Artificial intelligence will lead to the commoditization of the hotel industry, unless your brand also simultaneously embraces emotional intelligence.
Every day when I scan the headlines of industry newsletters and blogs there are articles touting technology as being the secret sauce for cooking up guest loyalty and brand differentiation. Obviously, many believe that the key to winning the hearts of future guests lies with the latest app, bot, CRM system or nifty in-room technology. These same tools are also believed to be appealing to the highly coveted millennials who are deemed to be seducible by any newfangled and novel tech.
Yet the way I see it, an obsession with technology and automation is instead leading to an era of commoditization that will cause the hospitality industry to devolve into the “guestroom rental industry.” There are many examples.
One obvious example is how difficult many hotels make it to reach a live, on-site reservations operator or salesperson; they seem to hide their phone number on the website in an effort to force the guests and meeting planners to book online instead of calling. Everyone knows that hotels want more direct bookings, yet too many overlook one easy way to encourage them: Post the phone number prominently, especially in the mobile version of the website.
Next, brand leaders all seem to say that the move towards automation is being driven by a desire to improve service guests, not just to cut costs. “When check-in is automated, our front desk can focus on welcoming guests,” or “our electronic proposal system gets the meeting planner the information faster,” the brand leaders say. Yet I see just the opposite playing out as most just use technology to reduce staffing levels, which causes guests to experience slower response times when a real human is needed.
There are so many other examples. Years ago, hotels eliminated the PBX/switchboard department as calls were answered by the auto-attendant, and if necessary, fielded by front-desk staff busy with check-ins and check-outs. Reservations calls were sent off-site, originally to smaller regional call centers, which were later rolled-up into mega-size call centers, all in the name of better service since CRO agents were dedicated to this function.
As anyone currently working a front desk can tell you, many of those call-center calls come right back to the hotel, back through the auto-attendant, back to a stressed-out multi-tasking desk agent now speaking with a caller who is annoyed because the call center could not help with their special company or group rate, special request or property-specific question.
Meanwhile, their front-desk colleagues are fielding new issues and questions, such as:
- “My GPS took me to the wrong place;”
- “How do I use this TV app to order room service?”
- “This rain shower looks really cool, but how to I turn on the hot water?” or
- “I managed to find my room, but my phone won’t open the door.”
Things are not much different in hotel sales. Few hotels have administrative assistants, so sales managers detail their own meetings while far more leads arrive on platforms such as CVENT, The Knot, Starcite and Wedding Planner, plus the “Website RFP” forms. Being in the mystery shopping business, I can tell you that the non-response rate on these channels is shocking; and that those who do respond simply reply with a generic template in PDF form or a link to the latest ebrochure.
Major brands are even seeing technology as the key to successful guest service and sales training, eliminating most traditional training experiences and instead moving everything to eLearning, despite that utilization continuing to be very low. Or they rely on training webinars, which colleagues attend while secretly checking emails and doing side work. Certainly, eLearning is a good method for technical training, yet it is very difficult to convey the traditional core principles of hospitality and sales.
“But those millennials love technology,” they say. Surely, if you surveyed millennials and even baby boomers, most would say they prefer technology. Yet when you actually observe them, you find that at their heart they are more alike than different and that everyone appreciates human kindness and authentic connections.
The hospitality industry is at a crossroads. If it continues to focus solely on technology as being the solution to building strong brands and guest loyalty—letting the first cousin of Siri, Cortana and Alexa answer the calls and having an avatar talk to website visitors—the opposite will happen.
Guests will book via online travel agencies on their apps, go straight to their room and open the door with their smartphone, and order UberEats from their phone instead of room service on their TV app. Once Expedia and Priceline finish figuring out how to put meeting space online, group and event planners will be booking basic everyday meetings online at OTA sites, too. Lenders will soon figure out that independent hotels can be as—if not more—profitable then branded ones. Owner investors will ask “Why is it again that I need a brand?”
Some brands and individual hotels will take the opposite path. They will embrace these AI technology solutions just as strongly if not more. However, they will also continue to see the value of human interaction, which will stand out all that much more when others fully automate.
Yes, they will still offer a bot and an app for as many functions as possible, yet they will also support the technology with humans who are selected for the most important quality in the hospitality industry, emotional Intelligence.
They will make it easy to find their phone numbers on a mobile search, and calls will be answered with a knowledgeable staffer who has been trained for special requests and needs. They will embrace video email. They will engage guests directly on Skype and Facetime. They will routinely offer video customer service support. When the day arrives that the majority of guests check-in on smartphones, they will employ greeters by the front door and by the elevators to welcome guests with a warm smile and good, old-fashioned hospitality. Millennials and baby boomers alike will take notice and post about it on Snapchat and Facebook, too.
Indeed, the hospitality industry at a fork in the road. Which path will you travel?
Doug Kennedy is president of the Kennedy Training Network, Inc. a leading provider of hotel sales, guest service, reservations and front desk training programs and telephone mystery shopping services for the lodging and hospitality industry. Kennedy has been a fixture on the industry’s conference circuit for hotel companies, brands and associations for more than two decades. Since 1996, Kennedy’s monthly training articles have been published worldwide, making him one of the most widely read hospitality industry authorities. Visit KTN at www.kennedytrainingnetwork.com or email him directly firstname.lastname@example.org. He is the author of “So You REALLY Like Working With People? - Five Principles for Hospitality Excellence.”
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