A panel of brand and independent hoteliers dissected some of the myths and assumptions consumers have about the hotel industry.
MANCHESTER, England—Hotel executives have a firm idea as to what the hotel brands of the future should be, but do those notions match the desires and experiences of consumers?
That was the main question asked at a panel titled “Points of view: Direct from the consumer,” which wove guest comments on a large screen with the comments of executives during the Annual Hotel Conference.
Some of these comments were deemed by panelists to be convenient, lazy or just plain wrong.
Pricing was the first guest concern the panel addressed.
“The key message for brands to get across is price, as the natural assumption of the consumer is that you can get a cheaper price via (online travel agencies),” said Nicholas Northam, managing director, United Kingdom, Interstate Hotels & Resorts. “Developing apps is the opportunity here.”
Northam said app development can help reinforce hotels’ messaging on price and having guests book direct through mobile.
“Hotels have not got that message over,” Northam added.
Tim Walton, VP of international hotel development at Marriott International, said apps have proprietary rates, but that message has to be delivered constantly to guests who have expressed some degree of desire to engage with hotels.
That is mostly done via loyalty programs, but with membership of any number of loyalty programs being very effortless, guest comments showed loyalty is a matter of convenience and not always love. Some members of the panel shared similar doubts.
“I rather question loyalty, and we do have a program,” said Rob Paterson, CEO of Best Western Hotels & Resorts Great Britain. “Often it ends up that we pay higher fees for direct booking, so we have to think about this properly. It cannot be a vanity project.”
Other industries have made bigger strides in loyalty, Northam said.
“In (U.K. coffee-shop chain) Café Nero, you get the same number of points for a flat white as you would for a Venti, or whatever it is called,” he said.
Walton said guests understand the benefits of loyalty, and members are more often spending points beyond rooms.
“You can redeem against experiences, and that flexibility of (loyalty programs) will increase even more in the future,” Walton said.
Guests also seem to approach the booking process with a certain level of mistrust. They’re also more likely to give credence to peer reviews than brand claims.
“Most believe the word of others,” said Serena von der Heyde, partner at London’s Georgian House Hotel. “That is the most powerful affirmation, so we have to look to our social media and be completely transparent. Gone are the days of using fish-eye lenses for our photographs.
“I think trust was more important in the 1970s and 1980s when guide books were the standard. Today, (guests) think brand is bland. They want something more exciting, beautiful, and they are willing to roll the dice to find something special.”
That assumption is leading to an increase in soft brands, panelists said.
“Soft brands are marrying the appeal of independents with brand standards and security, and guests see that,” Walton said.
Paterson said investors will follow consumer demand trends.
“Core brands are moving to soft brands,” he said. “It would be naïve to say this was not the trend, and after word of mouth, investment will follow. Owners are saying we want the flexibility to provide something unique.”
A third prevalent concern among hotel guests is that Airbnb, despite some worry over security and standards, does a far better job at providing the experience modern-day travelers require.
“People are more prepared to trial,” Northam said. “You will always be led down the garden path once in a while, but on the whole (Airbnb) provides those experiences.”
Walton said Marriott has worked to address such concerns through its partnership with rental agency Hostmaker to market 200 private homes in London. The platform will be expanded in Lisbon, Paris and Rome.
“You will be checked in, and there is 24/7 service if you wish it,” he said. “Homes are becoming more like hotels. The lines are blurred. Three-quarters of people staying are leisure, and the stay is about double the length of our hotel estate.
“It is not tacit that brands are not working, but they have to evolve, be dynamic. All brands eventually become obsolete.”
Von der Heyde said it is a fallacy that with Airbnb a customer will pay less and get more.
“(Airbnb) is not paying rates and other costs that hotels do,” she said. “That (with Airbnb) you can live like a local is a myth, as it is professionally done on the whole, and there is no host.”
While fewer and fewer guests are voicing concerns about service, panelists said this phenomenon derives from those who clearly want no interaction at all.
“Technology can amplify the experience, but it should never be the substitute for great service,” Paterson said.
Von der Heyde said an important piece of catering to guests is delivering the level of communication at which they’re comfortable.
“You have to know when the guests wants interaction, and when they do not,” she said. “Understand your customer. All staff, from cleaning upwards, should be encouraged to know why that customer is here.”
“I always get perturbed by the phrase ‘limited service,’ as it is not limited service, it is limited facilities,” Northam said.
Every guest is different, panelists said, but the overriding sense is there is a welcome and the relevant level of interaction if chosen is paramount to adding value.