Invest in emerging technologies, but don’t forget about guest experienceBy Robert Meza - Head of Partnerships Travel & Hospitality - the ENTERTAINER
Invest in emerging technologies, but don’t forget about guest experience
On my last trip to London for WTM (our company was exhibiting for the first time), I found myself at a newly built, well known and well-rated hotel that certainly missed the mark when it came to their in-room technology.
As a result, they lost my confidence as a guest in their implementation of new digital "bells and whistles".
I think of myself as very tech savvy, so I was looking forward to trying out the hotel's in-room smart TV system, smart controls and app. But it was such a nightmare to operate – the remote was your browser and was impossible to control, while the app had very little in terms of usability or information. I ended up more anxious and frustrated than delighted.
An exciting revolution seems to be starting to take shape in hospitality thanks to the rise of mobile and emerging technologies – from chat-bots to AI, to voice assistants and robot concierges, smart hotel amenities and even entirely smart hotels.
However, hoteliers must take great care that the digitised features they are adding on are not just to appeal to a modern millennial mindset. Such changes must have a purpose. Otherwise, they only serve to feed an on-demand technology monster. Each implementation has to have one purpose and one purpose only – improving the guest experience, on-property and in-destination.
Engagement and growth in the hospitality industry isn't just about one time visits, pumping money into paid channels and optimizing conversion rates for rooms sold. What engagement entirely boils down is how successful a property is at making its guests feel taken care of and welcome, so they are likely to recommend the brand or to stay at a sister property in a new city.
When building emerging technologies into a hotel's offerings, human-centric design is of the utmost importance. When tech isn't user-friendly, you risk confusing guests and failing to keep their business (while wasting your hotel's budget in the meantime). With competition mounting from the sharing economy, and Airbnb on track to rack up more than 100 million stays this year, hotels can't afford such mistakes.
If implemented successfully, emerging technologies can provide quite the competitive edge. A great example is conversational interfaces and messaging, which are probably the trend in emerging technologies in hospitality right now about which I am most bullish.
Amazon Alexa, Apple Siri, Baidu Deep Speech 2, IBM Watson, Google Assistant, and Microsoft Cortana are among the dozens of players competing in this space. Available as voice-based or message-based systems, hotels can use conversational interfaces to provide better responses to guest inquiries about the hotel's features and services, while also using them to recommend and book tours and attractions and things to do in the cities they are in.
As I have written before, the opportunity for tours and activities keeps growing and growing, and both mobile and emerging tech will be immense drivers to the industry.
The majority of hotels that have started exploring and experimenting are using message-based interfaces, such as chatbots operating via WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and other communication services, and that'll soon increase as voice and messaging based tech, and the AI behind it, improves.
Gartner Research predicts that 30% of web browsing sessions will be done without a screen by 2020, likely fueled by the future popularity of voice-powered searches. Mobile is a driving force of this evolution, even further cementing a "mobile first strategy" as the future of the hospitality industry.
"Customers expect to communicate directly with brands from their mobile through Facebook, Whatsapp, WeChat, Twitter and other channels about any topic…If they don't get a response they will go to a competitor or other company to find it."
Chances are you've already interacted with a chatbot and didn't even know it. An important part of guest experience is indeed a personal, human touch, but these days many people are becoming open to receiving automated service if it is faster, more efficient and offers a satisfactory result. If a chatbot can provide a reliable solution or answer in half the time it takes to connect with a real person (without any of that mind-numbing "hold the line" music), wouldn't you happily use one?
Getting the message
"We want travellers to interact with Hotel Indigo the same way they do with their friends, so introducing our digital Neighbourhood Host on Facebook Messenger was a perfect way for us to better connect with them through one of the world's most used platform."
The chatbot engages the guests not only pre-stay where they can plan but also during the stay, where they can get information about the city, things to do and attractions and much more.
Chatbots can engage with existing traffic, increase conversion rates, upsell and solve inquiries and complaints with more ease. It can even act as a reservation channel to facilitate direct bookings. It doesn't just have novelty appeal, and it can be an important means of getting an edge on competition and making the lives of guests easier.
However, for users to indeed build trust in a brand and its chatbot, their experience has to be seamless. As trends researcher Sabre Labs put it in it's 2017 "Emerging Technology in Travel" report:
"Chatbots must function as expected by the user. The goal is for the technology to disappear and for the user to forget about the interface. For this to happen, understanding intent is essential."
If done poorly, conversational interfaces work against its hotel adopters.
What the chatbots of tomorrow will be capable of is incredible. Today many chatbots are rules based rather than AI based. Artificial intelligence is set to one day advance conversational interfaces to an astonishing degree. Christina Heggie, investment principal at JetBlue Technology Ventures, runs down an interesting scenario in a Medium post.
"Imagine a world where you communicate with a conversational AI through any channel of choice to discuss a trip – from an Alexa-like hardware device to software on a computer or a digital watch. 'Book flights and hotels for my meeting next week in LA.' or an ongoing and evolving conversation: 'I want to take vacation next spring. Maybe somewhere warm. Not too expensive. Using some of my loyalty points. Where can I go?
"The software would gather a user's prior booking history, as well as other relevant information, ranging from TripAdvisor Yelp reviews to photos liked on Instagram, capturing the relative words and data points needed to establish accurate context for that traveller.
Through the analysis of this information, as well as her stated preferences, AI could produce a short, highly customized list of search results … in stark contrast to what users often experience today on online booking engines."
That's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to personalized service. People will give chatbots details they wouldn't put into search engines, and rich data from a full digital footprint will flourish with specific answers that will hit the nail right on the head.
Once additional personal information is offered up, it can be collected and mined for data sets. Big data is a term that might sound impersonal and daunting, but it's actually where that human touch and technology meet. Hotels can find out more about who their guests are, their needs and desires, and in doing so be able to deliver them even better service.
I've worked on mobile, bots and emerging tech firsthand. I believe in being a practitioner. My current company has developed a mobile concierge for both the in-room and in-destination experience, and I can say that investing in emerging technologies, when implemented right, has the potential to save hotels serious operating costs and delight guests at the same.
Thriving hotels such as The Public in New York and chains such as Yotel can inspire with their fuss-free, tech-reliant models. The Public has scaled rapidly thanks to unique automated touches, such as self-check-in using iPads in the lobby and online room service orders with self-pick-up. Meanwhile, Yotel enlists the help of butler robots that take elevators by themselves to deliver amenities such as towels and toothbrushes.
But despite how exciting these advancements are, emerging technologies can only act as a complement to warm and genuine human service. The basic tenets of good hospitality should not be sacrificed for innovation, but rather propped up and made better because of it. Don't forget: excellent guest experience always has to come from the heart.