Customers’ needs have changed — and now, hospitality experiences must change along with them.
Travel is once again taking flight. In a world where formerly welcoming smiles are behind masks, the onus is on the hospitality industry to take customer experience (CX) a step further and find new ways to connect.
The period since the pandemic outbreak has been seismic for the hospitality and tourism industry. Covid-19 has been described as the greatest ever crisis for the hospitality industry, as indeed was 9/11.
While “travel shock” continued until the first half of 2021, now, with the spread of vaccinations continuing to accelerate and loosen restrictions, travel destinations are reopening, and the demand is steadily returning.
For an industry that has lost more than $6 trillion in the pandemic, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council, the next critical stage in that recovery is “making connections” with the customers. With digital adoption and consumption on the rise, customers expect contactless technologies for a safe and seamless experience.
Stepping up to respond to changing consumer behavior is essential to the sector’s recovery. All parts of the journey must work together for a first-class experience — and this means hotels and travel booking companies should scale digital marketing operations to generate and capture demand with less risk, regain customer confidence and respond to change faster.
Brands need to redesign customer CX to address anxieties and pain points related to post-pandemic travel. Airports, for example, have to rethink CX, although many already understand the importance of improved service.
To get a holistic view of the customer, Changi Airport in Singapore has tied up with Accenture to consolidate the customer shopping and travel data. It created an integrated campaign management platform that dips into this data pool to send targeted personalized offers and services to the right customers in the right location based on preferences and behaviors.
Meanwhile, United Airlines enables its customers to access 3,000 Covid testing locations at Albertson and Walmart grocery stores via the airline’s mobile app and website, mitigating the friction caused by confusing and ever-changing testing protocols.
To manage the end-to-end experience, New York-based airline JetBlue Airways teamed up with many partners to start a one-stop travel booking website called Paisley, where travelers can book hotel rooms, car rentals, and other add-ons, such as theme park tickets.
New expectations, new challenges
CX is the core of the hospitality industry. At the vanguard of digital transformation, the industry faces many challenges. The pandemic increased the high-anxiety purchase journey for flights and hotel booking, and purchases often cannot be returned. Simplifying these experiences is crucial to give customers more flexibility, empower them to build their itinerary using connected digital tools, and make it easier to modify or cancel their plans.
Customers not only expect brands to deliver service digitally – most of them (71%, according to McKinsey) also expect it to be through WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Instagram, and e-mail.
Since providing digital customer service through each separate channel is time-consuming and ineffective, creating a unified experience through an omnichannel customer communication platform has become essential to direct all the customers’ queries to one smart inbox and manage communication from a single dashboard.
Parallelly, customers, especially those who book a last-minute reservation or cancel, demand an immediate response, even within an hour when using digital channels. Hospitality businesses must implement AI and automation capabilities in their operational systems to address the issue.
Although still evolving in the hospitality industry, the use of AI chatbots can provide a fast response to customers’ every initial request and manage multiple customer needs without waiting for the front desk.
CX innovations in the hospitality
Interestingly, the utility of chatbots is not limited to giving guests instant access to information. The Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas has an AI concierge that is regularly updated to help guests book spa services, offers information like secret menu items at the hotel bar, guides guests through art tours, and even plays games.
To completely customize the guest experience, few hotels now offer unique and imaginative amenities throughout the room. At the CitizenM Hotel in Amsterdam, each room is equipped with a MoodPad tablet, allowing guests to change the temperature, TV, window blinds, alarm, and lighting.
Do you feel like you come up with your best ideas while in the shower? Taking it up a notch, some Marriott hotels even enable guests to record thoughts and ideas on smart shower doors while taking a shower.
Little details add value to CX, no doubt.
According to PWC, improving customer service through tech can generate significant benefits for the hospitality industry: 135% increase in online revenue, 71% reduction in guest complaints, and 19% increase in customer service ratings.
The fading power of points
Travel should be fun, and so should be a loyalty program, but many grapple with meeting the ever-changing consumer trends. The points-based schemes are now pointless, and a new model is required that reflects customers’ new priorities.
Expedia survey found that 86% of millennials redeem reward points earned from business for leisure purposes, compared to 72% aged 46-65. Brands can leverage this data to create deeper connections across each generation.
Since every client is different, they should be treated differently in the rewards program. A corporate guest may be looking for a free shuttle service or a complimentary drink while working in the business center. On the other hand, a family might be looking for discounted tickets to the theme park. Rewards should reflect these segment differences.
Brands that keep their programs fresh by continually offering personalized opportunities to earn and burn points keep customers engaged and coming back trip after trip.
Accenture’s Hospitality Loyalty Programs Survey 2020 found that 86% of hotel loyalty program members are willing to pay subscriptions to a loyalty program if they receive different benefits and services, like access to exclusive experiences, access to more tailored, personalized offers and deals, or access exclusive offers and deals with ecosystem partners.
The Wyndham Rewards program, for example, partners with companies like Starbucks, Caesars Entertainment, and United Airlines so users can earn and redeem points in various ways. In addition, members can redeem points for Best Buy gift cards, Apple TVs, or even donate points to support charitable organizations.
Digitalization is transforming CX, while Artificial intelligence is also being used to power-efficient personalization. For example, integrating facial recognition technology within the hotels or resorts is speeding up the check-in process, including payment processes, while reducing the amount of human contact. Marriott is testing the technology at its hotels in China.
Customers prefer to engage with brands using emerging technologies like augmented reality and virtual reality.
Some hotels and resorts, including Radisson and Omni, use virtual reality to allow guests to tour a hotel, choose a room and book it seamlessly online. They can also experience local attractions and feel confident in their travel choices before they arrive. These hotels have seen improved customer satisfaction and online booking rates.
There is a constant need for more personalization and sophistication to create a seamless end-to-end travel and leisure experience. Soon, we will witness a convergence of travel, mobility, and leisure, driving the growth of the CX.
The pandemic has offered a unique opportunity to rethink prevailing hospitality business models and develop experiences. Adaptability is the key for survival — and those who are seizing this opportunity can achieve sustainable growth in the sector with a firm eye on the future.
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