Commentary

Hospitality In The Digital Age Of Disruption

This past week, over 300 hotel and travel marketing executives converged on New York’s Marriott Marquis to attend the HSMAI Digital Marketing Strategy Conference. While the conference’s theme was “Navigating the Crossroads of Personalization, Attribution and Distribution,” it might as well have been titled, “Disruption is the New Normal” as attendees were implored to think beyond the travel industry’s legacy approaches and time-bound traditions.

As conference moderator Lalia Rach asked, “How many old assumptions drive your strategies? How many of your opportunities are stuck in limbo because management can’t make a decision? And what processes are inherently broken, overpriced or frustrating?” She proclaimed that the opportunities for disruption are found by focusing on what is missing and what is desired, and that these will require new business models and new ways of thinking.

She cited Silvercar and noted that they ask you a series of questions when you book—that they translate into action. Asking how tall you are lets them automatically have the seat set to your height. Determining what kind of music you enjoy allows them to preset the radio to your preference. Knowing where you plan to drive lets them program the address into the GPS. And, understanding the things you like to do helps them prepare a list of suggestions you might find interesting along your route. 

This kind of service-focused discussion filled a significant portion of the conference and it highlighted how disruption is forcing us to redefine and enhance what constitutes hospitality today. Indeed, the need to deliver ever-higher levels of personalized and customized service and its importance in marketing was echoed by multiple presenters, many of whom advocated that the best way for hotels to outpace and overcome competitors and the pull of the OTAs was to out-service them and create a greater and more lasting connection with guests.

Bill Linehan, EVP and CMO for Red Lion Hotels, said they’re focused on the total guest experience and channel agnostic marketing, which he feels is the best way for travel brands to overcome the OTAs and their transactional emphasis. He pointed out that, on average, a household belongs to 29 loyalty programs, and that the only way to stand out is to make your program more about the relationship and the person, and less about frequency. Within their own “Hello Rewards” program, they’ve worked to simplify things and now offer a free night after just seven stays. They serve up a “whisper screen” to employees that prompts them to offer a personalized greeting to a guest, such as “I see your birthday is coming up in the next few weeks,” or “How did you like your recent stay in our hotel in New York?” They’ve also created a perk engine that enables the staff to serve up a relevant, distinct extra to a guest to help deliver more surprise and delight with each stay.

At the Library Hotel Collection, they evaluate every purchase, investment, service and action through one filter: “Will it enhance the guest experience?” 

They believe that every traveler has a style and that a guest wants to be able to choose a hotel and configure their accommodations to whatever captures their imagination. To make that possible, the company starts by building hotels that are unique. Their Library Hotel is filled with thousands of books and each floor is organized by the Dewey Decimal system. In their Aria Hotel, everything has a musical theme with rooms for opera, jazz, classical and other kinds of music lovers. Not only are guests choosing to stay amidst the themed floor and room that most appeals to them, but during the reservation process the hotels also invite guests to choose from dozens of options to customize the room and stay — flowers, food items, gluten-free breakfast, empty or alcohol-free refrigerator, pillow types, softer beds and other amenities.

What was also clear from the presentations was just how much the human element remains critical to delivering a truly rich guest experience. At Le Parker Méridien in Manhattan, they get over 400 guest surveys returned every month (not including TripAdvisor) and every one of them receives a personal response. As Sylvie Fayolle, the hotel’s general manager says, “You took the time to respond, so we will take the time to reply.” 

The hotel also has an obsession with its guest history and employs a full-time person who does nothing but manage guest profiles and works to ensure that the data is being used to elevate and improve the guest experience. By sharing guest feedback, data and preferences across the entire staff, it has enabled the hotel to better understand what guests value, allowing them to eliminate the mundane tasks and focus more on the guests themselves. As Fayolle was quick to point out, “Technology is not the interface, but rather a tool that supports our staff and gives them the time and knowledge to better serve our guests.”

The importance of human interaction was also borne out by Pedro Dias, the general manger at the Smyth Hotel in Manhattan. More than just CRM, he stressed the need for CEM, introducing his belief that you must add an emotional consideration to how relationships are managed. He is training his staff to “read the guest,” be ever alert and understand the mood of the traveler.

The same traveler who is visiting for a typical business meeting, combined with some pleasure in the city, is going to have a significantly different mindset when they are visiting for a tightly scheduled presentation and negotiating the deal of a lifetime. Recognizing that multi-personas exist for the same guest acknowledges the importance of mood and emotion in how you anticipate a guest's needs at any given moment. 

In closing his presentation, Dias urged the audience to think about going from online to on-live and to never lose site of the fact that hospitality is powered by people and human connection.

Valuable advice in a digital age filled with disruption.

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