Definitely Doug 7/29/22: The Digital Guest Journey … No Download Required (Part One)

7.29.2022
by Doug Rice
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More and more hotel software vendors today talk about optimizing the “guest journey.” But what exactly does this mean? What are the benefits to the guest and to the hotel, and should your hotel(s) be looking at these solutions? And if so, how should you evaluate them?

While there is no universal definition, we can roughly define guest journey software as digital, guest-facing platforms that guide the guest every step of the way, starting at or even before booking, and continuing through pre-arrival, upselling, check-in, the actual stay, check-out, and post-checkout activities.

The goals of guest journey software are generally threefold:

  • To provide a single consistent way for the guest to manage their journey digitally via web, mobile, kiosk, tablet, guest-room TV, or any combination. The emphasis is generally on mobile because guests like to do as much as they can on their own device, but the transition should be seamless when for whatever reason they prefer some other mode or interact with real humans.
  • To capture more revenue from each guest by offering relevant upsell offers at exactly the right point in their journey, and through conversion from indirect to direct bookings in the future.
  • To reduce nonproductive administrative workload at the often-understaffed front desk, freeing up associates to focus on delivering a great hospitality experience, and enabling hotels to better cope with staff shortages or high labor costs.

These goals are consistent with recent research from Oracle and Skift, which included key findings that 73% of consumers want hotels to offer technology that minimizes contact with staff and other guests; 74% want hotels to use artificial intelligence to deliver more relevant offers; and 65% of hoteliers want new technologies to help them weather labor shortages. All of these are difficult to achieve without a consistent and well architected digital guest journey. Yet few of today’s Property Management Systems (PMSs) were designed with these goals in mind.

Guest journey software is a complex topic. To say that the space has evolved over the past few years would be a huge understatement. The limited products that first appeared a few years back have given way to several very capable platforms that hold the promise of revolutionizing the way guests interact with hotels while simultaneously streamlining operations.

Guest journey software represents a fundamental change in how hotels can serve guests. While still in its infancy, I believe that over time it will become a category as important as the PMS. Because while PMSs do an excellent job of managing the operational and financial aspects of a hotel, they are mostly designed around the needs of hotel staff. Only a few of the more recent entries do much to optimize the guest experience or to effectively merchandise everything that the hotel has to offer. These tasks have historically been handled by a combination of systems held together by chewing gum and baling wire: websites and booking engines, customer relationship management, content management, email, mobile apps, kiosks, messaging and chatbots, guest-room device controls, televisions, guest-room tablets, and many others. These systems are usually connected only loosely (if at all) to the operational systems such as the PMS, point-of-sale, housekeeping, and work-order management systems. For lack of stronger connectivity, many activities that are critical to maximizing the guest experience and revenue require manual intervention by hotel staff to fill the gap, often at an inconvenience to the guest (especially in today’s understaffed hotels) or loss of revenue opportunities.

My research for these two articles benefited greatly from interviews with key executives at ten companies offering a variety of products in the field. Some offer complete suites, some have modular components addressing a few or many areas, and some have both. No one product does everything, and some are more limited than others – but even these can still fill important gaps for many hotels. Vendors are investing heavily to grow their capabilities, and the space is maturing rapidly.

I will not evaluate specific products here; that needs to be based on the fit of a product to a particular hotel’s situation and requirements. Every one of these solutions will be the right solution for certain hotels and a poor fit for others. If you are considering guest journey software, you should look at as many of these as you can for inspiration. Your PMS vendor may also offer some of these capabilities, and you should review those as well.

My sincere thanks to senior executives at Canary Technologies, Duve, GuestTraction, hudini, NexGen Guest, Nonius, Operto, QikInn, TigerTMS, and Virdee for their time and insights.

The material that follows today and in Part 2 to follow will highlight things guest journey software can do. A lot of these were not possible a few short years ago, and some of them may still sound a bit like science fiction. But everything I will mention is supported today by at least one, and in many cases several, of the companies listed above. At the same time, no one product does everything, and some of them may be impractical to deploy with your hotel’s current systems. Over time, those constraints will change, so I encourage every hotel to look at the options with an open mind, if only to develop a clear vision of where they want to be a few years downline.

Benefits of Guest Journey Software

Every guest is different. However, most people have now adopted – and prefer – digital interactions for many routine transactions that used to be done in person, but where the human element added little value. It started with automated teller machines in the 1970s. Fifty years later, few banking transactions require a teller, nor do many customers prefer one when they can accomplish the same thing on their smartphone from home.

Some hotel guests love mobile apps and digital keys. However, adoption of both remains low. That is a problem that guest journey software seeks to solve – and one where vendors have made huge progress. Today, it’s time to figure out not whether, but when and how to deploy options for a fully digital guest journey. So what are the potential benefits?

More Guest Choice. While many hotel general managers say “our guests want to interact with people, not machines,” that’s simply not always true, and when it IS true, guests want to talk to the staff about the facilities, restaurants in the neighborhood, or things to do in the city. They are not that interested in watching staff demonstrate their keyboard skills entering data into the PMS … yet that’s often the main interaction they have. Some guests may never want digital interactions; others (especially younger generations) might almost always choose them. Regardless, few travelers want to spend fifteen minutes going through a long manual check-in process when arriving at midnight after a tiring and sweaty 15-hour flight. The better digital journey platforms let each guest use whatever means they prefer, digital or human, to do as much of the check-in process as they like, in advance or at the time of arrival.

More Revenue. Guest journey software can present upselling options at exactly the right time to maximize the sale of room upgrades, early check-in, late check-out, add-ons, food and beverage, amenities, services, tours, activities, and the like. Tests have shown that guests buy more when presented upsell options electronically with no sales pressure. This is especially true if the options are relevant to where they are in their journey and are enhanced with photos, videos, user reviews, and other rich content. Some of these platforms can target specific upsell ideas based on the guest profile, reservation characteristics such as party size, booking channel, reason for travel, corporate or group affiliation, or whether they booked a package.

More importantly, they can do this at any point in the journey – at booking, in the confirmation email, in a prearrival email, at check-in, on the television, or via a text message during the stay. Many hotels have found significant revenue opportunities just from selling early check-in or late check-out that they used to give away for free – but timing of the offer can be critical. This might be a few days before arrival for early check-in, or in a pre-departure text message for late check-out. Staff-initiated upselling occurs mostly during check-in and depends on the skill of the front desk associate. With a digital journey you get multiple chances to take a bite of the upsell apple, and it does not depend on how busy, well trained, or motivated a particular associate might be.

Another revenue impact can be in food and beverage. Many guest journey packages offer elegant user interfaces for ordering from room service, for pickup or table service at restaurants, and for pickup or delivery from nearby restaurants (for which the hotel earns a commission). Mobile apps complete with photos, videos, and dietary details can sell far more effectively than the telephone, and hotels that use them often report sales increases in the range of 10% to 30%. In recent years, when I have ordered room service by telephone, it seems like I often wait a long time to get an answer, and then have to deal with someone whose command of the language and the task are pretty basic. And while in theory they could upsell me, that rarely happens. I once asked room service about wine options for dinner with my wife, and after putting me on hold to consult a colleague, the associate came back on the line to inform me that they had a choice – “red” or “white.” A digital menu and ordering platform solves these problems and effectively merchandises your offerings rather than just taking orders.

Labor Savings. The more of the check-in process that can be completed either before the guest arrives or at a kiosk, the less time is needed at the front desk, and the fewer staff needed. Many of the reasons why digital check-in was impractical in the past have been addressed by the latest generation of products, which can digitally scan and validate identity documents, match them biometrically to real-time selfies to ensure it’s the same person, securely accept payment, and cut digital or physical keys. They can also handle reporting requirements to authorities where required. These options are now available, cost-effective, and legally permitted in most major countries. Even in the few places where regulatory requirements cannot be fully met, the time spent at the front desk can be minimized. Where appropriate, the preregistration and check-in processes can be customized and simplified further for specific low-risk guests, such as elite-tier loyalty members or travelers with major corporate accounts.

Digital check-in should not be an all-or-none proposition. With many of the latest tools, the guest can choose what to do in advance and what to do at the hotel. For the latter, they can choose the front desk or, if they prefer no human interaction or see a long line, they can use a kiosk to complete the process and obtain keys. The evidence is that if you offer all the options to all guests through a well-orchestrated process, you can cut the amount of administrative processing at the front desk by half or more; some hotels have virtually eliminated it. How hotels use the freed-up staff time – to cut costs, to spend more time interacting meaningfully with guests, or a combination – is up to them. Some hotels have gone so far as to eliminate front desks entirely, but they still station ambassadors to greet guests and assist with digital check-in. One hotel even converted the space occupied by its front desk to a bar that now generates revenue as the bartenders greet arriving guests!

Reduced OTA Commissions. A fourth major benefit is the ability to capture more direct bookings and reduce reliance on Online Travel Agencies (OTAs). Many of these platforms can capture contact information for nearly 100% of guests, even for bookings made thru online travel agencies. Guests expect to provide information like email address and mobile phone number when interacting digitally for preregistration, and they are incentivized to do so if they understand that it can result in a faster check-in process and more personalized stay. Many of the same guests may decline to give this information when asked at the front desk – what’s the benefit, besides potentially being spammed? Overworked front desk staff may also be hard to train to consistently ask for contact details, and even when they do ask, a single typing error will render an email or phone number unusable. Guest journey software can also handle future bookings and one-click enrollment into a loyalty program. Since it already knows the guest details, it can do this without the need to re-enter information, reducing friction.

Housekeeping Productivity. Guest journey software can easily reach out to guests the day before departure to obtain or reconfirm their expected departure time. With many guests departing hotels today without physically checking out, this can help room attendant scheduling and result in more rooms available for earlier check-in. Alternatively, the guest may be able to check out using the software by simply clicking a button or sending a text message “I’m checking out.”  Additionally, for hotels that offer optional or on-request room cleaning, the guest can pre-select their preferred cleaning schedule in advance, so housekeeping can better plan. This can even be an upsell option if the hotel wants to charge for it – even if the PMS doesn’t support that.

More Gratuities, Happier Staff. Digital tipping is just starting to emerge in a couple of guest journey products. In an increasingly cashless world, staff who have traditionally been tipped in cash have suffered, and hotels in regions where tipping is the norm have had to increase wages to compensate. Guest journey software can solve this problem, especially for housekeepers. A guest can authorize a daily or per-cleaning tip at check-in or any time during their stay, and the guest journey software can post it to the guest folio. This means the guest needs no cash, the front desk gets fewer requests for change, and business guests enjoy simpler expense reporting. Many guests intend to tip but either forget or don’t have the right change, so digital tipping can significantly increase tips earned by staff, reducing the need for the hotel to pay higher wages. The systems can interface with housekeeping systems to determine how tips from a particular guest room should be allocated, and with payroll systems to get them to the staff.

Guest Experience. Guest journey software can deliver a more consistent, connected, guest experience. The more aspects of a guest’s stay that they can manage through their own device, the more they can personalize their own experience at their leisure, and the greater the likelihood they’ll have a memorable stay – and spend more money. Ideally the guest should be able to reserve a room and any relevant activities; to receive and act on upsell offers; to register, check in, and obtain a digital and/or physical room key (the latter at a kiosk or the front desk); to communicate with the hotel via text or voice before, during, or after their stay; to order food, beverages, retail items, services, and amenities; to control the devices in their guest room; to tip hotel staff; to obtain their folio and check out; to provide feedback, and to check their loyalty account.

Cost. While good guest journey software can deliver significant financial benefits, they are surprisingly reasonably priced. Many of the systems I looked at had transparent pricing models, ranging (for a 200-room hotel) from as little as $100 a month for limited functionality, up to a maximum of about $2,000 for a couple of the higher end packages. I cannot recall another hotel software product where the return on investment is so compelling, even if you are only able to use a few of the features. Of course, you can also find integrators who will develop custom solutions for more money, but I would not recommend that route until you have reviewed the off-the-shelf options; some of them are very impressive.

Why Now?

Guest journey products have been around for six or seven years, but until now have largely been in the backwater. That’s changing, for several reasons.

  • The newer products break the prior barriers to adoption faced by many hotels, specifically checking identity documents (and capturing them where needed), getting payment, and issuing physical keycards.
  • The emergence and growing sophistication of progressive web apps (PWAs, which act like apps but are really just web pages that are optimized for different device types) have made it possible to do most everything without requiring that guests download a native app. Few hotels have been successful at getting more than 20% of guests to use a native app, and most are much lower. In contrast, many hotels report PWA usage rates of 70% or higher.
  • Better transitions when a native app is needed – specifically, to issue a mobile key. In many cases guests will never need this: only a minority of guests want mobile keys and only a minority of hotels offer them. Several of the PWA products operate normally until and the guest requests a mobile key at a hotel that supports it, at which point they link to the phone’s app store, advise the guest to confirm the download, and then deep-link into the native app to issue the key without any further action by the guest. The native app has the same look and feel as the PWA, making the transition as frictionless as possible. Guests who don’t want a mobile key never need a download.
  • The other limitation of PWAs is that unlike apps, they cannot push notifications to the mobile device. However, many of these systems use the guest’s choice of messaging app (e.g., SMS, WhatsApp, WeChat) to accomplish essentially the same thing.

Many hotels are required to use apps provided by their brands. Unfortunately, most of these are woefully outdated and clunky. They require an app download that the majority guests are unwilling to do. Most are full of outdated or incomplete information, they don’t support much if any upselling, they can’t handle digital tipping, they don’t let the guest choose their housekeeping schedule, and usage rates are so low that they do little to reduce labor requirements at the front desk or in housekeeping.

One major brand app regularly offers me a mobile key at hotels that don’t have enabled locks; and at the ones that do, they send me my mobile key by email long after I have arrived at the hotel (a few times it came after I had checked out!). The brand apps mostly offer chat functions that their hotels are not staffed to monitor with adequate frequency (I have often waited many hours for a response) and few use artificial intelligence (AI) powered chatbots to provide quick personal response to simple questions. The brands may call this a guest journey, but it’s a bumpy and uncomfortable one.

For a major brand to modernize its app is a huge project, whereas some of the new products could implement many of these capabilities in a matter of minutes or hours. They can also adapt quickly to changing needs with simple configuration changes. Some of the products discussed here can be layered on top of an existing brand or hotel app to provide additional functionality for guests who don’t download it, or to add functionality for those that do. So even if your hotel is stuck with a neolithic-era brand app, you can look at the options. You may be able to supplement the brand app with a PWA guest journey solution for the 80% or more of guests who won’t download the app.

Sadly today, some of the guest journey products on the market are so good and some of the brand apps so bad that if I were a hotel owner, I would consider deflagging just so that I could bring in a product that would provide real revenue, cost, and guest satisfaction benefits. In a four- or five-star hotel in particular, it would not surprise me if the return on investment for a good guest journey product exceeded that of the entire franchise agreement.

Challenges with Guest Journey Software

Despite the many benefits, deploying guest journey software is not for the faint of heart. In many ways it is as fundamental a change as replacing a PMS. Most hotels will face tradeoffs between the functionality they want, the ability to offer a single, consistent digital guest journey and user interface, and the availability and effectiveness of integration with existing systems. But partial solutions can still deliver partial benefits, and several of the more mature vendors I spoke with advocated starting with just one or two key things, getting them right, and adding functionality over time.

Integrations. For optimum results, guest journey software needs to integrate with the PMS, payment system, access control (door lock), and point-of-sale systems (if food and beverage ordering is a consideration). Where this isn’t possible, there may be manual workarounds that can preserve the revenue value of the solution, but with less labor savings. Other times, the guest journey app may be able to transfer the user to an existing mobile-enabled system to complete a particular task. Depending on the specifics, this may be nearly invisible to the guest or may result in a jarring disconnect as an entirely new site opens up on their device and starts by collecting identifying information that the guest journey app already had.

Integration can also depend on the availability of Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) in your existing systems. While more and more core vendors now offer these, many legacy systems do not. You may be able to work through middleware vendors, and three of the companies mentioned above (hudini, Nonius and Tiger TMS) offer their own middleware that has connections to many of the common systems, and/or they provide a Software Development Kit for integration. But if your PMS doesn’t offer APIs and isn’t supported by middleware, then your options may be limited. As an obvious example, you can’t do digital preregistration and check-in if you can’t get access to reservations stored in the PMS.

Many hotels will be able to add support for specific parts of the guest journey but may be stuck with legacy solutions for others. This can make it difficult to create a consistent brand experience across all channels and functions. Most of the guest journey packages I have seen can be customized to the desired look and feel, so sometimes the best solution may be to set them up to mimic the look and feel of the legacy systems you can’t change.

Changes for Hotel Staff. A potential challenge of guest journey software is the ease of staff use. The solutions I looked at varied widely in this regard. In the best case, back-of-house systems, and the procedures for using them, remain unchanged, and most staff need little or no training – they can still use the PMS or other systems the same way as before, and the guest journey system interacts with them behind the scenes. Text-messaging capabilities often introduce a new user interface where staff can monitor, assign, and respond to messages, and it’s important to evaluate whether your staff will be comfortable and competent with it. Some vendors offer artificial intelligence and/or contact-center support services to help handle requests on behalf of their hotels.

The bigger ease-of-use challenge comes with the complexity of the setup. Some of these systems are incredibly flexible and allow you to easily customize for each guest things like the upselling or check-in process, based on any information in the reservation or guest profile – rate type, channel, loyalty membership or elite status, corporate or group affiliation, etc. This can be extremely powerful, but at the same time it requires competent, consistent, well-trained management to set up and maintain the decision trees over time. Something as simple as adding a new rate in your PMS might require changes to the guest journey software setup – not difficult, but if no one identifies the need and makes the change, the guest journey may break and no one will know why. To be sure, if I was running a 400-room luxury hotel, I would identify a small team that all knew how to do this and that could cover for each other; it’s not necessarily time consuming. But if instead it was a 150-room select-service property, I’d keep it as simple as I could while still maximizing as many of the benefits as possible.

Integrating Existing Guest Journey Capabilities. If your hotel already has components of guest journey software, such as chat or food and beverage ordering, you will want to evaluate whether, and how cleanly, these can be integrated into a guest journey platform. Keeping the same platform makes it easier operationally but may create unwanted disconnects in the digital guest journey. For example, if a package offers text messaging but you also have that in a brand app, it may be impossible to integrate the messaging so that staff continue to see all guest messages in one place as they can today. If you want to offer messaging to all guests (not just to those who have your brand app) then you need the guest journey platform’s texting capability. But you also don’t want to (and probably can’t) force a guest using the brand app to switch to the guest journey software to send a text message. Depending on the specifics of the situation there may be full or partial solutions for these issues, but the design needs careful consideration.

Similarly, you want consistent look, feel, and branding as the guest moves from one function to another, so if you will be keeping existing capabilities from your current systems, you need to think about how to make the guest experience positive. Moving from a well-branded general PWA menu into a food and beverage ordering module, we as consumers can often see immediately that we’ve been sent to a third party. That might be fine if the third party is a familiar one like GrubHub or Doordash that the hotel has partnered with. But if the hotel’s own in-house restaurant ordering system looks like a no-name third-party site rather than an integrated part of the guest app, it can diminish the appeal and damage the brand.

Operational Alignment. Several of the vendors I spoke with talked about the need to manage operational alignment when implementing guest journey software. These solutions are designed to, and do, change the flow of guests through various hotel processes – hopefully improving it. But the changes also mean that hotel staff will need to be doing different things in different places and at different times than before. The processes designed for the old way of doing things can be suboptimal or even counterproductive in a self-service oriented world. Managing front desk lines may become less important, while ensuring quick chat responses or stationing an ambassador near keycard-pickup kiosks can become essential. This means new staff assignments, new standard operating procedures, and new performance metrics.

Vendor Support. As you evaluate guest journey software products, an important consideration (depending on how many of these challenges you face) is whether and how the vendor is prepared to help you address them. Some vendors deliver software, provide some training, and let you figure out things like connectivity and interfaces on your own. Others will hold your hand through some or most of the design, integration, and deployment process, and help you optimize your setup and operation. It’s a complex journey, so unless you have in-house talent capable of managing these aspects, you will want to evaluate how well the vendor can support the process, as well as the cost.

To be Continued

This week I covered the rationale for considering guest journey software, and some of the challenges you might face. The next installment will focus on things to consider when evaluating guest journey software, including specific capabilities you may want to look for with respect to individual modules. Stay tuned!

Douglas Rice
Email: douglas.rice@hosptech.net
LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/ricedouglas

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