4 ways technology can make travelers feel right at home

As originally published on HospitalityNet on June 6, 2017.

Customer service is one of the hospitality industry’s hallmarks. Thirty years ago, it put a premium on the reservations systems and consistent services. But as the traditional buy-sell model fades away, the customer experience — not the product itself — is now a primary focus.

Thanks to new levels of personalization and the need for convenient and cheap services, the hospitality industry has morphed from a product-centric to a customer-centric realm. These days, customers have little time to spare, so they seek relevant, timely recommendations from mobile and tech devices at a moment’s notice.

So, the big question is: How can hospitality continue to leverage technology and deliver what today’s and tomorrow’s consumers want most?

Make Every Experience One-of-a-Kind

When visiting somewhere for the first time, customers need a trusted advisor.
The challenge for the hospitality industry is cultivating that trust, which starts by delivering an end-to-end travel experience that understands every traveler’s needs and caters to all of their wants.

Hospitality companies need to support flexible, on-the-fly purchases so that inconvenience is never an obstacle. Customers looking for convenience want a service that not only lets them book their travel and hotel at once, but also organizes their activities, helps with reward cash-ins, finds discounts, and provides customer feedback.

If this kind of comprehensive and customized experience sounds impossible to deliver on, just look at a company like Marriott that already offers it. The hotel chain’s recently revamped app uses personal information to give travelers relevant insights based on where they are in their trip, whether it’s the planning, in-transit, or post-checkout stage.

Basically, the app is a traveling concierge that enhances the company’s mobile check-in system and dispenses exactly what travelers need before they request it. To date, it has grossed about $1.7 billion in annual bookings, all thanks to technology that can be pulled up anywhere instantaneously.

How Tech Makes it Happen

Delivering a personalized experience takes more than just commitment. Understanding customer needs and wants and translating those into unique services is a significant challenge, even for the largest outfits. The key is to rely on the right technologies and to implement them in the right ways. Here are four strategies hospitality executives can use to get there:

1. Invest in Data Intelligence

Companies use data intelligence to analyze the various bits of information they have coming in. The data helps companies not only expand their current products, but also personalize, predict, and contextualize them toward user intent and other factors.

For example, companies could increase upsell opportunities by offering last-minute, per-trip travel insurance plans to customers whose flights leave in less than two hours. With the right data, it’s possible to anticipate the unique needs and interests of frequent customers.

Amazon Prime’s anticipatory shipping platform looks at data, previous orders, and other variables to forecast what a customer might want before she even puts in an order. Amazon ships the items to its nearest warehouse, keeping items close by so that it can keep its promised two-day shipping. This transition further solidifies the part personal data plays in making the customer journey more convenient.

The predictive trend established by Amazon, Starbucks, and others points to the fact that customers in all industries expect frictionless, authentic, convenient experiences from all the brands they use. Travel and hospitality companies are working hard to meet customer expectations and remain competitive as digital startups like Hopper and Airbnb continue to emerge.

2. Focus on Satisfaction and Loyalty

Consider this: Eighty-five percent of vacationers pick activities only after they have arrived, and 50 percent of travelers use smartphones to find options. These numbers underscore the importance of creating a strong end-to-end customer experience.

Much like Marriott’s app has, companies can inject their brands with goodwill by capitalizing on the countless moments when travelers need information, ideas, or assistance. Sending recommendations and offers in response can drive revenue and digital return on investment.

In the long term, that kind of attentiveness will allow brands to identify patterns of behavior and receive feedback from their customers that can allow them to improve quality of service and increase customer loyalty. Focusing on a well-rounded customer journey pays obvious dividends for a brand.

3. Perfect the Mobile Experience

An eMarketer study estimates that mobile will account for nearly 70 percent of all U.S. bookings by 2019.

Needless to say, it’s time for companies that haven’t invested in mobile to do so. However, just having a mobile platform isn’t enough. It’s more vital than ever for companies to create mobile experiences so easy to navigate and purchase through that they become indispensable.

That investment should have an omnichannel scope that covers desktop, mobile apps, and mobile web. If a customer selects hotel dates on a desktop computer but does not make a purchase, ensure conversion by waiting a certain period and then reminding him with a special discount via mobile. Most in the hospitality industry know that mobile is important, but it’s time to think of it as an absolute essential to simplifying the traveler’s journey and driving sales.

4. Partner with Downstream Merchants

With companies like Airbnb disrupting the travel industry, established players need to beef up their loyalty programs to reconnect with customers. Rather than simply offering deals and discounts, these companies should offer perks that enhance the overall experience.

That means partnering with merchants that offer complementary services. For instance, Starwood Hotels awards loyalty points when guests use Uber to get around town. Rather than incentivizing only direct patronage, Starwood rewards travelers throughout their trip.

Thanks to the capabilities of today’s technology — including chatbots and other virtual assistants — it’s possible for every player in the hospitality industry to be the on-demand, on-the-go assistant that travelers want. But be strategic about implementing these innovations. Although providing tablets at your hotel’s concierge may be appealing, it’s important to consider the ways in which customers will respond. For some, it may be considered an easy way to look up restaurants nearby; for others, it may be considered impersonal.

Everyone’s had both positive and negative travel experiences. What separates the good from the bad is often as simple as a missing piece of information — just the right recommendation on the right device at just the right time. Innovations that deliver seamless and singular experiences can drive a lot of positive Yelp reviews and a lot of repeat business.

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