Hoteliers have a world of apps, a wealth of data and an army of chatbots at their disposal, all collaborating to offer guests a satisfying online experience and a seamless transition to the personal service and actual experience in the hotel.
Text: Fiona Brutscher // FOTOS: iStock / shutterstock
Long gone are the days when digital guest management began with online bookings and ended with generic email marketing campaigns. For every old-school traveller who looks forward to friendly service with a human touch in a traditional hotel, there are dozens of millennials who avoid unnecessary face-to-face interactions and never use their phone to actually make phone calls. For each frazzled executive pining for a digital detox, there are several smombies – app-addicted zombies permanently glued to their smartphones. For these growing demographics, the digital experience is an increasingly important aspect of their hotel stay.
Hotels whose digital presence is limited to one-way communication through a website and several social media presences are missing out on the opportunities a successful two-way communication offers. Handled correctly, digital guest management can be an interactive, rewarding experience for guests that simultaneously eases the workload of hotel staff, drives sales and boosts engagement. First and foremost, this requires a mobile-first attitude that is still not as widespread as it should be in the hospitality industry.
Business travelers are likely to bring several devices on any trip, but are more likely to have a smartphone handy immediately prior to and during their stay. Hence, digital guest management tools need to be literally at the guest's fingertips, easily accessible on their smartphone screen, preferably within the apps they are already using. According to the Tech and Media Outlook 2019 by strategy consulting firm Activate, the number of global messaging users is predicted to grow to 3.9 billion this year. The trio of Facebook-owned Messenger/Instagram/WhatsApp hold the largest share of users, followed by Chinese WeChat. According to the same study, 28% of US adults are already using messaging apps to communicate with brands and companies, mainly on Facebook Messenger.
In the hospitality business, Marriott International has already found success with a multi-platform approach, offering guests the choice of interacting with chatbots through Facebook Messenger, Slack, WeChat and Google Assistant before, during and between stays. According to Stephanie Linnartz, Global Chief Commercial Officer, “by embracing emerging messaging technologies, we can expand service to our guests on their terms and through communication channels they increasingly prefer and feel comfortable using.”
A large part of guest management consists of tasks that are, for want of a better word, robotic. Staff often repeat standard answers to the most common questions, ideally in a uniformly friendly, efficient and helpful manner. They should be on call at all times, giving each guest their undivided attention, regardless of how bad their day has been – or how busy their shift. Enter the chatbot, an ever-polite, highly knowledgeable digital customer liaison always at the disposal of even the most demanding guests.
A bot powered by artificial intelligence (AI), briefed with the most important questions and scripted answers, with access to a hotel's database, booking systems and additional practical information, can do a lot more than just chat. It can offer and provide travel advice in preparation, assist with mobile self-check-in, help customize in-room entertainment and advise on in-house services and bookings. It can do all this 24 hours, 7 days a week, with split-second response times and in multiple languages, improving the experience of all guests whose language isn't spoken by in-house staff. As AI becomes more sophisticated and inches ever closer to mastering the Turing test, communicating in a convincingly human-seeming fashion, bots will be able to hold increasingly complex conversations. Until then, a seamless handover to human customer service agents is necessary as soon as the bot is unable to process a request.
For now, a strong “personality” goes a long way towards glossing over the sensation of chatting with a machine. Name, design, tone of voice, formality of speech, vocabulary and use of emojis are amongst the many factors that add up to what users experience as a chatbot's personality. It should tie in with the hotel's brand values and communication guidelines, adjusting for the less formal speech of the medium. The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas took a bold approach with a digital concierge named Rose, an 'ultimate insider' whose slightly saucy, highly confident and humorous banter is perfectly suited to the entertainment-focused offerings of the house, offering spa and restaurant reservations, providing information on events and suggesting specials or promotions. Mamie Peers, the hotel's Vice President of Digital Marketing is convinced that the approach has paid off. In fact, the chatbot's “playful personality has wooed hotel guests who booked direct into spending 37% more than guests who do not engage with her.”
Finally, while your physical staff wave goodbye to guests once they walk out the front door, a chatbot can stay in touch. For example by asking for feedback or requesting an online review in a way that is a lot less intrusive and more likely to be answered than an email. When guests return, the bot is the one 'staff member' guaranteed to still be on duty – and capable of picking up the conversation exactly where they left off.