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Search for the Feather Pillow: It’s the Data, Stupid. (Or is it the stupid data?)

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June 01, 2001
Data Analysis
Michael Schubach, CHTP - michael.schubach@ourclub.com

© 2001 Hospitality Upgrade. No reproduction or transmission without written permission.

In pursuit of the perfect job, I have moved several times. Not so uncommon in our industry – we hospitality folk are well known for our gypsy feet. I had spent more than 20 years living in various locations up and down the California coast, but in 1993 I was offered an opportunity in the Washington, D.C. area. I accepted the position, phoned a moving company and began the arduous task of folding my tent. My most important relocation task was to sift through my own Mt. Everest of personal papers to get them neatly sorted, organized and ready to travel. The packers showed up as scheduled, but to my horror I discovered that moving day had arrived a year sooner than I was ready. The documentation of my life was sub-divided and flung into a dozen packing boxes to be opened and sorted the moment I arrived on the East Coast.

Fast-forward to 1995. There was less to the D.C.-gig than met the eye and I was offered another crack at the perfect job back in Southern California. Again my personal detritus overwhelmed me. My still-unsorted boxes now had six new brothers and sisters, and I knew my work was cut out for me as soon as I arrived back out West. In 1997 Pinehurst beckoned before I could work up any real enthusiasm for filing. The opportunity to swap coasts was too good to pass up so I once again slapped new inventory stickers over the old ones and dispatched my mystery containers eastward. My unopened boxes numbered in the low-to-mid 20s and required a bedroom of their own.

This past year when I purchased a new home I vowed that the next trip those boxes were going to make would be in a garbage truck. An 11th hour reprieve delivered them to my new address – bent but still unbroken – where they lay dormant until several weeks ago when I purchased an industrial-sized filing cabinet. The time had finally come to see what had survived eight years and 10,000 miles of transcontinental lugging.

I’ll spare you the gruesome details, but among the items I unearthed were service records for vehicles that by now have been resold in some Third World country, puppy registration papers for dogs that have gone on to their greater reward and Christmas cards apparently dating back to the original nativity. Seven weekends into the Great Cleansing of 2001 I find myself wondering why I didn’t just leave this project to my heirs and assignees. (In all fairness, they deserve a little misery to go along with the real estate.) But file I do, as well as attempt to consign the truly worthless to the rubbish heap. Despite my resolve, my fingers still tremble as they hover above the Hefty Cinch Sack of no return. I’ve managed to convince myself that the moment I loosen my grip on one shred of documentation, I’ll get a call from the American Kennel Club with some in-depth questions about Sparky’s lineage. I can’t feature myself in the world without this information.

Apparently I am not alone in my obsessive-compulsive attachment to obsolete data. The tortured lesson that I am learning the hard way is that the preservation of outmoded data hinders the retrieval and use of meaningful information. This sad truism applies to hotel guest history and service data.

In last year’s HITEC edition of Hospitality Upgrade, I was in relentless pursuit of my feather pillow. My premise was that despite a long history of guest history, most hotels still can’t/don’t/won’t match customer preferences to the services they offer. I heard from scores of industry professionals telling me that my comments were on target – that our industry’s technology has not yet fulfilled the promise of individualized guest recognition and service. Despite the open exchange of dialogue and ideas, I never heard a really good explanation of why this might still be the case.

One or two guest service agents candidly admitted that time was a crucial factor. Certainly they understood that pleasing guests was an implied part of their job, but that it took a back seat to “get ‘em in, get ‘em paid up, get ‘em out.” (Repeat as necessary.) In a civilization obsessed by speed, faster seems like a noble goal. Unfortunately, this theory results in what I call airport attitude: the customer’s frail hope that assembly-line service experiences will be over as rapidly as possible. Being fast may appeal to our right-brain instincts, but the desire for recognition goes unfulfilled.

Interestingly, though, the pace of business was not the leading cause of service failures cited. The majority of service agents pointed to a lack of access to useful data. At first blush that complaint sounds as though systems aren’t available or that we haven’t yet collected a sufficient amount of guest information. However, after my harrowing personal attempt to bring file cabinet order out of moving box chaos, I suspect that the problem is quite the opposite. I heard an amazing number of complaints about over-collected databases with enough questionable entries that service agents didn’t trust them. Just as we cling to the notion that faster is more efficient, we hold a savage grip on the notion that more data is better than less. The key to superior guest service is not data collection but data management. All of us have guest history, but how many of us have guest history managers who give their undivided attention to the addition of new material and the reasoned removal of the old? With today’s relentless flow of information, we must add content management to systems management in order to restore the trust in and full use of the systems we deploy.

And now is the time to wake up and sniff the decaf: the vast majority of guests who haven’t phoned or dropped by since 1997 aren’t coming back. Send their records to your filing cabinet; hanging on too long just makes you seem needy. If you are visited by a blast from the past, then rekindle the relationship and move forward. Good guest histories have both active and inactive statuses. If you have a content manager, flag the new record so that he or she can merge pertinent details from your offline archive.

Remember also that guest history clutter is not confined to inaccurate or obsolete data – sometimes there is simply too much detail. We need to recognize that time is a factor at check in and streamline the presentation of pertinent information. For instance, every guest history system I’ve seen includes a revenue summary of previous stays. A nice feature, but does that need to be viewed at registration? Let’s say that I’ve spent $5,000 at the Dew Drop Inn. Am I a high roller or is the minibar just viciously overpriced? Five thousand dollars is less important as an absolute value than it is as a relative measure. If spending connotes stature, then that type of data is more effective when it is tiered and presented in meaningful categories, such as $=not much, $$=some, $$$=lots, $$$$=whoa, baby, we’ve got a live one. (Actual category titles may vary by property.) Leave the empirical data in the accounting department.

Too many hotels drive off the premise that “I’ll buy again” guest satisfaction is derived almost exclusively from our products: if the room is clean, quiet and comfortable and the food is decent then ipso facto the guest is a happy camper. The truth is that within price class, the products from one hotel to the next aren’t that different. (If I were to lead you blindfolded into a logo-free business hotel room virtually anywhere in the world, I would defy you to tell me the name of the chain on the flag out front.) Paying attention to creature comforts makes for an acceptably pleasant guest experience, but it isn’t what binds guests into the kind of brand loyalty that most of us seek to build. The opportunity to be a world-class provider lies in paying as much attention to the creature as we pay to its comforts.

Still, hope springs eternal. Just this year a major hotel chain began a national campaign promising personalized settings for their guests. Their TV ads show a room attendant making up a bed with an animal-skin bedspread and topping it off with a stuffed teddy bear. (Not exactly a feather pillow – the catchphrase for that setting might have been “loathsome garishness on request.”) The ad finishes with Elvis (or a facsimile thereof) happily checking into a room that was definitely his own. I’m sure there is some small degree of advertising hyperbole in that particular example, but I nonetheless applaud their message. It can be done and, properly managed, we do have the technology. And to those who succeed I quote the immortal words of The King, “Then cue. Then cue berry mush.”

Michael Schubach, CHTP, is vice president of resort technology for The Pinehurst Company. He offices at Pinehurst Resort, site of the 1999 and 2005 U.S. Open golf championships. He is passionate about technology that yields results for the guests who are subjected to its use. He hopes one day to sleep in a hotel room that sports an animal-skin bedspread on request so long as a sufficient quantity of Veuve Clicquot champagne is provided as well. He can be e-mailed at michael.schubach@ourclub.com.

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