Hotel tech experts discuss how to effectively engage with travelers and communicate new hotel operating procedures across multiple touchpoints – from pre-booking to post-stay.
By Jason Q. Freed
For hoteliers who have been in the industry at least a decade, the current travel demand environment will seem rather familiar to the months following the 9/11 terror attacks in the United States. Paul Peddrick, moderating a webinar this week that explored the evolution of the guest booking funnel, says the coronavirus pandemic has had a worse impact on hotels than even 9/11.
“People are afraid of going places, but they’re also afraid of what they’re going to be touching and where they’re going to be sleeping,” he said. “It impacts hotels more, and hotels will be more involved this time around in getting people back to traveling.”
After 9/11, Peddrick and his TIG Global team went to work helping hotels get travelers back through the doors with new techniques to capture leisure demand first, mainly through drive markets. Only basic marketing tools were available – early websites, very little email marketing and no social media. Many hoteliers panicked and “set themselves up with very poor deals with the OTAs,” Peddrick says, “and those struggles are still happening to some extent today.”
So what lessons did we learn from post-9/11 traveler behaviors, what new strategies are leading hoteliers concocting, and what better tools are available today to help guide us? Here’s a rundown from the webinar panelists:
- Diversify to Avoid Deep Discounting
Hotels must take advantage of changes in consumer behavior without lowering their price too drastically, panelists agreed. Two success stories included diversifying the hotel’s business mix by looking at new demand drivers, and encouraging more on-property spending by guests that do show up.
“It’s almost impossible not to discount your rate at this time. Travel prices are one-third of what they used to be,” said Jos Schaap, CEO of Roomdex. “But that doesn’t mean you have to bring the rate to almost zero.”
Look hard for new market segments, most suggested. Daan de Brujin, founder and CEO of Bookboost, said one client decided to partner with a local university where student housing was in high demand. The hotel will rent rooms to students for a few months, which builds long-term loyalty from parents and school visitors.
“During this time when we might have to look for new sources of business, ask yourself, ‘What resources do I have available to me and how can I bring this to the market?’” de Brujin suggested.
“Student housing is very expensive and it’s hard to come by. Hotels around universities should take advantage,” Schaap added. “Parents will also come and visit, and that will create a new set of customers. It’s a creative way of evolving your funnel a bit.”
Once on property, panelists suggested finding ways to get guests to spend more. “Do they want to go into one of your nicer rooms?” Schaap asked. “The guest will understand this is a one-time offer that gives them a nice perk and you a little extra money.”
Mukund Mohan, VP of Product Strategy at Infor based in Las Vegas, reminded operators not to forget about the local drive markets.
“There’s a lot of pent up demand. Look at Vegas, which has always reinvented itself with new ways to bring people in. For locals, they've done a lot of marketing on Facebook or any other channels where consumers get information,” Mohan said. “These hotels are reimaging ways to engage with their customers as well. The Wynn, for example, has reimagined their buffets – instead of guests going to serve themselves, all-you-can-eat food and wine is brought to your table. And now they’re really promoting and marketing it.”
- Communication is King
No matter what your business strategy moving forward, the key will be effectively communicating that strategy to guests at the right time and through the right medium. Messaging needs to be clear and consistent across all channels, panelists suggested.
“Make sure you have a website that is searchable, responsive and stands out. If your customer is not able to reach you, to find you, you’re missing one key step of the whole booking funnel,” suggested Jordi Gallego, European Director of Operations at SHR. “Showcase the diversity of experiences guests can have at your property, and then enhance those experiences for your customers.”
Communication strategies should vary depending on culture and guest demographics, Mohan suggested.
“Guests are looking for safety first, and contactless technology is a big way to serve them the information,” he said. “Leverage Facebook, YouTube and everything else to build that consistent messaging around safety and your value offers.”
“The messaging is very important,” Schaap added. “It sets the expectations of the hotel for the guest. Guests only want to travel to hotels with strict coronavirus guidelines, and the key is to make sure the guests know you have them in place, they’re clear, and you’re following through on them.”
- Create More Guest Touchpoints
By getting in front of guests more times throughout their journey, you’ll instill more trust and confidence, boost guest satisfaction and build more brand loyalty, Gallego said. Start by working your list of prior guests, building profiles and creating local campaigns that target residents that live within driving distance, he suggested.
“Trust is going to be a big factor in terms of the booking funnel. People are going to go to brands they trust or hotels where trust is conveyed somehow,” Peddrick added. “While the big brands have an advantage here because they can make large, sweeping statements, how can independent hotels communicate this message of safety beyond their website?”
De Brujin says, so far, hoteliers who are really proactive are doing the best. “Ask yourself how you can build up your database through social, email and messaging,” he suggested. “If you create many touchpoints, you can stay top of mind and build trust, and then when travel returns, those guests will choose you.”
- The ‘Try Before You Buy’ Approach to Tech
Perhaps the boldest suggestion from the technology-driven panel was for hoteliers to take the current downtime to pilot as many different pieces of the hotel stack that they can for little or no cost. Test multiple suppliers and reinvent your marketing and revenue technology stack by choosing to move forward only with the ones that suit your hotel best, they suggested.
“I’m hearing a lot of hoteliers say they now consider themselves a startup company because they need to start from scratch. The hotels were up and running until March, and now they’re not running anymore, and they need to reinvent themselves,” Schaap said. “Think about any business around you that can help you in the funnel, even from a new [Property Management System] perspective, a new [Central Reservations System] perspective, and new booking solutions… you can get those with minimal investment.”
Gallego said the pandemic will accelerate hoteliers’ move to a more best-of-breed approach to technology where they can test multiple systems in a plug-and-play environment.
“At the moment, technology suppliers are being incredibly flexible, and hoteliers need to take advantage,” he said. “This is the right time to try as much technology as possible from different providers, when in the past you either didn’t have the budget or the confidence in rolling out new technology.”
“The try and buy approach is a great thing,” Schaap added.
Mohan reminded operators that SaaS technology now allows them to look at technology as an operating expense rather than a capital expense, which significantly reduces the upfront cost commitments.
“Technology has been put on the back burner because hotels have focused on high touch versus high tech,” he said. “But now it’s high tech that is powering high touch.”