GLOBAL REPORT—The traditional hotel comment card has come a long way.
Long used to gather feedback about a guest’s stay and learn information about the type of guests coming to a hotel, the comment card has evolved from a 5x7-inch piece of paper to an electronic platform where guest information is gathered, stored, researched, manipulated, sorted and used to influence decisions in just about every department of a hotel.
Today, hoteliers use innovative technology to gather guest data, understand guest behaviors and monetize guest preferences. That data is then used to make business decisions surrounding marketing, distribution and pricing, among other disciplines.
Having guest data “is absolutely priceless,” said Joe Kurth, GM of the Pfister, a historic independent hotel in downtown Milwaukee’s financial district. “Guests have the ability to vote with their checkbook. The more you know about the guest, the better you are able to tailor your offerings.”
However invaluable guest data is, collecting it can be a touchy subject that some hoteliers choose to tip-toe around. There is a difference between collecting data on individual guest preferences in order to tailor their stays and collecting data on how guests shop and book, said Chris Oberli, VP of e-commerce and interactive at Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group. Hoteliers should stay away from the privacy issues related to pricing based on an individual’s preferences, Oberli said, citing recent developments that certain room distributors might have been directing Mac users to pay more than PC users.
“Yes, we are collecting data on and around the guest but not necessarily with the key intention to monetize it,” Oberli said. “The primary reason for us to collect data is to serve them better, which, of course, in return makes the customer happier so that too has an effect on business.”
On the other side of the coin are the hoteliers who freely admit gathering as much information about guests as they will possibly give, and then using that data to connect with the guest are able to more accurately target marketing campaigns and ultimately shift business mix. Meyer Jabara Hotels, owner and operator of more than 20 hotels along the East Coast, goes as far as “scraping” the property-management system database daily to collect and store information about guests staying in its independent properties.
“From the very beginning we are trying to find out as much about you as we can,” said Dennis Morris, director of revenue development at Meyer Jabara. “Why are you coming? What brings you to the hotel? We want to find out as much data as possible—addresses, email addresses—and at that point the guest profile starts.”
“Our independent hotels actually have a scraping mechanism that happens every night,” he continued. “It reviews all of the in-house guests and drops it into our database. We call it the ‘black box’ … it scrapes the address, the email address, their rate type ... You can find out a lot about the customer based on how they booked.”
Brand versus independent
Morris was quick to point out that the process of collecting guest data at a branded property is entirely different than at an independent. Brands pride themselves on collecting data through their respective loyalty programs, and “technically they own the customer,” he said.
Hotels within the brand portfolio are then able to share guest data with each other. Morris cited Hilton Worldwide’s guest-preference database, which recently went global—“something Hilton has been working on for a long time.”
Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide is making advancements in the collection and sharing of guest data, said Mark Vondrasek, senior VP of distribution, loyalty and partnerships, in an emailed statement.
“As we think about innovation in the hotel space, we do not believe the next generation of innovation will be a ‘thing’—a new bed or a new shower, for example. Rather, we believe that innovation will be about a more personalized approach to the guest experience,” Vondrasek wrote. “We are continuing to innovate with the intersection of ‘high tech’ and ‘high touch’ at the forefront to better understand our guests, their preferences and the nature of each unique trip.”
Independent hotels, therefore, are at either a disadvantage or an advantage, depending on how you look at it. Morris said brands are excellent at creating national, wide-scale marketing messages, but independents are better at crafting local, geographic messages that might target a niche traveler in that region.
Brands “do a good job of speaking to their loyalty members, but there’s much more to it,” he said. “The database we have at independent hotels is speaking a little more directly than we might be at the branded level.”
For example, Morris said if government business is down at a particular hotel in the portfolio, Meyer Jabara has a database of government travelers it has collected and can target a marketing campaign directly to them.
“For the next three months we’ll offer a $25 dining voucher, which will help them with their per-diem,” he said. “We talk about these ideas at our weekly meetings.”
Another success story is how Meyer Jabara drives demand on New Year’s Eve—by looking at all the other “hot dates,” such as July Fourth, and crafting marketing messages to guests who enjoyed previous holiday stays at Meyer Jabara hotels.
“We’ll say, ‘You were here with us on July Fourth and (the city) is having fireworks on New Year’s Eve again. If you book now, in the next 14 days, you will receive this special rate,” Morris said. “We want to get an early booking to get that base business on the books.”
At Jay Peak Resort in Jay, Vermont, feeder markets are crucial, and the resort uses its PMS database to collect and track where guests are coming from. The property also collects income data and booking information to better understand how it can draw traffic from the drive-to market.
|At Jay Peak Resort in Jay, Vermont, feeder markets are crucial, and the resort uses its PMS database to collect and track where guests are coming from.
“Through our Maestro PMS, we can see a guest has stayed at a certain type of lodging (within the resort) for the past couple years. Then you can offer a step up by tailoring a promotion based on their last stay,” said Susan Jones, lodging bureau director for Jay Peak.“Understanding their past stay and having that data is a good tool.”
Collecting the data
Most guests are willing to offer personal information because they understand it’s going to help tailor their stay, Morris said.
“As the hotel stay has become more of an experience, (guests) are more willing to give you the information,” he said. “You have to catch them at the right time.”
When is the right time? Front-desk clerks are trained to listen to the guest, learning certain things the guest likes and doesn’t like. Independent properties can ask guests to go online and fill out a form with their information, and brands collect the data when travelers sign up for their loyalty programs.
“We collect the data when they book a stay with us,” said Jones of Jay Peak. “If they’re coming to us for a stay, they’re more OK with providing that data. Most often it’s to their benefit, and they find it very useful.”
At Mandarin Oriental, guest data is collected during the online-booking process or as part of the check-in process. The company clearly states to the guest that the information won’t be provided to anyone outside of Mandarin Oriental, Oberli said.
“If the data is collected, it’s stored securely, and we have some of the leading technology to handle that,” he said. “Data is really only accessible by relevant colleagues who need it. For example, I don’t have access to costumer data that talks about how much a customer has spent at our spa in Bangkok.”
Guest preferences also are often inferred by the purchase a guest makes while on property, whether it’s booking ancillary reservations such as spa or golf times or determining what kind of wine a guest likes by observing what he or she ordered through room service.
“We would like to get as much information as possible, but it has to be very subtle to the customer,” Oberli said. “It’s a consumer’s choice whether he or she wants to provide that data.”