2009 Edition of EHLITE by Sonja Holverson, Professeur du Marketing, Lausanne Hospitality Research, L’ECOLE HOTELIERE DE LAUSANNE, Switzerland
Avoid losing precious hotel customers forever and improve their pre-arrival experiences in order to ensure their total satisfaction.
Hoteliers are racing to find creative ways to add exciting value to their offers and to innovate with new guest experiences on property in order to attract, satisfy and retain customers. But no matter how exceptional the delivery of the hotel promise, hoteliers should not neglect one of the most crucial stages of the customer hospitality experience; the one that will determine the overall level of satisfaction with their entire hotel stay; the one that occurs before they even leave home. We have all heard that it is so important to be attentive at each customer touch point. But a customer touch point is not always where you expect it and the first one can be determinant regarding the total degree of your guests’ satisfaction.
Expectations, impressions, and attitudes are created – good and bad – before the guests ever arrive at your front desk. The tone is set during the trip planning and reservation process. Customers can become excited, suspicious or even anguished prior to departure. If things do not go well for your customers during their pre-trip planning, then you as a hotelier, will have a much more difficult challenge ahead upon their arrival to ensure their complete satisfaction with their hotel stay. They may even resist your efforts to provide an excellent delivery of your hospitality product which is far superior to your competitors. In fact, if they have had an exceptionally bad pre-arrival experience, your customers may spend the rest of their time looking for more things to add to their list of complaints about you.
Where Are Your Customers Dreaming?
In a Frommer’s travel intention survey, it was shown that in travellers’ pre-trip information gathering 78% of the respondents were influenced by what they discover on the Internet (Whalen, 2009). According to the same survey, 84% out of the 1’324 online travel consumers used the Internet as the most significant source of destination information during this pre-booking phase.
According to Noel Perkins of Ypartnership in the US, leisure travellers use the major search engines to find destinations (34%) and then they view the destination boards’ websites (23%). The next stop is the Online Travel Agents (OTAs), then some opt for the specific hotel chain (21%) or the individual hotel website (10%) (Perkins, 2009).
How is your destination represented on the Internet? Do Google, Yahoo! and now bing display your destination with relevant websites, realistic text messages and attractive credible images? Do the destination management organisations include all the necessary information required by the potential visitor such as events, maps, annual weather charts, and a list of hotels including yours? Do they accurately describe, display and book your hotel? Is their website functioning optimally? I once clicked on a city tourist office website and I requested a list of 3-star hotels and they displayed a list of the entire city hotel offer in all categories which was arranged alphabetically. When was the last time you reviewed your destination managers’ websites? This all reflects on your hotel and your guests’ total experience.
A part of the customers’ dreaming may include some visits to the many Web 2.0 user generated hotel reviews (with advantages and disadvantages for hotels) such as TripAdvisor and the rapidly growing influence of Twitter. Love it or hate it, social media is here to stay and you should monitor it and not underestimate it’s impact on your customers’ dreams. TripAdvisor spokesman Brooke Ferencsik reports that they have 23 million reviews. He says that they’re “authentic and they’re unbiased and they’re from real users.” (Trujillo, 2009). Others claim that some online reviews and opinions are fabricated but the fact is, they are there for your customers to read. Have you looked on Twitter to see what people are saying about your hotel?
Not only could customers become influenced by the comments of previous guests in the selection of their dream hotel, but they may also develop pre-conceived ideas about the hotel and arrive with unrealistic expectations which could distort their perception of their hospitality experience with you. I recently read reviews for a hotel in which many reviewers said that the rooms were unusually large. However, some others said that the rooms were too small. Imagining that the majority of reviewers reporting large rooms should be correct, I was disappointed with how small the room seemed to me. Of course, room size usually depends on the category booked and this distinction is not always made by amateur reviewers. Involve yourself in your customers’ dreams by looking into getting Web 2.0 software analytics to track your hotel on reviewer websites and other social media websites.
Your Customers’ Nightmares About Your Distributors
If only 10% of the travellers in the Ypartnership study go directly to the hotel website, this means that you are most dependent on the actions of your industry partners that may be first to give your guests that vital initial impression of your hotel.
Although there have been some legal questions as to the customer transaction transparency of some Online Travel Agents (OTAs) recently, they still represent a useful and convenient variety of travel options for customers and provide another source of much needed distribution for most hotels. I’ve had many booking experiences with OTAs from the inception of the business model and could share a vast assortment of dreams and nightmares with you. For example, once I added a night to a hotel booking, and the entire stay was re-priced at a total lower rate than the original reservation.
Another time during a less happy dreaming process, a technological glitch of an OTA double booked my hotel stay and double debited my credit card which required some long distance phone calls. So much for the digital age. They tried to convince me that I was in fact, cancelling one of the bookings and that the hotel was going to charge me a two week prepayment penalty. It took three long distance phone calls to convince the OTA that the hotel would surely realize that they had the same human being booked in two different rooms on the same dates by accident and would not charge me penalties if the OTA would just take the time to explain their own technological mistake to them. I understand that following all of the different hotels’ cancellation policies could be challenging for the OTA call centres but I have experience many times when it appears that the OTAs conveniently blame the customer’s financial nightmares on the hotel.
Offline Travel Agents
We’ve all used the Internet to plan trips; searching destinations, checking activities, watching videos, comparing prices and facilities, scouring maps, fantasizing, and escaping from the demands of our daily lives. This is part of the pre-arrival dream and can be most pleasurable. But, it takes a lot of time looking at so many different types of websites with new ones starting up almost weekly. Sometimes, they have contradictory property descriptions, arbitrary rates, as well as diverse opinions and ratings of the hotels. It can be confusing even to the most adept of Internet dreamers. Even a simple accommodations reservation can be a daunting task for a hotel customer. Henry Harteveldt, Vice President and Principal Travel Analyst of Forrester Research reported at TravelCom ’09 in Atlanta last May that 26% of former Internet bookers are now considering bricks and mortar travel agents to handle all of the problems that they are encountering online and provide some personal expertise. Do not underestimate the influence of travel agents on your customers’ choice of hotel and their subsequent degree of satisfaction.
All good travel consultants need to get to know their clients’ needs and know the hotels they’re selling. One agent of a large reputable travel company convinced me of the hotel in a small Mediaeval European town for my elderly mother and me to stay in. There was no hotel brochure in the agency, nor website, and it took the agent 2 weeks to confirm the booking. This was most unnerving as this was only one of 4 city stops on a confirmed train ticket and our dates were not flexible. True to the agent’s promise, the hotel was absolutely charming, but it did not have an elevator for my mother and the only room left was 4 flights up.
Franchisors and Consortia
Although hotel consortia and hotel franchisors are very different, the one objective they have in common is to get the booking which brings them revenue from their Internet booking engines. Franchisors, especially, oftentimes avoid giving out certain information to the Internet customer such as the property telephone number. This is understandable from a business stand point as the franchisors want to effectively centralize the chain bookings, earn the reservation fees and provide a service for the franchisees who then has less personnel to engage to answer the phones.
However, it’s very difficult for the chain branded franchisee to actually know what goes on during the reservation process of their guests before they arrive at the front desk. I was once registered for a conference at a major chain hotel in a large US city and the property was handling the room block in the group department. I needed to make an adjustment to my reservation and the rooming list had not been uploaded yet so central reservations did not have my record. They would not let me talk to the hotel property nor give me the property’s group department direct phone number. Without my name in the system, as far as they were concerned, I didn’t exist. Even after getting the property phone number from the telephone company information service, this number connected me back to central reservations who refused again to let me talk to anyone at the hotel property sales department. After my third transAtlantic call, one reservation agent asked, “Well, just what do you want exactly?!” The following total guest experience was all downhill from there.
You may want to add to your customer comment cards or guest satisfaction online surveys a question about how your guests’ reservations were handled by your distributors. After all, it is your responsibility to control your hotel’s market image given by your distributors. In this way, you may minimize the misunderstandings and disappointments linked to negative pre-arrival customer experiences that could turn their dreams into nightmares.
Are Your Guests Having Nightmares About You?
The Hotel Property’s Website
Receiving direct bookings on the hotel’s websites is usually most desirable for the hotelier due to the obvious cost-effectiveness of avoiding third party distributor compensation. Not long ago, I went to the website of an independent hotel in a famous U.S. city to book and pay for a reservation for a member of my family. I was on the telephone long distance with my family while I tried to make the reservation on the hotel’s website. After I went through the entire booking process, discussing it with my relative and got to the form of payment, it turns out that the hotel’s website was incapable of accepting a credit card with a name that did not correspond to the name of the guest. Therefore, after wasting my time and increasing my long distance telephone bill, I did what all frustrated online bookers do: I clicked to another website. I went to an OTA where I knew that I could pay with my credit card and reserve for another person. I booked the same hotel and as it turned out, the rates were lower and the third night was free with the OTA because they were having a promotion with some hotels including this one. If the hotel property website had functioned correctly, I would have just paid full rates, saved time and money on my phone bill and we would have all been happy.
Direct telephone Reservation to the Hotel
While standing near the front desk of a small well-known hotel in a famous European city over a weekend, I heard the receptionist say into the telephone: “I can’t take your reservation. The Sales Office does that and they are closed until Monday. You will have to call back then.” Is this the right answer to create a good pre-arrival guest experience? Is this the 21st century? Even if the hotel staff truly did not have access to their own availability, are the receptionists not trained to say things like “please go to our website” or “please go to our distributor’s website” or at the very minimum, “I’ll have someone call you back as soon as possible on Monday”?
Another time, I decided just to telephone a European boutique hotel for a simple booking and I was pleasantly and efficiently assisted. I inquired about art exhibitions in the city and the receptionist told me that she would send some links on the email confirmation. Five hours after my dream started and then gradually stopped, I received the email confirmation with the exhibition links and some were incorrect. I had also asked for a brochure and a city map. One month later….. When the dream is interrupted by longer than expected periods of time, the customers wake up.
Keep Your Customers Dreaming
Instead of creating dreams, some pre-trip planning guest experiences cause anxiety and even anguish. Every hotel needs to constantly monitor and audit their pre-arrival ‘dream making or breaking’ processes online and offline. These initial points of contact have an enormous influence on the customers’ first impressions of your hotel and their subsequent levels of satisfaction. You want them to return home completely satisfied but you must consider that even a perfect lodging product delivery is not always enough. We all need to remember the definition of hospitality even during pre-arrival interactions: make the guest feel welcome, allow them to easily engage with you and enable them to continue dreaming from the first encounter with you to the very last. Nurture your customers’ dreams. If you don’t, your competitors will.
Whalen, A. (2009, July 13). Frommer’s travel intention survey. Some highlights. 4 Hoteliers Hospitability, Hotel & Travel news. Retrieved July 15, 2009 from http://www.4hoteliers.com/4hots_nshw.php?mwi=6079
Perkins, Noel (2009, May 28). New National Travel MONITOR (SM) Reveals Changes in Leisure Travels’ Online Search Behavior. Ypartnership Newsletters. Retrieved June 14, 2009 from http://www.ypartnership.com/#news
Trujillo, M. (2009, July 16). TripAdvisor warns of hotels posting fake reviews. The Age. Retrieved July 19, 2009 from http://news.theage.com.au/breaking-news-technology/tripadvisor-warns-of-hotels-posting-fake-reviews-20090716-dlun.html?page=-1