Innovating apps for the post-COVID guest

Guest expectations have changed. Health and safety are at the forefront with hotel protocols leading the charge. But with that, technology has followed suit. Contactless operations, QR codes and smart technology are all buzzwords in 2021, but how should hotels innovate while also keeping up with these new demands?

Laura Graves, managing director, Devbridge Group, has experience in this area and shared some of her knowledge. Graves leads a cross-functional team of product management, product design and business development professionals. She has also worked with hospitality clients to build apps that enable self-service to improve the customer service process.  

“We are seeing many innovations to improve contactless communications between guests and hotels to enhance safety,” said Graves. “Hotel chains have implemented digital check-ins and checkouts to avoid waiting in line and improve overall efficiency. Hotels now offer contactless services as standard operating procedure, including parking reservations, room service, itinerary planning and even pick-up time slots for prepackaged continental breakfasts.”

But these developments come with some challenges.

“While bugs and glitches will always happen, a well-built solution will fail gracefully,” Graves said. “For example, if the check-in process can’t be completed, the mobile app should direct the user to an alternate path like a phone number or physical location of a kiosk or person who can help the guest complete the process. This is a small example of a larger challenge when moving to contactless service. Hotels and hospitality businesses, in general, will have to find new ways to make the guest feel they are being taken care of.”

Graves said that for most major hotel chains, mobile apps are nothing new. Both resorts and hotels associated with theme parks and attractions have seen the adoption of RFID-enabled wristbands for keyless entry and payments pre-pandemic.

“However, last year the pandemic spurred wider adoption of hotel apps by a broader group of users,” she said. “The pandemic also created completely new needs that can be serviced through an app, such as work from hotel as a way to get a change of scenery, contact tracing and basic health screenings, supporting social distancing by booking amenity services like reserving a parking spot, ordering room service and selecting time slots for hot tubs and pool areas.”

Graves did have some recommendations when it comes to these apps and what innovators can improve upon. Because, after all, it all comes down to creating the best guest experience.

“First, when you’re thinking about innovation, start by asking yourself what general needs and wants your guests have,” she said. “Where are the areas with the greatest friction or a current success that can be doubled down on? Before you jump to how to solve this using an app, think more broadly about the best way to address the customer need. Second, consider other commonly used applications. Whether it’s for entertainment, controlling smart-home devices, messaging or eCommerce, customers’ expectations are anchored in tools. If you build a similar feature into your app, what are the common patterns you should replicate to make it easier for users to know how to find or use the feature for the first time?”

Customer satisfaction and fulfilling wants and needs are paramount—as they have always been—and leveraging guest data appropriately can be a smart way to maintain a healthy guest experience.

“Leveraging data can help drive a more personalized experience, but nobody is comfortable feeling like their every move is being monitored by a hotel’s marketing department,” Graves said. “It’s important to establish boundaries so guests feel comfortable and relaxed. So, make it easy for guests to understand how you’re using the data and allow them to opt-in or out.”

Some hotel brands are making strides in guest services, innovating with creative ways to bring in customers. Graves highlighted work from hotel packages, supporting guests through COVID-testing requirements and integrating health-screening requirements by destination into their digital products to help reduce barriers to traveling.

“We expect the entire world will be ready for a vacation post-pandemic and hotels should be prepared to with digital offerings as bookings begin to increase,” she said. “Lower volumes of travelers, while generally unfavorable for the industry, provide an opportunity to roll out features and get early feedback from a small group of beta users.”

However, she noted, customers don’t have any tolerance for outdated or “user-unfriendly” apps and tech, and brands should use this time to invest in technologies that work for all.

“Don’t forget that innovation is not just for your guests, it’s also for your employees to enable them to better serve your customers,” Graves said. “Routine tasks related to hotel operations that can be simplified using technology frees up time for team members to be available to your guests. Everything from streamlining staff scheduling to IoT enabled predictive maintenance for amenities will help brands drive better employee and guest experiences in the future.”