How high-tech complements high-touch

By John Lombardo

Anyone who has used a PMS (property management system) is likely familiar with the “Tape Chart,” a digital presentation of the status and specific occupancy of guestrooms.

One of my first positions out of hotel school in 1978 was with RockResorts at Caneel Bay in St. John USVI at The Cinnamon Bay Campground. We had a tape chart back then to block specific campsite locations (our rooms) consisting of a large plywood board painted white with the dates written across the top and the tent site locations along the side; we had different colored sticky tape (representing tentative and definite status) that we cut to the appropriate length and there was enough width on the tape to write the guest’s name and phone number (no email back then). As dates and other information changed, we would reposition the lengths of tape on the board as needed to maximize occupancy. (The board fell off the wall once, spraying tacky strips of reservation details all over the floor which took several days to reconstruct!). While this system is archaic by today’s standards, it did have a significant benefit that distinguished it—there was only one system to deal with, and we talked to our customers at every step along the process.

Over time, systems became very advanced including turnkey/self-contained software, as well as apps and independent add-ons that interfaced in various ways, all designed to make the various steps involved in a guest’s stay faster and more efficient. As technology advanced, it was often at a more rapid pace than ownership and management understood; some unfortunate and usually unprepared staffer was assigned the responsibility of coordinating all the software and hardware and eventually the “IT Guy” position was born (next to relief night auditor, possibly the hardest position in the hotel to fill).  This progress came with some baggage however:

  • Training became more difficult due to numerous platforms that had to be learned
  • Programs that supposedly “interfaced” often did not work as advertised
  • Employees became hyper-focused on their computer monitors, often not making anticipatory eye contact with guests
  • As restaurant dining increased, reservations were input by guests or staff into an online system vs. calling the restaurant directly
  • The advent of OTAs like Booking.com, Expedia and Airbnb added an entirely new dimension to the reservations process that required a significant amount of management
  • Popularity of online review platforms Tripadvisor, Yelp and recently Google required a new time commitment to keep up with the responses to guest surveys and online comments, which guest studies proved were valued more than the traditional ratings like AAA and Mobil.
  • More travel meant more lost and found calls and the ensuing game of tag when trying to get the guest connected with the right contact, consuming an inordinate amount of time.
  • Employees who were not confident in the various systems spent more time calling the front desk or the IT person for an answer
  • Marketing data was spread out over numerous sources, often configured in slightly different ways

The diagram below represents the various IT systems I encountered in 2015 as general manager of a very successful 4-star independent resort; what had been created over time was a mixture of systems that created issues like those mentioned above. The image can be uploaded here.

In response to my specific situation, I established the mantra “High Tech to be High Touch” which was the basis for evaluating the issue and making decisions; employees—especially hourly—were consulted to identify what the significant pain points were. The objective was clearly communicated, that the purpose of technology was to allow us to spend MORE interpersonal time with the guests. Point #1 in my advice:

  • Take stock of what systems you have, chart it out and indicate what the various systems do, which ones talk to each other successfully, etc. Be honest about how good the system is.
    o   In addition to what you have, indicate functionality for what you WANT; if you want all email addresses or mobile phone numbers located in a single information silo, put it on the chart that way.
    o   Diligently pursue the best system(s) available, while keeping them at a minimum; check references with other users and conduct an in-depth demo before committing
    In the case noted above, the following measures lead to vast improvements:
  • Incoming phone calls were recorded and reviewed regularly; in addition to identifying employee training issues, a very organic understanding of what the guests wanted to know became clearer. One glaring fact that stood out is the inherent inefficiency (and guest frustration) resulting from transferring guest calls from one department to another. Simply having the employee do two things makes a significant impact: 1) Let the guest know “I’m going to transfer you to the restaurant, but I won’t disconnect from your call until I know there is someone in on the line to help you;” and 2) relating the issues to the next employee and sharing the guest’s name so that when they pick up they use verbiage like “Hello Ms. Adams this is John in the restaurant; my colleague Beth at the front desk filled me in on your request, I’ll help you now”.
  • At one point I was personally answering all guest comments from Tripadvisor et al. This became an all-consuming task that was not getting done properly; after interviewing several companies, the survey process was turned over to an outside professional entity, utilizing responses that we approved and where we had the ability to customize if needed. We also established that severe comments came directly to me. All guest feedback started going out in 24-48 hours and we received summary reports that could be shared easily with staff or could easily be seen by logging in to the portal.
  • Housekeeping attendants were able to update room statuses from the guestroom telephone by taking advantage of an existing feature in our PMS that was not being used; this not only had the effect of getting the guests into their rooms more quickly, it cut down on constant phone calls and radio contact between front desk and housekeeping that was frustrating to the staff.
  • Housekeeping supervisors were outfitted with smart devices that connected them to the live PMS so information was available on-the-fly including early check-in and late check-out requests resulting in a much smoother transition of room cleaning and guest satisfaction. This also allowed housekeeping management to see which guests were registered but not checked in so that rooms could be prioritized without a litany of communications back and forth at the busiest time of the day.
  • Several Lost & Found apps were tested, and we chose one that one many major airports use. Rather than trying to designate an active operating department to manage the lost and found queries, any employee can log a lost or found item into the cloud-based system with description, relevant information and images, as well as where the item is being stored. All guests are directed to this system by either staff or on the hotel website where they can inquire for specific tags (watch, ring, earrings etc.) and log their contact information which automatically triggers if the tag is registered to a found item in the future. Mailing of claimed items is even processed through the system, in summary taking a huge burden off the staff and replacing it with a much better guest-facing solution.
  • Marketing to the guests through email (which was the dominant contact method at the time) was hampered because there were multiple sources of data; restaurant guests through OpenTable; hotel guests through PMS; sales/catering guests through a separate PMS module; spa guests and fitness center members through two different programs. We had tens of thousands of guest contacts in our various systems, yet we were not being effective at pushing out relevant marketing information to them because the marketing staff felt paralyzed at how to handle what was in effect a data management issue; we had what political scientist Herb Simon called, “A wealth of information leads to a poverty of attention.”
    Upon scrutiny of the data, it was discovered that there were multiple entries of the same person in the room reservation module which effectively created multiple records for the same person. Computers think in binary code, a series of 1s and 2s, so Bruce Smith at 2 Main Street is perceived as a different person than B. Smith at 2 Main Street. Due to carelessness at the point of entry, there were literally thousands of duplicate guest records created.
    To remedy, the “Merge Records” feature of the PMS system was used to reduce the data to one record per actual guest and training was done with staff on how to recognize existing guest records before creating new ones.
    As an overall approach, the different silos of information were cleaned up and de-duped, errant email addresses fixed through an excel search and replace command for common mistakes like omitting the extension on emails ([email protected]), or using a comma instead of a period  ([email protected],com) which were alarmingly large in frequency.

Once all the databases were “scrubbed,” they were transferred into the email marketing or CRM (Customer Relationship Management) platform (like Constant Contact, MailChimp, SalesForce, ACT!, etc.) with common headers and tags noting what marketing group(s) they were associated with so that communication to the entire world of data could be done, or to a very specific subset of guests, like hotel guests who brought a pet dog on their visit. This flexibility allowed numerous successful campaigns to be launched along with specific details about open and read rates, etc.

The point I want to underscore is characterized by American writer Clay Shirky, “It’s not information overload, its filter failure.” Assigning the ongoing data management task to the right person or third party is critical; operational management and in-house creative marketing staff are usually not the right skill set for this type of work. Effectively managing the data can reap significant rewards.

John Lombardo is a certified hotel administrator (CHA) and graduate of Cornell University School of Hotel Administration. He has more than four decades of experience managing hotels, resorts and catering operations.

This is a contributed piece to Hotel Business, authored by an industry professional. The thoughts expressed are the perspective of the bylined individual.