Distribution, technology and how to retain the humanity of hospitality

Distribution dilemma or data dilemma?

NEW YORK—Customer booking trends are always changing, and it isn’t getting any easier for hotel companies to keep up. At a panel titled "The Distribution Dilemma," held at the 39th annual New York University International Hospitality Industry Investment Conference held this week at the Marriott Marquis, five industry executives broke down the difficulties inherent in understanding today’s distribution models and how hotels can maneuver themselves in front of guests.

Drew Pinto, SVP of distribution at Marriott International, said that the heart of the distribution dilemma lies in data. He said guests are handing over data to numerous sources and in return they expect businesses they interact with to offer personalized, frictionless experiences, and they want them as fast as possible. For this reason, Marriott is placing great emphasis on collecting and applying guest data to their travel experience, and in order to make that a reality Marriott was forced to rethink its own internal operations.

“We like to say that ‘digital’ is in everyone’s job description, from marketing to distribution,” Pinto said. “We have been very focused on moving beyond the traditional conversation about rates while keeping the customer in mind to fulfill what we are trying to fulfill.”

Properly digesting data that is collected about guests is one of the most challenging aspects of hotel operations today, but it has one of the biggest payoffs out there. Just ask the online travel agencies. Lou Zamerka, director, global accounts at Booking.com, said his company combs through billions of data points to learn how to package hotels in a way that creates insight for all of its data partners, but currently there are holes in the data necessary for proper application. In some cases, one company may have all the information another needs, but nobody is sharing.

“It’s often as if one company has a lock, another has a key and neither are within reach,” Zamerka said. “Right now it’s all about partnership. Ask yourself: What can these companies do better together than they could if they remain apart?”

Digital check-in could make guests miss out on DoubleTree's famous cookies. Is it worth it?

Rise of the Machines?

To operators, it seems easy for an OTA like Booking.com to make the claim that all they need is more data and the distribution puzzle would be solved, but Danny Hughes, SVP and commercial director, Americas for Hilton, said that while the industry’s fixation on customer data and technology has proven effective for improving the guest experience, some operators are in danger of overindulging in technology and may be losing the human touch.

For example, Hilton’s digital guestroom key will be available in 2,700 hotels by the end of the year, and while that can speed up the check-in process (a big plus for business travelers, in particular) it has the potential to backfire if operators aren’t careful.

“At our DoubleTree properties, guests are given a warm cookie at check-in,” Hughes said. “That’s part of the experience at that brand. How do you do that if guests are bypassing the front desk? Technology like this can make operating more efficient, but while guests want convenience, they also want hospitality. We want to merge the digital and physical elements of the world to keep us from being a faceless, but efficient, hospitality company.”

One technology that allows for convenience while creating a new touchpoint between hotels and guests is text and voice chat through apps. By facilitating conversations between guests and a hotel through an app, hotels can have access to all of a guest’s information at the time of the call and don’t need to request any before discussing a guest’s needs, reducing friction.

“The volume of activity on our voice system is increasing, not decreasing, and a lot of that comes from the app’s click-to-call feature,” Pinto said, referring to Marriott’s mobile app. “We want to remove dissatisfiers from calls, because voice is critical as both a customer-engagement tool and a sales tool.”

Virtual reality is coming.

Another World

When considering future technology and its potential to improve hotel distribution, Melissa Maher, SVP, global partner group, Expedia, said virtual reality has made great strides in a short amount of time to become a powerful, quality tool for a number of industries. While Maher said it is still a few years away from having real applications in hospitality, she cautioned operators to prepare themselves for when it is ready.

“We launched a VR program last year with St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, which allows children in the program to see a destination like the beach from the hospital,” Maher said. “When I use it, I feel like I am there. It will take some time to reach hospitality, maybe two to four years, but soon it will be a common way for travelers to search destinations ahead of time.”

Hughes said it is important to consider this kind of technology as an enabler, and not a replacer, of existing tools. By thinking in this way, that technology can be used to enhance and not replace, new opportunities are within reach to improve the guest experience.

“It’s amazing how much we as a society hate TV remote controls in the guestroom,” Hughes said. “People don’t want to touch them, so soon everything will be controlled without them. Guests will be able to control room temperatures, and eventually the front-deskless hotel will emerge. This kind of experimentation should be embraced, and it will liberate the property to have people out and about in the hotel, interacting with guests rather than stationary at the entrance.”