Elevating the Hotel Guest Experience Through AI
By Steve Cohen Chief Executive Officer, LMS, Inc. | June 30, 2019
When a hotel brand succeeds, it succeeds by how well it follows through on the classic foundation of hospitality and human warmth. But when these old-fashioned qualities intersect with new-fashioned digital technologies like machine learning and artificial intelligence, hoteliers have the opportunity to refashion the guest experience into something magical.
The Power of Artificial Intelligence
It's the nature of people to crave warmth socially and interpersonally. Artificial intelligence and machine learning might sound cold, a matter of numbers and data and servers humming away somewhere in a dark room, but it's the perfect complement to good old-fashioned human hospitality.
AI is simply a tool to enhance the guest experience - facilitating engagement during transactions and touchpoints, supplementing and inspiring human interaction with guests. You could call it guest experience maximization. That is just another way to describe the goal of true hospitality from time immemorial, which is exceeding the expectations of guests in a way that is intuitive, effortless, and almost prescient:
"What gift do you think a good servant has that separates them from the others? It's the gift of anticipation. And I'm a good servant. I'm better than good. I'm the best. I'm the perfect servant. I know when they'll be hungry and the food is ready. I know when they'll be tired and the bed is turned down. I know it before they know it themselves." -Mrs. Wilson, Gosford Park (Movie)
Supplementing the Human Touch
AI is not a shortcut or a way to cut costs by eliminating real people from the guest equation. Hotels shouldn't want less personal touch; they should want a more personal touch, a better-than-human touch that uses machine learning, data analysis and digital communication to boost the power of face-to-face or voice-to-voice interactions.
Travelers expect radical convenience and want memorable, personalized experiences - but they want to be engaged on their own terms and in their preferred manner. An Accenture Strategy report warned against using AI and digital channels merely as a substitute for human interaction:
"U.S. companies have reached a tipping point in their customer's digital intensity and need to rebalance their digital and traditional customer services investments if they want to improve loyalty, differentiate themselves and drive growth. Companies abandon the human connection at their own risk and are facing the need to rebuild it to deliver the varied and tailored outcomes that customers demand."
Properly used, AI and machine learning can inspire and augment person-to-person interaction by facilitating customer communication and providing hoteliers with actionable information about guests and more specific guest engagement data.
Insight and Personalization
Brands achieve success by delivering both an analog and a digital quality experience to guests. That's where AI applications can shine - empowering the integration of analog processes and digital technology to deliver convenient and hyper-personalized experiences. This means helping hotel staff understand and meet the needs of guests; sometimes, even before the guest realizes their need.
In a McKinsey & Company report, Harry Bowcott writes that data analytics and machine learning can be used to smooth the touchpoints in the customer journey:
"Properly used on the backend, data analysis can be used by travelers to find not just the best prices on flights, but the most convenient travel options. Virtual concierge services can suggest entertainment and dining options during the trip. Smartphone apps can give customers the ability to check-in for flights or lodging to help smooth the journey home."
Like their human counterparts, AI-powered virtual concierges, accessible by mobile apps or through text messaging, can assist guests in small but meaningful ways. Need help ordering a meal? Have a request? Need a quick suggestion for some local fun or a great restaurant? The service should be able to provide quick, easy answers on demand.
These software services don't take the place of hotel staff. They give guests the choice of engagement through their own preferred method - from phone calls or face-to-face conversations with employees to using digital services like chat or mobile apps.
Each of these digital interactions generates useful information about guest desires and behavior. Once data is collected and analyzed, hotel brands can begin using it to generate insights to improve and personalize the customer experience.
A Friendly Face
One example presents that if a guest has installed a hotel brand's proprietary smartphone app, it could be used to not only speed up the check-in process but to enhance engagement as well. As soon as a guest who has booked lodging enters the hotel property, the app can alert staff to their arrival. Once they make it to the reception desk, an employee can already have their transaction information pulled up and a keycard in hand.
It's an opportunity for a very human touch, a preemptive, warm greeting: "Welcome, Ms. Jones and Ms. Patterson, we've been expecting you."
Tracking guest locations can give the front desk a chance to call their room a few minutes after they've arrived to ask if they need anything. By using AI and data analysis tools, hotel staff can have access to a clearer understanding of guest needs on an individual level.
AI should be a business tool, not a self-service consumer tool to take the place of employees in the customer journey. AI is a business utility, an automated means to lift the customer experience. Digital technology can be used to expand and extend real-world analog interaction, creating an accurate and personalized dialogue between brand and consumer. It gives hoteliers the opportunity to perform a little ordinary, maybe barely noticed magic for guests, leaving them talking about the experience for years to come: "That place is awesome. They did all these little things for me, and sometimes it seemed like they knew what I wanted before I had to ask."
Continuous Improvement and Personalization
The data generated by every guest interaction during their customer journey is a gift. It provides the basis for continuous evaluation and improvement. Hospitality brands can use the data to measure guest satisfaction and how they engage with marketing messages.
By analyzing the patterns of guest behavior, brands gain insights that can be rolled into future marketing campaigns or service offerings, improving their effectiveness and value to customers. Identifying and meeting specific needs helps cement valuable long-term relationships with guests; after all, a repeat customer offers greater potential for profit than someone who stays at a property once and never returns.
AI and machine learning can be applied to helping differentiate guests, classifying them into specific personas and addressing their needs and desires. Different guests require different types of engagement, and it's important for brands to ensure they are delivering an experience that is most important to each person.
For example, if a family stays at a property one booking can generate three unique guest scenarios - two individual spouses and children. Services and information can be tailored to meet each of their needs. Forearmed with information, the concierge could suggest opportunities for supervised children's activities to allow the spouses some private time, or a server could be ready to suggest menu items that appeal to even the pickiest family members.
Supply Chain Optimization
Let's talk about the practical side of magical, AI-driven experiences now. Guest experience maximization extends far beyond making check-in easier or being able to recommend a favorite cocktail with a meal. From dining to housecleaning to comfort issues, the brick-and-mortar operations of a hotel have an immediate and direct impact on guests.
Managing supply chain logistics is still characterized by forms in duplicate, tear sheets, bills of lading, administrative burdens from a paperwork-based past. By wedding digital technology with traditional hotel operations, brands can reduce costs, improve efficiency, and ensure smoother services to guests.
Hotel chains and resorts can spend millions of dollars per month on providing food and drink and sanitary supplies to guests. All logistics have to accommodate shrinkage, spoilage and waste. With such large volumes of supplies, this waste can get out of hand without proper quality control.
Innovations in digital technology can optimize the management of goods and how they are tracked through the distribution process. The building blocks of Internet of Things (IoT) technology - the use of radio-frequency identification (RFID) and near-field communication (NFC) - allow the digital tracking of analog goods. Machine learning and data analysis techniques can be applied to analyze tracking and stocking information, offering ways to tweak supply chain management. Improving efficiency by even a few percentage points can have a dramatic impact on a brand's profits by reducing the waste of supplies and perishable goods.
The focus of the technology can be narrowed down to a granular level to ensure the optimum guest experience. By tracking consumption of ingredients in the kitchen, the individual delivery of meals or staffing demands for house cleaning, hotels can begin to embed safeguards into the entire process.
Summing It Up
Old-fashioned hospitality never goes out of style, but digital technology can help brands bring the guest experience to the next level. The application of insights from AI and machine learning into real-world guest experiences can help hotels move from reactive customer service to proactively applying experience intelligence to delight guests, creating a magical experience in the real world.
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