Pandemic offers hotels opportunities for innovation

True artificial intelligence remains out of reach today, but predictive analytics and machine learning is already at work behind the scenes.
Some businesses have leveraged artificial intelligence to support guest needs through the pandemic. Photo credit: Getty Images/Pixtum

A new study from Sitel Group indicates that while the hospitality and travel industries have been gaining ground when it comes to innovation and technology, the sector still has a long way to go.

According to a new study, "COVID-19: the CX Impact," only 9 percent of Americans rank travel and hospitality as the “most innovative” industry during the pandemic. Only the insurance sector, at 3 percent, was ranked lower. 

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Before the pandemic, 14 percent of consumers cited the travel and hospitality industry as being the most innovative when it came to the use of technology in customer experiences. Only 8 percent of total consumers—both American and international—felt that travel and hospitality was the industry making the most innovative use of technology during the pandemic. 

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“Stay-at-home advisories and border closures put an immediate halt to travel plans during the beginning of the pandemic, forcing hotels to scramble to help customers attain refunds or rebook their trips,” said Martin Wilkinson-Brown, chief marketing officer for Sitel Group. “It has been a difficult time for the industry as a whole and while our data shows consumers have been more accepting than usual of [customer experience] challenges during this chaotic time, as we move into the ‘new normal’ and hotels reopen for business, the expectation for customer experience is higher than ever.”

Moving forward, Wilkinson-Brown said, consumers will be demanding an enhanced experience from their hotels—from personalized email communications to live agent chats and artificial-intelligence-powered support channels. “Hotels that cater to these consumers' needs will win brand loyalty as we embrace the new normal, and for the long term.”

What Hotels Can Do

As travelers seek socially distant experiences, the use of technology to handle consumer relations is more important than ever. Some businesses have leveraged artificial intelligence to support guest needs through the pandemic—for example, implementing FAQ bots to answer customers’ COVID-19-related questions. When guests (and potential guests) can get the information they need with a minimum of hassle, they will be more likely to come back.

Both before and during the pandemic, the travel and hospital industry was seen by consumers to be lagging behind banking and financial services, telecommunications and retail industries in the innovative use of technology. A consumer’s experiences in one industry will affect expectations in another, so hospitality and travel businesses need to pay attention to new trends emerging in diverse sectors. 

Sitel Group asked consumers what technology they believed travel and hospitality brands could leverage to create the most compelling customer experiences. The top answer was for digital representatives (chatbots, voice automation, etc.) with virtual reality just behind. As such, Sitel Group suggests hotels develop VR simulations of their guestrooms and public spaces to let travelers “try before they buy.” 

Consumers also saw the opportunity for the travel and hospitality industry to leverage AI to deliver personalized recommendations. Sitel Group recommends combining AI and VR to create more personalized, virtual experiences that can seamlessly support consumers through discovery and purchase and on to post-purchase care 24/7.

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