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  • Michael Schubach

Personalization and the Guest Experience

When one thinks about the word "personalization," many images can be conjured. Perhaps it's a monogram or engraving to signify ownership of an object. Or maybe it's home decor: the artwork and memorabilia that make the space your own. Some people might be reminded of their desk at work, loaded with little time-killer toys to amuse oneself during those occasional hiatuses of inactivity. What may not have made your list of highly personalized experiences is a hotel room - or even a hotel stay. Odd, isn't it? Especially now that the hospitality industry's newest, most popular mission is to provide not just the bed and the bath but the "beyond" - the unique guest experience.

From a historical perspective, hotels have a checkered past as far as "unique" goes. A number of hotel chains and many individual properties grew famous and wealthy based on their reputation as premier providers of deluxe accommodations and exceptional service. During one bygone example of gracious travel, the European Grand Tour, which began in the seventeenth century and grew popular in England during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, visiting hospitality showplaces was considered a rite of passage. The Grand Tour essentially gave rise to the concept of a collegiate "gap year" - young men, most typically, from wealthy families travelled Western Europe as a hiatus between school and their working careers. It was an opportunity to see the centers of culture and civilization, and acquire a patina of sophistication while killing time. Hotel accommodations for the wealthy were typically grand, and were made unique by their exotic locations, ornate furnishings and willingness to accommodate a traveller's dreams and desires - for a price.

However, "unique" was not always as kind to middle class or budget travellers. Leisure travel in the US grew as middle class families gained access to affordable reliable automobiles, but roadside hotel and motel accommodations remained something of a crapshoot. The hospitality industry changed dramatically in 1952 after one Tennessee businessman booked vacation accommodations for his family in some less-than-stellar properties. After that experience, Kemmons Wilson dedicated himself and his livelihood to the concept of family friendly, affordably fair guest experiences that were made unique by predictably standard accommodations and features. Holiday Inns, his brainchild and better mousetrap, went international within the first eight years, and had over one thousand locations within sixteen years.

The pre-Kemmons-Wilson travelling world was very familiar with hotel brands, but Holiday Inns propelled the concept of brand standards to the forefront, a very specific set of specifications for every aspect of accommodation. Most chains followed suit, each writing a unique Bible of Expectations for their guest deliverables. Predictability still enjoys a tremendous following, and patrons who choose any well-known international hotel chain can travel the world and stay in remarkably similar rooms time after time.

However, such standardized expectations don't particularly appeal to younger post-millennial travellers. They look for more experiential travel, at times for business but particularly for leisure travel. The rise of private providers, such as Airbnb, speaks to the demand for out-of-the-ordinary travel experiences. The irony of that type of competition is that provides in spades the unpredictability that Wilson fought to so hard to overcome. Nonetheless, the world keeps spinning, and what was old is new again.

Notably and thankfully, there is a very significant difference in the twenty-first century version of non-standardized accommodation: the game changer is the technology of sharing. In Wilson's day, it generally wasn't practical to get insights, references and reviews before you committed to your stay. Today, it's hard to imagine that you could find fifty square feet of accommodation that haven't been photographed, shared, blogged, rated and reviewed in a myriad of online outlets. It's the age of social media, so there is no excuse for the traveller not to be forewarned and forearmed.

But personalization - that highly sought differentiator - doesn't necessarily mean one must find oneself on a sofa sleeper in an undersized SoHo loft. Personalization extends beyond unconventional accommodation by individualizing communication with travellers, understanding both who they are and, equally as important, why they travel. It is how major chains could conceivably combat the competitive threat posed by every apartment building ever constructed.

Let's begin with the most fundamental concept of marketing: birds of a feather flock together. Human beings emulate their avian counterparts admirably - they segregate themselves into communities of likeness, based on the precept that we are all much more comfortable amongst our own. Take that basic fact and liberally apply the sociological studies of demography and psychographics, and presto: it takes surprisingly little information to surmise a treasure trove of potential information about someone's penchants and likelihood to purchase and repurchase. Armed with something as easily acquired as a zip code, marketing geniuses can assemble what can be a likely description of the traveller in question. It should be noted that the sort of information that often passes for customer intelligence is actually a summation of likely but not necessarily individualized data. Even the really good data tends to be a composite of generic demographic information interleaved with previous purchasing history and personal consumption preferences. It's a good start when a hotel chain sees each guest as an individual rather than a demographic group member but it's only a start.

And true personalization demands more than guest preference retention. Remembering a room type preference - a king versus a double and having it ready when the guest arrives - is nothing more than table stakes in a competitive market. One very important differentiator that adds value and deepens customer insight is to understand the reason that the guest is in house - be it business, leisure or conference participation. Having a sense of a trip's justification allows the hotelier to apply preferences that apply not just to that particular guest in general, but to that particular guest's travel "persona." A leisure travel persona can change the accommodation preferences, service levels, assistance requests and additional revenue opportunities. Now consider the business persona: as a demographic group, business travellers may be more inclined to concern themselves with loyalty point earning opportunities but less inclined toward inclusive meals or services, since their bill is a reimbursable business expense. Also, business people are more likely to take advantage of express check-in and checkout services, and less likely to seek extensive assistance or guidance from the front desk. (See how demographic information works? For every demographic characteristic listed, it's possible to imagine plausible exceptions and numerous examples of where the descriptions simply do not apply. The data isn't wrong - it is statistically generic. Apply another demographic variation - let's say luxury sector business travel - and one gets different statistical standards, metrics and descriptors.)

Being able to recognize J. Q. Public as distinct from the crowd is important, but serving him (or her) appropriately when visiting as Professor Public or just plain Jay (or Jae) is mission critical in this new age. Applying travel personas is an important preference differentiator that helps tailor a stay and enhance the guest experience. Another favorite way to court guest favor is to integrate social interests into travel opportunities. In many markets, purpose-driven travel is augmenting or replacing the demand for more straightforward tourism. Regional food preparation, social interaction, indigenous art collecting, language learning and ecological intervention are bringing out next generation travellers in quantity. Once drawn into a like-minded grouping, those proverbial birds of a feather truly do flock together. Affinity travel groups, people who don't necessarily know one another through business or family relationships, unite through purpose and then travel accordingly.

Important facts to consider in the quest for personalization are that (a) there are technologies in the marketplace that provide the tools to better know, understand and recognize guests, their needs and their desires; and (b) there are competitive technologies being developed with a mission to eliminate as many of the persons, the service agents, from the equation as possible. This is an example of even more irony - technology as both friend and foe. The desire to automate is fueled by the prospect of greater accuracy and lower cost, but it's hard to imagine systems to create relationships and personalize service will work better without people. I would maintain that the hospitality industry specialists, along with artists, philosophers, theologians and caregivers might be the last bastions of humanly delivered services. I, for one, would gladly seek that acknowledgement, even if it gets delivered as a tombstone epitaph.

But in a rapidly evolving technological landscape, let's not lose sight of the original mission. When you think about the word "personalization" what should first come to mind is "you." Systems and programs that enable guest recognition, tailor offers and speak to the guest of extraordinary experiences provide the differentiation that separates the good from the outstanding. In the chain hotel's world of highly standardized options, it is customer relationship management software that provides the best competitive advantage in a marketplace that values the unique above all else. The best approach for a personalization program that brings hotel guests into sharper focus, improves the customer relationship, enhances revenue and results in more rewarding guest experiences is always a "you first" proposition.

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