The Caterer's Digital Summit gathered valuable advice and opinion from across the industry, on topics as wide-ranging as how to kill bad online reviews to how to market to millennials. Brendan Coyne reports
Seamless travel is the latest industry buzzword, Travelzoo Europe president Richard Singer told The Caterer's Digital Summit. But for many hoteliers, the reality of managing customer experience across all digital channels and into the physical world is more of a patchwork.
Getting customer data from online travel agencies (OTAs) is easier said than done, said Chris Hewertson, chief technology officer at glh. Hotels. Integrating new service providers into Oracle's Micros back-end was even trickier, he added.
Even apparent basics, such as online check-in, can prove challenging. Hewertson said that while many operators claimed they had automated check-in and pre-check in, the reality was that much of it was still manually processed, fuelling customer "anxiety" when they arrive. He said hoteliers were "better off not doing it at all" than doing it badly, a theme that ran through the conference.
While fellow speakers said it was difficult to predict which technologies would disrupt the sector, Hewertson said one sure bet was Wi-Fi and connectivity. He said the firm had "gigabit backhaul in all hotels", some of which had the fastest internet in the world, and would continue to invest in fibre. Other than a bed for the night, access to good-quality Wi-Fi topped guests' needs from a hotel, he added.
Robots or just more plugs?
The 'connected experience' panel was asked whether too much automation could make hotels a faceless environment. The consensus was that it was not a case of either robots or people, but getting rid of clunky manual processes in order to create better guest experiences. Travelzoo's Richard Singer saw a case for robot room services in budget hotels, for example, expressing frustration at waiting 15 minutes for an iron to arrive.
"I genuinely think that if we can use robots to do heart surgery, we can use them to do some of the jobs in hotels that add no value," he said. "What seems odd today will become the norm tomorrow."
For now, he hoped for simpler technological progression. "I hope the day is gone when you go into your hotel room and the nearest plug is 10 metres away from your bed. If you just change one thing, put a plug next to the bed. Then we can use our devices."
What millennials want
Ben Gateley, co-founder of CharlieHR, urged hoteliers to stop segmenting guests in terms of business and leisure. He said it is "no longer a thing," for his generation.
Gateley said hotels should cater for the blurring of business and personal lives and provide good work spaces as well as quality entertainment options in rooms.
Ben Gateley and Chris Hewertson
He also advised hospitality businesses to either bundle services for absolute convenience or pick one service and do it brilliantly. Millennials are either "lazy or picky" he said - and operators playing in the "dangerous" middle ground would lose their business.
Ditch the marketing plan and start again
Mark McCulloch, chief executive of marketing and PR agency We Are Spectacular, said hospitality marketers should put more of their budgets into social media and video - about 50% . "Why people spend money on offline advertising is beyond me," he stated. "Social media is infinitely measurable."
McCulloch urged marketeers to "rip up your current marketing plans and start again", suggesting many are simply sticking with what they know and hoping for better results.
"When I was at Yo! Sushi and Pret, all I did was cut and paste last year's marketing plan, thinking, 'I'm going to go for 30% more. I'll get 10%, but I won't get fired for that.' It is a really safe world to live in. But rip that plan up and I bet you will allocate spend differently."
McCulloch said print media such as London freesheet Metro was "dying" as was "lazy PR: press releases, parties or a couple of lines in Time Out". Marketeers were spending "thousands of pounds a month on these people," he said. "It is an absolute waste of time, you might as well stick it on a horse."
McCulloch advised any marketeers at the conference whose agencies "are asking you for ideas" rather than vice versa, to "get rid of them and come [to us] and have a chat".
What's the next big thing in tech for hotels?
"We don't know what the next big thing will be, but we know for sure it will use loads of data - and you have to think about that now because cabling is not going to cut it. So fibre optics [is our focus]."
Chris Hewertson, glh. Hotels
"It's about ease of conversation. I want to be able to have more conversations wherever that makes sense for me. Whether that is WhatsApp or live chat on your website. We need to stop thinking about fads and make sure we are properly using the tools already in our arsenal."
Ben Gateley, CharlieHR
"My advice would be to just observe what is going on in people's daily lives. We are increasingly connected. Work devices are our personal devices. I use one phone for everything and expect to be able to do everything I want on that phone, and I certainly expect to be able to do that in your hotel. Catering to that is a good start."
Alison Dolan, Sky Business
"To be able to use your own device to check-in; as a key; to check out; when ordering in the room; in the bar - at least as an option. That is one of the next big things. But I am not sure the hospitality industry is quite there yet."
Stephen Kennedy, Wi-Q
Social service: Fred Sirieix's guide to online marketing
Galvin at Windows general manager Fred Sirieix urged audiences to remember that social media "is only social media".
"We make much of social media, but at the end of the day, it is something we can do in the toilet." It is important, he said, but a good social media strategy could not replace the fundamentals of excellent service. He said the first rule is: "See, smile and welcome people before they [look for] you. Don't leave people alone with their thoughts, otherwise you sow the seed of doubt [about service] and they look for negatives."
Given the plethora of social media channels, Sirieix outsources social media management, but views the agency as part of the team. He says weekly meetings are "all about trade, otherwise we would not do social media."
Fred Sirieix and James Stagg
However, front of house does handle some aspects of social media. Staff have all been trained to take pictures on guests' phones, so they can get a snap of themselves from the 28h floor of the Park Lane Hilton "without spending five minutes on it," said Sirieix.
While Sirieix sees social media as an extension of the brand, he says restaurant guests often appear to take it more seriously. "I see people taking pictures [of the food] and tweeting and I think 'what a waste'," he says. "But it is their life."
That is not to say any interaction with Galvin at Windows via social media is not given full weight of attention. While social media experts at the Digital Summit felt messages after business hours could wait until the following day, Sirieix disagreed.
"If you get a tweet at 3am, Americans can see it and might come to the restaurant because of that. So you need to have someone who is onboard with that. If you have an agency that doesn't do that, in my opinion, they are not doing their job."
How to turn reviews to your advantage
Matt Eames, chief commercial officer of 'feedback engine' Feefo, advised delegates to put reviews at the "heart of everything you do", so that reviews can drive business improvements and customers can be turned into marketing channels.
He said videos "are shared 1,200 times more than text and links combined" and urged hospitality operators to "get hold of [the videos] customers are already posting about you on social mediaâ¦ get them to do your marketing for you by using their images and videos". The review platform incorporated video reviews into its software this year.
He also suggested Feefo as a potential solution to anonymous and possibly fake reviews posted on other platforms, as it only permits reviews from genuine customers.
However, regardless of where the feedback is posted, hotels and restaurants should not be afraid to engage and respond, said Eames.
"Even if you get it wrong, responding to someone often means you can turn a detractor back into an advocate," he said, and added that the key to engagement was to communicate transparently with customers.
Tomorrow's world: the layered experience of modern travellers
While some hoteliers admit grappling with the basics of "seamless travel," The Future Laboratory's Peter Firth outlined emerging trends and examples of companies attempting to profit from them. Some predict an end of days for the humble hotel room, but Firth said it was simply a case of giving people services that complement their lifestyle and presenting new and interesting "layered" experiences within convenient packages.
First, "you have to understand how the millennial traveller thinks," to attract younger customers, he said. Much of that thinking and planning is mobile phone-based, from the global web to the local web. Dating platform Tinder, said Firth, had recognised this behavioural shift, allowing users to "drop a pin" on any location, find other users that match their preferences and potentially create a city break-cum-date with a stranger.
Friction-free travel was another emerging trend, he said, and he advised companies to make life as convenient as possible for customers by harnessing the channels they use throughout the day. "The more you travel, the more bored of it you become. Today's traveller has zero patience for queues," said Firth. Dutch airline KLM has reacted to that by using social channels, such as Facebook Messenger, to send flight confirmations, updates and digital boarding passes, he said.
IcelandAir has gone a step further. Like Tinder, it has recognised a growing trend for solo travel and is now inviting passengers travelling from the US to "buddy up" with its employers during a stopover. So a baggage handler, for example, could take you kayaking. "You sign up to spend 48 hours with a stranger, who may or may not be a weirdo," said Firth.
Hotels around the world were recognising the opportunity to provide 'life spaces' for an increasingly peripatetic generation, said Firth, citing Zoku in Amsterdam as an example of this emerging category. The operator bills itself as 'a thriving neighbourhood for global nomads' that marks 'the end of the hotel room'. It even has a manifesto.
Finally, Firth pointed out that "wellness tourism" is predicted to grow 9% by 2017, twice the rate of overall global tourism, presenting an opportunity for hoteliers and restaurateurs to collaborate and profit.
Firth's tips to thrive in the digital age
- Cater to the connected.
- Provide layered offerings - ie bike shops, florists, workspaces - not just hotel rooms.
- Create brands people want to get lost in.
- Be convenient: "The digital world has made us less patient and more demanding than ever before." Operators that failed would become the equivalent of GPRS in a 4G world, he suggested.
Acting on feedback in real time to improve service
Novus Leisure has built a customer experience dashboard that has "changed sales and changed attitudes." And that is only a month after rollout, according to Simon Gaske, the group's director of customer experience.
The platform takes customer feedback from all channels, allowing Gaske to see in real-time staff responses across its 42 locations. "And if they don't respond in about 20 seconds, I will," he said.
Since "the beast went live", Novus has been able to "capture data and look at the last quarter, month and week in isolation and determine our operations and marketing strategy for the next year," said Gaske. "The reaction from venues has been excellent."
The dashboard builds on reservations tracking the group has "done for years," he added. Now Novus can see from reservations history that a customer, for example, likes a mojito and also the feedback that customer provided after their last visit. "So a bar manager can say 'thanks for the feedback last time, here's a free mojito'. Crucially, all of that data will translate to interactions on the ground," said Gaske.
He said actioning insights from data was key - and staff now have the power to do so.
"We [the industry] expect everyone to be marketeers and sales people, yet we don't give them the tools, so we are doing that."
Greene King draws line in sand over OTA data grab
Large hospitality firms are mounting a fightback against a data grab by online travel agents and booking engines, according to Greene King.
The firm's group accommodation marketing manager, Mark Childs, told The Caterer's Digital Summit that the relationship with OTAs and hospitality businesses was "reaching a tipping point".
Taking part in a panel session on customer data, Childs outlined the hospitality giant's moves to house all of its customer data in one place, and the broader industry concerns around OTAs trying to own the relationship with customers.
Childs agreed with fellow speaker Ally Dombey, director of revenue management consultancy Revenue by Design, that the push by OTAs to own customer data was "alarming".
Dombey said OTAs were "removing the ability of hotels to communicate [with guests] directly". She cited Expedia as a particularly aggressive gatekeeper, handling all communications between hotel and guest, even when the guest is checked in.
"That is just ridiculous," said Dombey. "Why is this happening? I can see them wanting to really own the customer and I can't see that changing."
Greene King's Childs said concern about losing customer ownership to OTAs had reached board level.
"Most boardrooms have now got a mindset that this is a real problem," said Childs. He added that brands such as Greene King would push back against the OTAs.
"It might come back to a point where we say [to OTAs], 'Actually, this is going to be a negotiation, or we will start to close you out more'," he said. "We are going out to own our own customers. It will be an interesting next few years in terms of that third-party relationship."
Use pictures to drive orders
"We have had quite a lot of success allowing guests to order room service via their mobiles or via an in-room tablet," said Chris Hewertson, chief technology officer of glh. Hotels. The group uses a simple picture-led system.
"We have seen an absolute increase in the value of the room service orders per room," Hewertson added. "They would probably have ordered room service anyway, but what we are seeing is that they are ordering more. So we think the imagery is helping, and you need great imagery. But it also has to be straight-through processing. The ticket comes out in the kitchen and is processed immediately. Anything else doesn't work."
Are messaging apps the future of m-commerce?
Industries are experimenting with services via messaging apps, the largest of which in the West is Facebook. But in the East, the humble messaging app already rivals the internet for commerce.
China's WeChat has a billion users, buying everything from food to travel to healthcare via the platform, pointed out Wi-Q non-executive chairman Steven Kennedy.
"Conversational commerce is coming," he said. "WeChat started as a messaging app and has become the biggest e-commerce platform in the world." If the West adopts a similar approach, it might just tip the balance for open systems and better integration. "At the core of conversational commerce," said Kennedy, "is no user interface at all."
Social media: the professionals' view
Restaurateurs should kill TripAdvisor negative reviewers with kindness, and switch off from social media after business hours, according to the Summit's PR and marketing experts.
James Lewis, creative director at Gauthier Soho Group, said operators should never hide from bad reviews and should treat the platform as a business tool rather than something to be feared.
"TripAdvisor is the greatest place to find data about your business that you can imagine," he told the summit.
"People want to tell you what is wrong [with your operation]. We should not want to bury this. It is incredible data. I believe it is human nature to want to help people."
He said that while the vast majority of reviews on TripAdvisor were positive, the negative ones "must be dealt with carefully. But we should relish it. Not hide from them."
Harry Holgate, content director at restaurant PR agency Me:Mo Interactive, agreed and warned against taking issue with negative comments. "Even if it is the most horrible post, there is no point going down the road of the angry man. There is no margin there." Operators, he said, should instead "kill it with kindness".
Lewis also pointed out that TripAdvisor's ranking algorithm factors frequency of reviews into its calculations, so that even negative reviews could deliver a positive outcome.
In terms of social media rules of engagement, the expert panel said operators must carefully choose which staff members operate social channels.
Citing the recent Twitter contretemps between Hotel du Vin Bristol and chef-restaurateur Mitch Tonks (after the outlet refused to serve late-night drinks to his guests Angela Hartnett, Ken Hom and Yotam Ottolenghi) Lewis said such PR disasters would never fully wash out due to the internet's all-seeing eye: "Once you've said it, it will never go away," he said.
The panel also advised that while social media by its nature is always-on, those replying to comments should switch off when the restaurant closed for the night.
That view was largely confirmed by conference delegates. Polled on social media management, 63% said they did not take phones to bed with them.
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