By David Millili, CEO of Runtriz
Remember when the first hotel websites came online? It was 1994 and Hyatt was among the first chains to launch one. There were many years after this spent convincing the rest of the hotel world that they needed one, just a simple site that would describe the property with a few images. We weren’t even at the stage of online booking, yet. That wouldn’t come for another year or two. (Truth be told, some chains haven’t evolved their websites much from that first iteration. Many still have the stock “amenities” page with bullet points that leave the guest wondering about exactly what they’ll find when they arrive and vague room descriptions that don’t make it clear if a one-room suite really has a separate bedroom.) The first mobile app came along in 2009. Here we are in 2018, twenty-four years after the first website and a decade from the first apps. And where do we stand with all of this technology? More importantly, where do we leave the guest standing?
Websites and apps were once supplementary to the experience. They gave a guest more information than she would get over the phone and via brochure (remember those?), but the digital pieces of the pathway weren’t considered a part of the guest experience. The tech experience was a precursor, a conduit, to the actual hotel experience. As such, it didn’t have to “wow” the guest; it just had to be attractive enough and, hopefully, representative of reality in as much as it could be. Technology was mostly at the service of marketing, and it quickly evolved into a way to drive direct bookings in the fierce competition with OTAs. This is still true. But what is different is that the guest expects the tech experience to be a part of the overall experience. The digital presentation can’t be separated from the property; it is, instead, an extension of the guest experience. The website and app and social media form the pre-trip. The technology during the stay—mobile access, texting, social media, again—make the stay more convenient and fluid. And, we all know, everything goes up on Instagram and Facebook afterward. Post-stay surveys can be served via app or email or text. And guests follow up on the trip via all manner of feedback platforms, telling the world what they did or did not like, perhaps airing the latter most loudly.
What hotels need to know in order to appeal to the modern guest is this: the digital experience is the experience. Ironically, the more it stays in the background, the better the guest experience is. What travelers are looking for is “experiences.” Every single survey about what guests want will tell you this. They want to dig in, get local, and create singular memories that are hard to replicate. Nothing cookie cutter. When the technology doesn’t deliver at any stage, it interrupts the depth of the guest experience.
An honest representation of your property is critical—and this applies to not just imagery and content, but also to how you convey your property through technology. The digital piece should be in line with what you can offer once they’ve arrived. Further, if the technology doesn’t deliver, this is a signal to the guest. A problem with booking, either via website or app and as simple as a slow loading speed, and you might as well give them the phone number to your competitor down the street because they aren’t going to stay. We live in a world where no one has time to waste on inconveniences in the process, and a hotel’s booking engine capabilities, the ability to book with ease on a user-friendly system that gives guests’ choices that they feel confident will be delivered upon, is now a deciding factor. The proof? The travel industry has one of the highest cart abandonment rates of any industry at 81.8% (Statista). Problems with mobile check-in and checkout interfere with those golden memories, and standing in line to do one or the other is a death knell. Google will deliver groceries in two hours and services like Instacart will shop at virtually any big store and bring it to your door—and every step of the consumer path is completed online. However, we continue to ask guests to look at a menu in a book and walk across the room to use a landline to place an order from a restaurant that’s a few floors down. The point is that guests should be able given the tools to do everything at their fingertips so that the nuts and bolts of decisions and processes fade away into the background and the trip itself, the memories the guest came to create, rise to the surface.
There is a thin veil between the experienced world and the digital world; they seep into one another so that the two sometimes cannot be separated readily. Unless your hotel is in the country that intentionally does not have Internet access or televisions in the rooms, it is not your role to have an opinion on this modern condition but, instead, to lean into it, budget as much as possible for it, and deliver on the parts that you can control, which is quite a bit.
The words seamless guest experience have been jammed together so much they hardly have meaning anymore. So let’s just say that we’re looking for harmony. Flawlessness. A lack of interruption. To deliver on this, hotels must think in terms of this thin veil, specifically the mobile device in the hands of the guest, that conduit between the digital and the tactile world. Instead of trying to “wow” the guest with bells and whistles, consider what capabilities will create the kind of fluidity that allows the “must-dos” to slip into the background of the guest’s experience and the “want-tos” to move to the foreground.
Two-way chat, for instance. Guests really should never have to pick up the hotel phone again when they already have a device in their hands most of the time. All manner of guest’s requests can and should work through an app, whether on an in-room device or the guest’s own. This includes mobile concierge, housekeeping, in-room dining, and front desk. Multiple languages should be no sweat. Some of these things may seem like givens. However, a 2017 survey of hotel apps showed that only 34% of the apps had been updated in 2016 and 20% hadn’t been updated since 2015 (Skift). A strategist at L2 Inc., which conducted the survey, called the latter of these “left for dead.” Leaving any part of the digital path behind, at this point, has dire consequences. The hotel that does will go the way of the outdated app—left for dead.
An ideal tech experience allows guests to focus only on the travel experiences they are hoping to take home, the moments they want to treasure unburdened from inconveniences and problems in the hotel stay. Much of a hotel’s ability to deliver on the modern guest experiences lies in technology that puts the humdrum in their hands and executes in a way that they hardly have to think about the process of getting whatever it is they want.
It's surprising where our capabilities are as we start in 2019. It’s been almost a quarter of a century since the first hotel websites, and now a guest can walk into a hotel and check-in to a room without ever speaking with a human. Other times, I believe we could be further along in adoption. But it’s all part of the messy process of creating something new. Part of this thing we’re building is a new way of living—one that allows us to do so much in such a short period. Hotels are tasked with helping guests live their best moments, giving them the backdrop for trips they can talk about for years to come. As such, hotels must also extend their experience flawlessly to the digital world, because this is how we live.