizes me today is because it’s my face and it’s the same bartender, but it’s not because they have a system working there most of the time,” he said. But between facial-recognition platforms and location-based services tied to the hotel app or room key, this could be a possibility. “The basics to put that technology together exists and we’re all working to put it together,” he said.

“Eventually, it would be nice if it were more integrated into the entire guest journey, so if my flight is delayed, the hotel knows that and has a drink waiting for me,” said Shashou. “It wasn’t their fault, but they pick you up after that bad experience.”

Solutions like Cendyn’s enable hotels to build up guest profiles and aim to create more meaningful interactions between the hotel and its guests.

Sullivan reflected on the challenges. “Preference information seems simple, but oftentimes, hotels are either incapable through technology or unwilling through broken or rigorous processes and controls in centralizing and sharing that data across their enterprise,” he said. “It’s about a cultural shift around touchpoints and what information can be captured and how that information can be centralized. So everyone interacting with the guest across that traveler lifecycle—whether through email marketing or check-in and guest services engagement—has access to that same intelligence so you can have deeper, more meaningful interactions.”

But, said Chadha, hotels should be careful how far they take it. “How to understand and really know your customer is something we’re busy with,” he said, noting it would be nice to check in to a hotel and have a balloon or champagne waiting in the room because the hotel knows it’s your birthday. “But if they know I like watching House of Cards and there’s a box set in the room as a gift, that might be too intrusive,” he observed.

Nath reflected that the intrusion problem can be solved by simply asking the guest for information. “You don’t have to play a guessing game with what a guest wants; you just have to ask them. Most guests, especially in leisure properties, will be more than happy to tell so they can have a great time,” he said.

Sullivan agreed. “Why is the guest traveling on this particular trip? We can get at that through technology and pre-stay surveys,” he said, noting that hotels send guests information before their stays. “At the same time, ask some questions: Why are you coming? What’s important to you while you’re here? That all can be appended to the guest’s profile for that trip if they’re willing to share. If you’re delivering a consistent, personalized message, we find people are more willing to share because they know you’ll deliver on it. It’s about fostering that conversation, but you have to build trust first.”

Sullivan also noted that a guest’s social media profile can be used in a non-intrusive way. “I’m not sure people are fully using social data as effectively as they could to flesh out that picture of the guest and communicate with them in a way that’s honoring the preferences and the publicly available information that’s already out there,” he said.

Chadha added that knowing things on a general level is extremely useful. “We want to know if you’re a loyal customer; what your travel patterns are; have you stayed just in this hotel or in multiple properties across the brand?” he ticked off. “Second to that are your preferences: Do you like art, fashion, music? Maybe we could offer you tickets to the MoMa or an invitation to a new gallery opening. Those are things we would love to do. It’s not as easy as it sounds, of course. When you have so many people coming through your hotels, and such a diverse mix of people as well, it’s hard to target them all individually.”

Added Shashou, “The hard part is the guest experience is so situational. You may have come to a hotel 10 times for business and then you bring your family and you’re on a completely different trip. We need a way to recognize and accommodate that.”

“That’s exactly right,” said Sullivan. “It is tricky. It’s about a cultural shift of really trying to understand why people travel and when they travel.”

The first step is being able to aggregate data and make it actionable. Sullivan stressed the importance of building a solid foundation first. “Walk before you run,” he said, adding that there are three pillars: data, action and impact. “First, you need an enhanced guest profile—all of that data centralized,” he said, noting it can be as simple as starting with the information available in the PMS. “Second, make the data automated and actionable,” he continued. “How do I take this data, and through marketing automation, trigger a personalized message to that person based on what we know about them or push that data to the front line so the people looking at the screen interacting with the guest can have a more meaningful conversation? The third pillar is impact: How do I measure this activity so I know what’s working, what can I optimize, and what can I repeat when I have success?”

Sullivan noted that many of these capabilities can be built in-house, which a lot of larger brands choose to do. “But for the midsize hotel brand competing with global brands that do not have the same IT infrastructure, there are opportunities to partner with technology companies like us,” he said.

“We miss a lot of data in the hotel industry,” said Nath. “It’s great to have raw data; to know what room you’ve stayed in in the past; to know how much you spent. But is there any system in any hotel that’s looking at my past stay profile, what I spend on the room and what I spend on F&B or the fitness center, and putting that all together and using it to tag me as a particular category of guest and therefore offering me other things that would be useful to me? Or giving me a rate that reflects the fact that you want me back in the hotel and you know I’m always going to spend a lot so your revenue for me as a guest will be way higher than another guest? Or that you should use that data and the fact that I’m a high spender on hotel services to upgrade me over someone else if you have the ability to upgrade guests?” he asked. “This can’t be done at scale unless you have a system. It can be done at boutiques and luxury hotels, but you can’t do it if you’ve got 500 rooms.”

“It’s interesting to me how few key decision makers view their organization for what it really is: the business of expectation management,” noted RJ Friedlander, CEO of ReviewPro, at last month’s Revenue Strategy Summit (RSS). ReviewPro enables hotels to combine online reputation and guest satisfaction survey analytics to leverage guest intelligence. “It doesn’t matter where you are along the scale, your success or failure is completely dependent on your ability to meet and exceed expectations. From there, what data you need, how to use it, how to act upon it and how it impacts the guest experience and ultimately your revenue and gross margins, changes,” he said.

The emphasis, said Friedlander, should be on the basics. “Let’s focus on doing the simple things well. Where we’re seeing great successes across all segments is in organizations that are focusing on operational, service and product excellence by measuring the feedback and actually changing the culture in a way that they can listen and respond to,” he explained. “The concept of CRM has become much more important, but it’s shocking how bad it is.”

Chadha agreed. “I’m a platinum member [of an airline]and I got an email the other day saying ‘sign up for our loyalty program.’ The systems are not linked. You have to be careful with that,” he said. “It’s a difficult challenge, but we are now centralized and our database is starting to be filtered and cleaned up, so we’re starting to get a clearer picture of who these people are and once you have that, you can start seeing what to do with it.”

Nath underscored the importance of loyalty to the guest profile. “One of the things most frequent travelers are frustrated by is the inability of a hotel to actually recognize loyalty or status as a high-frequency traveler,” he said.

Sullivan agreed. “We look at technology being able to enable that type of recognition,” he said. “There’s an opportunity to recognize guests and speak to them in a personalized way or to lose that opportunity to a competitor. It’s simple things: If I’ve stayed with you four times and I get an email that says, ‘Dear Valued Guest,’ immediately that screams they don’t know who I am.”

He noted that technology makes it so that the front desk has access to the database of information. “The conversation goes from ‘Have you stayed with us before?’ to ‘Welcome back. We don’t have current contact information—can we grab your email address and send you special promotions on property? You prefer higher floors? We have a suite on floor 27.’ Maybe that person falls into the foodie category based on spend or preference history. ‘Chef Smith is having a tasting menu tomorrow. Would you like me to make you a reservation?’ Now the transactional check-in that’s typically more of a burden on the guest becomes this interaction that’s personalized,” Sullivan illustrated.

And, he noted, in the case of hotels moving toward keyless entry, this can also be accomplished in an app. “You’re still providing information. It really depends on the hotel or the brand,” he said.

Sullivan added that Cendyn’s CRM has a loyalty module, but hotels should take into consideration what they can promise loyal guests. “We have clients who ask three questions when you sign up because they know that’s what they can deliver on from an operational standpoint. We have a luxury brand that has 28 questions, from favorite snack to pillow preference to room temperature,” he said. “Not everyone can deliver on that from an operational standpoint. We love capturing all of that information because it’s gold, and the more data we have, the more effective we can be at communicating, but also be smart about what’s achievable based on the service level that’s in place already.”

Friedlander reflected on the topic of data integration. “We’re still in this state of dysfunction in this industry, between a supply and demand of technology and systems, so nobody has the luxury of having one system that does all these things,” he said. “There are cool things happening with guest profiles and I think we’re on the verge over the next year or so of seeing us be better at managing expectations, delivering better experiences. Hopefully we’re getting very close to that being a reality.”

Sullivan noted that the industry is more educated on the issue now. “The use of data and personalization in general is a hot topic. There’s a lot more awareness and sophistication around what’s required. That doesn’t necessarily make the process of getting there any easier, but people are aware of the benefits and willing to make the investment,” he said.

Reflecting on technology and the guest experience, Poulos said, “It goes back to expectations. Having the capability and leveraging technology is amazing. For it to work well, it’s about the execution of how you deliver on that request or being able to tailor to the customer’s needs. The execution is exceptional when the intersection of technology and service truly are maximized.”

“At the end of the day, hospitality is about this human touch. Hospitality is the emotion you get from that; how the staff delivers it, how they make you feel at home,” said Shashou. “A lot of the fear in hospitality is that technology takes away from it. No. The point of the technology is to better empower staff to deliver better service and better empower your guest.” HB

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