J.D. Power satisfaction survey shows turnover among top brands

Tru by Hilton opened five new hotels recently, three of which are located in college towns, a first for the brand.
The 3-year-old Tru by Hilton brand ranked highest in guest satisfaction in the midscale segment. Photo credit: Hilton

According to the latest J.D. Power 2020 North America Hotel Guest Satisfaction Index Study, meeting elevated cleanliness standards and proactively communicating with guests prior to arrival are key drivers of guest satisfaction, even without a pandemic in place.

The 2020 edition of the study, now in its 24th year, analyzed guest responses to more than 150 questions regarding hotel stay experiences and benchmarks the performance of 102 brands across six market segments. This year’s study was based on responses from 37,843 hotel guests for stays between May 2019 and March 2020—the usual year-long timeframe being cut short by two months due to coronavirus-driven travel restrictions and new safety precautions that could affect guest responses. 

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The questions, said Andrea Stokes, hospitality practice lead at J.D. Power, vary depending on the hotel’s brand and its placement on STR’s segment chart. This helps make sure that apples are compared to apples. For example, complimentary breakfasts have become standard in the select-service category Stokes said, but those grab-and-go breakfasts would not compare to a sit-down breakfast in an upper-upscale or luxury hotel. “So we've made sure that when we measure breakfast that we're staying relevant in what exactly we're measuring,” she said, noting that guests staying at upper-upscale or luxury hotels get more questions on their surveys because there are more amenities to cover. Questions about the arrival experience, checking in, checking out and the overall departure experience, however, are universal. “We actually have multiple questions about the [check-in and check-out] experience,” Stokes said. 

Brand Rankings

In compiling the survey, the J.D. Power team determined the brands that ranked highest in guest satisfaction in their respective segment. The top picks, Stokes said, tend to have high guest satisfaction scores across a range of categories, all of which are adjusted for each segment’s standards. 

For the luxury segment, Marriott’s Luxury Collection soft brand came out on top, unseating fellow Marriott imprint Ritz-Carlton after five consecutive years. (Ritz-Carlton was ranked second on the list.) Similarly, Wyndham Grand Hotels bumped Hard Rock down to second place to lead in the upper-upscale segment, while extended-stay brand Hyatt House topped the upscale category. Previously, extended-stay hotels had their own category for the rankings, but within the combined segments the brand’s guestroom satisfaction scores put it on top, Stokes said.

For the 15th consecutive year, Drury Hotels led the upper midscale category. “They have pretty good standards [and] consistency across properties,” Stokes said, adding that while consistency is not always a significant driver of high scores, it can factor into strong performance for large brands. “They have loyal guests that tend to choose Drury over other brands.” 

Two category leaders were new to the rankings. The 3-year-old Tru by Hilton brand unseated the Wingate by Wyndham brand after five consecutive years, knocking the longstanding leader to second place in the midscale category. The economy segment leader, SureStay Hotel by Best Western, made its debut in 2016 and is also new to the rankings. Stokes acknowledged that it can take time for a brand to get on the lists. “At some point, the new brands do end up having enough distribution where we're able to find enough guests in the general population,” she said, estimating that between one and three brands are added each year. 

The More Things Change...

Stokes joined J.D. Power in September last year, just as the company updated the questions on its survey to reflect changing guest demands. For example, speedy Wi-Fi and plentiful USB ports were not in high demand in 1996, and most reservations are now made online, making questions about a caller’s experience booking a room over the phone obsolete. 

But some guest demands have remained steady over the years. “Things like [clean] guestrooms, food and beverage, staff service, the facilities at the hotel and the amenities that are available—those things really haven't changed much,” Stokes said. 

Perhaps most tellingly, satisfaction scores have gone up in almost every category. “For individual brands, [the] average has gone up as well,” Stokes said. “So that also speaks to ... how brands and properties really seem to focus on experience. Especially in the luxury category and even in upper-upscale, we're seeing very high scores that we don't normally see.” The industry as a whole, she believes, is “getting” what guests need and what the guest’s journey is, from prestay to on-property to post-stay.

Clean Rooms

Room cleanliness is a key driver of satisfaction, and the overall satisfaction score among guests who say they are “delighted” (rating of 10 points) with the cleanliness of the guestroom averages 942 (on a 1,000-point scale) versus an overall satisfaction score of 829 among those who are merely “pleased” (rating of eight or nine) with the cleanliness of their guestroom. 

Guest satisfaction with the cleanliness of their room has increased for a fifth consecutive year, reaching an all-time high rating of 8.53 (on a 10-point scale) in 2020. “It's table stakes for guests,” Stokes noted. With consistently high satisfaction in guestroom cleanliness, she added, the J.D. Power team opted not to ask a lot of questions about that subject specifically.

Clear Communications

Communicating ahead of a guest’s stay creates an opportunity to build trust. “Transparency is key,” Stokes said. According to the report, overall satisfaction scores fall 66 points on average when no prestay communications are received. “If it's a prestay communication from the property or if it's perhaps a communication from the loyalty program, it can make a real real difference,” Stokes said. This communication can cover everything from confirming activities to getting preferences on room types to offering discounts at the hotel’s bar. 

This question was new to the 2019 survey, and Stokes sees potential in exploring the value of prestay communications, particularly as hotels fight for market share against online travel agencies. “We need to keep asking this as we go,” she said, noting that hotels may not get direct communication information from third-party booking websites, making these connections difficult. “It's a difficult problem to solve,” she said. 

2021 and Beyond

This communication will only become more vital as the pandemic drags on and many hotels across North America continue to operate with limitations on capacity, particularly in dining areas/restaurants, public pools, fitness centers and spas. Based on J.D. Power data collected since the beginning of the pandemic, hotel guests understand the challenges faced by the industry and want direct, honest communication. “Guests have to understand up front if it's not going to be the same experience,” Stokes said. “If the pool isn’t open—well, if they know that in advance, they have that information, and it won't necessarily affect the entire rest of their experience.” 

More importantly, they have questions about how they can stay safe and what they will need to do on-property. “Do I go to the front desk? Or should I just use a digital key to check in and not even go to the front desk?” Stokes imagined a guest wondering. “Is the pool open? Is the breakfast area open or am I going to have to get breakfast and bring it to the room?” The pandemic, she said, has created a different world, and clear information is key. “As much as a property or a brand can communicate what the hotel is doing for safety is important, and those reminders are important.” Based on a separate J.D. Power pulse survey conducted April 17-19 of this year, hotel efforts to inform travelers about their specific cleaning and sanitization protocols are among the most important actions hotels can take to make travelers feel comfortable. 

For J.D. Power’s 2021 study, covering June 2020 to May 2021, the company will be collecting additional guest feedback regarding specific actions hotels are taking to improve safety and cleanliness, if these actions impacted hotel choice and if safety-related information was provided prestay and on-property: “Do the guests see the staff wearing masks? Did the guest see in the lobby that there were markers where they should stand [to] socially distance? Did the guest see that the restaurant had tables that were properly distanced? Little things like that,” Stokes said. “It covers more than just cleanliness. It really covers a range of everything that hotels are doing right now for guest safety.”