I loathe the word disruption for all of its overuse, but unfortunately, it is the only term that comes to mind when I think of the hotel booking process, where a real jolt and complete rethinking is sorely needed. I don't mean new designs or new flows, or new ways of checking in and checking out. I believe that we must entirely rethink what guests are looking for, and how to provide it to them.
The retail industry is presently innovating at a rapid pace. Traditional big box stores like Walmart are buying cutting-edge online retailers like Jet.com solely to provide a better buying experience. Physical retail spaces are reconsidering their entire purpose because the offline and online experiences are shifting. Some previously online-only retailers are creating stores, while traditional stores are creating experiences like wine bars and DJs. Why? Because many of the same products can be purchased anywhere – so they are in a daily fight 'for their lives'. For hotels, the situation is a bit different. Distribution technology remains fundamentally unchanged since the times when GDS was the only option in the distribution space. These systems, originally built to sell seats on flights, became the basis on which all distribution technology is based. To this day, we continue selling hotels rooms, as if, like on a plane, everyone arrives and leaves at the exact same time, all rooms are ready to accommodate all guests at one predetermined time, and each guest occupies exactly one unit. This overly simplified view of a hotel's business allowed rapid growth in electronic distribution, but as it grew, these very significant differences also created a need for ever more workarounds and manual processes, to get the guest into a room that she can actually occupy for the duration of her stay, and that corresponds to her desires expressed at booking.
Disruption has become synonymous with technology, but disruption is much more than that. Disruption is reconsidering what we offer and how we offer it. Disruption is a response to the marketplace – and the marketplace says that consumers don't shop around anymore. Consumers today are well educated about what they want, and they know how to find what it is they want when they want it. So it becomes of utmost importance to pick them up right there, the very moment they have decided to make the purchase. Instead of choosing a retailer, they choose the best path to getting precisely what they want. They choose the path that is sure to give them what they want without risk of defect, the one that will deliver quickly, or the one that makes returns simplest.
Before you dismiss these retail examples as irrelevant to hotels, remember that Airbnb and HomeAway are busy right now taking a bite out of hotel revenues – and it's not just because travelers like home stays. These travelers know the experience they want, and these platforms are serving up clear choices in a format that travelers like.
So what do they get when they shop on a hotel website? They get a choice between two beds or one bed, and between several price classes. Most travelers have enough experience to know they may not even end up with what they selected when they arrive.
What will it take to renovate the shopping experience for hotel guests? Recognition that we have a problem, of course. The proper response to fix the problem is to give hotel guests genuine choices during the booking process; choices that we know, we will deliver to them when they arrive at the hotel. Delivering inventory in a way that allows guests more control over their experience. This should be the industry's primary focus.
And the latest innovation from hospitalityPulse FIRE does this. FIRE stands for Feature Inventory Response Engine, and it means that guests can shop and buy features that they expect during their stay. This is not (yet another) fancy way to make an easier selection into a room type they may or may not end up in. It means they can buy a view, a bathtub or a shower, a balcony, a high floor, a low floor, and so forth. In a way, it is the return to selling individual bedrooms, without the effect of fracturing inventory and leaving lots of potential empty. Guests can shop for the experience they want—adding features to a shopping cart and getting more of exactly what they desire. Moreover, this technology guarantees they will receive it when they check in.
Transforming the buying experience is a natural next step for the hotel industry that has exhaustively tried to figure out how to be more appealing to guests. Start with giving them more of what they want from the very beginning. Shift the focus from social lobbies and cocktail hours to giving them choices about the product they came to buy—their accommodations and the attributes and amenities they want.