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text: Anke Pedersen 

Ah, the good old days. When one dictated one’s letters, had one’s post sorted and appointments arranged. Even planning travel was a breeze. A single call to the secretary's office and they would quickly and easily organise the best solution, taking what you want and are permitted to do into account. These times were so wonderfully convenient that just recently, a renowned Travel Manager sighed and said: “Why can’t I just make a booking like I did thirty years ago?”

In the face of increasing complexity in the travel business, it's not just travel managers who dream of solving everything with just one call. According to the current Egencia Business Travel & Technology Survey, “half of all travellers want to speak to a person, should problems arise”. And the current VDR (German Business Travel Association) analysis underlines the importance of “personal contact with capable contact partners and individual service”.

The good news is that thanks to digitalisation, the travellers of tomorrow won't need to search, compare, check, book, pay or settle hardly anything themselves. “Integrated systems” will take care of this, taking travel policy automatically into account as well as individual preferences, the weather, safety-related criteria at the destination and also digitalised services such as mobile payment on site. The only aspect that is new is the contact person. Expect Siri, Alexa or Echo to step up to solve problems, rather than a secretary on reception.

Convenience is the new basis for customer loyalty

What does that have to do with the hospitality industry? It’s quite simple. In times of maximum complexity, only those who make life as easy as possible will attract customers. Convenience is the new basis for customer loyalty, whether that’s at the time of booking, on the day of arrival, during the stay or at departure.

So it’s no wonder that providers such as HRS are pulling out all the stops to make their customers’ lives as easy as possible. Martin Biermann, Vice President of Product Development at HRS Group gives an example of how things might look when convenience trumps all else. “We’re currently working on a personalised suggestion system for corporate bookers that suggests hotels which correspond to their interests and preferences first,” explains the IT professional. This means that long-winded searching will soon be a thing of the past.

According to Biermann, this personalisation is made possible thanks to continuous traveller tracking. How does the traveller search? Which detailed pages does he or she look at? Does the user check the map view? Is location thus a deciding factor? “We can view all of this and draw our conclusions.” And not just for the booker in question. The recommendation engine will be able to make amazingly precise suggestions even to a new employee or one that hardly ever travels. “We can get an idea of a new guest's preferences based on similar demographic characteristics and the behaviour of other travellers from the same company. And by doing so, we can then – based on their peers – make an appropriate suggestion, including the right hotel services, thereby removing uncertainty from the system.”

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Essentially, it’s not unlike Amazon, for example, where conclusions are also drawn from previous orders and settings. Of course, the system has to learn to do this.

In order to gain a valid database as quickly as possible, in terms of personal preferences for example, HRS started the “Smarthotel” initiative together with selected hotels and corporate clients. In the Conichi solution integrated into the HRS app, pilot travellers can not only check in and out on their mobile phones, they can also enter personal preferences on the app. “Depending on their preferences, generation, department and so on, the hotelier can then automatically offer breakfast or bicycle rental or something like that,” clarifies Biermann.

What’s more, as of 2018, the corporate clients involved can decide for themselves, via their own code, whether they want to make their data accessible to HRS too. Should they do so, the recommendation engine can present even more precise or tailored booking suggestions. Biermann is convinced that this smart data “is the ultimate unique selling point for bookers”. The conclusion? Reduce to the max!

“Traditional search portals won't exist in the future”

But the new simplicity for bookers, as imagined by Biermann, doesn’t simply end with the “Amazon-ification” of the HRS system. “In five years, we won’t have traditional search portals any more,” says the HRS Manager – and he means it. The thought processes behind this are convincing. Thanks to the learning recommendation engine, in the future, travellers will no longer need to set up a search. Instead, all they have to do is enter the city, date and number of rooms. They will then be shown three hotel options – all matching their individual requirements – and that's it. With an itinerary solution, there doesn't even need to be any searching and booking, according to Biermann: “If the system sees that I have a meeting in my calendar tomorrow in Cologne, then it can take action entirely of its own accord and generate a booking.” A brave new world.

Althoff Hotels, which operates in four European countries, couldn’t resist naming their new world of simplicity after a classic… None other than James. Soon he will be available to all guests at the Ameron Hotels in Hamburg as a personal virtual companion. He provides up-to-date information and tips on the hotel and its surroundings via Facebook Messenger on the hotel site, saving guests time so they don’t have to laboriously search the homepage or brochures, head to reception or wait in queues.

But it's not just the guests' stay that Althoff wants to make as convenient as possible. Even during booking, James will be on hand to answer any questions. The assumption is that this could help to “counteract an interruption to a booking or even help prevent a client from potentially abandoning a booking”. It is of course possible that James might not – yet – know the answer to something, so an employee from the reception team can step in at any point and continue the discussion. The aim is to be there for the guest.

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“Digitalisation precisely where it can support and supplement personal service”

The low-budget hotel chain Motel One is also a fan of this philosophy. “As a first step, digitalisation always makes sense in places where it can support and supplement personal service,” echoes marketing head Ursula Schelle-Müller in an interview with “Internet World Business” magazine. This means that yes, Motel One utilises mobile check-in and check-out, door opening via smartphone and mobile payments, because it simplifies the underlying processes – and that goes for employees, too. But human contact and interaction is irreplaceable. “Although our hotel concept is based on limited service, Motel One is characterised by the friendliness, passion and cordiality of our staff. That’s why we don’t want to move away from personal service and are reviewing where digitalisation can improve upon these offers.”

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