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When it Comes to the Guest Experience, Virtually Everything has Changed

Jack Chang Chief Technology Officer, Towne Park

When savvy consumers envision resuming travel, they expect scrupulous health and safety protocols and enhanced technology that support seamless, contactless experiences.

Case in point-in pre-COVID times, ask anyone what constituted good hospitality, and chances are they'd recount a thoughtful in-person human interaction. These days the portrait of good hospitality is often contactless delivery of food in a safety-sealed bag direct from the restaurant by a friendly and conscientious associate.

Though exceptional service experiences and a level of human interaction and personalization is still an expectation, technology is the backbone that enables the new guest experience from arrival through departure.

Herein lies the opportunity. Many guests want safe, contactless interactions but still expect exceptional service experiences. So how do we marry the two for a differentiated experience? Here we'll share three ways you can win the hearts and minds battle.

Drive Demand through Digitization

The past year has changed many things, not the least of which is how we interact. To bridge the distance and support connection, communication and contactless experiences, the world turned to technology to fill the gap. The Journal of Management Studies noted the rapid adoption of new technologies in a commentary published in their December 2020 issue, writing:

"The viral contagion has also created a social contagion in terms of technology adoption behaviors… For example, contactless technologies, digital money and cashless payment systems have all become pervasive in their rollout. Across all sectors, digital transformation is in progress at a pace never seen before."

A recent segment on NBC's Today show demonstrated how travelers can now enjoy a socially distant, contactless experience at the airport-through check-in, baggage check, boarding, and any gate agent requests-all thanks to mobile phone features like QR code scanning and video chats. Now that contactless technologies have become an integral part of our lives for more than a year, consumers have come to expect the convenience for everything from digital transactions to coordination of service.

Today, guests want seamless and frictionless interactions-and if they can manage it all from the safety and convenience of their own device or without touching a high-touch surface, all the better. Simply put, digitization provides new ways for guests to enjoy your property.

Larger hospitality chains are no strangers to digitization, already dipping their toes into the water with advances like customized apps with digital keys. While that may have felt novel prior to the pandemic, such innovations will now be considered table stakes. This past May, Hospitality Technology noted the extent of digitization that's already under way, citing the pervasiveness of digital access tools and mobile apps that allow guests to completely bypass the front desk. At some hotels, you can even ask Alexa to have housekeeping bring you a toothbrush.

Technology is revolutionizing the guest experience, and nowhere is it felt more profoundly than front-of-house functions. Your tech stack is no longer just a behind-the-scenes internal consideration. It's a selling point. Going forward, even group and event decisions will be made based on the technology capabilities of your property. It will be necessary to consider the impact on every guest experience-from in-person conference or event attendees, to those joining the conference remotely, to the traditional overnight guests. And that means your first impression starts from the moment of arrival and includes the parking experience and all interactions throughout their stay.

We know guests still want the convenience of pulling up to the door, having their car valet parked and receiving assistance with their bags from the bell staff. We see that at Towne Park and ensure everyone's comfort and safety by following all health and safety protocols, including team members wearing masks, social distancing, vehicle sanitization, and steering wheel covers. But what happens when guests want to tip associates for a job well done?

In many cases the shift to contactless interactions can impair the ability to do so, and many guests don't carry cash. Providing a safe and convenient way to tip allows guests to recognize service, providing them another option; plus, it's also important for Towne Park to build and retain the best team of service associates with the right compensation. Towne Park now offers a digital tipping solution. With the simple scan of a QR code from their phone guests can seamlessly tip for exceptional service using the most convenient payment method for them-including major credit cards and digital wallet payment solutions like Apple Pay or Google Pay. The digital tipping platform integrates with our employee portal, Towne Link, for a seamless experience for our workforce.

Similarly, we also sought to eliminate the need for exchanging physical tickets to track and reclaim luggage and belongings. With a new technology we are testing, Contactless Luggage Check, our Bell teams can digitally track and keep all bags safe. Guests can easily claim their bags using a virtual ticket on their mobile device. This can also reduce guest wait times and allows communication with the guest via text when needed, such as to confirm their luggage is ready when it's time to depart or in the instance of forgotten items. And in conjunction with our digital tipping solution, this is practically a fully contactless user experience.

The other adjustment hotels must consider is the self-parking experience, which in most instances involves touchpads or other high-touch surfaces. To solve for this, we developed a contactless parking solution that enables guests to pay for parking with their mobile device by sending a text message to a number provided on posted signage or by scanning a QR code.

This solution has not only proven to be not an efficient and contactless way to manage high volume parking, but also a new source of revenue for properties, especially for those hotels who have not currently charged for parking or charged based on an honor system. This solution is also seamless to implement for hotels and even allows for multiple pricing tiers, premium parking options which further enhance the guest experience while providing new revenue opportunities.

Hotels that address these touch points in the arrival experience will be ahead of the game. However, many of these same contactless digital innovations can extend inside the doors of your property to other guest services for a consistent experience. A recent study found the majority of hotel customers feel the use of technologies throughout their stay is necessary to minimize human-to-human contact. Similar to the Alexa example above, guests now expect other services and amenities to be seamless, contactless and simple – while also not requiring another app to download.

The upside to all this is a truly differentiated guest experience with added convenience and new revenue opportunities. The downside? Incorporating these innovations has major implications for your tech stack and the partners you work with. And if the experience isn't completely seamless for the guest (and the employees), your digital solution could do more harm than good.

Innovating the Service Experience

According to the American Hotel & Lodging Association's 2021 State of the Hotel Industry, 56% of consumers expect to travel for leisure this year, consistent with their habits in an average year. A recent Travel Tech survey confirms there is pent up demand for travel, when it is safe to do so. With the Covid-19 vaccine distribution accelerating, chances are you're already starting to see many of those consumers back on your property. The question now is how do you entice the remaining 44% to return? How do you stand apart from competitors who will also be vying for their attention?

This is where your digital innovation is key to provide the confidence, convenience, and comfort guests need to travel again. Take for instance, mobile keys: if your guests bypass the front desk at check-in, chances are they're missing out on the local intel that would enhance their stay like restaurant recommendations, directions, or on-the-spot revenue generators, like offers to book services at the spa. That's why it's so important to demonstrate to guests the extent to which they'll be able to maintain the experience they enjoyed pre-pandemic, while also maintaining the sense of control and convenience technology provides.

One of the ways forward-thinking hotels are doing this is by providing enhanced opportunities for personalization. A great example is Hilton's use of location-based services that alerts guests to events, activities, and deals-like a free drink at the hotel bar-that may be of interest based on the guest's location on property. Others are employing augmented reality to enable virtual tours of the property or the surrounding area so guests can plan their visit in advance, at their leisure.

Many of these technologies aren't new, but what's changed is the willingness for adoption. In a recent opinion piece, Guestline CTO Andrew Metcalfe observed the pandemic has better contextualized digitization. Guests no longer perceive digitization as a sign that service is being reduced:

"…[Hoteliers] have had an opportunity to test [the digital experience] much faster and guests understand why. It is not just to replace expensive staff with cheaper kiosks…," he said. "Once you have eyes on your digital experience, it would be wise to offer more services, again enhancing the guest experience rather than complicating it, but also with the very real potential to secure a much enhanced and much-needed range of revenues."

Engaged Employees Deliver Exceptional Experiences

Last year, in an article for Hotel Business Review "Technology is Changing: Here's How to Stay in the Driver's Seat ", I discussed how hotels can meet the needs of today's workforce, in light of the new gig economy, and increased desire for independence and flexibility. Like the adoption of technology, the urgency to adopt the recommendations I shared has been accelerated by the pandemic. And it's no wonder, considering many of the millions of employees shed by the hospitality industry since the beginning of the pandemic have since found jobs in new industries.

Not only is the industry competing to lure back customers, we're also competing to lure back talent. Employee expectations have changed, but so has the way employers manage and staff their operations. It's not uncommon for one employee to hold many roles with the ability to flex based on demand and need, creating almost a "gig" work experience with one single employer.

Effectively managing these employment and staffing models requires new technologies to both support employee experience and support more complex staffing requirements. This is where a fully integrated enhanced workforce management platform that enhances both the manager and employee experience is key.

As the economy picks up over the next few months, so too will the war for talent. That's why the discussion of creating differentiation and a competitive advantage through technology doesn't stop at the guest experience; it encompasses the employee experience, too. Not to mention the two have always been interrelated. We all know happy, engaged employees deliver better service. It's more important than ever for employers to provide the tools that simplify, streamline, and facilitate employee engagement and support service excellence. This includes digital tools that bridge the distance between employees to enable greater productivity, communication, and connectivity.

The Society of Human Resources, in an article this winter on the top challenges facing the hospitality industry, noted that building an engaged workforce, fostering communication and providing tokens of appreciation is key to attracting and retaining prized employees. One of the best ways to tackle that is-you guessed it-digitization.

In my previous article I talked about our game changing employee portal, Towne Link, and why we developed the platform. This is a communication and engagement tool, available to all Towne Park associates, that connects them to each other and the company, all in the palm of their hand through an app on their mobile device.

During the pandemic, Towne Link has become even more invaluable for fostering communication and engagement among our associates. The platform offers advanced chat, easy access to process and training, news and information about the company, and instant safety and service messages. Our teams are geographically dispersed, and most are deskless, so we needed a connection that traveled with our associates wherever they go. The app has put a method for employee communication at their fingertips, connecting teammates whether they're on the other side of the property, the other side of town, or even the other side of the country.

Ultimately, that instantaneous communication makes their jobs easier and leads to greater satisfaction. Plus, having mobile access to our resource library, operational practices and human resources materials further enhances productivity. And we know that when employees are engaged and happy, they provide great service.

Final Thoughts

The pandemic and our accelerated adoption of technology that facilitates contactless interaction will continue to change the hospitality experience. It wasn't long ago the term high touch was most closely associated with service. However, I believe the industry will reclaim the term and technology will lead the way. High touch will be service that meets you where you are, seamlessly adapting in real-time to our individual preferences, movements, habits, and needs. It won't be hospitality as we once knew it. It will be hospitality that's even better than before.

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