Social media consultants familiar with the hospitality industry said Facebook’s Messenger chat bot platform could help hoteliers find out more about guests, but could also lead to more questions at the property level.
GLOBAL REPORT— With the April announcement of Facebook’s Messenger chat bot platform for businesses, communicating with guests through automated robots could become a useful tool for the hospitality industry, but sources said there are a few things to consider before diving into a partnership with Facebook or building your own bot.
Robert Cole, hospitality marketing strategy and travel technology consultant and founder of RockCheetah,* said the use of Facebook Messenger chat bots could help hotels connect with a much larger, different user base.
“Facebook has 1.6 billion unique active users per month,” he said. “A large number of travelers are already on Facebook and already on Messenger. If you can (communicate) through Messenger, you have access to this massive audience, and if you have a relevant audience within that massive user base, that’s an interesting (outlet for the industry.)”
Hotels sometimes have trouble providing guests with the exact same booking experience through apps because the way the app works could depend on the type of smartphone and the type of operating system used to run the smartphone. With Facebook Messenger, the user experience is pretty standard, Cole said.
Facebook and its Messenger platform solves a lot of problems for hoteliers because guests have access to the same technology and the same level of service, he said. With apps, guests with iPhones may have a better experience with a hotel’s app than an Android user and vice versa, Cole said.
Bots vs. Facebook Messenger for business
When customers talk to a company that uses Messenger for business, such as Hyatt Hotels Corporation, the customer is speaking with an actual human when they type a question or comment into the Messenger field, just like how people chat with friends on the platform.
On the other hand, chat bots for business, which were introduced by Facebook at April’s Facebook F8 Conference, replace human communication with an automated bot that responds to guests’ requests. Businesses can set up a bot response, for example, to automatically answer frequently asked questions like, “Can I book a hotel tonight?” or “what hours are your restaurant open?”
The goal is to cut down on some aspects of what can be pricey human interaction and replace those with more automated responses, but ones that can be rich in text and media, according to Facebook’s explanation.
Social Media and Digital Marketing Hospitality Consultant Greg Bodenlos said, most hotel companies likely will wait to see how well this new platform can work before diving in.
“A user who wants to send Hyatt’s social care team a message on Facebook (and then does so) would be receiving a typed out message from a real person handling the request behind-the-scenes,” Bodenlos said. “Most hospitality brands, to date, seem hesitant to replace the human interaction here, until the bots are developed with enough sophistication level so that the bot can handle very specific inquiries that guests have.”
On Tuesday, Edwardian Hotels London, a Radisson Blu brand, announced that “Edward,” an artificially intelligent chat bot, would be available to respond to guest queries within seconds at 12 hotels in the United Kingdom, according to a news release.
Guests will have the ability to text Edward and ask for hotel amenities such as towels, room service or information about local attractions.
Michael Mrini, director of information technology at Edwardian Hotels London, said the bot was the result of both in-house and third-party development efforts.
“We have a very capable and successful in-house software team and as an independent hospitality group, it makes sense for us to develop this technology alongside a trusted partner. …this allows us to be nimble to action any updates required and respond directly to guests’ comments regarding function and usability,” Mrini said.
Walking along the ‘creepy’ line
Facebook has the ability to gather information from a wide range of users, which could be a great tool when it comes to learning about guests and creating unique experiences for guests, but could also lead to hotels coming off as being “creepy,” according to Cole. Cole speculated that signing up to use chat bots through Facebook could give hoteliers access to data on potential guests, but it’s still unclear how that will play out.
“Facebook has incredibly detailed targeting capabilities. …just absolutely stunning (targeting capabilities) based on your location, based on your preferences, based on what you’ve posted,” he said. “Hotels can target audiences at a level they’ve never dreamt of.
“I think (the creepy line) is going to come into play because there is a very narrow line between something being absolute genius and anticipating the guests’ needs, and just stepping over that line and creeping people out.”
Debbie Miller, social media consultant at Social Hospitality, said she doesn’t think using data gathered through Facebook will lead to guests feeling “creeped out” by receiving more personalized and customized experiences or offers during their hotel stay.
“There’s an opportunity to tap into that social media-savvy audience in a way that would make them (feel) surprised and have a great experience above and beyond if they had booked normally,” she said.
Chat bot messaging’s effect on operations
With bots being able to answer guests’ questions and process booking inquiries, that cuts out the need for some human assistance. Chat bots may give hotels the option to shift labor positions to better serve the guest, Cole said.
“I look at it as it may not be pure labor savings, but you wind up being able to shift the labor into doing something that’s more productive for the guest,” he said. “To really be able to then help (guests) have a greater experience, which by doing that should provide better service, that better service should give you higher ratings, that sort of thing.”
Miller said younger travelers—like millennials—would probably prefer Facebook Messenger as a way to communicate with a hotel, but there are still other travelers who would rather call the front desk to book a room, meaning there’s still a need for a regular customer service line at the property level.
“I don’t know if (Facebook Messenger) would do away with customer service lines completely because I think there are still those travelers like the baby boomers who prefer to call the hotel for their stay and go that route,” Miller said.
Syncing up technologies
Some hoteliers may look to Facebook Messenger chat bots as an easy way to obtain guest information, but with older property-management systems at some hotels, Bodenlos said inputting guest information from Facebook could become a complicated process.
“A lot of people don’t fully appreciate the pain that hotels feel when it comes to being tied down to the legacy systems and property-management systems that end up being the way we interact with guests,” he said. “Everything from reservations to handling guest requests all happen in the property-management system.
“Until we can be able to better capture some of these interactions that are happening with the guests in the PMS without having to manually enter all of this information, saying, ‘you know, we had a (Facebook Messenger) chat and here are the notes for a guest profile,’ until that hurdle is cleared, there’s still going to be some major challenges when it comes to (chat bot) adoption.”
Bots outside of Facebook
Facebook Messenger chat bots give hoteliers the option to communicate with guests with bots created by Facebook, but hoteliers also have the option to create their own bots.
Booking.com announced last week that it would offer a chat bot service to customers through the company’s website, allowing booking.com visitors to chat with bots about travel and booking questions.
Cole said Booking.com’s tech team made a “smart move” by creating a chat bot specifically for the website.
“Yes, the chat bots are going to be a very big thing, and this is just the beginning,” Cole said. “(It was) a very smart move for Booking.com – they have a large pool of users, so they can do an ample amount of testing to determine what scenarios work best for a chat bot, and what ones are best handled by humans.”
Cole said hoteliers should be considering chat bot technology, but he said they should make sure their hotels have a good tech team to build the right bot.
“Hotels should be considering the technology, but only the ones that are large and sophisticated enough to do it well,” he said. “Doing it wrong is bait for examples of unintentional bad behavior. …to spread virally before the offending hotelier realizes what is happening.”
*Correction, 16 May 2016: An earlier version of the story incorrectly stated that Robert Cole was a hospitality social media consultant and founder of Rock Cheetah.