By Benoit Jolin

January 2019

What happened to brand loyalty? Today’s consumers have been trained to research products and prices, read reviews and make educated and discerning purchase decisions. To reach and engage customers in 2019, and to appeal to their personal needs, companies need to deeply understand what today’s consumers value most. This is especially true in travel – because experiences have taken priority over possessions as a path to happiness and fulfillment. Personalization has become the “new thing” to drive traveler satisfaction, and machine learning (ML) is the powerful and positive disruptor in the hospitality industry that will drive this improved guest experience.

This year and moving forward, artificial Intelligence (AI) and ML will also move beyond the traveler to the supplier to provide the insights and actions they need to attract customers while optimizing their occupancy and ADR. The travel industry is entering an era of both traveler and supplier personalization – leveraging high tech to deliver high touch experiences.

Speeding up Technology Adoption

Demographic shifts, driven by millennials and Gen Z, will continue to speed up the trend of technology adoption. If hotels want to appeal to these generations, they’ll need to provide an experience that maps to these increasingly savvy and sophisticated travelers, using technology. An example of a traditional travel sector leaning into this is Celebrity Cruise’s Celebrity Edge, a tech-forward cruise liner focused on providing an immersive experience. Hotels are also adapting to this audience with “cool” co-work spaces, including Ian Schrager’s PUBLIC Hotel featuring a neighborhood gathering space to provide an authentic New York experience.

It’s crystal clear that young travelers are wonderfully different in how they consume travel from previous generations – from how they book, to where they travel, to their in-market and on-property preferences. To win their loyalty, travel brands must really listen to them and deliver the experiences they expect. The winners of tomorrow will be the ones able to meet these new guest expectations and at the same time, surprise them with something new.

The “Next Best Action”

While AI and ML are being used routinely with hotel guests – from chatbots to in-room ordering, these technologies are also transforming the supplier side, removing friction and driving greater efficiencies for hotels. One such example is personalized property recommendations to improve star ratings. Imagine a data-informed and action-driven bot that provides a hotelier with recommendation on how to optimize their positive reviews. “Your breakfast is getting less than 3-star reviews. Guests most often note that there are no healthy options, and the coffee often isn’t hot. By changing your coffee and offering a healthy breakfast your reviews could average four stars.”

Now imagine that instead of an experience that gives you the insights and actions via words on a screen, it comes to life in human video bot to guide you through them, helping to further optimize company performance. “Hello Charles, did you know that due to a compression period in your area next month, your competitors have all adjusted their pricing up approximately 30 percent. I recommend you do the same.” Similar to Google Assistant, hoteliers could pick the gender, accent and physical characteristics of their “concierge” to make it a familiar, comfortable, personal experience.

Loyalty to Rise Again as Hotels Embrace Tech

Travelers want to feel known and appreciated. Hyper-personalization will dominate technology development and will continue to grow in importance. For guests, knowing their likes and dislikes and using the information to acknowledge the guest and create a customized experience is a game-changer. For hotels, personalization creates deeper and more authentic relationships with their most valued hotel guests through simple but meaningful actions.

Technology solutions that remove friction points for the traveler can also be advantageous to travel suppliers – not just by enhancing the travelers’ experience, but by also driving business efficiencies. Chat bots answer simple questions in real time. Personal devices provide an immersive in-room technology experience. Technology enhancements can benefit the guest and the property. Hotels are already providing tablets that let guests order food and beverages, request housekeeping or maintenance, and allow logins to streaming service like Hulu and Netflix to binge on the latest shows. Even more personalization is on the horizon: soon the in-room entertainment system will play your favorite Spotify playlist, or video calls will pop up seamlessly on the in-room TV.

Personalization will be the most critical aspect of loyalty moving forward, to create and maintain meaningful relationships with guests. To do this, there must be a focus on using technology to do the heavy lifting on personalization and to simplify this process for both travelers and hoteliers. And while many hotels may see this as daunting and expensive, there are many tech-forward platforms and partners enabling these experiences today. The loyalty chasm is real, and technology can be the golden ticket to ensure loyalty among the younger generations of travelers.

The Human Touch

The key to these technology advancements, in the travel industry and beyond, is to ensure we retain our humanity. The travel industry is shaped by a desire to interact with, learn about and understand other cultures and people. While new technologies will make certain processes more efficient, we cannot remove the human element, and must make sure it permeates everything we develop. Ultimately, technology helps connect people by making travel easy, intuitive and seamless.

From a supplier perspective, technology saves employees from mundane tasks such as answering the same question multiple times a day, freeing them up to interact in more meaningful ways with guests. Technology can take care of the routine, allowing your staff to focus on areas of creativity and emotional intelligence.

RLH Corporation president and CEO Greg Mount, perhaps said it best: “It will be a combination of robotics and human touch that will make [new technology] work and it’s coming at us quickly.”