When Hilton and IBM announced the first Watson-enabled robot concierge two years ago, some critics dismissed “Connie” as a publicity stunt. As time goes by, though, Connie seems less like a gimmick and more like a bellwether.
The Value of Personalized Guest Services
With the rise of the internet price and relative quality play a much smaller role in consumer purchasing decisions. Unless there’s a huge local event customers feel confident of finding a comparable room at a similar price within a reasonable distance. The new key motivator for hotel guests is customer experience. A few dollars either way is seen as less important than a smooth, enjoyable stay.
This might not sound like anything new to hoteliers. Customer service doesn’t mean what it used to, though. The world is more connected than ever, with consumers interacting with brands on a personal level through social media platforms.
This shifts their expectations of customer service- especially in the hospitality industry - closer to the treatment they expect from an acquaintance or someone they know in real life.
It’s no longer good enough for businesses to be polite, prompt, and competent. They also need to make the customer feel personally recognized and welcome, to remember preferences and set them up without guests having to ask.
Statistics back up the importance of tailored guest services. 76% of consumers think customer service is the best measure of how much a company values their business. More than half of customers will pay more for better service.
On the flip side, 7 out of 10 people will stop patronizing a business if they feel the company is indifferent to them. Last year 56% of Millennials moved away from businesses they’d previously been loyal to after a bad customer experience.
The change in customer expectations goes even farther than that. While customers want personalized service, they also consider the ability to self-serve part of a good customer experience.
This generation prides itself on being tech savvy and enjoys being able to manipulate their surroundings to their exact comfort levels. 73% of guests want to be able to solve minor problems on their own without having to talk to a clerk.[caption id="attachment_856" align="aligncenter" width="700"] Source: Concepta, Inc.[/caption]
The trend is especially common in hospitality when people may be “in for the night” and don’t want to get dressed or deal with people. Humorously, a 2015 study found that a third of customers would rather clean a toilet than get dressed and walk downstairs to talk to a concierge in person.
These trends combined create a strangely contradictory situation. Guests want personalized service and to have help available when needed, but in daily practice want to be able to do most things for themselves.
Filling the Gap with Artificial Intelligence
AI is making great strides in bridging the gap between a guest’s expectation of personalized interactions and the desire for self-service.
Two primary tools show special promise for the hospitality industry: virtual assistants and guest services apps.
Connie’s physical presence is a fun draw for guests, but virtual assistants cover more digital territory. Virtual assistants are a type of chatbot which can serve guests both in and outside hotels at any stage of the process. They’re faster and more economical to deploy than tangible robots, and they are available anywhere a customer has internet access.
Advances in Natural Language Processing enable virtual assistants to understand normal, unformatted questions with a high rate of accuracy, especially when restricted to one domain (like hospitality).
They can supply technical support, find information about hotels or nearby amenities, change reservations, update profiles, handle customer complaints, and more. Virtual assistants are on duty 24/7 and never have bad days. They are always focused on the guest’s needs and aren’t bothered by stressed customers.
Virtual assistants and chatbots aren’t just a tool for huge multinational hotel brands. Concierge apps are within reach even for smaller or local chains. The Edwardian Hotels, a British group with 13 properties, launched their virtual host “Edward” in 2016. Edward provides hotel amenities, directions and tips.
Guest Services Apps
Using a mobile app to engage with guests is right in line with the growing BYOD trend. From a business standpoint hotels save the expense of supplying in-room devices to control services. From the customer service side, guests can use their own favorite devices while still taking advantage of the hotel’s artificial intelligence services.
Those artificial intelligence services get a boost from mobile apps, too. Mobile apps track customer data and combine it with data from the main company website, landing pages, and competitors. Analyzing the data lets the hotel’s AI translate its insights into intuitive customer service.
The result is a seamless mobile experience for guests and more opportunities for hotels to provide amazing service. AI-powered recommendation engines can look over a guest’s purchase history, location preferences, customer profile, and other data sources and make suggestions to improve their visit.
Suggestions might come before their stay (like displaying favorite hotel locations and custom rates when a flight is purchased) or during the stay (such as finding restaurants of a preferred type or adjusting temperature controls when a guest checks in). Guests can potentially connect their app with related apps such as airline loyalty programs and vacation clubs for even more personalized service.
From Booking to Checkout
To see what does artificial intelligence can look like in practice, let’s track a stay from booking to departure.
A potential customer visits the hotel’s website. They aren’t sure which location to choose, so they access the hotel’s virtual assistant. Using any available data supplied by the customer or their guest profile, the assistant finds chain locations which fit their preferred criteria.
Once a location is selected, an intelligent price optimization system can evaluate the customer to offer the price that best meets their needs while still being profitable. If that price doesn’t work, the assistant can find other suitable locations with the desired amenities which may work better for the guest.
More options are available for existing customers with the hotel’s app. When they book a flight through a connected service, the app generates a list of suitable locations nearby with availability and sends it with a push notification. It’s based on the customer’s profile and preferences, so the guest knows the hotels will meet their needs. Customers can book as easily as tapping their desired location.
In both cases, the app uses available data to suggest methods of transportation to the hotel, whether it’s a shuttle, a taxi, or a ride share. As customers use the app, it can learn their preferences and prioritize those suggestions the next time.
When problems do arise a chatbot resolves them around the clock. Customers can thus make adjustments before an early flight or find last-minute reservations after business hours.
During a Stay
Hotel apps can power check-in and even unlock doors, but AI adds a whole new dimension of customized services. By analyzing a guest’s purchase history, it suggests services the guest is likely to want. These range from local dinner options near the guest’s preferred dinner time to open spa times for customers who normally visit it during their stay.
Analyzing location preferences lets the AI interact with Google Maps or other programs to suggest tourist attractions and restaurants nearby. Recommendations are made based on data the guest shares with the app, so guests who enable location can discover events or local hotspots they might have missed otherwise.
On a physical level, AI can weigh current weather reports and the user’s climate control preferences and automatically adjust a room as soon as it’s assigned. By the time the guest arrives from downstairs, the temperature is right at their comfort level.
Checkout and Beyond
If a customer has an early flight, AI can offer a breakfast menu and schedule delivery along with a wake-up call. It provides a tailored list of transportation options for those who didn’t drive. When a guest has questions about billing, services, or other issues the AI serves as a first point of customer service contact.
Once the customer leaves, the data gathered during their stay is used to adjust their guest profile. This leads to better service when they return.[caption id="attachment_866" align="aligncenter" width="700"] Source: Concepta, Inc[/caption]
Building the Foundation for Artificial Intelligence
AI is only as good as the data that feeds it. It’s vital for hotels to get their data pipeline in order as part of launching an artificial intelligence initiative. This includes:
- Migrating legacy data and data in their RMS or an ERP into a system that can be easily processed by AI;
- Breaking down unnecessary data silos;
- Eliminating bottlenecks to ensure data gets to the people or services who need it.
Companies should make sure their AI that was trained on location-relevant datasets. Feeding an American app Chinese data will result in poor service, for example, since cultural differences could mislead the algorithms.
Information security must be emphasized, as well. The enormous amounts of data that needs to be collected on customers in order to provide this level of service imposes a serious responsibility on hotels.
They must be absolutely sure to follow industry best practices for security (such as encryption, careful monitoring of third-party usage, and full transparency regarding data usage). Good security puts customers’ minds at ease and will encourage them to use the AI-powered services.
Moving Forward Without Losing Focus
Hotels are in the hospitality business, not the software development business. Rather than lose focus from their core competencies to design an AI, it’s better to build on existing products in the beginning.
Several major software companies already have viable chatbots and virtual assistants; integrating those into an intelligent guest services platform both saves money and creates a seamless customer experience for guests who already use those tools.
Partner with specialized software and data-driven companies to find the best technological fit. Be open to advice on readiness of the data infrastructure and which features to implement first. Leveraging a reputable software developer’s experience is the surest path towards a smooth adoption of artificial intelligence.
Are you providing the experience your guests expect? Sit down with one of Concepta’s experienced developers for a complimentary look at where your company is, where it’s going, and what tools will get you there.