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The Great Divide of In-stay Guest Engagement: Mobile App vs. In-room Device

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March 26, 2018
Marketing & Guest Experience
Ron Hardin - ron@ronhardin.tech

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Hoteliers are increasingly turning to guest-facing mobile apps to facilitate engagement during the guest’s stay. Dedicated in-room touch points are significantly more successful, judging from usage rates and guest feedback. Mobile apps play a key role in engagement before and after a stay, and options such as mobile check-in and mobile key extend functionality to the arrival experience, but they aren't widely used for other in-stay functions, despite improvements in app functionality. Guest engagement platforms that incorporate an in-room touch screen and/or speech recognition device are used at a much higher rate, and generate more positive feedback. In a word, they more successfully achieve engagement. 
Guest engagement solutions in the hotel universe are many and varied. They include loyalty programs, brand- or hotel-specific mobile apps, websites/web apps, direct messaging and SMS text interaction via an artificial intelligence (AI) platform, social media channels, in-room products and amenities, and the list goes on. The customer’s mobile device is an ideal platform for engaging patrons before their stay, as well as after they depart, particularly if they are in a loyalty program. The device is figuratively (and almost literally) attached to the customer. It supports both mobile applications and messaging, and consumers don’t leave home without it. It is increasingly the avenue of choice for customer search, shopping and booking. But is the guest’s mobile device the optimum platform for engagement during their hotel stay, or does a strategy based on a dedicated in-room device achieve better results?
In our research we found a July 2017 article by Deanna Ting which examined the J.D. Power annual North America Hotel Guest Satisfaction Index Study. Her general finding was that “guests are more satisfied at hotels that are mobile friendly … Although hotels have made efforts to invest in their own proprietary mobile apps, the J.D. Power survey found that a significant number of guests (38 percent) don’t use those apps during their hotel stay. This seems to suggest there could be room for improvement in how hotels develop their mobile apps. Only 4 percent of guests have used those apps to check in and only 1 percent have used them to check out.” 
A month later, Ting reported on the results of a survey study on 311 hotel brand apps by business intelligence firm L2 Inc. In this report, Ting quotes Michael Silverman, senior client strategist at L2, as saying that while there are “a lot of interesting, in-stay experiences that some hotel apps offer – currently most hotel apps with in-stay functionality only allow you to book your hotel reservation or message the concierge.”
Greg Land is IBM’s global segment leader of travel-related services, and one of the proponents of the adoption of technologies such as IBM Watson for travel and lodging applications. In his keynote address at the recent HFTP Annual Convention, “Cognitive Computing and the Digital Guest Experience,” Land pointed out how indispensable our mobile devices are when we travel. He also added that having to use a mobile app to interact with the hotel once he arrived at his destination was the last thing he wanted to do. 
“App fatigue” is a thing, and it is increasing, according to several sources. The use of messaging and social media apps has grown, but the rate of installation and usage of other types of apps is trending downward. Should hoteliers continue to buck that trend to improve in-stay guest engagement? Or should they choose a more effective solution? Industry news outlets have reported that many hotels are experimenting with adding messaging functionality to their proprietary apps in an effort to make the apps more useful and functional for their guests. Hotels are turning to third-party messaging apps such as Kipsu, Syniverse and Zingle for that functionality. SMS text messaging is universal, familiar and doesn’t require the guest to install an app. 
Guest engagement platforms that feature a dedicated in-room touch point for in-stay functionality – tablet, other touch-screen device, voice-activated device or some combination of these – appear to be the more effective solution. They generate higher guest usage and more positive guest feedback. 
In January 2016, David Tossell of DataArt, a travel and hospitality application development provider, wrote an article entitled, “5 Essential Components of a Successful Mobile Strategy.” Tossell pegs “on-property experience” as the fifth and final essential component of a successful mobile strategy. He hints at a more effective solution: allowing guests to use their own mobile device or a hotel provides a device for a guest to access hotel services. Tossell wrote, “From a convenience and upsell capability, anecdotal reports suggest that the total on-property spend increases when these apps/tablets are made available to guests.”
The usage gap remains cavernous when comparing how the apps are made available. In-stay usage data for brand and hotel mobile apps is hard to come by, but the numbers estimated by several industry sources are in line with those often cited by solution providers – somewhere between 0.5 percent and 5 percent.  
In an interview during HITEC Toronto, Jeremy Ward, COO of iRiS, a provider of guest engagement solutions, said, “What hotel guests want from an app is value while they are in the hotel [mine]. They want to contact the hotel perhaps through some form of two-way messaging, order room service from, order pool-side dining ... Essentially, adding concierge functionality into an app that’s going to enhance the guest’s stay is what hotels should strive for.”
Again, the focus is on improving the app functionality in hopes that it will drive more guests to actually download and use the app. IRis and other solution providers generally agree that having a dedicated in-room touch point device is the preferred way to enable high guest usage rates.
citizenM hotels is a self-described “collection of innovative concepts, a hotel driven by one desire: to create affordable luxury for the people.” It uses iRiS’ in-room tablet platform as an integral component of its guest experience methodology and digitally integrated operating environment based on iReckonU middleware. The platform includes the iRiS tablet – which citizenM calls the “MoodPad” – in every guestroom. It's used for room controls, food ordering, service requests and two-way communications. By standardizing and integrating the tablet in such a way that it is the most convenient (and sometimes the only) way to access these services, citizenM’s guest engagement tablet usage is virtually 100 percent.
Managing Director and General Manager of Boston Harbor Hotel Stephen Johnston shares his feedback on online guest reviews of the Intelity system. 
"Guests have embraced this new hotel technology wholeheartedly … Guests appreciate this new and efficient way to interact with the hotel, and we enjoy being able to offer the conveniences of technology without compromising our high standards of service,” Johnston said. “It’s a hassle-free interface that is easy to navigate. People are intrigued when they see that by simply pressing a few buttons, wonderful food appears at their door within 30 minutes.” 
The citizenM NYC is another hotel where guests have taken notice of the in-room tablet and included a mention in their (mostly) positive reviews. A total of 69 of 2,921 reviews mention MoodPad; “controlled by a tablet” appears in 70 reviews; “room controls” pop up in 343 reviews; “iPad controls” get a shout-out in 152 reviews; and “iPad” is mentioned in 319 reviews. Here is one review found on TripAdvisor: 
"The MoodPad (an iPad mini) was a convenient way of controlling the functions of the room, from window shades to lighting to entertainment.”
In contrast to the tablet-based solutions, some providers are using a voice-activated, speech-recognition device in the guestroom. Volara provides a guest engagement platform based on Amazon’s Alexa speech-recognition personal assistant. According to Volara CEO David Berger, the TripAdvisor reviews are overwhelmingly positive.
Other providers – Angie, Roxy and DigiValet, to name a few – are combining touch-screen displays with speech recognition. DigiValet partnered with the Aloft brand team at Starwood (prior to its acquisition by Marriott) for a pilot installation of DigiValet’s platform featuring iPad and Apple’s Siri voice-command assistant. While DigiValet has moved on from Siri, and the deployment was in a limited number of rooms, the product still garnered a few positive customer reviews on TripAdvisor for the Aloft Boston Seaport.
"We stayed here on an impromptu visit to Boston.  Thermostat, lights, TV all controlled by in-room iPad. ... This is a great property in upcoming seaport location. Easy to recommend.”
"Great location for seaport walks and nice views on higher floors. ... Favorite thing was the comfy bed with Siri-activated ambient lights that change color upon your command! Loved that.”
In contrast, it was almost impossible to find TripAdvisor reviews that mentioned any in-stay usage of a hotel or brand mobile app, favorably or otherwise. ALICE is a hotel mobile app that can be used by both guests and staff for guest engagement and workflow management. It can be provisioned by ALICE under the hotel’s umbrella or used by a hotel or brand as a white label application with custom branding. ALICE quotes three customers on its website. I searched TripAdvisor reviews on those hotels for comments about the app, and found the following: 
Hotel Zephyr San Francisco 
TripAdvisor comments mentioning hotel app (1 out of 2,252)
"Just one disappointment: No room service. For a hotel of that size, and for the price of the room, I would expect room service in the hotel. When I asked how to get dinner delivered I was told to look online on an app. Which I did. Wasn't so happy about it. ”
Brooklands Hotel UK
TripAdvisor comment mentioning hotel app (1 out of 2,638)
"My boyfriend downloaded the hotel app on his phone which is an amazing idea and he was able to request a toothbrush kit as he'd forgot his which was quickly delivered! We decided to order room service for dinner (again through the app) which was a great idea this, again, was quickly delivered and the waiter was very polite and helpful.”
The lack of TripAdvisor reviews suggests that guests are not inclined to download and install hotel mobile apps, so the in-stay usage rates are low, resulting in little impact on guest experience and the bottom line.
Guest engagement solutions are not worth their cost unless they actually engage guests during their hotel stays. Solutions that provide a dedicated in-room touch point, such as a tablet or other touch-screen device – with or without voice control – are clearly more effective than mobile apps at engaging guests during their stay. These solutions have higher usage rates, produce better financial results and generate more positive customer feedback. Some resistance and skepticism remain as a result of early deployments that either used consumer-grade products without hotel customizations or were deployed without effective device management and support. Products and platforms have improved – many include a robust back end to gather and manage operational data, and integrate to numerous other hotel systems. A guest engagement solution that includes a dedicated in-room touch point can be more expensive than relying on a guest-facing mobile app, but sometimes you DO get what you pay for.

Ron Hardin, CHTP, is the principal of RonHardin.TECH Consulting and can be reached at ron@ronhardin.tech.

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