Are You Getting the Message?
A year ago in June, I wrote about artificial-intelligence (AI) powered chatbots. This week I am returning to the topic, but in the broader scope of all guest messaging technologies. This has been a hotbed of activity since the arrival of COVID – one of very few preexisting segments of hotel technology that is doing better than before. Hotels are striving to find ways to reduce points of physical contact with the guest, and this one can be relatively inexpensive – or even save money.
Preparing for today’s column, I found 61 companies that offer guest messaging platforms to hospitality. With so many products, I was not able to interview most of the companies directly and relied primarily on websites for information. I will apologize in advance for any mischaracterizations, but my purpose today is to provide a better understanding of the lay of the land in the space, not to review specific products.
An important consideration is that most of the companies offering guest messaging products are microbusinesses. Of the 61, only two have more than 100 employees, and most are closer to 10. Few of them (despite what they may think) are really prepared to deal with a chainwide rollout for a large brand. But many are quite capable of supporting small or midsized hotel groups, and some may be open to licensing their platforms to larger brands that can provide their own deployment and support infrastructures.
What I wrote last year, which I will not repeat here, is worth reviewing if you are looking at these systems today. The discussion of features and differences for AI chatbots would be much the same; the only significant differences would be a year’s more maturity, and more integration with existing hotel systems. But whereas that article was really focused on technologies for handling on-property guest requests and questions via text, this time I will talk about the broader set of messaging technologies for connecting with guests throughout the journey, from pre-booking to post-stay. I will still exclude systems that focus primarily on staff communications – those are important too, and there is some crossover, but they are really distinct applications that can’t easily be substituted for guest messaging, and I have covered some of them in prior columns.
Broadly speaking, most guest messaging products focus on one of two areas: revenue generation (sales assistance, product recommendations, upselling, amenity sales) or hotel operations (answering guest queries, requests, and issues during their stay). Some systems support aspects of both, but where they do, one is primary, and the secondary one typically consists of a few add-ons features rather than a complete suite. It is not surprising that different products have emerged to serve these two needs, as much as they end up serving the same guest. On the hotel side, the buyers are different, with brand marketing executives typically making the decision for revenue-generating technologies, but hotel-level executives or brand operating managers doing so for operational systems. Additionally, whereas many revenue-generation technology approaches apply across many industries, the operational aspects are very specific to the hotel industry. Nevertheless, there is now a gradual blurring of the lines between the two areas, and that trend will likely continue. But as you look at the systems, it may be helpful to understand which side they came from, as this tends to affect the way the company views the problems you are trying to solve.
While chatbots emerged first on the revenue side, in the post-COVID world the drive to eliminate physical contact has pushed operational solutions into the forefront, so I will cover them first. We can broadly group these into two categories: messaging platforms and AI-based chatbots. The distinction is important, and simple to make. Messaging platforms facilitate communications between humans, while AI chatbots enable communication between a human and a machine. With the best AI chatbots, the human user may never realize they are conversing with a machine (at least up to a point).
There are quite a few messaging platforms on the market, and the better ones address some of the key challenges, such as allowing the guest to use their choice of messaging platform (SMS, hotel app, website, WhatsApp, WeChat, etc.), routing messages to the right staff member, tracking and escalating messages that aren’t responded to, applying automated language translation, and generating metrics that can be useful in identifying problem areas and measuring performance. Systems in common use today include Glowing, Guestvox, Gustaffo, Howazit, Whistle, and Zingle. The guest app vendor Monscierge now offers a standalone messaging platform as well.
Historically these messaging platforms have been more popular than AI chatbots. While part of this is certainly related to their lower cost, another important reason is that hospitality is a service business, and many hotel managers have had a strong preference for personal communication between the guest and hotel staff. In theory I agree with this approach, but my real-life experience says it is wrong. First, if the guest chooses to pose their question via chat, they have already made the choice to do that rather than pick up the phone or visit the front desk and talk to a human. But more important, hotels are rarely staffed to respond to messages in real time.
As a guest I have used these chat platforms hundreds of times, and I think the average response time is more than an hour; even in the best case it is typically at least five minutes. That pretty much defeats the purpose; by the time the hotel responds to me, I have already taken other action to address my question, request, or issue. There is a reason why text messages are often referred to as “instant messages” – the expectation is a (near-) instant response. Few hotels can deliver that – and I suspect very few have, or regularly review, metrics that would tell them just how non-instant their responses are.
AI chatbots address this issue, albeit at a cost. The better ones can address 70% or more of routine guest requests and questions without a human, and they can be customized quite easily to answer new questions. Their responses can be so fast that some of them have added a brief response delay to emulate the time it would take a human to respond. When they don’t know the answer, they can escalate it to a human at the hotel, or a couple of vendors even offer call-center support to provide a first line of human response with defined service-level agreements (SLAs).
AI chatbots can save staff time and improve guest satisfaction by providing immediate responses. Most of them will still fail, however, if the hotel cannot provide a quick response to the questions or requests that the bot is unable to address. Some of the bots are also adding new contactless functionality, such as links for check-in/check-out, food ordering, and payment. Most can also be configured to initiate conversations with the guest at appropriate points in the guest journey. Options in this category to look at include Ivy from Go Moment, Hotelway, SABA Hospitality, Alliants, Jeanie from SP Square, and Spotcues.
On the revenue side, messaging platforms are used to answer questions during the booking process, to field questions about loyalty programs, to suggest specific packages that might meet a guest’s needs, or to offer upsell options. These applications can have excellent long-term value, but that value is reduced by COVID rather than increased: with lower demand, there are fewer opportunities to sell, and they don’t make a process that was already contactless any more so. Solutions that charge fixed monthly fees will have a harder time justifying the return on investment until travel recovers; those priced on a revenue share model may still be as attractive as before.
Again, there is a distinction between pure messaging platforms and AI chatbots. Many of the pure messaging platforms are sold across multiple industries with little customization, and as a result some of the companies, like Kipsu and Podium, are significantly larger. Others are more vertically focused, such as Bookboost, Instaroom, MyStay, and Tyme Global Technologies. Most AI chatbots tend to focus on just one or a few industries, because of the need to develop expertise in understanding industry-specific terminology and context. Companies with hospitality-centric offerings include Akia, Quicktext, HeyMojo, HiJiffy, and Venuelytics. Mindsay is larger and more diversified but does have a hospitality specialty. Reply.ai, which was acquired by Kustomer, had a few notable hospitality clients but is now part of more diversified company.
Easyway is a relatively recent entrant that I would probably still classify as more revenue oriented than operational, although they have crossed over into operations more than most, offering chat-based contactless check-in and check-out with full integration with many property management systems, passport scanning, and targeted upselling options. Their philosophy is driven more by customer experience, so they don’t fit as neatly into the revenue vs. operational focus paradigm.
There are a few other companies that offer messaging functionality within other products, such as mobile apps, bedside tablets, guest-room entertainment systems, and the like. For cost reasons, most hotels will not want to consider these unless they are planning to acquire or replace the system with which they are provided. But for those that are, solutions from companies like Intelity, Runtriz, Aavgo, SuitePad, Wishbox, iLumio, HCN, and Hoteza may be worth considering.
Particularly in the post-COVID world, the benefits of AI-based messaging platforms are becoming compelling. They can support upselling and targeted offerings, improve guest satisfaction even with reduced staffing levels, and free up hotel staff to deal with the guests who want more personalized service or whose needs cannot be met by the bot. All messaging platforms support contactless interactions, but the AI-based ones can be more seamlessly integrated into existing hotel systems and processes, such as check-in, check-out, work-order management, dining and spa reservations, and the like.
If you’re thinking the time is right to consider a messaging platform, it’s important to evaluate the products against your true objectives and goals, because the available products won’t meet all of those equally, and you probably don’t have time to look at all of the products out there. Assess the relative importance you want to place on revenue generation, customer satisfaction, dealing with reduced staffing, reducing physical contact, and other objectives. Then you can use the guidance above to point you in the direction of the products most likely to meet your needs.