ACSI: How COVID is affecting guest satisfaction

Hotels now face a unique challenge: How to provide a “home-away-from-home” experience in a new era of social distancing. Photo credit: iStock / Getty Images Plus / Space_Cat (Hotel Front Desk Masks)

Before the COVID-19 pandemic devastated the industry, the American Customer Satisfaction Index from the University of Michigan recorded mixed results in traveler sentiment. As of March, hotels had made slight gains year over year, but results from the six-month period that followed show that hotel guest satisfaction took a U-turn. In fact, nearly every major hotel chain saw their guest satisfaction numbers decrease.

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According to the American Hotel & Lodging Association, as of August nearly 65 percent of hotels remained at or below 50 percent occupancy—which is below the threshold at which most hotels can break even and pay debt—and four out of 10 employees still were not working. At the same time, guest satisfaction for the travel industry overall dropped 2.6 percent to 74 (on a 100-point scale) with only Wyndham Hotels & Resorts maintaining stable satisfaction relative to earlier in 2020.

Survey highlights, according to ACSI:

Guest Experience

For the industry overall, guests see little improvement in their experiences during the pandemic. The only bright spot is call center satisfaction, which has slightly improved to 79. This is encouraging given the massive influx of cancellations and postponements that the industry has faced. On the other hand, customers find it a bit more difficult to make reservations (down 2 percent to 81) and the check-in process that was the high point of the guest experience (84) is now more cumbersome (down 5 percent to 80). Mobile apps also show some weakening, but still rate near the top for quality (82) and reliability (81).

Staff courtesy shows signs of strain (down 2 percent to 79) and room quality in terms of cleanliness and comfort is worse (down 3 percent to 78). Smaller dips occur for in-room features including entertainment, internet service and amenities (76). Compared with either airlines or car rental firms (79), hotels are lacking when it comes to loyalty programs (75).

At the low end, guests continue to be displeased with facility amenities like fitness rooms or pools (73) and food services (72). While many hotels had to temporarily close restaurants and pools, the industry consistently showed ample room for improvement in these areas prior to the pandemic.

As in previous years, hotels do a better job of handling complaints for business guests than for leisure travelers. Before the pandemic, business travelers who complained to their hotel were among the most satisfied guests (80). During the pandemic, however, this same segment is far less happy (down 10 percent to 72).

On the other hand, leisure guests with complaints continue to be disgruntled—either before the outbreak (61) or after (65), despite some modest improvement.

Top Companies

Leading up to the pandemic, the industry’s guest satisfaction was relatively stable at 75-76 from 2017 through early 2020. In the six-month period from April to September, customer perceptions of quality took a nosedive for hotels. To put that in perspective, travelers reported feeling that airlines have been providing the same level of overall quality both before and during the pandemic. And while value perceptions have improved for airlines, guests now feel that hotels are now offering less value than they did before the outbreak. The report noted that unlike air travel, where the goal is to get from one location to the next, hotels are destinations in and of themselves and now face a unique challenge: How to provide a “home-away-from-home” experience in a new era of social distancing.

Since the pandemic, Hilton has held onto its position as the industry satisfaction leader, but at a lower level than earlier in 2020. As of March, guest satisfaction for Hilton was up 3 percent from 2019 to 82—matching its record high. At that time, Hilton scored best in class across the entire guest experience. Since then, Hilton has dropped 4 percent to 79, just a point ahead of the next competitor. While Hilton remains an industry leader in most customer experience areas, the report argues the company’s advantage has lessened. Guest assessments of room quality, based on cleanliness and comfort, have weakened for Hilton during the pandemic despite the company’s CleanStay program. 

Hilton is not alone, however, in facing challenges in this area. Among eight major companies, five experienced downturns in evaluations of room quality. Hyatt Hotels Corp. sits in second place with an ACSI score of 78 (down 1 percent). During the pandemic, Hyatt’s guest experience has been mostly stable with one exception: Call center satisfaction has deteriorated dramatically, falling far below nearly every other major chain.

Two more companies score above the industry average: IHG and Marriott International are tied at 77. For IHG, guest satisfaction has been relatively stable, down only 1 percent since March 2020. In fact, the report notes IHG has scored in the range of 77-78 since 2017. Marriott, on the other hand, has been losing ground with guests during the pandemic. Down 4 percent from the previous period, Marriott’s satisfaction level has not been this low since 2009. Compared to other hotels, Marriott suffered the steepest decline in customer perceptions of overall quality during the outbreak.

The pandemic has not impacted Best Western Hotels & Resorts' ranking in the industry for 2020. Moving in lockstep with the industry average, Best Western fell 3 percent to 74.

The remaining hotel companies score below average, just as they have since 2019. Choice Hotels International declined 1 percent to 72 as of September, tied with Wyndham. Earlier in the year, Wyndham posted a 3 percent gain to 72 and it is the only hotel chain to maintain stable satisfaction. Notably, Wyndham is the sole hotel operator to see an improvement in room quality during the pandemic. At the same time, however, customer assessments of mobile app performance suggest a turn for the worse. Just as the interview period was ending, Wyndham launched a new mobile app featuring mobile check-in and check-out, which may be well-timed to help boost future satisfaction.

The group of smaller hotel chains slipped 1 percent to 71, leaving G6 Hospitality (which includes Motel 6) alone at the bottom of the industry. The budget operator dropped 2 percent to 64, returning to the same score posted in 2019. Lacking the amenities and services of higher-priced chains, the company’s satisfaction level has never budged from the mid-60s.

Top Brands 

The ACSI tracks guest satisfaction with major hotel brands on a yearly basis. The 2020 results are based on surveys collected over a 12-month period from April 2019 to March 2020. Hilton and Marriott remain at the top of the list, with Marriott’s AC Hotels ahead of the field at 85. Next in line, Hilton Hotels & Resorts scored 83. Just a point lower, Hilton Garden Inn and JW Marriott came in at 82. In ACSI measurement, scores of 80 and higher are deemed excellent.

Best Western joins the next tier of high-scoring brands with Best Western Premier at 81. Premier ties with three Hilton brands: DoubleTree, Embassy Suites and Hampton—the top upper-midscale brand on the list. In a close race with Hampton, upper-midscale Clarion from Choice Hotels is a point lower at 80. Clarion outpaces the other Choice brands, including the Ascend Hotel Collection (76). Rounding out the high end are three Marriott brands—Courtyard, Marriott Hotels and SpringHill Suites—along with Hyatt’s top-scoring chain Grand Hyatt (all 80).

IHG’s highest-rated chains are upscale Crowne Plaza and upper-midscale Holiday Inn Express (both 79). Among midscale brands, Wyndham has both the top and bottom offerings. Midscale Baymont by Wyndham is best in its class at 78, while Ramada by Wyndham lags behind at 69.

Although Marriott tops the list with AC Hotels, the company’s Aloft Hotels (75) fell behind among upscale properties. Likewise, Marriott’s upper-upscale Sheraton (75) is worst in its class.

Budget properties form the lowest tier of the industry. Super 8 by Wyndham (68) is the top-rated economy hotel, followed by Days Inn by Wyndham (66). Motel 6 and Choice’s Econo Lodge populate the bottom of the chart with scores of 65 and 62, respectively.