Ms. Stevens

Sales & Marketing

Tech Boom or Tech Bust?

By Wendy Stevens, Executive Vice President, First Hospitality Group

The reality is that technology does have limits, and in an industry where personal connection and engagement play such a crucial role, it is worth asking just how far the benefits of technology really go-and what kinds of changes hoteliers will have to make to be able to use technology effectively without diminishing the people skills of employees and sacrificing essential elements that have long defined hospitality.

In other words: getting the most out of new tech tools also means appreciating not only how tech can help us, but how it can potentially hurt us. To use these tools, we have to understand them, and that understanding begins with knowing what they can do and what they can't do.

For example…

  • Sales and marketing professionals in the hospitality industry can use new tech tools to communicate and connect with clients with greater speed and precision than ever before. But does the efficiency and immediacy of an email outweigh the potential affront that a frustrated guest might feel when their concerns are addressed with bits and bytes instead of the empathic concern of a face-to-face encounter with a helpful concierge or GM?

  • Technology allows sales and marketing professionals to be more proactive and precise in their work, but opening the door to new markets and new customers is only half the battle. Working through the potential complexities of the new technology is critical to ensure success.

As we observe how technology has altered the hospitality landscape, we need to think hard about these questions and consider the impact of these trade-offs.

Be Our Guest

Guest review apps and websites like Trip Advisor have had a dramatic impact on the hotel industry. Customers have come to rely on them as a critical tool in the decision-making and hotel booking process, and successful hospitality professionals have learned to recognize and respond to that reality. Today, it is not just the leisure customer looking at these sites, it is a factor in business-to-business engagement, as well. More and more RFPs are asking hotels to provide Trip Advisor ratings and similar metrics. These resources can feel like a positive or a negative development, depending on what your online reviews are like, but from the point of view of a sales and marketing professional, the fact that brands are becoming more in touch with and responsive to their online reviews is a welcome development.

The reality is that customers value what their contemporaries say more than what the brands themselves say, and hotel owners and operators need to be cognizant of that dynamic.

Consider the remarkable statistic that 93% of hotel research is done online, and the even more eye-opening follow-up that 55% of those customers are looking to pull the trigger and make a reservation within the hour. A Bright Local consumer survey in 2016 found the following:

  • 84% of people trust online reviews as much as a personal recommendation

  • 90% of consumers read less than 10 reviews before forming an opinion about a business

  • 54% of people will visit the website after reading positive reviews

  • 73% of consumers think that reviews older than 3 months are no longer relevant

  • 74% of consumers say that positive reviews make them trust a local business more

  • 58% of consumers say that the star rating of a business is most important

Consumers are not just using reviews and rating sites, they trust them. They value the information they find there, and they are quick to form judgments and act on that information.

Monitoring and Engagement

A good review (or even a long history of good reviews) is important. But new information and recent activity on hotel review sites is even more important-especially when a guest has had a bad experience and is communicating those concerns. Experienced hotel owners and operators understand how critical it is to monitor these review channels, and the best use sophisticated new tools that track activity on all major sources.

This competitive virtual landscape has become so crowded that everyone is jockeying for position, and some properties that may once have been mainstays in the Trip Advisor Top 10, for example, now find themselves up against a crowded field of competitors who are all trying to get an edge in the battle for public perception.

Awareness is only half the battle, though. What hoteliers and their sales and marketing teams are doing to counteract those bad reviews when they happen is critical, too. Some forward-thinking operators maintain a dedicated professional whose sole responsibility is to monitor ratings and customer reviews and gather data and analytics in real time. The best hotel management companies have adopted detailed training, coaching and/or mentoring programs to ensure that every member of the team understands how important it is-and is trained and equipped to respond. The goal should be to identify the social media "champion" at each property. Ideally this is the GM, but if they are unable to execute this task, you still need to assign someone to respond to bad reviews in a thoughtful and authentic way. A formulaic or generic response can actually be worse than nothing-the takeaway message there for consumers is "I don't care enough about you and your experience to take the time to generate a substantive and personalized response." It is equally important to thank customers for their positive reviews, as well. The interesting thing here is that none of these best practices are particularly groundbreaking, and much of it is customer service 101. What has changed is the speed of the interaction, and the impersonal nature of online and digital communications that can present challenges that are not present in a personal exchange between a troubled customer and a GM.

Some hotel management companies take it a step further: they do not just monitor online engagement, they promote and encourage it as an essential part of the operational profile of each property. Savvy operators might send out a monthly ranking where properties and personnel are listed based on their customer sentiment, and others make those kinds of social rankings a central part of their recognition and evaluation criteria for professional advancement. With studies showing a correlation between your review rankings and your RevPAR index, it is clearer than ever that hotel owners and operators need to be an active and engaged participant in the online review space if they want to remain competitive.

OTA ABCs

The ascent of online travel agencies (OTAs) has been one of the most important tech-driven developments over the last 10-20 years. OTAs have significant buying power and are clearly here to stay. With that in mind, hotel owners and operators need to evolve and adapt in a way that both works with the OTAs and opens the door converting guests who may be amenable to changing their booking habits. A big part of that is simply being in touch with what is going on. Hotel management professionals need to be aware of reviews and conscious of what customers are saying about them on these sites. They should be asking questions like "Are we being represented on Expedia the way our hotel should be represented?"

When it comes to converting guests who may be accustomed to booking through OTAs, brand-driven initiatives can play an important role. If there is rate parity, the key is to provide guests with the kind of personal service and connection when they visit your hotel that ultimately makes it easier to book through you. You also need to make it as easy as possible for them, following up on-site discussions with an email and taking the initiative by doing things like offering them first crack at special promotions and sending them one-click registration links.

As online and mobile booking become more prevalent, any effective hotel sales and marketing strategy must be specifically designed around those customers. Today, most leading hotel management companies understand that their mobile booking platform has to deliver an intuitive and user-friendly experience with seamless functionality and a responsive design. The goal should be to create a mobile booking platform that prospective guests can make a reservation with just a couple of clicks in a spare moment.

Data Driven

Technology has given hospitality sales and marketing professionals countless new resources, but one of the most powerful new tech tools is the data itself-and the technology that makes it possible to collect, manage and leverage that data.

The role of Big Data in the hospitality industry continues to grow. More hotel management companies have systems in place that track segmentation-including the detailed information (such as who are your most profitable customers) that you need to make good sales decisions. There is so much data available these days that data overload has become a real problem: making sense of this flood of information can be like trying to get a drink out of a fire hose. The average hotel uses just 12% of the available data. For hotel owners and operators, understanding how to convert that data so that it is user-friendly, accessible, visually dynamic and understandable to your sales, revenue, marketing teams is a challenge-a critically important one.

An article in the Harvard Business Journal entitled The Technology Trends That Matter to Sales Teams talks about the impact of "advanced, pervasive, invisible analytics." By layering analytics seamlessly on top of real-time information, linked data on customers, sales activities and salespeople, forecasts and trends, companies can deliver the right decision assistance to the right salespeople and customers at the right time. But that kind of coordination is much more art than science, and the ability to execute that kind of cohesive big-picture fusion of data and sales is still a work in progress for some hoteliers.

To that end, the best hotel management teams have been able to zero in on the key metrics-working closely with a business analytics partner to pull that information out and present it in a format that delivers actionable intelligence. The details behind that bottom-line data need to be available in case your revenue team needs to dig deeper, but for sales professionals, the goal is to overlay the basic data needed to make timely and informed decisions so that customers are not left waiting for an answer.

The Technology Trade-Off

There is no doubt that sophisticated sales technology has helped sales and marketing professionals in the hospitality industry, but it has also introduced new challenges along the way.

Technology is a powerful tool, but it is also imperfect. Formulas and algorithms can anticipate 90% of customers' needs, but they can't intuit the emotional connection that all of the best salespeople are so adept at forging. The human element isn't going away because artificial intelligence is no substitute for emotional intelligence. And that reality is starting to become more of a problem as a younger generation of hospitality professionals-those that have grown up in a world where texting and other forms of digital communication are a familiar standard-moves into the industry. As a result, younger professionals tend to be less comfortable with face-to-face interactions. The implications of that are potentially significant: studies have shown people with a high EQ increase their closing ratio by as much as 15%. This is a challenge that will only become more evident as reliance on technology continues to grow, and hotel owners and operators need to figure out how to respond. EQ training might be part of the solution, but the bottom line is that we cannot afford to become so enamored with technology that we allow the human piece of the puzzle to go missing.

On the sales side, how we learn and research competitors and clients is so radically different today than just a few short years ago. And as customers become more informed and engaged, hospitality professionals need to up their game in response. Some hotel properties will always have inherent challenges that need to be accounted for and accommodated. And while technology gives hotel professionals the tools they need to recognize and respond to potential issues before they damage a brand, they also have the potential to make those problems more public. "Going viral" can be either very good, or very very bad, depending on the message that is being disseminated.

There is no question that the power of technology is impressive. Some have even asked the question whether hotels still need salespeople at all, or if they may be going the way of the travel agent: a professional relic of a different time. Whether or not this is a serious question, it definitely has a serious answer, which is that the hotel industry needs talented salespeople not less, but more than ever before.

Savvy industry leaders recognize this truth, and are ahead of the technology curve. They are integrating technology into their operation and finding ways to strike the critical balance between tech tool and human engagement, figuring out where to draw the line between efficiency and empathy. Ultimately, maybe that is the definition of success in an increasingly tech-reliant world: knowing how, when and where to draw that line, and figuring out how to evolve and adapt along the way. For hotel owners and operators who can do that, who know how to utilize these tools effectively and can adapt their own policies, processes and personnel accordingly, technology can provide a significant competitive advantage. When you understand and account for its limitations, technology can help your sales people to work smarter, your revenue team to make better decisions, and your marketing team reach the customers that you want to reach.

As executive vice president of First Hospitality Group (FHG), Wendy Stevens is responsible for developing and executing company strategy. She pinpoints business opportunities, and scouts out the best for the workforce. Her approach is that every challenge is met with a sense of urgency that guarantees results. Ms. Stevens was exposed to the world of hospitality because her mother lived and worked in a hotel. Despite varied focuses in school, working guest services in a front office shaped her career path. During her 14 years with FHG, her proudest accomplishment is the assemblage of her team of innovative leaders. Ms. Stevens can be contacted at 224-257-4000 or wstevens@fhginc.com Please visit http://www.fhginc.com for more information. Extended Bio...

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