By Paul Barron
The hospitality industry is navigating through a time of unprecedented change. The shock of COVID-19 pushed what was once considered preferential traveler expectations into industry standards faster than anyone could have imagined. Trips are either increasingly spontaneous with short booking windows or intensely researched due to safety. On-trip interactions are digitizing, and loyalty has evolved far beyond points programs.
Reviewing recent trends, hoteliers must prepare for three key shifts in the traveler’s journey:
1. Booking flexibility shifting from perk to expectation
2. Acceleration of the contactless trip
3. Personalization at the core of loyalty
To address these trends, hoteliers should consider a fundamental shift in mindset and investment. Those who take action to meet changing traveler preferences by streamlining technology processes to unify data between disparate systems and ultimately turn it into actionable insights will lead their competition. Let’s consider each of the trends.
Trend 1: Booking flexibility shifting from perk to expectation
Historically, flexibility in waiving cancelation penalties, late checkouts, trip insurance, and other means have been primarily offered as perks to secure bookings and inspire customer loyalty. Today, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated traveler expectations and demand for flexible offerings.
At the outset of COVID-19, changes in international and domestic travel guidelines required the hospitality industry to (wisely) adopt a do-anything attitude to meet travelers’ needs to cancel, reschedule, or adjust as they faced hard choices and global uncertainty. The result is what will likely be a permanent switch to a ‘flexible as default’ mindset. Removing friction from a customer’s experience is always welcome. Reintroducing friction is not.
Another strong trend around booking arises from the newly identified “flexcation.” These extended trips, inspired by remote learning and work flexibility, are untethering travelers from traditional schedule constraints. In North America, Gartner forecasts that 82% of company leaders will say employees can work remotely at least some of the time, and 47% say that employees can work remotely all the time. 50% of travelers see flexible schooling as allowing more flexible vacations. Flexcations, extended business trips, and spontaneous booking decisions are suddenly a new consideration for millions of travelers.
The result is drastically different behavior during the booking process. There is not only a preference for more extended stays (30% of trips booked for Q1 2021 are longer than 15 days and 50% of global travelers are seeking stays of at least 14 days) but a change in popular markets as well, with significant outperformance of secondary and tertiary markets.
While hoteliers can’t always retrofit their properties into a work/leisure paradise or transport their locations next to an outdoor adventure destination, they can invest in tools that provide visibility into how travelers’ booking behavior changes and optimizes accordingly. Business intelligence and market data subscriptions offer a real-time look at booking behavior, like the following examples, which are quickly becoming indispensable.
At Amadeus, we’re observing an unprecedented change in the booking window. The time between when a traveler books a trip and when they go on that trip is much shorter. But the research time frame is far longer than ever before.
Booking just 1 – 4 days out is a new normal among spontaneous travelers making last-minute decisions. This means the traditional approach of dropping rates to fill rooms might now be leaving money on the table. 70% of travelers expect to have the same or more budget for their upcoming holidays, though they plan to take fewer, longer trips. In this case, data shows that dropping rates close to the booking date or offering discounts won’t drive demand. Flexible policies and high cleanliness standards will.
Even if you believe behavior will return to pre-pandemic patterns, the point is that previously predictable booking behavior is now a dynamic variable. In response, hoteliers need real-time insight to present the right offerings and prices to the right people at the right time.
Trend 2: Acceleration of the Contactless Trip
Expectations for contactless experiences such as keyless entry, mobile checkouts, and automated service requests were already rising before COVID-19. The current social distancing and quarantine guidelines have accelerated the adoption of contactless technology and digital experiences.
Consider that 62% of guests prefer to check-in and out through a hotel app. Additionally, from January to July of this year, the hospitality industry saw a 50% increase in mobile bookings. We also see that the rise of “Generation Clean” has moved digital operations management from an option to a necessity.
Contactless experiences drive convenience, but they also remove long-standing guest interaction points and communication channels. Hoteliers must now identify ways to build virtual customer touchpoints while also delivering personalized experiences in the face of digital transactions.
While a contactless traveler’s journey reduces physical opportunities to gather information, the introduction of digital touchpoints can provide hoteliers with the opportunity to collect more actionable data to deliver memorable experiences. These digital interactions are a welcome addition to travelers’ experiences. 70% of travelers report wanting to receive more information related to their stays before check-in.
Every pre-trip questionnaire, digital service request, or mobile purchase is a building block for a personalized experience. Hoteliers should think through the opportunities of unifying systems, such as their guest management and service optimization software, to convert guest preferences and profile details into actionable data for service delivery staff.
While contactless may be a priority for guests today, we expect it to continue as a preferred option for many future guest interactions. Of course, hospitality is still an industry that relies on personal engagement to create connection and trust. By reducing the time spent on some more easily digitized interactions, staff will have the opportunity to interact on a deeper level with those who crave that connection.
Trend 3: Personalization as the Core of Loyalty
Hoteliers are discovering that loyalty is evolving beyond point-based reward systems that entice repeat travelers with preferential rates and rooms. Here, COVID-19 has advanced the pace of technology adoption to build better guest experiences. With low rates in abundance and high uncertainty around travel guidelines, non-price factors such as trust and the ability to deliver safe and memorable experiences are increasingly driving booking behavior. 79% of consumers say that they are more loyal to brands with higher levels of personalization. Hoteliers will need to deliver increasingly personalized experiences to keep pace with customer expectations.
Legacy loyalty systems provide a foundation for personalization (i.e., offering points to a reward member at check-in), but delivering loyalty-inspiring levels of personalization now requires a more holistic approach. Truly personalized stays require relevant advertising messages to targeted groups, customized content in the booking engine, unique perks tailored to guest interests, and operational excellence by proactively meeting and exceeding guest expectations. To succeed, hoteliers must work from an integrated data set.
Indeed, this 360-degree view of the guest is a driving force behind Amadeus’ investment in product integration across the hospitality technology stack. We’re taking an ecosystem approach to technology that unites market business intelligence with booking data, guest profiles, service and preference requests, and group business.
A personalized experience is a differentiated experience, and differentiated experiences can make your property unique and drive loyalty. Guests are consciously providing personal data in exchange for enhancing their trip. If each bit of information is additive rather than ‘single-use,’ hoteliers can deliver personalization and the loyalty it inspires with the accumulation of guest insights from each stay.
How will you accelerate your property’s growth?
The traveler’s journey is increasingly demanding booking flexibility, contactless experiences, and increased personalization to drive loyalty. Hoteliers must identify the impact of these trends and embrace technology that unites data across disparate systems to provide new levels of insight about their guests.
Each step of the travelers’ journey – from the research a guest conducts before a trip to their on-trip purchases and requests and their post-trip feedback – produces data that becomes the building blocks for hyper-personalized guest profiles. Introducing technology that breaks the silos between website booking engines, guest management, service optimization, and other systems will position hoteliers to use these trends’ momentum to their advantage. In alignment with guest preferences and market insights, better-targeted advertising and more compelling offers are the formula for demand generation.
In a world where the traveler’s journey is evolving rapidly, some trends are sure to become standards. Hoteliers need to take bold action to embrace these changes in flexibility, contactless experiences, and increased personalization. By focusing on data to deliver these priorities, hoteliers will ultimately drive more demand for their business and deepen their connection with guests. The time to take bold actions is now. Hoteliers with an eye to the future will recognize the importance of investing in technology to deliver on these emerging trends.