Hotel executives with multiple brands at the recent NYU International Hospitality Industry Investment Conference shared their insights into how they craft customer experiences, noting the process starts with innovation and taking care of employees.
NEW YORK—Even as the world and the industry change at a rapid pace, delivering a positive customer experience remains the core of the hotel business, and experts on the topic said treating employees well and prioritizing innovation are huge pieces of achieving that goal.
Speaking during the “Customer experience management in the digital age: Cutting across silos in marketing, loyalty, digital, sales, IT and data” session at the NYU International Hospitality Industry Investment Conference, panelists said it’s important to remember that expectations for a great hotel stay aren’t based just on what the industry itself is doing.
“It would be a shortsighted and egregious mistake to only look at your own industry,” said Adam Malamut, chief customer experience officer for Marriott International. “Consumer expectations are derived (from various industries). Look at how Uber is always on wherever you are and meets your needs at a whim. That gets embedded in consumer expectations.”
He noted by those standards often service in a hotel setting can seem “medieval.”
Rick Harvey Lam, SVP of global brand marketing for AccorHotels, agreed that hoteliers need to look to other industries for inspiration, and he said that is reflected in some of AccorHotels’ recent acquisitions and the creation of programs like AccorLocal.
“We believe we’re evolving with the world around us,” he said.
The employee impact
Panelists noted one of the first steps in creating a great guest experience is getting a hotel’s employees onboard with a positive service culture, and buy-in from employees requires them to believe their workplace takes care of them.
“Before you can even talk about guests and the customer journey, you have to look inside first,” Lam said.
Sherri Gilligan, chief marketing officer for Two Roads Hospitality, said that often comes down to a belief from the top down that taking care of employees is a priority.
“The most fundamental thing to do is have a CEO developing values and purpose,” she said, noting that culture won’t permeate in the same way if it’s the company’s human resources department pushing that message instead of the chief executive.
Robert McDowell, chief commercial officer for Choice Hotels International, said young employees have grown to not only want a workplace that seems invested in them but also seek an environment where they can similarly grow to be invested in its well-being. He said given those expectations and the tight labor environment, Choice has made creating a rewarding work environment a priority.
“Millennials coming out of college now expect that,” he said. “And we’ve been big proponents of it, including our CEO.”
Malamut, who came up in Marriott through the company’s human resources department, said that guest experience and employee experience are “inextricably tied.”
“The future of customer experience is at the nexus of incredible design, technology and human touch,” he said. “Our employees are arguably our most important customer channel.”
Translating that enthusiasm and the experience a brand ultimately hopes to convey happens primarily at the property level, meaning general managers are likely have the most important role in shaping guest experience, panelists said.
“We’re most successful when our GMs are great and they get it,” Gilligan said.
“Co-creating the experience with GMs is essential,” Malamut added.
Adapting to new technology and coming up with new and interesting aspects of a stay are vital, panelists said, but it must be carefully managed in some ways.
Malamut pointed out that sometimes “new tools” are handed off to properties that seem to be great ideas on paper but ultimately aren’t implemented well or don’t translate in the way that was originally hoped. That’s proof that the experience of “co-creating (with general managers) is vital,” he said. That means taking property-level feedback and synthesizing it and also doing a better job working with property-level teams on how new tools and technology should work.
Lam noted innovation can’t happen in small pockets of a company or brand before being thrust on the company as a whole to figure out how to absorb it. That comes down to sharing information and data to smooth out the process.
“It’s very easy to work in silos,” he said. “But it’s about people.”
He said there are often tech innovations with things like artificial intelligence that need to be translated to correspond to guest experience improvements. He described artificial intelligence as an “enabler” that can free up time and resources so employees can spend less time focusing on mundane activities and instead focus on things that require “emotional intelligence” that guests might find more impactful.
Malamut said Marriott has prioritized innovation by establishing its own incubator, noting that “the days of internal R&D are dead.”
“You have to innovate to be successful, and to thrive you have to focus on disrupting yourself,” he said.
Lam said in addition to incubating new ideas, companies need to figure out ways to successfully incorporate those ideas.
“It’s about making sure you get buy-in in a timely manner,” he said.