By David Millili
Imagine this: You begin planning a trip to New Mexico. You ask a friend who lives there where to stay in Santa Fe. The same day you notice on Facebook that another friend happens to be in Santa Fe right now and has tagged the beautiful hotel where she’s staying. You have two recommendations now but do some research anyway to be sure you’re getting the right place for the trip. You decide on the hotel your first friend suggested, but the photos don’t tell you everything you need to know, and the booking engine is cumbersome. Just about that time the Facebook friend texts, saying she’s wild about the hotel she tagged. In the last second, you abandon the first booking and go for the second recommendation. Anyway, it’s in a better location.
You receive a pre-trip email with suggestions for what you might like to do during your stay along with a reminder note that your trip falls on Indian Market weekend, one of the busiest. You’ll want to make reservations ahead of time at any restaurants, and the hotel will be happy to assist, noting that one or two restaurants have performances that require special reservations. You make all your dinner reservations and buy museum tickets through the property, and they send you an itinerary of the reservations they have made on your behalf. In the process, they also let you know that they have transportation to offer since getting around town will be challenging, and the fact that you are not renting a car has come up in the correspondence. They also confirm ride sharing is widely available in the small destination. You’re all set.
Experience versus Engagement Guest experience and guest engagement are both at work in this scenario, even three weeks before the trip has begun. But which part is guest experience and which part is guest engagement? Experience and engagement are frequently used interchangeably and, as a result, they often get conflated. However, they are two different things and only by teasing out their differences and the way they affect each other can we understand how to make both better.
Guest experience is by definition the “process or fact of personally observing, encountering, or undergoing something.” In addition to the physical experience of staying at the property and issues like whether or not housekeeping is responsive to your request for extra towels or room service takes 20 minutes too long to arrive, guest experience also includes every touch point along the path.
- Booking process (Is it seamless or is there friction?)
- Check-in (Can you skip the front desk and go straight to your room?)
- Services (Are they available via text or must you call? And are they responsive?)
- Check out (Same as check-in), post-stay follow-up (Does it happen?)
- Staff (Are they behind computers or freely available to assist?)
The first hotel lost you on guest experience with a booking process that didn’t pass muster. Otherwise, you’d have already booked the stay before you caught wind that the second hotel was so perfect. So, it’s tempting to say this is proof that guest experience matters more than guest engagement. Guest experience can—will—make or break not just the stay but whether or not you get the business at all. Eighty-two percent (82%) of U.S. customers said they stopped doing business with a company due to poor customer experience (MarTech). Further, Forbes notes, “According to a portfolio of publicly traded companies drawn from the top 20% of brands in Forrester’s Customer Experience Index – these companies that invest in customer experience had higher stock price growth and higher total returns than a similar portfolio of companies drawn from the bottom 20% of brands.”
The second property excelled in both experience and engagement. Guest engagement refers to a hotel’s ability to “occupy the attention or efforts of; to attract and hold fast.” Most often, guest engagement is touted as a social media tool, but in reality it is utilizing the tools at your hotel’s disposal to create a relationship with the guest, to forge something beyond the physical property. Some go so far as to define engagement as “The willingness of customers to spend their time on the company for mutual benefit, often through brand advocacy or other involvement” (Astute Solutions).
Engagement in the above example is evident in the social media post that tempted you to look at this hotel in the first place. But for your stay, engagement started when the hotel used information about you to make the experience better. By taking care that a guest knows restaurant reservations may be limited or that he is not renting a car and may have a hard time getting around on one of the busiest weekends of the year, the hotel begins to create a two-way dialogue. This can happen via email, text, or in person. When a front-desk agent, freed from checking in guests all day, can engage with guests on site, giving them helpful information, asking how the stay is going, and helping ensure the things beyond her control are going well, experience is transformed into engagement. While social media is useful for encouraging and expanding engagement, serving as an avenue where guests can post photos and link back to the property, engagement happens all along the guest experience. Service metrics, for instance, are a part of not just the experience but also of tapping into guest engagement levels. Better service metrics go hand in hand with higher guest engagement.
Think of guest engagement as meeting emotional expectations for the experience, so much so that guests will become your loyal advocate. A seamless stay, that doesn’t include high levels of one-on-one engagement, can create some amount of retention. But engaged consumers with an emotional connection to the brand—loyalty, that is—have a much higher customer lifetime value (CLV). The statistics shouldn’t surprise you. Some say they have as much as a 300% higher CLV than the average customer.
So, which is it? To the main question, then, experience or engagement? Seeing as they are intertwined, which is most important? The short answer is that the ability to engage, to take the stay to its next desirable level, is almost entirely dependent on the experience. Experience is the boat; engagement is the mast and sails that determine how far the boat will travel. If there are holes in the hull, then it doesn’t matter that you have a mast at all. The ship won’t sail. Sure, it’s more complicated than this. When hotels engage guests successfully, the guest will move in and out of experience and engagement during pre-stay, while on-site, and post-stay. Engagement will be overlaid on the experience. But every touch point must execute flawlessly, nonetheless. Investment in frictionless experiences that are tailored to your guests’ needs is fundamental enough that it must receive priority to achieve any return on investment in engagement.