Lessons from retail and for delivering on promises in a digital world

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Technology can play an important role in delighting the customer but it doesn’t mean that a travel companies should embrace all emerging opportunities without carefully evaluating possible implications.

Hotel companies are increasingly making smartphones an intricate part of the guest experience. Even at the time of check-in there is talk of giving the customer the ability to choose their room of preference using a smart phone.  In principle all that sounds great from a customer experience perspective, but hotel companies see certain limitations. As Paulo Salvador, executive vice president Europe, Middle East and Africa and vice president global marketing & sales at Worldhotels, points out: “We cannot guarantee that a guest will leave the room exactly the time the other guest will arrive.” So while there are plenty of reasons to get excited about giving the customer a choice, the decision-making at a hotel’s end must be balanced and pragmatic before making any promises.

EyeforTravel’s Ritesh Gupta hears from Salvador about how digital technology and tools are shaping the travel shopping experience what hotel companies can learn from the retail sector.

EFT: What new trends are emerging in the digital travel retail experience?

PS: All the new trends are related to mobility. Mobility is changing the way customers behave when they book (lead time is reducing and voice bookings are increasing), searches (now social media and social reputation matter) and the way they experience a property.

Lots of examples are available. Let’s consider just two. First consider hotel and airfare search site Hipmunk. It combines TripAdvisor and social media into the booking process and allows search featuring what people care about: cool places to be in the city, restaurants and so on. Second is HotelTonight; it is the first online booking engine for last-minute trips featuring last-minute deals only on mobile devices. Consumer can book last minute deals via mobile. 

EFT: How can technology lend a new dimension to the whole travel shopping experience today?

PS: Technology is improving the overall travel shopping experience and at the same time is bringing new challenges for the industry on the whole. Technology helps hotel to carve new paths to find a direct relationship with guests but rapidly everyday new intermediaries arrive that inflate the cost of distribution. Technology for hospitality is really about balancing opportunities and threats. I always say that individual hotels can no longer manage this balance alone. Unless the hotel has really a unique USP there is no possibility of remaining competitive without joining a network (a hotel group) that can help a hotel company to leverage new technologies in their favour. Today independent hotels have many choices to increase their competitiveness by joining hotel chains that offer not only technology and connectivity but also training and international sales. Only if the hotel belongs to a network of hotels it will remain competitive.

EFT: What sort of digital tools have the power to dramatically increase consumer engagement today?

PS: Rather than digital tools, I would refer to mention digital challenges that need to completely change the management behaviour of hotel companies. The most revolutionary site ever in the travel history to empower the customer engagement is TripAdvisor.  Nowadays a hotel can destroy its years and decades of good image and positioning if it ends up having recurrent bad feedback on TripAdvisor. Hoteliers need to have a clear understanding of how to manage social reputation and how to strengthen their reputation particularly when it comes to TripAdvisor.

The tip of the iceberg has just been visible with TripAdvisor. There is a lot more to come when Facebook moves toward travelling.

EFT: Offerings like augmented reality solutions have been around for a while. Have they lived up to their expectations in the travel planning and buying process?

PS: I always believed that augmented reality (AR) was the next revolution in travel. It’s been around for a while now. The access to this technology turned massive with the mobile revolution and investments from the big players like Google and Apple, and pioneering firms like Layar will take it to the next level. I still believe that AR holds a lot of promise but it’s still not yet reality in our industry.

EFT: How do you think smartphones today offer opportunities to improve upon the customer experience during various stages of a traveller’s journey?  

PS: Smartphones are perfect for travelling. But I think companies are developing apps the same way they develop desktop websites. It’s not the same thing. Smartphones users expect two extremes when they are travelling: extreme content – in other words the need for immediate answers when they look for ‘a restaurant to talk about business’ or ‘the jazz concert tonight in the city’ and they also seek extreme performance, ie: once they have access to the content they need to have direct access to book or to contact the provider of the service. In our case, they want to book a room even a few hours before check in and they want to make sure there will be a room available. Today we live in the era of the ‘three-screen’ world: Desktop website. Mobile website. Tablet website. Each of them requests a specific approach for delivering a desired customer experience.

EFT: How can hotels rely on technology to improve the value proposition of booking that takes place on a hotel website? 

PS: Sure. Recently we heard about Room 77 that via Google smart search technology allows guests to book the specific room they want. Also a chain like Hilton implemented this functionality for its Hilton Honors members. This not easy to implement because contrary to airplanes, hotels cannot guarantee that a guest will leave the room exactly the time the other guest will arrive. Also, there is a huge necessity to integrate hotels’ PMS with reservations systems and not all hotel chains in the world can do that as PMS standards vary from market to market. But I believe that value proposition of booking directly in the hotel website goes beyond the possibility to book a specific room number. Value proposition – together with good content and imagery - is the sum of small touch points. The first of these relates to price confidence. The second is the benefit a traveller gets when booking with the hotel website. Free Wifi, for example, is a great leverage. Third is the security and diverse means of payment for bookings. Lastly the customer needs to be recognised when he or she returns and they should not face the hassle of filling their information again.

EFT: There is talk of a new ‘5D’ platform that seamlessly connects a variety of digital devices in the retail environment for an interactive, personalised experience. What lessons can the travel industry learn from the retail sector?

PS: The travel industry, and in particular the hotel industry, has a lot to learn from the retail sector. There is a long lasting experience in the multi-channel environment as proven by the retail industry that for us in the hospitality is just starting. The multi-channel approach means that today the guest, like the retail customer, is treated by the company as an individual. His preferences should be top of the list no matter if he is connecting to the company via phone, Internet, mail or directly to the store or hotel property. Speaking of the Razorfish’s 5D Retail Experience Platform, it is promising for the retail industry and indeed it can achieve wonders for the hotel industry too. RFID also has been implemented in the retail sector and I know that many hotel chains have studied different usages for it as we call ‘contactless room keys’.  The future ahead of us is still full of opportunities when we talk about customer experience and technology.

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