While hotel call centers, direct calls and walk-ins might seem outdated in today’s distribution landscape, hoteliers say these more traditional channels allow for better engagement and can lead to more guest conversions.
GLOBAL REPORT—In an increasingly digital distribution landscape, there are still proponents for some of the more analog channels.
The hotel industry and, particularly, the large brand companies have impressed upon hoteliers to encourage guests to book direct, typically through websites or smartphone apps. This booking journey offers guests convenience, speed and, for those who are loyalty program members, perhaps a discounted rate.
What these channels tend to lack, at least on their own, is the human touch, sources said. Technology is a useful aid in converting guests, but the channels that rely on a person-to-person connection help take the reservation experience to the next level.
Choice Hotels International started out in 1939 as a company that referred people from one hotel to another, said Jamie Russo, VP of loyalty programs and customer engagement at Choice Hotels. It morphed over time into a hotel company and had its own 24-hour, toll-free call center for reservations by 1970, he said.
Many hotel companies have taken the position that it’s not ideal for guests to call the company to make a reservation, and guests should only go through the dot-com channel, he said.
“We want as many people to do that as possible, but if someone makes the decision to call us, that’s an engagement point for us,” he said. “We want to make it the most engaging experience in the process to help that conversion.”
People traveling on the road don’t stop along the way and walk in to a hotel to make an overnight reservation as much as they used to, Russo said. However, they do call while they’re on the road, he said.
Choice Hotels uses a program that allows calls to be redirected from a specific property when the front desk is busy to the company’s call centers, he said. That allows the company to take the calls and still drive business to the individual hotels.
Too many companies have too many phone numbers that require guests to call specific lines for specific issues, Russo said. Choice underwent a transformation over the past year and a half, cross-training its representatives to handle a call all on their own, he said.
“We don’t want there to be transfers,” he said. “Wait times are not the ideal customer experience.”
There has been a shift in channels away from phone calls to digital, said Allison Lang, GM of the Global Reservation Centre at AccorHotels. As a result, the company’s call center environment has had to continue to raise the bar from a service delivery perspective, she said.
In a change from years ago, call center representatives don’t follow a script with guests, she said. The reps engage with guests during the discovery phase, which begins the cultivation of a relationship, she said. Regardless of whether the guest is calling for leisure, corporate or group bookings, the rep can tailor the call to their needs, she said.
Today’s guests are much savvier; they have access to online hotel information and have researched their destination, she said.
“When they call in a luxury market, the spend is usually quite high,” she said. “The guest is looking for our sales team to provide a high level of confidence and knowledge about the destination and hotel.”
Technology has been driving efficiency even in call centers, Russo said. The systems recognize guests’ phone numbers and display their information so guests don’t have to repeat it during the call, he said. The systems have access to guests’ membership information and their hotel preferences.
With artificial intelligence and virtual call agents, some calls don’t require a live representative, Russo said. Virtual agents will be able to take guests’ information and make a booking for them, he said.
“It speeds up a lot of the process people are used to in a world of being online,” he said.
Direct calling the property
International Hospitality Enterprises’ hotels are in Puerto Rico, which means its properties draw a lot of leisure business, said Peter Hopgood, VP of sales and marketing. His team tries to take advantage of any opportunity to optimize revenue, not just for bookings but for upselling as well, he said.
The company manages six hotels, four branded and two independent. For the independents, having their own websites is critical, he said. The websites can attract guests by advertising lower rates, but the telesales staff helps to make the conversion by talking one-on-one with the guests, he said.
Being a smaller operation, the company doesn’t have a dedicated call center to fall back on, he said. However, when a guest calls a property, the guest is further down the funnel and willing to make a reservation, or at least the intent is much higher, he said.
The company performed an analysis a few years ago to determine where it could see a better return, he said. One option was to send its calls to brand call centers in different cities, he said, but the company found it could convert guests for higher rates through calls directly at the property level. Hotel staff were able to answer the questions potential guests had better because they knew the properties and nearby communities so well, he said.
“Our staff located on property can describe the rooms better than anyone we could train on a remote basis,” he said.
Being able to have that personal level of engagement brings in the human touch, Hopgood said. Online sales are easy, but for guests, it’s one click and they’re gone, he said. When they call the property, sometimes the staff is on the phone with them for up to 40 minutes answering their questions, he said. Creating that connection and level of comfort lays the groundwork for potential upselling opportunities when the guests arrive on property, he said.
Training and recruiting
Lang said the call center she oversees in the North Atlantic region of Canada is “a seasoned sales force,” with an average tenure of about 10 years and some agents who will celebrate their 25th year in 2020. Turnover at the call center is low, she added.
Having a team that understands guest engagement starts at the selection process, she said. The company has several different tools it uses during the recruiting process and doesn’t sacrifice hiring the right candidate for the job just to put someone in a seat, she said.
One measure AccorHotels takes of potential employees is emotional intelligence, which is needed to make that connection with guests and determine the guests’ individual needs, she said.
“Now there really is an emphasis on making an emotional connection,” she said. “We continue to make improvements with those results. Every call is an individual call. People want to feel like they’re very special.”
Her call center has a seasoned trainer who was previously a reservation sales agent, Lang said. New hires spend 21 days in a training environment, and as they progress with their orientation and become more acquainted with the operations, software directs certain call types to them, she said.
Ongoing training for the team also includes sending agents out to hotels in the system. The company sends about 100 sales team members each year to properties, where they gain first-hand knowledge to improve their interactions and responses to guests’ questions, Lang said.
The importance of engagement
Managers should train their employees to understand a phone call from a guest is important and not just an interruption, said Doug Kennedy, founder and president of Kennedy Training Network. Guests who call to make a reservation or ask a question tend to be more emotionally invested in their travel plans, he said. They will search online for a local number to speak with an on-site person, he said.
Hotel brand companies are biased to online reservations because those are the easiest measures, he said, but brands should pay more attention to phone call reservations, as they are a big factor, particularly in boutiques, resorts, soft brands and other collections.
At the property level, staff should be aware of any brand-level online promotions, he said. Too often a brand will send out a digital email blast, website promotion or social media posting without making sure it’s been communicated to the people answering the phones, he said.
Person-to-person interaction can also create channel conversions, Kennedy said. Guests sometimes show up at the front desk or call in to say they were looking online and found a lower rate through an online travel agency and wanted to know if the hotel could either match or beat that rate, he said.
Most OTA agreements require rate parity across published channels, he said, but most of those don’t apply to one-on-one direct channels and allow for some variance. Thus, a front-desk associate should understand the numbers behind what would be the best decision for the hotel, he said.
“A lot of guests perceive the in-house, on-site reservations will give you the best deal,” he said. “They will ask you, ‘Can you match this rate? Can you beat this rate?’ There is no reason why you couldn’t either at least match or probably provide a lower rate or some other kind of incentive, like a free drink, breakfast or room preference.”