One Profile to Rule Them All

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June 19, 2016
Feature
Jeffrey S. Parker

You’re being hoodwinked and bamboozled.

Hospitality is still hospitality.

Pull the buzzwords from over your eyes and look. The latest round of publications and presentations are focusing on new key target memes: millennials, cloud, disruption, sharing economy, large versus local and crowd. These words are the bright shiny objects, more about sizzle than steak. They are misleading you into thinking that the world has changed, and as the adage goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Many of these terms are myths, at least as they are presented. They’re designed to distract you from the core of your true business: Delivering hospitality.
 
DON’T GIVE INTO THE MYTHS,
LEARN HOW TO SPOT THEM.

 


I can see it now; a Bedouin is on day three of his trek across the huge desert. The days are long, and the unforgiving sun is beating down on him. Even a slight breeze kicks sand into his face, his eyes, and seemingly every place sand can get into. His skin is sandpaper and he is chafing in places no one wants to. Then on the horizon, a faint reflection comes into view: a pond and some fresh water – a place to rest. Our intrepid traveler’s energy is renewed, a new goal is in his view and he plods on at a quicker pace to meet this oasis. Alas, after hours of stumbling thorough the sand, the water is never any nearer and the man realizes he is a victim of a mirage.

Just like the Bedouin’s mirage, I believe that online ratings are that oasis on the edge of the unreachable horizon. For example, the wonderful Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel has 1,495 total reviews on TripAdvisor; this beautiful hotel, renowned for its exceptional service, has 396 guestrooms. For arguments sake, let’s say that on average it is 70 percent occupied, the first TripAdvisor review is from 2003, that the TripAdvisor rating represents less than .09 percent (nine hundredths of one percent) of the total stays. If you run your numbers (go ahead, I’ll wait) you’ll realize that your hotels are probably in line with the Ritz. If you ask your local statistician, he will tell you that this number is not statistically significant.
The lack of guest ratings is exacerbated by the reputation management industry. In its darkest corners you’ll find companies whose job is to enter false ratings (either positive or negative). Don’t get me wrong, most of the industry is upstanding and honest, but they will all confirm that there’s a faction that’s entering ratings for cash. I have even seen a hotel general manager require the staff to fill out a certain number of positive ratings per month – using a list of actual guests’ names.

Lastly, we have to realize that real ratings most often result from a mind blowing experience (positive or negative). The average stay, when we’re meeting expectations, doesn’t earn a writeup.

The next rating problem is what happens to be forced upon you? “Disruptive” models like Uber require you to rate your driver or passenger before you can proceed. I’ve spoken to many Uber drivers and users and they all tell me that they only rate the maximum for fear of backlash in the sharing economy. The 4.8-star driver is often only meeting the expectation, but the clients default to five stars unless there was something extraordinary. We’re all in The Matrix; we only react to the girl in the red dress, and ignore Agent Smith until it’s too late.

Southwest Airlines has done something that some would consider disruptive. The airline carrier sent cards to its best customers to let them recognize truly exceptional team members. That’s right, Southwest went low tech. I received four cards in the mail. Each had my name on it and was attached to my profile. I’m to name a Southwest team member who I think provides exceptional service. The staff has no idea who has coupons, the coupons have a “value” as I only get a sparingly low level of them, and  I am forced to decide  when the level of service is special. How much more impact would the feedback for your hotel be if you gave frequent guests this power?

What can you do in your operations to get truly good feedback? How do you communicate that to your guests? Do you really need an app or website to tell you that you deliver great service? Honestly, how much credence do you give to online ratings when you’re making a buying decision?

OK, OK. I hear you, even a tiny amount of data is better than none. Yes, the surveys and your online reputation do have value. But making major decisions regarding capital, revenue and infrastructure with the data you have is scary. You’re getting guest data/impressions in others ways, so learn how to collect that data. Do some bartenders get bigger tips than others? Where are your guests using their technology? Is it because of the venue, the view, the setup or just where the outlets are? What pillows do they use? What channels do they watch? What devices are on your network? Does a certain type of guest connect more devices than another type? If you capture data across your brand: Does your guest connect more devices in certain hotels than others? All these data points can go into building a model for better guest services, for making decisions on how to improve and invest. Be aware: Many data collectors think guests lie, so listen to them and watch how they interact with your hotel. That’s a surefire way to get true data. Your guests are talking; you just need to listen.

We all know the tale of the emperor who was so vain that when his suit maker told him he should have the finest suit made, of thread so beautiful that only the very smartest, greatest thinkers could see his outfit, he jumped at the opportunity. The emperor couldn’t see the suit, but his vanity and ego wouldn’t let him admit it. He couldn’t see the lie. In his grand parade, as he streaked down the promenade, the people – eager to please their king – wouldn’t admit to what they could not see, and commented on the lovely outfit. It took a small girl to point out that the emperor was indeed naked, and then the tapestry of lies that clothed him came undone.

A keynote speaker at a hospitality conference was discussing the new generation of travel customers who demand great services and do more research. They’re willing to put value over price and are looking for a custom experience and advertising targeted specifically to them. This conference was 15 years ago and the generation was the Baby Boomers.
Millennials are just the emperor’s new clothes: an invisible coat that we all claim to see because we’re told it’s there. These are still just your customers. Technically, millennials are those who came of age around the year 2000. It’s come to refer to a generation of people who are comfortable with, and expect, the best technology in their daily lives. The good news for you, is that this trait isn’t age specific. Consumers of all ages have become used to having information at their fingertips. It’s what they expect. People have always drawn on all the available data to make decisions. It’s just that research that took weeks to amass 60 years ago now takes mere seconds. And that’s true no matter what year you were born. 

GUESS WHAT! The exact same things that make a guest stay with you are the same things we have been trying to do forever:

The information-driven guest will continue to evolve, but the core values of hospitality are still the same. Look at it this way, when you wow your guests, they can tell a million people in seconds. Focus on getting good information about your operation in many areas, then make sure you spread it via all the methods available. You’ll want to have tons of valuable information, not to mention great pictures; I hear millennials really like pictures.

THE MASTER GUEST FILE
THE ONE TO RULE THEM ALL

Frodo was exhausted, after days of an epic-dangerous-treacherous journey replete with trolls, goblins, wizards and giant spiders. Now, with his goal in sight, he had but one more obstacle: get into Mordor and throw the ring into the fires of Mount Doom from which it was formed. The One True Ring, not one of the 19 partial power rings made by the Elven smiths and given to Men, Dwarves and Elves, but one with intoxicating power, one to rule them all. The power made Frodo sick, and without Golem to fall to his death with the ring, it’s unsure whether or not Frodo would be able to destroy it.

There’s a parallel to this in our world: The master guest profile. The One True Profile to rule them all. Be honest, current guest profiles, even the best of them, are like the 19 other rings; good, but not powerful enough. Is a single image of our guests possible, or like the Tolkien story, an epic myth?

Everyone wants to “own” the guest. OTAs want to maintain their relationship with the guest as a one-stop shop for super-premium deals. Corporate travel plans want to control spend and often approve only a few hotels in any given market. Hotel owners know the real service happens at their properties. They want data that will drive decisions on how to make guests happy. They also want to know how to get guests to book over their channel – the one that they pay the least for and from where they get the best data. Each player in the space only wants to share the bare minimum needed. As with Sauron’s ring, data is power.

Guests come to us from a hundred directions, and there will be a hundred more in the coming years. Each avenue presents a partial or different view of that guest. One of the largest challenges we face is trying to figure out whether our guest has stayed with us before. Even figuring that out might not mean success, because that raises another question: Who is our guest?
 
Imagine a world in which a guest builds her profile in an app (or in Facebook, Google, Apple) and can share it with the hotels’ systems via some controls she has. She’s in control and can unshare that data at any time. This is already working with some Web applications. Untapped, for example, is a beer rating application. It plugs into my social networks including Facebook, Twitter and Swarm. I can rate a beer, and share pictures and comments with any or none of these networks.

Flipboard is a news feed aggregator. It can pull in my personal news feeds including LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.  Each time I use the app, I get a custom newspaper that includes all of the public feeds I’m interested in, plus my personal feeds. I can even use it to post article links to any of my accounts. Both of these tools share information between many of my profiles via one or two trusted gatekeepers, like Facebook or Google.

Our guests already have profiles, in Expedia, in TripIt, with branded airline sites and even in our corporate booking tools. Imagine one profile that the guest updates in one place; then she controls what she shares with the hotel. 

We are going to get some help toward this end. The Department of Homeland Security has asked that hotels confirm IDs for everyone in our property. (Yes, that means the whole skip the desk mobile check-in is going away). Many countries require hotels to scan an ID for every guest and send the data to their local police department. Like the airlines and TSA, we will know our guest as a single person. My crystal ball says this will be sooner rather than later. Given what’s happening in the world, the authorities are going to press the issue. This will be the key first step, hopefully we as an industry will be able to make a hassle into a positive.

The initial step will be to stop calling our rewards programs loyalty programs. Think about it: The brands you’re truly loyal to have nothing to do with getting points or rewards. It’s about how that brand makes you feel. Are you loyal to a restaurant, a sports team, a car company, shoe brand, appliance brand? We all know people who are on their third or fourth Mercedes. Better yet, have you ever talked to someone who owns a Ford truck? You’ll get them to buy a Dodge or Toyota when you pull the steering wheel from their cold, dead hands. Apple, too, inspires a cultish loyalty. Customers aren’t loyal to you because they get rewards. If that’s the only reason they’re staying with you, then they’ll leave the second the rewards are better elsewhere. This might be good for a brand, but could be really bad for a hotel. Give your guests a reason to be loyal, don’t just bribe them to do business with you.

Imagine having the tools to link into already available guest profiles. You’ll know when their flight is delayed, or early, so you can target service around that. Imagine reaching out to a guest because you see their car rental has been canceled and offering to provide a car. Yes, the sharing is guest controlled. But if we can build their trust levels, and do things with their data that make them love to stay with us, we will gain access to more – and better – data.
 
THERE BE MERMAIDS
Sailors tell tales of long trips on the high seas: Weary, wearing patches on already blurry vision they see a beautiful apparition. It’s a mermaid, on the shore calling to them with a hypnotic melody. The sailors steer closer to the lovely seashell clad maid, only to discover it’s really a big, fat manatee. As desire turns to disappointment, they fail to see the rocks and run their boat aground.

The one new buzzword I want to see is Security as a Service. We need a solution that doesn’t require a front desk clerk to be a CISO. We all remember what happened when Indiana Jones finally made it to the Temple of Doom. It was full of booby traps, poison darts and trap doors in the floors – and don’t forget the giant, rolling boulder. We have to protect our data from multiple threats at multiple levels and in ways we haven’t even imagined yet.

Face it. Whether it’s a mermaid, the Ark of the Covenant, or the One True Ring, the myths and buzzwords we’re exposed to often draw us on an endless, danger-filled quest. Learn to separate the wheat from the chaff, the steak from the sizzle, the real from the buzz; the service from the hype.

Focus on the things that have already made hospitality a great industry. Use technology to improve on them, not replace them. We’ve been running our boats aground forever, it seems. Keep an eye out for these myths. Disruption. It’s just another word for evolution or change. It’s a constant – it's not a new thing. The word is so overused it might just be the official buzzword of 2016.

JEFFREY PARKER is the vice president of IT for Interstate Hotels and Resorts.

©2016 Hospitality Upgrade
This work may not be reprinted, redistributed or repurposed without written consent.
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The first part of the myth is that our guests are the same person. A traveler is different in each travel profile, often dramatically so. Let’s look at the Jeff Parkers who travel:


John Jacob
Jingleheimer Schmidt,
Businessperson

Looking for a hotel close to where he’s working with easy access to local restaurants open for breakfast and dinner. Often constrained by a corporate travel program that forces him to select a hotel that’s available in the online booking engine. JJJS needs good Wi-Fi (and he doesn’t care if he has to pay extra for it), a working desk and lots of convenient power outlets. He wants the HDMI port on the TV unlocked so he can stream his baseball games or other OTT content. He puts the DND on his door first thing and doesn’t remove it until he checks out. He never orders room service, prefers an empty fridge in the room, and might have a drink in the hotel bar if the beer selection is good. His typical length of stay is three days/two nights or more. An iron and board in the room is a must.


John Jacob
Jingleheimer Schmidt,
Dad

The hotel room is just a place to crash; he won’t spend any real time there. A common channel selection (ESPN, TNT, USA, WGN, HGTV) is fine. The room desk is really just a place to stash travel clutter and charge gadgets. He prefers a free breakfast (have you seen what teenagers can eat?) free parking and easy access to thoroughfares to get to what he’s really in town to do. He’s price sensitive, but location is more important. His typical length of stay is less than two days. He never eats in the hotel restaurant – aside from that free breakfast – and doesn’t visit the bar.


John Jacob
Jingleheimer Schmidt,
Family Man

He’s going to need lots of counter space in the bathroom, and tons of hot water. His wife likes daily linen service, so the DND never makes an appearance. He’s looking for space, or connected rooms for four people (and sometimes a little dog too, Dorothy). Free or cheap breakfast is important, as is good, free Wi-Fi. A pool is a nice plus, particularly one that he can see from the bar. He might visit the restaurant if there isn’t a family-friendly place close to the hotel. This dude is value sensitive – he wants the best bang for his buck.


John Jacob
Jingleheimer Schmidt,
Husband

This time he’s traveling with just the wife. He’s looking for a tasteful room – maybe, even extravagant. He’d love to have strawberries and roses delivered to the room. The hotel needs to be part of the experience, not just an adjunct need. He’s likely to call room service, but he and the wife might decide a nice restaurant with a view trumps the convenience of not having to get out of their PJs. He’ll spend time on property and make the most of amenities, shopping and venues. If everything the couple needs is on-site, it’s likely they won’t even leave. The TV won’t be on much, and his laptop will only come out of the bag if there’s a work emergency. He’s price insensitive – he doesn’t want to skimp on a weekend away together. 

Which profile should you market to? What clues will you get, if any?
The solution is simple: The client needs to own their profile. There are too many for a hotel or hotel company to control. Hotels need to use new communication methods to be ready to accept that profile.

 



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