Every time I turn around these days, I see a new vendor or product promising something called a complete Guest Experience Management, Guest Journey Management, or Guest Engagement (or some variation on those words). This week I looked at some of the emerging products claiming to be in this space, both to try to better understand it, and to see what promising ideas it may hold.
The first question is, what defines Guest Journey/Experience/Engagement Management? I doubt any two of the vendors I talked to would agree completely; each had a somewhat distinct focus. So I will define it as managing the entire digital experience of the guest seamlessly, on a journey that may include not just a hotel stay, but transportation, activities, food and beverage, amenities, and other things. Ideally this means the traveler has a consistent place to explore everything, book everything, coordinate everything, view everything, and the ability to make changes as the trip evolves. It should work on a website, on a mobile device via app or HTML5 page, on the guest room TV, via any of the common messaging platforms, and through voice activation – all tied together into one cohesive experience. And yes, it should engage the guest, create stickiness and loyalty!
How important is this? This Forbes article says it’s matters a lot, and that the importance gets higher as the age cohort gets younger. Even for baby boomers, the percentage who appreciate the digital travel experience is now at 60%, and for the youngest independent travelers, 81% want digitally delivered travel services. Indeed, it’s a core value proposition for many OTAs, and a major factor in their long-term success. Many of the major brands are also incorporating key aspects into their mobile apps.
Sadly, no product on the market, or brand app, can really do all of this for hotels quite yet. So, this week’s column will be an exercise in “how close can you get.” To be sure, some OTAs can handle itinerary bookings that include air, hotel, car, and activities, but in most cases, they only control the booking part of the digital experience, not the stay part. They might score 10 points on digital booking experience, but they score 0 on digital product delivery. By the time the product is being consumed, they are pretty much out of the picture. Some major brand apps do a bit better on the stay part (and a few can book other travel components), but in my experience they have a long way to go to delivering a seamless experience, even just during the hotel stay. Mobile key works so unreliably in many of the major brand apps that I have given up trying to use it.
Some newer products partially fill the gap by managing the guest digital experience for the hotel, from before the booking (or just after, if booked via a travel agent) through post-departure. While they generally can’t manage the digital experience for a guest who is traveling and not physically inside the hotel, the fact that the hotel is usually the “home base” for the traveler means that hotels can better manage more of the full-trip digital experience than, say, an airline, rental car company, city tour operator, or golf course -- suppliers where the guest is captive for only a brief period of time.
One of the more interesting products I saw comes from iSeatz, and it’s worth looking at even though it probably won’t work for you unless you run a large brand with a loyalty program. Used by IHG and Wyndham, it provides a brand-level alternative to an OTA for booking other travel and local experiences – and an opportunity for guests to earn loyalty points from them, or to burn points to pay for them. Like the OTAs, iSeatz doesn’t manage the end-to-end digital experience during the trip, just the parts related to the booking process and the loyalty transaction. But it can handle restaurant reservations, car rentals, food and grocery delivery, flights, live events, ground transportation, and (with appropriate integration) spa and golf bookings. Want to order food for delivery midway through your stay? No problem, and you can even pay with, or earn, loyalty points. The bookings occur principally through partners such as OpenTable, Viator, and DoorDash. And of course, there are multiple opportunities for hotels to monetize when they can deliver customers to other local businesses.
I’m still looking for a product that can do something similar for smaller hotel groups and independents. While I found several that can book ancillary products, unfortunately for the most part these are limited to hotel-supplied items, such as room service or a spa treatment, or maybe a third-party service that provides non real-time inventory or allocation for simple services – not a scalable or sustainable model.
Five other products I looked at this week deliver some of the aspects of a seamless guest experience, but focused specifically on the hotel, with limited if any non-hotel components. Two of them (InnSpire and Monscierge) can embed themselves in the guest room infrastructure (TV and/or Wi-Fi), while three others (Criton, Okkami, and Ubiq Global Solutions) are pure software (in some cases with optional mobile devices, e.g. bedside tablet). The former provide options for more or simpler integration, such as between the guest mobile device, Wi-Fi, and TV, but typically require replacing major elements of the networking and/or entertainment systems, which may not be in the budget if it’s not a new hotel. The latter can deliver a good, if somewhat less seamless, total guest experience. Pricing varies widely based on the capabilities and interfaces you need and the business models of the specific vendors, but it’s fair to say that these five products likely cover a pretty wide range of budgets.
There are definitely other vendors in this space. I didn’t look specifically at the largest one, Intelity, because it’s already on everyone’s radar, and my goal with this column is to highlight companies that might not be. A few others didn’t respond to requests for an interview, but I think the six I looked at, including iSeatz mentioned above, will collectively give you a good overview of the trends and capabilities.
Features to look for in these products include booking, on-line check-in, mobile key, digital compendium, folio review and check-out, guest-to-staff chat features, guest surveys, and social media postings; most of the products I looked at covered most if not all of these. Many also offer in-room temperature control, control of the TV including casting, setting room status such as do-not-disturb or make-up-room, and access to select services within the hotel such as housekeeping requests, room service, or spa bookings. But in each case, check the details, because features vary significantly from product to product, and even vendors that support a feature may not support the specific interfaces you need.
An important consideration is how the guest establishes contact with the platform. Do they need to download an app or bookmark an HTML5 page? If yes, what is done to encourage them to actually do that? Communications after booking by email, or upon check-in via text message, may provide the necessary impetus (SMS messages at check-in with an HTML5 link are reportedly quite effective, probably because the link is effectively bookmarked in the chat window). What (if any) features will still work for guests who are not willing to load the app or HTML5 page? Even for the same product, the answers to these questions may vary depending on configuration choices and the environment in which it’s deployed.
Criton aims to provide a tech platform that provides a white label app with simple integration of the PMS, door locks, guest messaging, loyalty, and point-of-sale, and combining it with content management to support a digital compendium. The company views the platform as one that allows smaller hotels and groups to share the costs of the infrastructure needed to do things that would be out of reach with custom or bespoke apps.
InnSpire recently launched its GuestMagic product, which has been rolling out to some as-yet-unnamable chain clients, and which last spring won HTNG’s prestigious TechOvation award. Its goal is to put the guest’s mobile device in control throughout the process, from booking to post-stay. Because InnSpire also provides TV and Wi-Fi, it can fully coordinate both control of the TV from the remote as well as the display of content on the TV. Some notable features include real-time inventory for booking, automatic recognition of the guest’s mobile device on the hotel Wi-Fi network, a private VPN for each guest room to simplify pairing with the TV, and automated food and beverage ordering. Jaydeep Anand, General Manager of the Five Palms Jumeirah, says that his hotel is selling US$50,000 per month of services in-room through InnSpire. The company is currently working with one hotel client to integrate with the brand CRM so that the experience of each guest can be customized based on known preferences, trip profile, and other factors.
Monscierge has recently graduated into a similar approach through a deep integration with Apple TV, which just went live at its first hotel. This enables integrated streaming and casting and may allow some hotels to eliminate cable or satellite TV and the associated costs. Interesting integrations are offered with local food service and grocery delivery through companies like Domino’s, Postmates and UberEats, ideal for limited service or extended stay hotels. Monscierge can manage and resolve many routine guest requests through guest-to-staff communications capabilities, and provides curated local recommendations including events. Much of the content can also be accessed from a lobby kiosk. Monscierge can be deployed as an app, or embedded via API into an existing app.
Okkami offers an interesting combination of a mobile app with messaging. It supports messaging via Facebook Messenger, an app, a website, WhatsApp, Telegram, Line, WeChat, Viber, and SMS. Guests can start in the app or any of the messaging platforms, and the transaction is always closed out in the same place they start. Okkami supports and encourages chat between the guest and staff both pre-stay and in-stay, and offers the chat platforms as immediate alternatives, for example in a booking confirmation email, to downloading the app. It also offers the ability to sell multiple activities (onsite or offsite) using an online store and can post to the PMS as soon as the activity is sold or marked as complete. From the hotel’s perspective, a single console allows them to interact with all of the message platforms.
Ubiq Global Solutions offers a solution called Qikinn that is largely designed around extending the life of legacy systems (such as PMS) by layering on guest-facing capabilities, both ones that interact with the PMS or other systems, and ones requiring richer content. It supports both online check-in where locally permitted, or for countries requiring a passport or ID check or scan, a front desk customer-facing tablet that eliminates paper from the registration process. It provides a booking engine and visibility of a guest’s past and future bookings. It can presell various products, services, add-ons, or upgrades; it can advertise promotional specials specific to a guest stay; and it can show events happening within the city and around the hotel.
As always, I don’t necessarily recommend any of these companies or products and these aren’t comprehensive evaluations. You should always consider your own requirements vs. the capabilities of these and other companies and do your own due diligence on the companies themselves. But a look at some of these products may give you some different, innovative and disruptive ways of doing things, making the guest experience more engaging and stickier!