TORONTO— Should hotels be texting guests? This question was posed multiple times during the 2017 HITEC conference in Toronto, with varying levels of acceptance from operators. One thing is certain: In an industry that often touts its connection to the “human element” through interactions between staff and guests, guests have shown an inclination to gravitate toward seemingly impersonal methods of communication. But is text chat really so impersonal?
During a panel titled “Text Your Guests,” a poll of the audience showed that 70 percent of those in attendance were in favor of texting guests, while 25 percent were undecided and 5 percent were against it. Meanwhile, all four of the panel’s participants were heavily in favor of text communication between hotels and guests for a number of reasons, with some caveats.
"We have to be very careful not to force someone into it,” said Raman Rama, EVP & CTO/CIO at JHM Hotels. “We must allow guests to opt in and out of [of the program].” According to Rama, this is a necessary part of the process and isn’t a deterrent for guests who are already used to texting friends and relatives. In addition, Rama said text communications leave a succinct, easy-to-access paper trail for communications between the hotel and guests.
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Furthermore, Alexander Shashou, co-founder & CEO of hospitality operations system developer Alice, said texting guests is a necessary evolutionary strategy for hotels because traditional methods of building relationships with travelers have degraded in their effectiveness over time. What’s more, hotels that embrace SMS text messaging as opposed to direct messaging through a loyalty app have the added bonus of being able to reach every one of their guests without exception.
“SMS is a platform everyone has on their phone the moment they buy it,” Shashou said. “There is no need to buy or download anything additional, and that’s why we’re seeing so much traction from this form of communication.”
If every hotel flocks to text communication tomorrow, what are some ways for operators to stay unique? According to Jennifer Green, product director, global property solutions, Hyatt Hotels Corporation, differentiation in this space begins with picking your mindset and the message you want to convey to guests. At Hyatt, Green said the overarching business strategy focuses on the lens of “care,” which colors every technology or business practice the company launches.
“Don’t text guests just to message them… think of it as a business opportunity,” Green said. “Think about where email was 10-15 years ago. Everyone was getting them. I wonder what will happen when [SMS] messaging becomes your junk email box. At that point, will people disengage from it? That’s why we have to be careful with how we proceed.”Shashou cautioned operators against looking at text messaging as a means to reduce workload for the property, and instead said it should be a platform for showcasing your staff’s personality.
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“How fast after talking about messaging did we have chatbots and [artificial intelligence] enter the conversation? Of course it will be automated in limited service and it will be successful when it comes, but people aren’t stopping by your concierge anymore so touchpoints are limited,” Shashou said. “Treat technology like it’s an employee by giving it guidelines and look into how to improve it.”
“Above all, [hotels should] communicate with guests the way they want to,” said Josh Weiss, VP, brand & guest technology at Hilton. Because some guests value their privacy and don’t wish to interact face-to-face when on the road, it’s up to hotels to reach out to them in their preferred form of communication.
What’s more, Weiss said that when guests reach out via text and hotels respond in the same manner, satisfaction scores are significantly higher. Weiss said this could be because guests don’t wish to complain about what they may perceive to be minor inconveniences, though these issues still have a negative impact on their experience. But if hotels make it easier for them to notify an operator, there is less hesitation.
“It’s a sign of the times that some of us are more comfortable hiding behind mobile devices,” Weiss said. “We find our brands’ personalities can still come through via text, though.”
Text messaging was lauded by the panelists for its response time and efficiency, but Shashou said the industry must be careful to avoid certain issues when texting guests. For example, many laws exist to protect the general public from solicitation via text chat, and “solicitation” is broadly categorized by the law. The severity of this law varies from state to state, but Shashou highlighted Nevada and California as states that are staunchly against solicitation.
“You can’t text guests question marks,” Shashou said. “If a guest asks ‘What time is dinner?’ and you answer with a time, and then ask if they have a car booked to get there that can count as solicitation.”
According to Green, training may be necessary to keep employees professional when texting with guests because the medium is known for its brevity and personal nature. Because employees are representing their hotel or brand, they must be trained to be personal and warm during text communications without getting too comfortable with the guest.
“We have to train people to speak appropriately, and provide support to show them how,” Green said. “It should be a great way to speak with guests, but people have a tendency to get too comfortable with the medium and forget who they are speaking with.”
These messaging landmines are worth it to Rama, who is looking at SMS interaction with long-term goals in mind.
“Imagine a customer texting you in a foreign language, which is then converted to English. Then you respond in English, and the response is translated into the guest’s language of choice, all organically,” he said. “This is an amazing advantage for multilingual international traffic, and it can happen through Google Translate. The world is flat then. That, in and of itself, is such a powerful tool.”