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Improving the Guest Experience Starts Now

Andrea Stokes Practice Lead, Hospitality, J.D. Power

The hospitality industry is facing some of the most challenging circumstances in decades, if not ever. After ending 2019 on a strong note, 2020 turned the industry quickly on its head as the pandemic forced lockdowns that closed hotels nationwide. Many months after the pandemic began, the situation is not even close to being back to normal. Nor has the economy fully recovered.

The pandemic knocked hotel owners and operators off course. In 2019, many budgeted for near-term capital improvements. They were then slammed with a swift and drastic decline in demand when the pandemic began. Continued low occupancy has forced owners and operators to shelve planned capital expenditures-and even maintenance investments are off the table. It may be years before hotel owners and operators can return to making the capital improvements they should have been completing when times were good.

At the same time, it may take a while for travel patterns to return to normal and travelers and businesses feel it is safe to travel. Hotel occupancy-especially for full-service hotels-will not return to pre-pandemic levels until travelers are more confident. How can owners and operators continue to deliver against high guest expectations when renovations, FF&E updates, or technology upgrades simply can't happen right now?

There are many unanswered questions and plenty about which the hospitality industry can be glum. However, despite a great deal of uncertainty, there are smaller investments hotels of all service levels can make to elevate guest satisfaction when the pandemic ends. According to J.D. Power research conducted for the past 25 years, it's the "small things" that guests experience that add up to a highly satisfying stay.

The first, and perhaps most obvious, step is to clean, clean, clean. And when initial cleaning is done, clean some more! Always a focal point for consumers, guest room and bathroom cleanliness has become even more important now. Keep in mind that to guests, a clean room means more than disinfection, dusting, and vacuuming. Clean also means fresh linens, draperies, and lampshades-and don't forget to check the smell. A clean, fresh smell will boost guest satisfaction much more than a chemical smell, or worse, a stale smell. Also ensure that enhanced housekeeping procedures maintain a safe environment for both guests and staff.

The good news is, hotels were already in a strong position on this front before the pandemic began. In fact, guest satisfaction with hotel guest room cleanliness was at an all-time high prior to the pandemic according to recent J.D. Power Hotel Guest Satisfaction Study results. Guest room cleanliness has a noticeable effect on overall stay satisfaction?

When guests move from "pleased" to "delighted" with guest room cleanliness, their overall satisfaction increases by a significant 113 points (on a 1,000-point scale).

Owners and operators should double down on the more intense focus on housekeeping by considering higher wages for housekeeping staff-even if current revenue does not justify the expense. The benefits will be immediate: housekeepers will be less likely to quit and less likely to revolt at managers' heightened scrutiny on their work. Not only will better, more consistent housekeeping likely reduce the spread of viruses; it will create a powerful impression on guests that the hotel staff really cares about their well-being. Simply put, investing in housekeeping staff is investing in guest loyalty.

What other relatively small guest-centric investments will keep guests coming back? The simple act of providing weary guests a refreshment upon arrival. This practice harkens back to the taverns and inns of old where the hospitality industry was born. Let's bring it back-even at limited service hotels and for all guests, not just loyalty program members. We at J.D. Power call this a "first-impression experience," and our data shows that a refreshment offered at check-in has a highly positive influence on guest satisfaction with the rest of the stay. Yet only about one-third of guests experience this-and that's in full-service hotels! The gain in guest loyalty that would come from offering that can of sparkling water, that cookie, that bag of popcorn, far outweighs the cost.

The same logic applies to small investments that can improve guests' quality of sleep. The J.D. Power Hotel Guest Satisfaction Study shows that only about one in three guests claim they get better-than-expected quality of sleep during their stay. (Given that guest expectations for restful sleep while traveling are often quite low, "better-than-expected" likely means "just average.") What can be done? If at all possible, replace any aging, and usually very noisy, PTAC units. New, more efficient units are available that run extremely quiet while improving indoor air quality at the same time.

If this is not feasible, why not simply replace those flimsy draperies with room-darkening shades? If this is not possible, then offer guests an inexpensive disposable eye mask amenity. Either step would go a long way to improve guests' sleep experience. Also, it goes without saying that mattresses and bedding should be in very good condition and replaced if they are not. Guests will notice the difference and appreciate the effort made to offer a better sleep experience.

If even these investments are just not feasible now, is there anything else hoteliers can do to improve the guest experience without major expense? In addition to revising policies and procedures to ensure guest safety, owners and operators should ensure staff members have the training and skills necessary to better serve guests-from the check-in process to check-out-and-return. Staff service training is a very low-cost (or in many cases no-cost) investment that will provide dividends in the long run.

Notice the word "service"-this does not refer to training staff on your systems and software. Those are skills. Service training is different in that it focuses on guests' emotional cues and shows staff how to respond appropriately. The staff is the glue that holds the hotel together and providing service training can be an impetus that lifts the entire operation.

Unfortunately, the pandemic has upended what hotel staff has learned about providing excellent service. Guests are wary as they step into a hotel upon arrival. There are new barriers between staff and guests, beyond mask-wearing, that make it challenging to provide great service. Before hotels are inundated by the post-pandemic rush of travelers, they should use their time wisely by preparing staff through training modules and videos. Having these already in place will allow returning staff to reboot their skills and will give new employees with limited experience in hospitality the means to learn the art of service. With fewer guests in the hotel today, it is the perfect opportunity for hoteliers to focus on training.

Finally, hotels should think about ways technology can enable a more personalized guest service. Investing in a tablet or two for front desk staff and negotiating with PMS software vendors to provide mobile at no cost would be a wise step to take. Staff should look at check-ins for each day, understand each guest's stay history, and anticipate their needs. Once guests arrive, staff should ask questions-not to pry but to understand the guest's expectations for the stay. Take the example of a single guest staying for one night. The guest could be in town for an important business meeting or just passing through on a long road trip. It only takes a simple question to find out. Or consider the example of a female guest with three companions. Odds are this is a harried mom who, with dad and kids in tow, just wants someone-anyone-to make her life just a bit easier.

It takes but a moment for front desk staff to use the smallest bit of information in the reservation and think about what it reveals about the guest. Then, with mobile enablement, staff can anticipate guests' needs as they welcome the guest--not from behind the desk but up front when the guest first walks through the door. Many hotels are already providing staff with tablet devices and dispensing with the front desk all together.

When the pandemic ends, consumers and businesses of all types will emerge relieved and much changed. Hotel owners and operators need to be prepared for the new traveler, one who the pandemic taught that "things" don't matter as much as experiences and togetherness. After all, hotels occupy a unique position and role in human interaction. They are the places where togetherness happens-for families, for work colleagues, for professional associations and for local residents. Travelers will have higher expectations for human-delivered service and will place a premium on getting it. In hotels across all categories, that service will need to be excellent or travelers will go elsewhere.

If this sounds like a lot for owners and operators to have on their plates, that's because it is. Running a successful hotel is a challenging endeavor even in the best of times; steering it through a pandemic seems unreasonably daunting. Some hotels and operators will choose to dwell on the current environment as an obstacle. Others will accept it as an opportunity to emerge with a better product, more streamlined operations, a stronger staff and happier, more loyal guests.

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