NEW YORK—One of the biggest missteps in the history of the hotel industry, according to Jim Anhut of InterContinental Hotels Group, occurred decades ago when Holiday Inn changed the name of the people who run its hotels from innkeeper to GM.
“They quickly and promptly scurried to the back office and started watching numbers and reports and pie charts and graphs and lost total connection with the people that were staying in their hotel,” said the company’s senior VP of Americas brand management.
The brand is now working to retrain some 40 years of learned experience to get GMs back on the floor and interacting with guests, Anhut said.
The goal? Driving guest satisfaction.
“We’re an industry that’s really relying on people to deliver the brand,” Anhut said during a panel at the American Hotel & Lodging Association’s Hospitality Leadership Forum last month. “The focus of (IHG) right now is to look at the (GM) as the brand manager. The brand is really delivered through the people at the properties.”
InterContinental Hotels Group
“People” was a recurring theme during the 45-minute session, in which representatives from IHG, Hilton Worldwide and Marriott International highlighted key initiatives each is taking to improve service standards.
The moves come at a time when hotel satisfaction scores are at a recent high, according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index, which measures satisfaction across multiple industries on a scale of 1 to 100. The hotel industry recorded a score of 77 during 2012, which is unchanged from the prior year.
The national aggregate ACSI across all industries, meanwhile, registered 76 for 2012.
Loren Nalewanski, VP and global brand manager for Marriott’s TownePlace Suites brand and Marriott Executive Apartments, has introduced a “Just Because” program, which empowers property-level employees to “go above just getting (guests) really committed to the brand to getting them highly engaged to the extent that they love you and will tell everybody about you.”
A simple example: A housekeeper notices a certain kind of candy bar wrapper in a guest’s trash can and then restocks the fridge with that same candy bar.
Every employee is tasked with delivering the brand promise—even the night auditor who is crunching numbers at night, Nalewanski said.
“In many of our properties, it’s one person,” he said. “We have one chance to make it with the guest. We’re really focused on who is delivering the brand promise. We often typically focus on front of the house. … But when it comes down to it, it may be that one person, super quiet at night after 11 (p.m.) who is a number cruncher who is the one we can’t forget about.”
A helpful exercise to help identify those ever-important touch points is “journeying”—the process by which hoteliers actually journey step by step through the entire hotel experience, from pre-booking phase to post-check-out, said Bonnie Knutson, professor of marketing with The School of Hospitality Business at Michigan State University.
“Think about every touch point a guest has with your property, from the first time they think about staying at your hotel to the last time they have an experience with it,” she said. “How many opportunities do you have to touch that guest either personally or impersonally?” The opportunities are limitless, she said.
Technology and satisfaction
“Tech is often looked upon as the solution versus the enabler,” Anhut said. “We get kind of enamored by the shiny stuff and all the cool things.”
Technology for the sake of technology does more harm than good, the panelists agreed.
More important is implementing technology that gives customer choices.
“The guests want to do what they want, work the way they want, when they want, on their terms and maintain their routine, whatever that means to you,” Nalewanski said. “As we look across all of our segments and you look across the generational situation now with the X and Y and the boomers and so forth, it means something different to each person. It really comes back to, ‘What is value?’”
“To have a choice, though, is especially important, because I feel like as a consumer I’m in control.”
Hilton’s more technologically inclined Conrad brand is providing such choice through its new Conrad Concierge application that is accessible from most iOS and Droid devices.
“They have the ability to interact with the hotel when they’re at the hotel in a way that they want,” said Michael Ennes, senior director of luxury brand development for Hilton. “We’re making a big bet on that as a platform that will be kind of a hallmark for Conrad because it is a very tech-savvy type of crowd that visits the Conrad. But it’s not going to replace the guest interaction with our staff. It’s all about control. … At the end of the day, it needs to make the experience more enjoyable for the guest.”
Product or people?
Even the oldest assets can drive high levels of guest satisfaction, the panelists agreed.
“Especially in the past couple of years as money has been very tight for owners to complete renovations on schedule, some of the properties by age are way overdue but have some of the highest scores in the brand,” Nalewanski said. That’s because it’s all about the people, the service they’re bringing and their ability to anticipate the needs of guests, as well as getting to know the customer, he added.
“The Holiday Inn brand is 60 years old this year, and some of the best and highest ranking properties are 40 years old. And it all has to do with the people,” Anhut said.
Both Conrad and Waldorf Astoria have some very old, iconic properties in their system, some of which don’t necessarily have the nicest fixtures, Ennes said. But those are the properties that often drive the highest satisfaction scores.
“And the reason that is, is because of the service interaction and the way that they treat the customers,” he said. “It’s not technology. It may not necessary even be the hardware, although in the luxury space that’s kind of table stakes. … At the end of the day, it’s the way that you interact with your guests and make them feel appreciated for being there.”
The panelists closed by offering attendees a final, actionable means to improve satisfaction scores.
Nalewanksi: “Consistency. Knowing your customer better than your competitors would know your customer. And delivering on expectations and your brand promise.”
Anhut: “Sensitize your staff to be aware when people are unhappy, and don’t let them leave your hotel if they are. And if they do leave your hotel and they are and they let you know about it, you’d better get back to them pronto in a real-time world—and I don’t mean by email. Phone calls work pretty well.”
Ennes: “For Waldorf and Conrad, something we’re very focused on in the luxury space is providing experiences, and experiences beyond just that guest/staff interaction, but providing experiences that are memorable, and they’re indigenous. We’ll call it cocktail currency. It’s something that people enjoy sharing stories about when they get back from a vacation or business trip that they’ve had an opportunity to do something new.”