Why hotel technology must be customer-centric

IHIF's Tech Panel. Photo credit: Katherine Doggrell

BERLIN, Germany — On the final day of the International Hotel Investment Forum, attendees learned how innovation in technology is being driven by what consumers want, including greater personalization, fewer friction points and providing a unique—rather than a repeat—experience. 

"Everything you do has to be customer-centric" 

The online travel agencies highlighted the investments they have been making into changing the consumer experience. “People are getting more savvy," Peter Verhoeven, global director of partner services at Booking.com, said. "They don’t want a repeat experience; they want a unique experience. Everything you do has to be customer-centric. If the customer doesn’t find what he or she wants, they will leave and never come back.” 

Arthur Chapin, chief product officer at Brand Expedia Group, echoed the sentiment. “We’ve tried to change the conversation around technology and make it about meeting customer needs. It’s about looking at what the big customer problems are to solve."   

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With voice-based technologies such as Amazon's Alexa, Apple's Siri and Google Assistant expected to be the next route to market for hotels, Chapin said that travel and hospitality companies were learning about the power of the human voice. “Voice will change peoples’ expectations about how they interact with that company," he said. "For us, every investment is about solving a specific problem. Time and time again, customers are telling us that they don’t want to interact with another human. Technology can improve the personalization of these interactions. The investment that companies are making in machine-learning is critical. For us, a lot of it’s about getting all the data in one place, and then it becomes [about] building the software capability that can predict answers. We need to remember that it’s not just answering the question, but how that question is asked.” 

Representing the hotel operators, Rufino Pérez, COO and global transformation leader at NH Hotel Group, said that any investment his company considers requires a compelling business case. "What is the return for that investment?" he asked. “We want to enhance the customer experience with check-in online, choose-your-room and check-out express. [We want] to make those functions more efficient. We also want to save money at the back-of-house by, for instance, integrating suppliers. We are also looking to improve revenues, [and] we are now able to provide individual price points for all our third parties. These are critical things—practical things.” 

The Customer Journey

Panelists drew attention to other online consumer brands, with Paul Roberts, CEO of Village Hotel Club, highlighting the simplicity of Amazon’s sales process. “We need to look at the customer journey, at making it frictionless,” he said.  

Productivity was key to the operators’ adoption of new technologies, Roberts said. “We need, as an industry, to improve our productivity, and we will invest in anything that improves productivity. It’s the same as any CapEx project that you’re going to undertake. We break it down into two areas—the application piece and the infrastructure piece. I try to separate [them] because there are some things you have to do, such as cybersecurity, and there are others where you apply ROI.” 

Following TUI’s announcement that it was looking to use blockchain technology to manage inventory, the panel sought to address this new potential. “Any sector where it’s not a tangible good, that is a space that is going to be impacted by blockchain,” Chapin said. “Blockchain has the ability to change how things are done in travel. For a long time, there have been central systems that manage inventory, and blockchain has the ability to disrupt that. Customers expect an instant response in everything they interact with, and blockchain may increase the response times for that.”

Pérez, for his part, was suspending judgment. “They claim that blockchain will dramatically cut commissions, but we will see," he said. "We think that the combination of blockchain and loyalty schemes will be very interesting.” 

Katherine Doggrell is an editor at Hotel Analyst, the U.K.-based news analysis service for hotel investors.