Franc Avila, Clinical Professor, Les Roches Global Hospitality Education offers his insight on "Hospitality’s personalisation problem", and how hotels can ensure their customers feel like royalty when so many online relationships have been claimed by third-party sites.
So you have booked an overnight stay, with dinner, at your preferred hotel. Shortly before you are due to arrive, you receive an email containing your own personalised dinner menu – unique to you and featuring dishes and ingredients that are among your absolute favourites. That has to make you feel good, right? To feel like the hotel truly values you as a customer?
Your hypothetical hotel can do all this because it has tracked your dining habits on previous visits. The chefs can use that information to make up your personal menu. It is the sort of data-driven personalised service and omnichannel customer relationships which are already familiar in the luxury industry; but less so in hospitality.
Why is this? Leaving aside any questions around GDPR and other data usage regulations, the main issue is that hotel chains do not “own” a large proportion of their customers, and so they are unable to harvest the level of data that can drive personalisation.
When it comes to digital transformation, the hospitality industry is trying to play catch-up. We are not ‘digital natives’; and we gave the power we had over our brands to third parties in the form of the OTAs (online travel agents). We need these customer relationships more than ever; but we do not have the means to build something, because in many cases we do not know who the customers actually are.
"Where the hotel operators have the killer advantage, of course, is the “offline” experience – in other words, the customer’s actual stay. It is bridging the gap between this and the “online” experience that I believe will allow operators to start winning back the primary customer relationship"
The customers are ‘owned’ by the OTAs, since they are the ones collecting the data. Without it, there is no possibility to upsell or do remarketing. We cannot personalise services – we do not even know their birthdays in order to surprise them with a little gift on the day.
The chance to play a part in driving this change is one of the major factors that drew me back to Les Roches (having first joined the school in 1996) to lead the MBA specialisation in Hospitality Entrepreneurship and Business Development. It is a specialisation that plays precisely to the leadership gap the industry must close if it is to recapture these all-important customer relationships, and then feed off the wealth of data they generate. And while those seeking a more comprehensive digital transformation toolbox may opt for our Master’s in Hospitality Strategy and Digital Transformation, having a specialisation such as this also gives MBA students the opportunity to develop a strong foundation in this all-important area.
I had an email recently from one of our MBA graduates, and he revealed the kinds of questions hotels are now asking management recruits: how are you going to transform my hotel? How will you create experiences that will make the customers come back? And, as a leader, how will you convince others in your team to follow you as you try bold new ideas to move the company forwards? This is exactly what we are trying to instil in our students.
Where the hotel operators have the killer advantage, of course, is the “offline” experience – in other words, the customer’s actual stay. It is bridging the gap between this and the “online” experience that I believe will allow operators to start winning back the primary customer relationship. From there, hotels can rebuild the brand loyalty that has been damaged by the more commodified, price-led marketplace of the OTAs.
"The good news is that the customer loyalty problem is recognised and the fightback is already under way"
I say to my students that when someone goes to the bank for a loan, the bank manager needs to understand that this is not about the pure financial transaction; the customer is fulfilling a dream to buy a house, or a car. He or she needs to feed that dream; to make it happen.
The same should be true for hospitality. When people go to a hotel they want to feel appreciated and remembered. Our industry needs to move away from the 20th century perception that the product is king and focus more on the entire experience. How does the customer feel about being there? It is about listening rather than being the one doing the talking. The hotel operator might think of the guest stay as a purely commercial transaction; and after the customer has paid their bill and walked out the relationship is over. But this would be a mistake, because forging a lifelong relationship with the customer could be very valuable.
The good news is that the customer loyalty problem is recognised and the fightback is already under way. Having initially neglected their online offerings, many operators are now using the internet as a genuine shop window, deploying technologies such as virtual reality room walk-throughs, automated chatbots and other devices to draw customers towards direct bookings (often with the promise of an OTA price match or even better deal).
And as they embrace the potential of digital transformation, operators are trying new techniques such as “programmatic personalisation”, where customer data feeds algorithms to personalise the stay – in much the same that the online banner advertising we see when visiting websites is often programmed according to our likes and habits. Hilton has been among the pioneers of this approach with its Connected Room application, which has since benefited from a tie-up with entertainment streaming platform Netflix, enabling guests to access their personal Netflix accounts when staying in a Connected Room.
The next step is for these algorithms to become even cleverer, by using elements of artificial intelligence. Based on previous stays, the hotel can work out what the customer tends to choose from the menu, and use that knowledge to create a bespoke menu. As well as creating the wow factor, this can also help the kitchen to reduce food waste, because they have a pre-ordered meal to create. The same works for rooms – as a hotelier, I know what you have booked before; so I can use this information to propose something similar. Soho House is one operator that does this very well for its members.
The race is on, and the technologies available today and tomorrow have put the industry in a unique position of opportunity. There is arguably never been a better time to get involved with the business of hospitality if you want to make your mark as a leader and innovator.