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Advancing Hotel Guest Loyalty for Soft and Independent Brands

At the recent Hotel Data Conference, a number of lodging leaders discussed the challenges and opportunities that both independent and soft brands have when it comes to innovation.

For independents, there is often more creative freedom, while the soft brands have a mix of brand standards combined with the ability to experiment more with technology.

For soft brands, there will always be corporate-driven solutions like uniform PMS systems, which have become very mature and somewhat commoditized. Conversely, we will see the application of some newer technologies like keyless entry become standard, which will continue to push all brands to find some differentiation.

Every brand needs to advance their identity through the creative use of innovation, which can be challenging in today’s commoditized technology arena. However, by focusing on new innovations that please the guest – both on and off property – it is possible to strengthen the overall brand.

For example, by leveraging systems that provide customized guest recommendations for restaurants and other events, it’s possible to standout and create lasting guest loyalty. For independent brands, these systems are very important, because guests have come to expect a high-touch experience during their stays.

In addition, for soft brands, these types of recommendation systems allow them to offer a customizable solution that will please the guest – and will not be considered a risky tech investment that offers minimal ROI.

Of course, pleasing the guest – whether face-to-face or through innovation – should always be considered a priority. By taking advantage of solutions that build out customized restaurant and attraction recommendations, it is possible to build long-term loyalty that will keep guests coming back, whether it’s an independent or soft brand.


Providing Additional Value for Hotel Guests in a Commoditized Era

The recent annual J.D. Power study for North American Hotel Guest Satisfaction found that maintaining satisfied guests will become even more difficult in the future, mostly because complimentary amenities like breakfast, Wi-Fi and other upgrades have become commonplace. As is the case with any highly competitive market, offerings that initially differentiate a provider but are easily replicated by their competitors eventually become commodities.

For hospitality providers, the result is that guests are starting to take a “what have you done for me lately” attitude, pressuring hoteliers to find ways beyond commoditized perks that might differentiate them from competitors. According to the J.D. Power study, this is the current reality for most hotels, with the exception of the luxury segment.

Here’s what we can expect from most hospitality providers:
1) They will take the same approach as in the past of providing guests with new amenities in an attempt to differentiate their brand.
2) The majority of the new amenities they choose to offer will be quickly replicated by peers within their competitive segment and guests will come to expect them as standard offerings (e.g., commodities), thereby eroding any short-lived advantage.

Hoteliers are right to continue providing the kinds of new offerings that most guests will inevitably want, especially if they are technology-driven innovations made available to all by outside vendors and relatively easy to implement, albeit sometimes at a significant cost (keyless room entry is one example.) The reason is that it’s only a matter of time before competitors offer it and guests expect it, which is a sure indication that they are on the path toward eventual commoditization.

With so many newer amenities evolving into commodities, how is a hotelier able to differentiate their brand or property? The answer is likely to be in the way they apply and integrate newer technologies to create a seamless and memorable experience for their guests. The enablers for accomplishing this are software applications, guest-specific data, and a vision for tying them together to better understand guest preferences. As we have suggested before, hoteliers need to focus on guests and go well beyond rewards programs that simply offer deals and discounts.

The core challenge is that there’s no obvious approach for how to accomplish this – if it exists it would be easy to implement yet become commoditized, like some of the amenities previously mentioned. Adding to this is the fact that executing the strategy will take a long-term investment of time and money, yet won’t initially be obvious to the bottom line. The danger is that providers will either fail to commit to a strategy or alternatively choose a “big bang” approach that will take years to begin providing more immediate guest value.

There is a reasonable, balanced alternative: Hoteliers can choose quick-to-implement technologies that improve guest experiences more immediately yet allow for the collection of guest-specific information needed to leverage the longer-term vision of understanding guest preferences. But to make the right choices, their ultimate goal must be to enhance the guest’s experience by understanding and giving them what they want. The risk is that providers will be driven foremost by the desire to push offerings on guests that seem to have the greatest revenue potential.

Yet we all inherently know that to grow any long-term relationship, we have to strive to understand and give before we can expect to receive. In hospitality, the indication of a healthy relationship is a guest’s loyalty to a brand or hotel and it can only be grown by truly striving to understand each guest and proactively giving them what they value the most within their entire travel experience. You can’t wait for years to begin building that relationship or be driven so heavily by revenue that it clouds your ability to implement technologies or choose amenities which fail to provide the greatest value to guests, both individually and collectively.

Loyalty is not a commodity and can’t be earned by simply offering more commodities. Instead, it must be established by learning what guests truly value in all aspects of their travel experience and providing it to them, and then nurtured by continuously improving your offering. It’s not any easy mission with an obvious path toward success but getting started now with technologies that are quick to implement, tangibly improve guest experiences, and allow you to keep learning more about your guests is a reasonable way to begin.


Enticing Business Travelers to Fully Use Hotel Mobile Apps

A recent study from the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) found that business travelers want free Wifi and smart power outlets more than anything else.

While this study may seem like common knowledge on the surface, there is one element that the GBTA explored, which is that business travelers also only use hotel mobile apps for managing their reservations – not for interacting with hotel staff.

This may also seem like “surface knowledge,” but there is something else going on here. Why do these travelers only use these apps in such a limited fashion?

The answer may be that these travelers are not fully encouraged to fully leverage hotel mobile apps. For example, if a hotel app offers detailed information about area restaurants and events (i.e., updates on a concert or other cultural event that could make for a great evening with a client), then it would be possible to make the mobile app experience more dynamic.

This approach is taking a page from the frictionless guest travel model of innovation where hotels use data and analytics from actual behaviors and in-experience reporting to anticipate travelers’ needs. From there it is possible to make targeted, timely and personalized offers to guests that will help increase brand loyalty.

Ideally, this should be done in a mobile app environment. Ultimately, it will allow hotel brands to interact with guests on a much deeper level.

In addition, many hotels are dealing with revenue losses from guests preferring to take advantage of food delivery services, as opposed to using room service. This new mobile app approach allows hoteliers to compete with these services by presenting customized offers that can keep them leveraging on-property services.

Of course, free Wifi is now a given, which was reinforced in this study. However, the real story is about how to get business travelers to better interact with hotel brands in a mobile environment. By engaging with guests more, it is possible to develop long-term brand loyalty in a very viable travel demographic: the business traveler.


The Balance Between Pleasing Hotel Guests and Charging Extra Fees

In the travel sector, many companies have significantly enhanced their profit margins and earnings by charging for extra fees. Whether it’s for baggage fees for airlines or parking or room cancelation fees for hotels, there’s plenty of space for adding on guest surcharges.

According to this recent Skift article, 2016 is set to be another record year for U.S. hotels in terms of the amount of money they will collect from fees and surcharges. In 2015, hotels collected a record $2.45 billion, and this number is expected to increase in 2016, according to a NYU study.

The surcharges began to increase between 2002 and 2009, when travel demand decreased due the economic climate at the time.

However, this rise in revenue brings up the challenge – and need for balance – when it comes to charging extra fees. It goes without saying that travelers are not too fond of these charges.

Southwest Airlines has been the purveyor in gaining traveler loyalty with its bag-fly-free policy, which has helped to create a beloved brand. This, along with the discounted fairs and the “fun and lively approach” they take towards travelers, allows the brand to standout.

For hoteliers, the brand – including everything from implementing QR codes for offers at the front desk to design elements – come from the corporate headquarters, and trickle down to the franchises. This also includes the strategies behind the development of programs to charge extra fees.

In an era where it’s hard to quantify guest loyalty, hoteliers need to take the appropriate steps to help build the brand, and not risk the loss of mindshare amongst guests by creating new fees. And, ongoing guest loyalty will ultimately result in more revenue in the long-term, as opposed to one-off fees.


Including the Guest Experience in the Hotel Technology Stack

With a wide-range of innovations available for the hospitality arena, there is a growing need for hotel CIOs to leverage the full technology stack.

As highlighted by this recent HospitalityNet article, the hotel technology stack keeps getting larger with everything from booking software to revenue management systems to digital marketing tools and much more.

Of course, one of the most critical components of the stack are solutions that aim to please the guest before, during and after their stays. These types of offerings provide in-depth recommendations for activities both on and off of the properties.

Providing unique experiences are a core part of a guest’s stay and can ultimately enhance overall loyalty. This comes from leveraging solutions that allow you to develop and understand your guest’s profile and preferences based upon their interest in attractions and happenings near your property.

From booking to checkout and beyond, guests will be fully satisfied throughout the entire lifecycle, which is the premise behind keeping the guest experience completely frictionless.

In addition, while many of the marketing solutions being highlighted in the HospitalityNet article are very valuable, many of these offerings are starting to become commoditized – much like Wifi and free breakfasts.

This is why hoteliers should consider augmenting their technology stacks with offering that expand beyond the usual solutions.

Creating a truly unique guest experience is no small challenge, but it can be overcome with the right innovations and strategic approach.


Today’s Travelers Want More Technology and Control

With mobile devices reaching near ubiquity, as well as their ever-increasing power and features, it makes sense that travelers want more technology and control during their trips.

According to a new study by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), airline carriers should take advantage of this technology evolution by developing mobile apps that are more robust and useful.

While this study tends to focus on innovation specific to airline travel, all hospitality providers should take note and leverage the right mobile apps for allowing guests to do everything from accessing their own video content to making restaurant reservations to booking rooms and beyond.

The central theme is that the traveler has control over his or her own travel experience.

One way for hoteliers to be one-step-ahead of this shift is to leverage guest recommendation applications that put a hotel’s local curated knowledge right at guests’ fingertips. This means offering completely customized recommendations for local restaurants, attractions, concerts and other events. These solutions also help to minimize the friction that often comes with traveling.

In addition, these types of mobile apps allow hoteliers to compile relevant guest data about on- and off-property preferences. Ultimately, this data will evolve to where it is possible to predict the travelers wants and needs before they arrive – providing even more control.

When it comes to hoteliers, these types of mobile solutions provide a means to enhance guest loyalty in ways never imagined. One simple and fully customized recommendation can create a travel experience that a guest will remember forever, and share with their friends and family.

In the end, both the guests and the hoteliers can gain a better sense of control, and a new found connection that will generate long-term loyalty.


Is Airbnb Really the Experience of a Lifetime?

Over the past couple of years, there have been many studies and reports that highlight how Airbnb is a threat to major hoteliers. One study estimated that hotels lose approximately $450 million in direct revenues per year to AirBnb. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Airbnb has embarked on a marketing campaign based on the premise of having travelers live in destinations – as opposed to merely being tourists. The concept is that by staying in an Airbnb, you will be able to live like a true local, and have an “experience of a lifetime.”

Aiming to appeal to Millennial travelers, this campaign is certainly different when it comes to hospitality marketing, but are they excluding a large group of travelers?

This is the main theme behind a recent Skift Magazine quest article that discusses how travelers may not want to actually live like a local. For example, when many people travel to Paris, they actually want to enjoy some of the world-class tourist sites, which includes the Eiffel Tower and The Louvre.

“The big group that’s being excluded is also people who travel from certain parts of the world to see other parts of the world. People who spend their hard-earned money to do so. People who, yes, sometimes stay in hotels precisely because it’s NOT like being at home. Because sometimes they don’t want to do the stuff they normally do – they’re on vacation trying to do stuff that they never do, or have never done before” stated the article.

In addition, when you stay at an Airbnb, you have the option of cooking your own meals, which may not be an experience of a lifetime. For instance, many travelers enjoy the cuisine that is offered by their hotels, as well as top restaurants in the area.

While Airbnb can certainly be seen as a threat, major hotel brands can counter this by focusing on providing a guest experience tailored to the traveler, such as those people who want to be tourists.

By staying in a world-class hotel that offers specific amenities and services to different categories of tourists, you could potentially provide an “experience of a lifetime.” More important, you don’t need to shop for groceries and cook your own meals.


Hotel Guests Prefer to Bring Their Own Content

According to a new study, the pay-TV industry lost more than 700,000 subscribers in the second quarter of 2016, which is the worst customer attrition statistic to date.

For hoteliers, this is a clear sign that guests prefer to bring their own devices and content when they travel. Whether it’s through accessing services like Netflix or streaming their content – via Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) – to the hotel rooms’ televisions, guests now prefer complete control over their video content.

This trend mirrors what is happening in many consumer households, where family members have their own devices for watching what content they want when they want. Consumers have also grown tired of paying for expensive monthly cable services that, although offer an astoundingly wide-array of channels, are unappealing to many.

This all points to the need to provide sound WiFi for guests.

According to the recent Hospitality Technology Magazine 2016 Lodging Technology Study, adding bandwidth remains a top objective for 45 percent of operators. The report also found that networking/bandwidth connectivity will account for 17 percent of hoteliers’ technology budgets for 2016.

Guest demand for wireless Internet access is also increasing. For example, the number of consumers who reported that they expect free WiFi at fast-casual restaurants rose 24 percent in a two-year period, also highlighted in this study.

In addition, the study discussed how hoteliers are using their WiFi connections to help monitor guest behavior. These analytics include who the customers are and their demographics, as well as hotspot analytics that show total traffic, impressions, loyal customers and how often they return.

As many consumers “cut the cable cord” at home, the same trend is happening in the hospitality arena. While pay-per-view TV revenue will decline for hotel brands, there is a new opportunity to leverage bandwidth in ways that can provide guest insights and increased loyalty.


The Graham Georgetown Fully Embraces Next-Gen Guest Personalization

When it comes to hotel guest personalization, some brands rise above the rest. These hoteliers tend to be boutiques located in prime areas that offer a number of different restaurants, events, concerts and other attractions.

These hoteliers are also more nimble in their ability to embrace new innovations and processes, as well as provide staff training that supports true guest personalization.

The Graham Georgetown is one of these brands.

According to this recent Hotel News Now article, the hotel offers 57 rooms and is located in the heart of the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Here are some of the key takeaways in terms of how the brand is a personalization leader:

  • The ‘GPS’ Experience: The hotel staff is trained on the idea of the ‘Graham Personalized Service (GPS),’ which is all about pre-arrival communications and anticipating the guests needs before they arrive.
  • Elevating Personalization: The staff also takes note of guest preferences when there are on the property, which allows them to best cater to these travelers the next time they visit.
  • Expanded Food and Beverage: From a rooftop bar to themed-nights to dynamic live entertainment, The Graham Georgetown continually seeks to offer diverse entertaining food and beverage experiences.

Although it is challenging for larger brands to offer this level of personalization, hoteliers should take a page from The Graham Georgetown, and implement some of these strategies. In addition, by focusing on- and off-property experiences, and anticipating guest needs before they arrive, it is possible to develop long-term loyalty from a wide-range of guests.

Clearly, The Graham Georgetown understands this.


Time to Embrace International Hotel Guest Personalization

According to a recent study, 2015 was a record year when it came to the number of international travelers who visited the U.S. Last year, 77.5 million international visitors came the states, which is a three percent increase over 2014.

Many of these visitors came from China, South Korea and the UK and arrived into major cities like New York, Miami and Washington, D.C.

For hoteliers in these cities, this means that they deal with a culturally diverse group of travelers – many of whom came from long distances – to experience the U.S. This calls for hotels to enhance personalization on a cultural level – beyond using innovation to achieve this.

This means considering implementing cultural sensitivity training programs for all front-line staff that allows them to engender comfort from the international travelers. It extends beyond just serving international meals in the hotels’ restaurants to knowing how to properly greet a guest in Chinese – by way of example.

Of course, there will be scalability challenges when it comes to doing these types of training programs. However, if large brands focus only on the properties in the cities that attract international guests – this is a great start.

The ultimate outcome of these types of training programs is global loyalty. International travelers – many of whom are affluent – will share their culturally positive experiences with friends and family when they arrive home, and continue to re-book for future trips.

Guest loyalty is the holy-grail in the hotel arena, and now is the time to develop the right programs that are truly personalized for any international guest.