Role-playing has been upgraded: From front line to corporate, these hotel brands are implementing virtual reality to onboard and train their teams.
REPORT FROM THE U.S.—Hotel companies have been using virtual reality for years as a means to put guests on property without really being on property, allowing them to tour hotels before booking.
Some hoteliers have implemented the technology as a way to entertain guests during their stays. Meanwhile, this tech is emerging as an employee-training tool, as some brand companies use to onboard new team members as well as continue education for seasoned staff, all the way up to the C-suite.
Best Western Hotels & Resorts has taken role-playing one step further with the implementation of VR to “practice and master complex interpersonal skills,” said Ron Pohl, SVP and COO at the brand company, which has developed simulations for team members working the front desk, housekeeping, maintenance and breakfast area that mimic real-life customer reactions.
“The employee training initiative leverages virtual reality to transform communications between front-desk staff and guests, and uses a live hospitality virtual simulator, or the ‘avatar,’” Pohl said.
Jessica Points, GM at the Best Western Plus McCall Lodge & Suites in Idaho, said the technology offers a level of interactivity during the training process. During a 60-minute simulation, an employee will sit in front of a laptop during a live video conference call. The “customer” is an avatar that can be chosen from the simulator; however, the voice behind it is a real person who can see the employee, down to facial expressions. This avatar will then react to every word and expression the employee puts forth.
But that doesn’t mean the avatar is an emotionless robot. These simulations are designed to mimic real-life situations, so Points said if the avatar is angry about a solution the employee offered, its face and voice will show it.
John Heichman, regional services manager for Best Western, manages the training program at properties. The person behind the avatar is a professional actor, he said. Employees would never know the true identity of the actor, though, as voice-changing technology is used to match different races, ages and genders in the simulator.
Pohl said there is no additional cost to owners to participate in the VR employee training program, other than time, and it is available via video conference on any laptop or desktop computer.
He added that since implementing the program, Best Western has seen a significant decrease in customer complaints.
“Initial results of the training and certification suggest a 71% reduction in guest complaints and a 19% increase in customer service ratings,” he said, adding that a Best Western hotel in Tempe, Arizona, reported a 20-point improvement in customer satisfaction scores after each round of the training.
The return on investment is immediate, Pohl said. Best Western’s research has shown that for the average hotel, a 1-point improvement in Net Promoter Score increases incremental hotel top line revenue by $12,000 over a 12-month period. The VR employee training has helped the brand to double its NPS over the last 10 years, he said.
Hilton has also recognized the value in VR for employee training purposes.
“We find that over the years, the makeup of staff has changed. Whereas 20 years ago, a lot of corporate employees have come up through the hotel, now with so many specialized skills, some corporate members have never worked in a hotel,” said Gretchen Stroud, VP of talent, learning and engagement at Hilton. “We use virtual reality so they can see what it’s like to be in hotel operations and gain a better appreciation for the day to day. It gives them more empathy for team members when they are coming up with programs, to think through how they can impact the front line.”
Hilton worked with a third party to film video in a 360-degree VR experience. Much of the video was filmed in a full-service Hilton hotel, which is unidentified because the experience is meant to apply to the broad range of hotels in the company’s portfolio.
Corporate employees wear a VR headset that transports them to the simulation experience. For example, if the goal is to understand a housekeeper’s job, the employee needs to clean a room—but the way in which a real-life team member would. That means no vacuuming before dusting, for instance, or the room will need to be cleaned again.
“We’re making the team members virtually sweat,” Stroud said.
Currently, the VR headsets are tethered, or connected to laptops with specific requirements that are able to run the tech. But Stroud said untethered headsets are becoming more common and are less expensive—at around $300 each, versus a tethered set and laptop with a cost of around $2,000 to $3,000 each—which offers a huge opportunity for Hilton. Now, the company is looking to reshoot its video to accommodate the new sets.
Additionally, Hilton is expanding its VR training initiatives and piloting a conflict resolution program to help employees become more skilled at service recovery. The company plans to present the tech at its upcoming leadership conference for the Americas to garner feedback.
Stroud said rolling out such a program on a global scale can be complicated because countries have different rules when it comes to tech. Also, modules may need to change from region to region—especially when a company has more than 400,000 employees who speak more than 70 different languages. And it’s not as easy as translating that language; Hilton has to call on its employees to make sure nothing is lost in translation and everything remains on brand.
Stroud said VR in this field is cutting-edge and something that will continue to gain traction as a valuable training tool.
“Using something like virtual reality to take some fear out of the training process has huge potential to change the workforce,” she said.