Science & tech Tourism & hospitality

Perfecting preferences

The hotel sector has long collected huge amounts of customer data. However, the argument has been made that many have underused it, failing to deliver the personalisation of service that guests increasingly demand. How can operators better access and leverage the information they hold? Jonathon Wardman, VP of CRM at Hilton Worldwide, Remy Merckx, VP marketing EMEA at Carlson Rezidor, and Riko van Santen, VP digital strategy & distribution at Kempinski, tell Abi Millar what constitutes a best-in-class strategy.

As hotels become increasingly high-tech – the concierge replaced with digital check-in, or the porter with a robot butler – one common lament is that hospitality is losing its personal touch. Remove human interaction from the equation, the complaint goes, and the guest experience becomes unfriendly and homogeneous, with little to differentiate one hotel from the next.

However, this is to ignore a trend that has been gathering pace across all industries, namely personalisation. If a company can gather enough data, and can find ways to sift through it intelligently, it should in theory be able to deliver a well-tailored service that treats each customer as an individual.

To take an example from the retail sector, we are all familiar with browsing Amazon and receiving book suggestions based on prior purchases. The same idea, when applied to hotels, could overturn the notion that high-tech means impersonal.

That said, what it might mean for hospitality isn’t necessarily obvious. For sure, it has implications for marketing, in that hotels might be able to follow Amazon’s example and target offers appropriately. Through remembering a customer’s ‘explicit and implicit’ preferences – both what they’ve said they like, and what similar guests have opted for – they can stay on the right side of the line between useful marketing and spam.

However, in an industry predicated on selling experiences, the customer journey clearly extends past the point of purchase. As hotels seek new ways to set themselves apart, the key question is how they might personalise actual services throughout the stay.

Getting personal

“Personalisation is the key ingredient to delivering more from the hospitality,” says Jonathon Wardman, VP of CRM at Hilton Worldwide. “From the point at which you’re looking at the website or calling our call centre, we should be building up a picture of who you are, so we can make our offering more relevant, consistent and timely.”

The principle behind personalisation has been in place for as long as there have been hotels. An operator’s success, arguably, comes down largely to how well they know their guests – what are their likes and dislikes and how well are you able to fulfill them? Back in the age of small, family-run inns, it made sense that owners would acquaint themselves with everyone who stepped through the door.

Still, that isn’t really an option in an era of large chains, which look after millions of people a year. For the Hiltons and Marriotts of this world, it is only very recently that personalisation has come to seem realistic. While each hotel guest does generate reams of data, it has mostly gone under-utilised, with no clear means of bringing it together or harvesting insights.

“There are multiple channels for the customers to interact with us – our customer website, the Hilton Honors app, email marketing, loyalty programmes, and multiple touchpoints on the property,” says Wardman. “What operators need to do more of, is to compile all the data in a single profile of the customer, which can be used on a need-to-know basis by different channels.”

“The key will be to ensure the data is relevant, accurate and usable – having a lot of data does not necessarily mean you have a lot of information,” adds Riko van Santen, VP digital strategy & distribution at Kempinski.

Aside from their own, disparate, online channels of engagement, hotels also need to consider the ubiquity of third-party booking platforms – how can they work with online travel agents, say, to glean information about guest preferences? Then there are all the ways the customer acts within the hotel itself. If they consistently order sparkling water rather than still water, for instance, how might you as a hotel chain remember that preference for next time round?

It falls to each operator to adapt its existing system architecture, ensuring its various teams are able to communicate and collaborate and that new digital technologies are able to access legacy data. This in turn means keeping a close eye on regulations, which vary from country to country.

“In terms of technical connectivity, integration needs to be robust and have the ability to cope with large data volumes but at the same time be agile enough to adapt to new opportunities,” says van Santen. “There are fundamental changes happening in both technology and guest behaviour, including block chain, wearable tech, internet of things.”

As Remy Merckx, VP marketing EMEA at Carlson Rezidor, points out, the real work is only just beginning.

“We need to understand what those data sources can do for us, and how can translate into actionable activities that help us address our customers,” he says. “It’s a matter of having the right technology to get access, and integrating all the data into a single system. This is a very extensive and difficult topic.”

That is not to say operators have shied away from the challenge. Already, many of them have introduced sophisticated modeling and analytics capabilities. For instance, if you’re looking to book a Carlson Rezidor hotel, the website will push better-tailored products towards you based on your search history.

“In the future, every single customer who comes back to our website will be able to see content specifically targeted towards them because that’s how we feel they’re going to be engaged,” says Merckx.

Hilton Worldwide follows a similar tack. Its goal is to make all interactions more meaningful and relevant, which means remembering what the guest has already told its customer service teams.

“We want to save time by not having to re-learn about you every time you interact with us, as recognition is a key concrete deliverable of personalised service,” says Wardman. “Especially if you’ve taken the initiative to join the loyalty club, Hilton Honors, we want to understand what your special requests are and deliver on the benefits you’ve chosen.”

Some of this personalisation is fully automated. For instance, smart room controls can ensure the temperature and lighting are in line with guest preferences. Location-sensitive beacons can alert guests to particular deals, such as a spa voucher as they’re passing nearby. Room inventory can be tracked through sensors and allow stock to be replenished in advance.

Recently, Hilton piloted Fun Finder, a feature for its HHonors app designed to assume the role of a personal travel guide. Guests fill in a short survey, which is used to customise suggestions for things to do throughout their visit. This has been described as a “huge leap forward for the hotel industry, with scope to give travelers “a smarter, more personalised stay”.

The extra mile

However, as Wardman sees it, data and analytics are only the first two frontiers in personalisation, the third being people and processes. If a hotel is to achieve its ultimate aim of ‘surprising and delighting’ its guests, it will be necessary for the hotel staff themselves to deliver something extra.

“If you celebrated your anniversary or birthday in one of our hotels last year and you stayed again the same time this year, it would be great if that was recognised with a bottle of wine in your room or a ‘happy birthday / anniversary’ when you check in,” he says. “There are lots of ways to do this, and there’s not really one magic formula – it’s the perfect blend of data, technology to get the data where it needs to be, and humans to activate it.”

Of course, the big worry with personalisation is that it might be read as creepy or intrusive, and certainly a measure of discretion is required. That said, most guests are demonstrably happy for their data to be used in this way.

“There’s an explicit understanding that if you’re going to sign up to the loyalty programme we’re going to listen to your preferences and live up to the expectations you’re setting,” says Wardman. “Younger generations are not only OK with you having data about them, but they’re almost expecting you to use it. We’re finding the same with luxury customers, that they need to feel different and exceptional.”

Personalisation, after all, has no motive more shady than helping guests truly enjoy their stay, as well as alleviating the frustrations that arise when they don’t feel they’re being listened to. In an increasingly commoditised industry, it has scope to be the clincher that helps a guest remember your brand.

“At Rezidor we’re very clear, the guest data is only useful if it can be used to improve the customer experience,” says Merckx. “This is how we can differentiate a branded hotel from an unbranded hotel, or the hotel industry from the Airbnbs of the world – by delivering something better to the customer through leveraging their information in an appropriate way.”

This article appears in the Winter 2016 edition of Hotel Management International

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