How to make hotel shuttles an extension of your property

Once guests leave your hotel, can they still have a bad experience that they will blame on the property? It turns out, they can. Tim Nardi, VP of hotel operations at Menin Hospitality, a collection of 15 hotel, restaurant and nightlife venues in Miami, said hotel guests do not realize or care if the experience comes from a different source once they board a hotel shuttle, which is why operators should have some consideration about what happens on the road.

“Even though we use a third party, shuttle drivers are an extension of our team,” Nardi said. “They wear our uniforms, their training is the same and they have to have complete knowledge of our hotels.” Nardi said hiring shuttle drivers in hospitality presents a unique challenge because applicants must possess both a service-oriented mindset and a spotless driving record. For this reason, even though Menin Hospitality's Gale Hotel South Beach in Miami Beach, Fla., relies on a third party to supply employees, once they hit the property they are Nardi’s responsibility.

“The employee piece is the most challenging, with regards to hiring, but after that is training,” he said. “We manage that. Once they do a regular orientation, they tour each of the hotels before they drive a guest. We also like to have a GM or other managers ride with them to see the experience through the guests’ eyes.”

This last factor is an important one that many hotel operators overlook. Justin Jabara, VP of development at Meyer Jabara Hotels, said the shuttle experience often falls short at the select-service level because many hotels are unable to provide a dedicated driver.

“There are a few ways to maintain a curated experience off property,” Jabara said. “First, focus on having nice vans. We scent our hotel lobbies and spend a lot of time on the type of music we play, and the moment you leave the property you lose that. So make sure your van has a scent and dictate the type of music your shuttle is playing and at what volume.”

Jabara also suggested including a cooler of ice and water in your van, depending on your hotel’s location, and provide them to guests in need.

This type of action strikes at the heart of the shuttle experience, making it something that extends the intentions of a hotel beyond its border. Patrick Short, VP of operations at Peachtree Hotel Group, said the interactions that take place in a shuttle have the potential to be more authentic than anything that happens on property, and hotels should take advantage of these opportunities.

“If you’re on a train in Italy and you asked someone at random for suggestions where to eat, you would take that more as a truth than if you asked a concierge,” Short said. “There is always that wonder, ‘are they a partner? Can I trust them?’ And the power of having that trust can’t be underestimated.”

For example, Jabara pointed to the Hyatt Place in Bethlehem, Pa., where the hotel’s shuttle driver, Jack, has such a rapport with his guests that he is mentioned in many of the hotel’s TripAdvisor reviews.

“There are clients who stay at the hotel because Jack is there. He has built a brand within himself… and we’ve given him the tools to do that,” Jabara said.

The Gale Hotel South Beach. Building a rapport with guests during shuttle rides can do wonders for a hotel's online and word-of-mouth reputation. Photo credit: Menin Hospitality

The Waiting Game

No one in the world is more impatient than a hotel guest waiting for a shuttle. Ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft have complicated the shuttle experience by providing an effective way for users to track their rides’ arrival time directly on their phone, but in hotels it isn’t so simple. According to Jabara, the ability to cut down on waiting times and rely on a shuttle’s arrival at regular intervals is a crucial aspect of maintaining a positive guest experience.

“We use services like Kipsu to text guests directly and track arrival times,” Jabara said. “Guests can also text the front desk and ask questions about arrivals.”

According to Short, text-based systems such as this are still not ideal because guests are forced to accept terms and conditions before the systems truly work. “It’s not seamless,” he said. “I do believe that at some point it will almost be like Uber where you can punch in a number and an app will track your vehicle. At some of our properties, we track where our shuttles have been for safety reasons, but we lack that capability in the customer-facing side.”

On-property technology is useful for monitoring shuttle activity, but modern technology also is effective for reducing liability once aboard the shuttles. James Gross, corporate director of operations at Pivot Hotels & Resorts, said his company looks for vans equipped with back-up cameras, blind-spot indicators, lane-departure warning systems and forward collision warnings in order to promote safety. However, technology alone is not going to help with what Gross said is the greatest challenge facing hotel transportation: managing guest expectations.

“Most hotels have one van or house car, and making sure that guests are given realistic wait times directly correlates to guest satisfaction, sometimes for their entire experience during the stay,” Gross said.

According to Nardi, shuttle wait times at the Gale Hotel South Beach are not much of a concern. This is because the maximum wait time between shuttle rides is three minutes, and often is shorter than that. Nardi credits this to South Beach’s small size, and the unique design of the property’s transportation offerings. The hotel makes use of extra-wide golf carts to shuttle guests from one place to another, a desirable mode of transportation in the evergreen climate of South Beach and a creative way to exceed guest expectations.

“People come here to be outside. It’s like all those double-decker buses you see in the city, everyone is always on top,” Nardi said. “Taking that experience [guests] came here for and enhancing it, this is our way of making it happen.”