Streamlining the guest journey is top of mind for any hotelier. Hotel Online recently sat down with Mike Gathright, senior vice president of customer experience at Hilton, to learn what types of technology enable smoother and more stress-free guest stays and to find out what the brand is doing to make guest service more efficient. Gathright oversees reservations, guest services and support, as well as Hilton’s digital channels, including website and mobile app, property and contact center.
HO: Briefly discuss your recent survey, The 2023 Traveler: Emerging Trends that are Innovating the Travel Experience. What are the key findings?
GATHRIGHT: Not surprisingly, we found that consumers are eager to travel again and they’re looking for deeper connections with family, friends, colleagues and customers. They also want to feel cared for and appreciated. In fact, an overwhelming majority of respondents—more than 85 percent—indicated that they want personalization and recognition during their stay. At the same time, consumers indicated that an easy and frictionless experience is important, and more than a quarter of them believe that hotel technologies play a key role in that regard.
HO: These last two findings seem to be in opposition.
GATHRIGHT: On the surface, it might appear that way. But at the end of the day, I believe people are seeking a balance between technology and human interaction. A lot of companies talk about digitizing the human experience. But we come at it from a slightly different angle, which is how to humanize the digital experience. It has to do with intentionality. The way we approach the design and use of technology is not to remove the touch but to eliminate the friction points and the areas where guests have told us about problems. We recognize that guests want to connect with people but they also want the travel experience to be efficient and streamlined. So, our job is to humanize that journey and make it more personal, too.
HO: So, what types of technology are especially useful in eliminating guest friction?
GATHRIGHT: The CRS is an important starting point. We’ve spent a number of years renovating in that space, and it has enabled us to access our inventory much more easily. When you layer that with website and mobile app, it allows you to unlock some really important guest-facing capabilities. Searching for a hotel can be a daunting task. So, we’ve worked on our filters to help guests narrow their searches and personalize their search experience.
HO: Can you give me an example?
GATHRIGHT: Sure. We know that many people now own electric cars and they’re looking for properties that have electric vehicle chargers. Our guests can now search and narrow down based on that criterion. And we’ve seen an increase in our booking conversion on that filter.
HO: What about mobile apps?
GATHRIGHT: Within our mobile app, guests can choose a room based off a floor plan on a map, digitally check in, use their phone as the key, and then digitally check out. There’s a dual benefit here. It not only creates a frictionless arrival and departure for guests but also frees staff from handling transactional items and allows them to be more engaged with customers.
HO: What about the PMS?
GATHRIGHT: Everything comes to life at the property level, so it’s critical that hotels have a PMS that’s flexible, cloud-based and mobile in nature. You need to get away from the terminal behind the desk. One of the things we’re working on is mobile capabilities for housekeeping. This not only helps our team members but also creates a better guest experience. When you connect this with the CRS, it allows you to manage things like early check-in and late check-out much more efficiently.
HO: What is one of your most rewarding projects?
GATHRIGHT: About a year ago we launched a service called Confirmed Connecting Rooms by Hilton, which allows guests to instantly confirm adjoining or connecting rooms at Hilton.com or on the Hilton Honors app. This is especially helpful for travelers with kids. In the past, it has always been challenging to book confirmed connecting rooms. The hotel might put it in the notes, but guests often arrived at the property to find that their children were on a different floor. This new service is a great example of how technology can remove stress from the travel experience.
HO: What are Hilton’s plans for the future regarding friction-eliminating guest technology?
GATHRIGHT: Payments is a huge area. We’ve already rolled out contactless digital payments to more than half of our portfolio so that guests can pay with their mobile devices, smart watches or credit cards, and we’re building that into a digital wallet. In 2023, we’ll continue to expand in that area. We’re also seeing the QR code rebound in a lot of restaurants and bars. So, we’re mixing QR codes with contactless payments to make the guest journey more seamless than ever.