Despite seeing healthy growth, hospitality brands are finding increasing challenges in adapting to the digital space, with more competitors as well as a more demanding guest who ‘expects the unexpected’. But with more than half of bookings now taking place online, the luxury travel industry has been forced to radically shift to keep up with the changing landscape. Verb Brands hosted a roundtable breakfast with luxury hoteliers to better understand the challenges they face today. Here, we share their insights on how to stand out from the crowd:
1. Adding a personal touch
As an industry, hospitality has been slow to adopt technology, particularly when compared with the fashion and retail space.
There is a common fear that technology will replace the personal touch by reducing guest interaction with hotel staff. However, all invited hoteliers agreed that technology, when implemented well with accurate data, can result in a more effective, seamless communication with the luxury guest, no matter their age. Despite this, a personal touch will always be relevant in luxury hospitality.
Property management systems (PMS) play a huge role in integrating both the operational side of hotels with the client communications strategy.
“The cost of changing a hotel’s PMS is too big, and agile systems rarely talk to each other,” says Hammad Hussain, Managing Director at Handy Travel. “Only recently have hotels started to use cloud-based systems with open APIs that make this integration easier. However, we still have a lot to learn and do until all of these tools are seamlessly integrated.”
Innovation needs to come from the inside out. All hoteliers agreed that this is a major challenge today and that it stops hospitality workers from better communicating with guests. On a positive note, embracing technology behind the scenes and empowering front of house to be able to use that data to communicate directly with the consumer would give that extra bit of connection between the hotel and guest, bringing the online information to offline experiences.
“You can do the surprising delight if you know it’s someone’s birthday but at the same time, it’s very easy to fail and then how do you recover from that?” asks Brona Kelly, Sales and Marketing Director at Maybourne Hotel Group. “At the moment, there is so much data stored in so many platforms, it is hard to be sure how accurate that data is. [Resolving] that should be the first step in bringing digital to luxury hospitality and travel, then we can include guest interaction functionalities like social media and chatbots.”
When it comes to facing consumers, luxury hospitality brands differentiate themselves by offering an exceptional and memorable experience. Being digitally savvy will allow these brands to sustain a one-on-one personal approach.
Hospitality brands should understand which platforms are key for travel. Instagram, for example, plays a huge role for luxury travellers, so hotels must draw up a strategy that can attract and inspire target audiences. Do not ignore the importance of social media and allocate the necessary budget in the same way that the fashion industry does. Instagram will eventually have the same importance as the hotel’s website – future generations only want to visit places that are Instagrammable.
2. Achieving brand loyalty
The next topic discussed was loyalty. How can luxury hotels achieve better return rates? Airlines and OTAs have very good loyalty programmes. Luxury hotels, however, must find innovative strategies that are convincing enough for guests to return and accumulating points on a loyalty card may not be enough for them.
The previous generation was all about standardisation, which allowed certain hotel chains to succeed amongst travellers. Today the customer expects to ‘travel like a local’ and ‘experience the unexpected’ whatever generation they belong to. This is what is commonly known as a ‘millennial state of mind’, which represents a shift in the consumer mindset that is pushing luxury brands to redefine their offering. Personalised local experiences are what will create a memorable experience in the luxury guest’s mind that will probably make them return.
“At Aman, we do not have many standardised processes but there is something that guests always get, which is the Aman welcome and Aman departure whereby all the resort staff line up for a farewell to the guests in the ‘Aman way’,” says Anna Nash, Head of Global Public Relations at Aman. “When you arrive at an Aman resort you feel so welcomed that it immediately transforms your mindset and you have an instant feeling of relaxation and disconnection. This incredible local welcome is a unique experience that make our guests fall in love with the brand. We forge loyalty through different ways such as the #amanjunkies for instance, which is what fans of the brand fans call themselves.”
Personal connection is key in luxury hospitality and it’s what really makes a difference from other accommodation options. In order to understand a guest’s level of loyalty, it is important to get feedback before they even leave the hotel, whether it’s an informal one-on-one conversation or through a form that pops up on their phone before they check out.
“Loyalty comes from personalisation, personalisation comes from insights, insights come from accurate data,” says Chris Donnelly, Managing Director at Verb Brands.
Understanding who your guest is, what they are looking for when staying at a hotel, who they are coming with and the purpose of their trip are some relevant pieces of information that will allow the hotel to bring personalisation at its best.
“Mistakes such as expecting someone to arrive with their wife when that person is gay cannot be done nor accepted,” says Lysbeth Fox, founder of Fox PR. It’s essential that these small details are communicated throughout the hotel, from check-in, to room service to the restaurant.
3. Revising your operational strategy
From an operational point of view, technology can significantly improve internal processes that can lead to better communication among staff.
All hoteliers agreed that one of the key problems with technology comes from entering wrong data or having too many data entry points which all contain different information. How do you know which is the right one? That’s why the GM would rely much more on personal connections instead of a CMS. However, what happens when the GM leaves the company and it has to start from scratch again?
In order to entice guests to book with a hotel directly, conditions of use should be as straightforward as possible. Having easy cancellation policies and free Wi-Fi should be a given. Technology should have a role pre-trip to attract customers at research stage (69 percent of travellers use a digital device to book their trip according to Forecasted 2019) and post-trip to accurately evaluate their stay. During the trip, technology should run in the background instead.
Another concern that arose among everyone at the table was how to capitalise on other spaces within the venue, such as restaurants and spas. Verb Brands’ Donnelly stated that giving personality and a brand to the hotel’s restaurants can be a good strategy to highlight everything it has to offer, in addition to attracting customers who are not staying at the hotel.
“Small details such as ensuring that you can access the restaurant without going through the lobby can help your restaurant brand to be more visible to potential clients who may not know the hotel just yet,” says Michael Bonsor, Managing Director at Rosewood London.
Having a powerful restaurant brand also helps to build a reputation around the hotel and vice versa. Creating a sense of community is also key – that’s why hotels that become membership clubs have succeeded in their strategies.
Last but not least, adopting a sustainable approach is now a must for most luxury hospitality brands. It shouldn’t be a nice thing to have, but instead a strategic decision that will improve the industry as a whole.
4. The opportunity in sharing platforms
The challenge in protecting your brand identity from sharing platforms and OTAs such as Airbnb is a common issue for luxury hotels.
Why is it often so hard to book a room? Many luxury hotels find themselves using too many platforms or services which take their guests through a cumbersome process. Luxury should be felt at all touchpoints and throughout all the customer journey, from research and booking to review and feedback.
This ease of use is what makes OTAs and sharing platforms even more competitive for hotels, but attractive for the guest. The guest knows what they’re doing, how the platform works and there are less steps to complete a booking than on a luxury hotel’s website. One of the biggest challenges is the ease for guests to cancel their booking last minute, but how can this be controlled?
“How do you communicate the uniqueness of your brand among all these massive OTAs that are taking your most valued asset from you, which is your USP as a hotel?” asks the Maybourne Hotel Group’s Brona Kelly. “How do you educate the consumer to understand how much your brand means?”
In addition to Airbnb asking luxury hotels to add rooms on its platform, it now presents a greater competition with the addition of luxury serviced apartments where the level of service is almost the same as that of a hotel, with the deeper ‘local’ experience of staying in a flat or a house. Design hotels are reacting to this by modelling themselves on a local community in order to bridge the gap between guests and the community.
Today, Airbnb is to hotels what Amazon is to department stores. So will luxury hotels enter this game?
Even with industry threats like this, luxury hospitality is growing at a faster rate than ever and the experience of quality is what makes this sector unique. With the growth of the market, luxury hospitality has more to win than to lose and all players should embrace this growth by finding new opportunities and challenging themselves.
Leading luxury digital agency Verb Brands on building brand loyalty and how a ‘personal touch’ is do-able in the digital age.
By Clara Saladich