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The digital experience: how to meet the rising expectations of hotel guests

Updated: Nov 29, 2023

Consumers expect seamless digital experiences, hotels must catch up to meet expectations. So what elements of a customer’s hotel journey should be digitalised to elevate their experience?

The digital experience - how to meet the rising expectations of hotel guests
Photo: Depositphotos

“Tech has to solve a ‘pain point’,” explains Tyann Marcink Hammond, who runs 13 rental properties in Missouri using remote digital management. “We don’t want guests to feel they’re at a robotic hotel. Holidays are about reconnecting and building memories with other humans.”

Digitalisation should be about improving the guest experience. Some of the technology implemented will be visible to guests; other technology will sit behind the scenes, helping hotels deliver a better service. But ultimately, digital adoption should always put the guest experience first.

Future Hotels group has a so-called ‘bible of digitalisation’ which evaluates performance on 600 innovation criteria. But the group’s philosophy is that the adoption of digital efficiencies must never dehumanise the guest experience. “We cannot get rid of that element, which creates the magic, originality and authenticity,” said Sotiris Kopatsaris, CEO and founder of Future Hotels. “We have to take into account the individual experience before we start the journey towards digitalisation.”

So what areas of digitalisation are hotels looking towards to improve the guest experience?

The booking phase

In the past, many hotels have relied on online travel agents (OTAs) to secure bookings. But hotels are realising they’re missing out on nurturing long-lasting relationships directly with their guests. As such, hotels are shifting their attention towards direct bookings, using digital tools to elevate the way they can connect with guests. Chris Bowling, Head of Digital Marketing and E-Commerce at Best Western Hotels describes it as “inspiring the booking from the start…rather than fighting for securing the booking at the very bottom of the funnel.”

Bowling’s team at Best Western spent some time reviewing their tactics with OTAs. As technology companies, they found that OTAs were constantly testing and innovating their websites and apps, with a particular strength in performance marketing. Investing higher in the funnel to drive bookings, Best Western has seen strong success on social channels and by revitalising their email strategy.

“I know it's marketing basics, but we'd maybe forgotten how powerful it can be,” Bowling said. The team has also developed customer lifecycle journeys and is segmenting between their rewards base and new customers who are less brand aware. “[We want to] entice someone with the right kind of discount, inspiration and education about who we are and what we stand for as a brand."

In Siteminder’s list of the top 12 UK booking channels for 2021, hotel websites had risen to second position, overtaking most OTAs. Ultimately, direct bookings are allowing hotels to leverage guest data to deliver more personalised ecommerce-style communications and offers. And this is something that guests appreciate and connect with.

Digital check in

Other industries have shown guests what to expect from digital services, so they now have higher expectations from hotels. Digital check in is one key way that hotels are giving guests a quicker and more seamless check in experience. Typically, this involves guests receiving a check in link via email 48 hours before they are due to arrive. After checking in, they may receive a digital key, in which case they can go directly to their room when they arrive. Or they simply need to stop at reception on their way in to collect a physical key.

“The guests are very happy using it,” said Roger Tabbal, VP Global Guest Technology and Innovation at Accor. “Some prefer to do everything online. Some still prefer to pass by reception and do a few steps at reception or an assisted check in desk.”

The key is to put guests at the centre of digital decision making to decide which elements to digitalise. Leisure guests tend to like some interaction at check in desks and to learn about facilities; corporate clients often like to go straight to their rooms. Accor also integrates other aspects into its technology for check in, such as in-room lighting and TV services, with the choice of using a web progressive app or an app download.

“Rising digital maturity across all industries is reshaping expectations,” Tabbal explained. “Guests expect a seamless journey from other industries. We listen to our guests, we do market competition checks, we understand what others are doing, we do surveys with the operations team to understand operational challenges, especially now with staff shortages. There’s a post-Covid need for frictionless move in the digital world. We base our decisions on all that.”

There are other digital alternatives that take the stress out of in-person check in. “When you come to Carpe Diem, you don’t have to go to reception,” explained Sotiris Kopatsaris, CEO and founder of Future Hotels and MD, Carpe Diem Santorini. “You can immediately enjoy a relaxing drink and we’ll come and find you. For us, this is revolutionary. We feel you don’t need to have a typical reception anymore.”

Integrated booking experiences

A common pain point for guests booking into hotels is that spa, golf and dining experiences – as well as reserving car parking spaces – often need to be booked separately from the room. This is because integrated technology doesn’t exist in many hotels. The result is a fragmented booking experience, leading to high abandonment and dissuading guests from selecting extra services.

Many commercial teams bundle popular items such as spa treatments and dinners into packages, but guests increasingly want flexible options. As such, hotels are moving towards e-commerce style websites, where guests can build their trips with all the extra services they need. According to research by Oracle and Skift, almost 90% of consumers are either enthusiastic about, or open, to the concept of unbundling. And 43% would be very likely to book a hotel that allows them to pay only for amenities they use, with a further 44% somewhat likely.

The full travel experience is also something that hotels are incorporating into their marketing and revenue generation strategies. Alexandre Pereira, Head of Commercial Strategy at Real Hotels Group, explained that this is being led by customers, who are now searching for a full vacation experience. "It's not just searching for a room anymore; it’s not only a matter of location. It's about taking advantage of and enjoying each of our hotels,” he said. “This has made us move forward and look at this piece of the business that wasn't yet previously exploited.” This includes adding F&B outlets and spas to the hotel offering, which can be enjoyed by guests and locals alike.

On-the-go booking and omnichannel payments

Today’s consumers expect the seamless self-service options they experience in retail ecommerce. With smartphone ownership increasing from 19% in 2012 to 82% in 2021 (Statista), bookings and purchases are often made on the move. Hotels that can provide an Amazon-style shopping basket experience will fit in with these wider trends.

“Over the past few years, industry economics have changed forever with more digitalisation coming in. Guests are demanding a lot more of online capabilities,” Carsten Wernet, CEO of SIHOT, the hotel management software company. “Omnichannel payments are kicking in because guests are demanding a frictionless experience.”

Unfortunately, most hotels have not caught up with the omnichannel revolution seen in retail. Credit cards remain dominant, and each hotel manages payments its own way. “A lot of the time a booking is only a prepayment and they have to get their credit cards out again at the property and pay the rest. To modern consumers used to Amazon and Uber, it’s annoying,” Carsten said.

Omnichannel engagement

Being able to communicate with a hotel in a way that suits them is something guests are increasingly expecting, since they can already do this in the retail space. Sabrina Regner, Director of Guest Engagement and Reservations Management at Falkensteiner, says omnichannel payment experiences go hand-in-hand with providing unrestricted means of engagement. “We should not limit them by just offering mail or phone, or a chat with a bit of a bot functionality,” she said. “We should also give opportunities to WhatsApp, SMS, social media, video call,” she said.

Penta’s new omnichannel approach is a new messaging platform. “Around 75% of consumers favour communicating via messaging channels over traditional channels,” said Amanda Du, Head of Ecommerce at Penta Hotels. “We’ve been holding on to traditional communication tools for too long. It’s time to change.”

For more conversations exploring digitalisation strategies in hotels, follow Travel Market Life on all major podcast channels including Spotify, Google and Apple.

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