In all areas, personalization is changing the hotel experience

NATIONAL REPORT—The hospitality industry is always looking for ways to enhance the guest experience. Personalization is the way to accomplish this, and technology is helping to do this in a variety of ways. While properties are deploying these solutions more often, there’s still a need for additional refinement.

“I strongly believe personalization will play a big part in the hotel booking process in the future,” said Patrick Bosworth, co-founder and CEO of Duetto. “Personalizing the guest experience will help hotels connect better with their guests, earn loyalty and direct business. However, the fragmented nature of the hotel technology landscape is preventing hotels from making real progress on this today. For personalization to work, hotels must be reliant on their tech partners—mainly the PMS, CRM and IBE—to communicate in the right language and seamlessly and safely share data, and this has proven to be much more challenging than expected.”

Just like in other verticals, the personalization bug has hit the hospitality industry hard. The majority of hospitality groups are leveraging the data they have to provide personalized services to guests.

“From the initial offer to post-departure interactions, the personalization of the guest journey is consistently among the most important differentiators,” said Agilysys Director of Product Marketing Robert Shecterle. “Based upon the maturity of the relationship with the guest, personalization must be embraced at every stage. For new guests, we must begin by considering personalization based upon guest type (families, leisure or business travelers) to infer expected preferences. During the stay, we can build upon these inferences with experiential data from on-property behaviors. For return guests, it is critical to be able build upon knowledge from prior stays that combines data about preferences learned at every interaction across the property, from initial room selection and upgrades, to activities selected and F&B choices, as well as personal celebrations. In order to be of value throughout the guest journey, this personal preference information must be available to hotel staff at all times based upon a common guest profile. Understanding housekeeping needs as well as preferred activities and food allergies must all be presented at the appropriate times for it to be actionable.”

As the focus on personalization in the industry continues to grow, there’s an increasing need to balance personalization with privacy. The question then becomes this: Can personalization be too intrusive?

“With the movement toward big data, particularly the collection and retention of guest preference and historical data, the industry is properly positioned to take full advantage of personalization in the relationship with its guests,” said Warren Dehan, president of Maestro PMS. “Property technology that allows for easy and detailed collection of guest data at every touchpoint, while centralizing it in a core profile repository, is the direction the industry needs to continue moving in to meet the demand head on. Fully integrated PMS systems that encompass critical areas on property (PMS, spa, activities, services, restaurant, email itinerary, etc.) compete best in helping operators in the fast-paced personalized marketplace. The fine line between personalization and ‘creepy’ must always be considered, but that is a hotel operations consideration; the data is there to choose how to engage the guest. The fine line between just enough personalized service and an invasion of privacy can be managed well with the right PMS technology tools in place that integrate the operations across all departments in an unobtrusive and service-oriented manner.”

Even though there’s been a keen focus on personalization, the hospitality industry still has a lot to learn, especially when it comes to leveraging the data properties acquire on a daily basis.

“I think the industry continues to evolve in this segment,” said Eric Marlo, director of business development & customer relations, the Americas, DigiValet Inc. “Now, more than ever, technology plays an integral role in personalization by delivering key statistics and trend data to hotel operators, truly giving them all the tools they need at their fingertips. From profile data to backend reporting, the information is nothing short of an encyclopedia of knowledge that allows properties to really drive personalization and create memorable experiences… We believe that data plays an enormous role in the ability to truly understand our guests, learn their likes and dislikes, and see what really excites them. Our data gives the property firsthand information that allows them to really wow their guest. In addition, we can drive personalization through many other layers, from custom developed welcome scenes to saved TV channel preferences that follow the guests across properties—our analytics can allow for a variety of opportunities for hoteliers to pull from the data to offer a customized experience to each and every guest. And the industry is really starting to look at that.”

The guest experience

While personalization through data has been around for many years in the industry and elsewhere, it still hasn’t been fully implemented properly in the guest experience—for various reasons.

“The industry still has not made great progress on personalization of the guest experience,” said Alex Shashou, co-founder and president of Alice. “Most guests are completely unrecognizable to hotel staff when they arrive at the property. The data exists, but is spread out between siloed pieces of software, so it is very difficult to use in real time. In order for hotels to be able to personalize the experience, they must first put in a foundation for operating through software. This means unifying all of their departmental work onto one platform such that the data can be used by staff as they work for the guest.”

Even though the industry has plenty of data on its guests, using it correctly and in a way that’s pragmatic is what matters and will deliver results for hoteliers. “With the right data at their fingertips, hotel staff could make a guest feel remembered and important,” Shashou said. “Currently, a guest might feel like a commodity, one of many. Whereas if a concierge was able to look up what that guest did on their last stay with the hotel (or another sister property), then the hotel could in turn use that information to spark a dialogue with their guests around their past behavior and preferences.”

Data collection enables hoteliers to connect with guests on a personal level instead of applying the same rules to everybody.

“For the most part, it’s about deeply understanding each guest, and learning about their individual wants and needs as a guest,” Marlo said. “Not only that, but we need to understand how those wants and needs shift and change from one stay to the next. One of the reasons why DigiValet integrates into so many different property systems is because we want to be able to deliver as much opportunity for personalization as we can to the hotelier. If data shows us that a particular guest prefers their room set at a certain temperature, we can capture that in their profile and preset the room to their desired temperature prior to arrival. We can also address certain profile requests, such as hypoallergenic bedding, extra pillows, or even dimmer lighting on entry. Taking that further, if we know the guest enjoys a particular type of cuisine, we can create a custom amenity specifically around that preference to really wow the guest. Little moments like that really play a huge role in driving loyalty and guest satisfaction to guests, and they ensure a return.”

The guest experience varies from property to property, and expectations are different among chain scales. These differences are what can make implementing personalization technology difficult.

“Guest expectations will differ across various properties based on the service level of a property; a highway hotel will not set expectations the way a city hotel or resort would,” Dehan said. “However, from a service point of view, any modern hotel should provide timely and helpful email communications pre- and post-stay; a full-service property should offer the ability to not only use an in-room phone to order services or ask for assistance, but should offer the ability to do these things via tablets or the guest’s own device. Even the top luxury hotel chains offer little more than an in-room tablet and some ability to choose your room during the check-in process. The story of Las Vegas properties with Amazon Echos (Alexa) and full two-way text communications are still a novelty, not an expectation. Those hotels continue to succeed, however, based on the service delivery, not their technology delivery. The use of technology is best when it is transparent, effortless and noninvasive.”

In order to provide guests with personalized experiences, the infrastructure must be in place and, if it isn’t, the property must make a decision on whether the investment would provide an ROI.

“A robust PMS, tightly integrated with other systems, is required to enable staff to put the guest at the center of every decision,” Shecterle said. “But when it comes to guest experience management-enabling technology solutions, operators should not rely solely on the past as a reliable predictor of the future. As an industry, the assumptions we made even five years ago have become obsolete by the demands of the present. Mobility and guest self-service have rapidly become required parts of our technology architecture. With change being the only true constant, flexibility and agility in technology solutions must be the foundation of any guest experience management tech strategy.”

Meeting expectations

“Guests now expect to be able to communicate on their own platforms and without having to pick up the phone if it is inconvenient to do so,” Shashou said. “At Alice, we have seen the most growth in guest communication and satisfaction through messaging. It is so much easier to text a hotel than call them, explain who you are, and then what you need. Additionally, not all requests can be completed in real time, so messaging affords the hotel staff the opportunity to execute the request and then confirm later in time. Unlike email, it is more real time, more personable and can open up a dialogue as questions arrive.”

Some solutions are targeting guests on a personalized level when it comes to booking reservations or personalized pricing, but even then, there are challenges.

“Our products enable hotels to set discrete, dynamic prices for each channel and segment, which enables them to offer tailored discounts to various segments of customers,” Bosworth said. “We’ve seen hotels make great strides at creating value for their known customers in their database and loyalty marketing campaigns, but it’s falling short of a true, personalized one-on-one experience. In that regard, we’ve made more progress among casino resorts, which are much further along in their ability to offer creative personalized pricing. With our Duetto Rate Engine, casinos can now allow loyalty members who have earned discounts or comps through their play to book their rooms at a personalized price through the casino marketing department. This is a real game changer for casinos and has allowed them to introduce more dynamic player reward programs that increase profitability and remove extra friction in the booking process. On the hotel side, we’re still working hard toward personalized pricing, but we’ve hit more challenges and roadblocks than we expected, particularly because hotel CRSs and booking engines cannot merchandise and fulfill one-on-one bookings.”

Being proactive is becoming more important than reactive. “It’s not enough, however, to be able to react in real time to guest needs,” Shecterle said. “In today’s hypercompetitive market, properties must find a way to get ahead of guest trends to take advantage of the opportunities they present. A robust guest profile combined with common demographic data provides the foundation to begin to anticipate guest needs thorough predictive analytics. The ability to find trends in behaviors and preferences based upon guest characteristics and other external data, such as seasonality and even weather patterns, can uncover unexpected predictions regarding receptivity to targeted offers as well as on-property spend. Predictive analytics provides the opportunity to more accurately target and serve both returning and new guests based upon calculated probabilities of success.”

“Currently, the entire travel journey for the hotel is siloed,” Shashou said. “The biggest gap right now is that the booking experience (and technologies) is completely disconnected from the on-stay experience. This is primarily because for the last two decades, most of the hotel and its staff were offline. As operations continues its shift online, I think we will soon see a guest be able to navigate their entire experience in a connected fashion where booking technologies are able to offer on property engagement by connecting into platforms such as Alice.”

The impact of voice

One newer channel for hotels to connect with guests to create a personalized experience is through voice-enabled controls. But not everybody in the industry is bullish on voice—for now, anyway. Even though many admit there are opportunities to deploy voice-enabled technologies, there are still reservations.

When asked if voice-enabled technologies play a role in the guest’s communication with a property, Dehan replied, “Very little or none.”

He added, “Voice technology does not provide service; it provides convenience and further separates the guest from the service experience (and the self-service functions of asking for a WiFi password, or another towel, do not seem to be enough of a draw to rate as good service). Voice technology is becoming ubiquitous. In addition to Amazon’s Echo and Google Assistant, people have been using voice technology in their smartphones for years. Now that speaker systems, TVs and other in-home voice technologies are becoming more prevalent, travelers are accustomed to this technology where they have full control over it. In a hotel environment, the experience is a little different, since the guest does not control the configuration or privacy setting of the property’s device. With issues around privacy and the real value of what these devices can currently do, hotels may be promoting the novelty and service abilities of voice, but we are not there yet, and it does not improve the guest experience.”

While there are hotel properties testing voice, the technology is still relatively new; deploying it at scale is where things become a bit more difficult. “Voice is still very early but has a bright future,” Shashou said. “It is a complement to existing offerings and when integrated into the operation, as Volara is with Alice for example, it can become quite a powerful tool. A guest can just ask a question and it will be fulfilled by staff. Longer term, I’ve seen some interesting conversations from hotel CIOs around how voice can help them understand guest preferences and missed opportunities. What they mean by this is that currently a guest can only ask for services that are offered “on the menu.” With voice, a guest is not limited in their imagination. They could ask for anything. Just because it is not offered today, with enough data points, a hotel could decide to add it to the offering for tomorrow.”

Tech evolution

Even though every company could be considered a technology company in today’s world, many in the industry are paying close attention to what the tech companies are doing with personalization.

“Companies like Google and Salesforce are starting to show legit interest in assisting travelers in the research and booking process, and this will only accelerate a transformation,” Bosworth said. “Salesforce is the world’s strongest CRM platform and, as it partners with more hotel companies, we’ll see a greater ability of hotels to create more tailored experiences throughout the customer journey. Google continues to develop its tools, and I think it’s still in the very earliest phases of its potential to create unique experiences for customers that are planning travel.”

For many, the future of personalization begins before the property. “One thing we’re looking at closely is how to further drive personalization at the welcome,” Marlo said. “Currently, at one of our hotel partners in London, we’re able to offer an industry-first welcome experience. We’ve enabled the front desk to determine the guest’s mood at check-in, and then push through a specific welcome scene inclusive of full color lighting, music, and more to the room in real time, prior to guest entry. This means that each guest will receive a custom welcome experience based specifically off of their mood at the time of check-in. Guests coming in off a long flight who are more tired or relaxed will receive a more soothing color lighting scheme and music, versus a more energetic guest receiving a bolder lighting color schematic with more upbeat music.”

The future of personalization solutions incorporates many of the newer technologies, including facial recognition and augmented reality.

“Facial recognition, in limited use already, stands to provide the ability to provide improved guest service (recognition, payments, security) but we still have to deal with privacy concerns,” Dehan said. “Augmented reality is another potential boon for hotels, allowing guests to experience rooms, amenities and activities before booking or committing to them, which can improve both adoption and guest satisfaction. Robots in various forms are also now a reality in hotels combining voice and facial recognition into a powerful guest service delivery mechanism. Ultimately, all these technologies require appropriate and broad data about the guests and the PMS will still be the focal point to feed data to all these systems, supporting exciting innovations to engage with the guest (whether mobile, desktop or voice) and capture more guest information as they use their technology around the hotel.” HB