Recently, my wife and I visited a historic luxury hotel in downtown Chicago. We were surprised that valet parking was suspended, requiring me to park my car several blocks away and walk to the hotel. I also learned that there was no food available in the hotel, even for takeout.
No room service was available either. Linen service was available on request only. I ended up wondering why we spent the additional money to stay at more upscale accommodations when we could have gotten the same experience at a limited-service hotel.
This scenario is a direct result of the global pandemic. But even prior to the pandemic, the hotel experience was transitioning from a high touch, person-to-person experience to an increasingly digital one, beginning with the reservation experience. According to a 2018 study, 82% of all travel bookings around the world took place without human interaction but rather, via mobile app or website. Consider the last time you booked a hotel room by calling a reservation line.
The check-in experience is becoming increasingly more digitized as well. Efforts to get guests to their rooms more quickly and bypass the front desk have been in place for some time. Driven by Millennials and other technology-loving guests, adoption of hotel mobile keyless entry was already starting to take off before any of us heard the term COVID-19. Mobile keys are seen by many to improve staff efficiency, improve guest experience, and reduce operational costs. It arguably reduces time at the front desk and assists in the prevention of lost or forgotten room keys. It also saves the production cost of plastic keys and is seen as a more sustainable approach since plastic keys never find their way to landfills.
Other traditional service functions are being taken over by technology as robot butlers are now seen in a growing number of hotels to greet arriving guests, deliver items to rooms, and mingle in lounges. Robots are even being tested to replace hotel concierges.
The pandemic has increased even further the desire to avoid people in public spaces. Magid research has shown that one of the biggest inhibitors of travel is the concern that other travelers will not observe health and safety protocols. Any measures that help people avoid other people are desirable, and the reasons now go beyond convenience and efficiency.
While people laud how technology has allowed people to be taken out of the experience to a larger and larger degree, what is sometimes forgotten is how much of a part people play in the hospitality aspect of the guest experience. A 2015 study by J.D. Power showed that positive staff interactions resulted in not only higher guest satisfaction and loyalty, but also a 50 percent reduction in the average number of problems reported during a stay.
The data showed that while hotels place a great deal of emphasis on the service recovery process, having initially positive staff interactions mitigates the possibility someone will perceive a problem during their stay. In this sense an ‘ounce of prevention’ from upfront positive staff interactions is worth more than a ‘pound of cure’ from the back-end service recovery process. The same study showed that improved guest satisfaction was a function of the number of unique staff interactions a guest experienced during their stay.
An article published in the Journal of Neuroscience showed a significant increase in the neural synchronization in the left inferior frontal cortex during a face-to-face dialog between partners. Put simply, the brain responds much more positively to face-to-face interaction than other modes of communication. If we choose to reduce the amount of interaction in the guest experience to only being on an ‘as needed’ basis, then how can hotels create loyal bonds with guests?
While it will be difficult to replace the human bonding aspect of face-to-face hospitality, here are some considerations for keeping the bonds between guests and hotels strong.
Personalization, Personalization, Personalization
One of the keys to building loyalty is knowing guest preferences and using this information to both acknowledge the guest and create a customized experience. Personalization creates deeper and more authentic relationships with hotel guests through simple but meaningful actions. The data hotels are collecting allows hotel operators to tweak their guest experiences and proactively address specific guest wants and needs.
For example, the guest room experience is becoming more important as travelers are spending more time in their rooms. Providing guests with tablets that allow logins to their streaming services like Hulu and Netflix, having in-room entertainment systems that play favorite Spotify playlists, or enabling video calls to pop up seamlessly on the in-room TV are further enhancements to the personalized guest experiences.
Effectively, personalization represents several core elements. These elements are know me, assist me, and enrich me. Know me means you understand my preferences, likes and dislikes. Assist me means that you make my travel experience easier. This may be something as simple as allowing early check-in/late check-out. Enrich me is providing suggestions for activities, shopping or restaurants based on personal preferences. These are all enhancements that technology can provide to the guest experience.
Flexibility is Key
The pandemic has taught hotels the need for flexibility. While recent years have seen an increase in stricter policies, guests have come to appreciate a more flexible approach to travel changes. With less human interaction on the horizon, guests are likely to be even less tolerant of inflexibility.
Greater flexibility may become the new normal in hotel experiences. If hotels want to demonstrate genuine caring for their guests’ well-being, being flexible to needs is a good place to start. Of course, some balance will need to be achieved so that people are not unfairly taking advantage of the hotel’s efforts to accommodate them.
Reducing Friction in the Guest Experience
Hotels, as well as other travel entities, have worked hard over the past several years to use technology to reduce friction and make the guest experience easier. While advancements in technology will continue to reduce friction by making aspects of the guest experience more seamless, the challenge is that, for the foreseeable future, guests may be willing to trade off certain aspects of friction such as required mask wearing and social distancing or limited-service offerings for greater health and safety.
Once the pandemic subsides, hotels will go back to the business of using technology to further reduce friction often by taking more people of the equation. As this evolves, there will still be a need to have people available to help guide guests through the check-in process, or at least greet guests upon their arrival to make a more personal connection.
Pre-Stay Communication and Welcome Messages
Pre-stay communication is being utilized to a greater extent to warn guests about any special circumstances they may encounter during their stays. Once the pandemic subsides, the practice of communicating with guests before, during, and after their stays, is something we can expect will remain. This may take the form of asking guests about their preferences, reason for travel, or simply informing guests about the features and benefits of the hotel. Relationship building between guests and the hotel is more likely to rely on this type of mediated communication.
Immediate Feedback Through Mobile Devices
The gap between the time a guest stays at a hotel and can provide feedback has continued to close. Many hotels now give guests the opportunity to provide real-time feedback through their mobile devices. Hotels want to avoid the occasional bad review by addressing issues on the spot. Real-time guest feedback gives hotels an opportunity to respond to guest concerns as they arise rather than hearing about problems after the fact through either a guest survey or a bad review on social media.
Blending Hi-Tech and Hi-Touch for the Optimal Brand Experience
While none of us expect things to fully revert to the way things were, the pandemic has accelerated the shift toward removing people from the hospitality experience. Given the tech-reliance of the Millennial traveler, the evolving nature of technological advancements in hospitality, and the desire to trim operating costs, it was bound to happen anyway.
The danger is that people generally do not feel an emotional connection to a physical structure, but rather to the experiences they have and the people who deliver those experiences. If the role of people is going to be significantly reduced, hotels run the risk of losing their personalities. People deliver the brand experience, not buildings or even technology.
The evolving technology is going to require hotel workers to re-define their roles and force brands to use technology to personalize experiences. What remains in question is whether robots can provide the same level of connection, or whether technology-driven concierge services can provide the same strong recommendations that people who have actual experience and familiarity can provide.
At some point, it may be that it is not either/or but rather finding the inflection point where the right blend of people and technology create the optimal guest experience.