INTERNATIONAL REPORT—In the most recent installment of Hotel Business’ virtual platform, Hot Topics, panelists from the hospitality, publishing and technology industries discussed the “new normal” as it relates to the guest experience, and if the changes are temporary or here for the long term,
Titled “Personal Touch or Personal Space: Exploring a Contactless Future,” sponsored by The Wall Street Journal and moderated by Hotel Business Associate Editor Abby Elyssa, the session featured panelists Nan Cummings, COO, InterMountain Management; Chuck Huang, CEO/founder, Citcon; Michael Levie, COO, citizenM; Ben Mackness, VP, The Wall Street Journal; and Brian McGuinness, SVP, global guest experience, shared services, IHG Hotels & Resorts.
Before the pandemic, hotel brands were already introducing contactless technology such as mobile check-in and checkout and keyless entry. Mackness noted that “COVID has just sort of accelerated that.”
Contactless technology will allow some hotel employees time to do more for the guests, noted McGuinness. “When you take the transactional piece out of the guest service agent’s day, it actually frees them to be more like a docent that you would find in a museum or a concierge,” he said. “It’s more of that moment of being more free to talk to the guests about why they’re on their journey, what they’re doing in the market, do they need reservations, do they want to know where the best running or hiking trail is vs. them swiping a credit card, signing a registration card, filling out a folio, etc.”
He added, “Oftentimes, people think that when we bring big tech into a hotel, we may lose jobs. We think it will create jobs because it’s actually going to free up that person to be hospitable. That’s the business we’re in. We’re not in the business of transacting credit cards; we’re in the business of welcoming guests, creating a great guest experience, offering that gin and tonic or the drink that the customer likes, in being proactive in our approach to the customer. We think that anything touchless along the way is great.”
At citizenM, implementing contactless technology has enabled the brand to create new ways to interact with guests.
“I built in certain touchpoint moments,” said Levie. “We do barista-made coffee; we don’t have coffee machines that the guests operate themselves. That’s a lovely engagement moment. I even started in the process of engaging like, ‘How much milk do you want?,’ ‘Do you want me to foam it up?,’ ‘Do you like it extra hot?’ It’s that type of engagement that makes you feel at home. It’s like a different type of conversation than ‘Can I have your credit card, Mr. Jones?’ and registering—things that should have been done already way upstream and that nobody wants to deal with anymore.”
He pointed out that the hotel industry is not one for wholesale changes. “If you just have technology, but you don’t change your business process, you have absolutely nothing, you’ve changed nothing,” the citizenM executive said. “And in our industry, we fight changing business models because we’ve always done it like that. I think that we need to get out of that and now is the time to do that because we have time to rethink it. We have time to test it. You know there are a handful of people unfortunately in our hotels, and let’s test it out and tell people, ‘I’m testing It. Help me. What do you think?’ It is amazing what you’ll see. Then you need to accelerate with the consistency of rolling it out in all your properties so that your frequent and loyal guests can rely on it.”
As the technology executive on the panel, Huang offered ways a mobile platform can be used in and out of the property. “If you have the mobile platform enabled, you can engage with your customers way before they check in,” he said. “Inside the property, through the mobile, you can notify [customers] when the coffee or a meal is ready, or they can order food or can be notified when cleaning is done, all those kinds of things. Even after checkout, you can still have a lot of other engagements.”
On the topic of how the industry will recover after the COVID-19 vaccine gets distributed throughout the population, Cummings said that many of the travelers in her company are ready to head to the airport. “We grounded everybody for about 10 weeks and have a handful of them that can’t wait to get back on a plane,” she said.
McGuinness believes, as most others do, that “leisure comes back first and builds, and then you’ll see business come back and build, and then you’ll see group.”
He continued, “Once this vaccine starts to roll and there’s this sense that there’s some safety because, in general, that will provide some level of comfort, I think it comes back pretty quickly on the leisure side. I think there’s pent-up demand. I think people are over it.”
Mackness noted, “The drive-to markets must be almost rubbing their hands in anticipation, I imagine. I was reading or heard that only 60% of people are really willing to take the vaccine anyway. So, there is some skepticism around it and the effectiveness…but I think the vaccine will help. I think the drive-to locations will see perhaps the biggest spike initially, and then it will go to business and group. I think we’re all sort of crossing our fingers really.”
Levie had a somewhat different take. “Recovery has nothing to do with the crisis itself, but has to do with how deep the crisis hit everybody,” he said. “There is a huge financial impact that impedes people. So, leisure travel will come back first but, don’t forget, everybody feels this in their pocket no matter what. When things start to recover, it will be slow and it will be different than we anticipate, but that’s OK as long as there is recovery.”
He added, “That it will recover, there is no doubt in my mind because everybody has such a short-lived memory and everybody wants to go back to the rat race we were in. And I’ve seen that many times with attacks and other types of disasters where people go, ‘I’m not gonna put my life at risk’ and 10 minutes later, you look around and you’re like, ‘Yo, what happened?’ and everybody is back.”
Going back to the subject of guest-facing technology, Levie believes hospitality is a step behind other industries. “We’re still too much in the glitter phase,” he said. “We have a little sparkle that we think is already cute, but we are not consistent in the delivery of what our guests are able to get when they go to any other industry.”
McGuinness pointed out that what technology works—and what doesn’t—should be somewhat decided by the guests. “One of the key areas here too is also choice; giving the control to the customer,” he said. “‘How do you want to interact with us? Do you want to do completely keyless and remote check-in and bypass the front desk and go right to your room and never see an associate? Or, do you want to come through the lobby and see it?’”
Levie agreed: “We need to provide all the options and let the guests choose at the time they want to choose. Why? Simply because they want control over things. So it’s locked in. They have their timing under control. That’s what it’s all about. You will see them pick it up. They will eat it all up.”
Another way technology can improve the way the industry works, according to McGuinness, is the creation of trip persona databases.
“When I’m on [a business trip], I typically come in late, go to bed early, [have] something for breakfast quickly and I’m off to a meeting. If I’m in for leisure for three days, I might want a different amenity. I would be on a different schedule and might not be as rigid with my time frame. If we can get rich data and build out these databases for customer centricity, I think that would be a huge [advancement].”