Hoteliers debate use of chatbots to engage, book guests
Hoteliers debate use of chatbots to engage, book guests
07 NOVEMBER 2018 1:12 PM

A panel of hoteliers agreed that in an industry which relies heavily on human interaction as hospitality, automation should be carefully considered.

DALLAS—When engaging guests with chat, hoteliers said, you have to know when to bot, and when to not.

During a session titled “Bot vs. human: Which chat is right for my hotel?” at last month’s Direct Booking Summit, executives from two hotel brand companies and one independent hotel shared where they draw the line on automation.

“It’s important for us to have both options,” said Kathryn Buttle, assistant general manager of revenue at The Lord Nelson Hotel & Suites in Halifax, Canada, which recently activated a chat feature on its website that connects guests with staff during the day and a chatbot overnight. “Obviously, it’d be better to have a person always available to chat, but that’s just not a reality for every hotel. So at least (with a chatbot), a guest has some outlet available to them where they can get a question answered or they can leave an email or whatever it is.”

Melinda Berman, global e-commerce manager at Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, said last year the company launched a chat feature globally across all of its hotels which connects guests with staff to enhance engagement. She said the human connection is essential to this feature for Four Seasons.

“What’s important is that we continue to make sure that chat and anything digital aligns with our core strategy, which is this personalized, exceptional service for our guests,” she said. “So whether they’re asking about sending a margarita to their chair at the pool or they want to make a booking, we want to make sure there’s a human on the other end providing that exceptional service.”

RLH Corporation is “probably four to five months out from launching an enterprisewide chatbot,” said Calvin Anderson, chief of revenue optimization. The company is still researching options to determine how and when automation will be deployed, he said.

“We’re doing this in-house, so we’re asking a lot of questions … (and) exploring with a little bit of A-B testing. It’s kind of half-baked; really, we’re in the middle of this process,” Anderson said.
He added the company wants to walk a line between being more economical and still responsive and personable with guests.

“Ideally, you have wonderful, charming humans (on the other end of a chat) all the time. We’re not wildly comfortable (with automation),” he said.

Benefits of bots
Part of exploring the feature is understanding what types of queries a bot can answer, and what it can’t, Anderson said.

“We want to be able to identify if a call is not a revenue-generating call—if it’s an informational call, we want to understand that and give a quick answer,” he said. “But take 900 hotels in (RLHC’s) economy segment, if we tried to answer every single chat … it would just be unaffordable for any franchisee to do. We need a model that’s franchise-efficient, that gets the job done—whether channeling them through reservations or answering (their questions).”

Buttle said the chat feature on her hotel’s website has reduced phone call volume, which has freed up staff to spend more time interacting with guests and personalizing service.

“The chat we used before was in the dinosaur age; we would get one or two chats a day, but our call volumes were very high,” she said. “We wanted to really focus on bringing call volumes down so we can have that personalized service on the phone and spend a little more time with those people … to make sure they book, but also to have another avenue guests can use.”

An added benefit of the chatbot is how it tracks individual questions, which can help to “pinpoint weak spots on the hotel website,” Buttle said.

For example, she said, “if someone’s constantly asking (the bot) about parking, obviously your parking is not advertised properly on your website.”

When a human touch is necessary
Implementing Four Seasons’ all-human chat required extensive staff training, but no additional resources, Berman said, adding that in the feature’s first year, about 2.6 million messages have been sent and received, and about 150,000 guests have engaged on the platform.

“Basically it’s just a channel shift,” she said. “Our employees are doing what they do best every day—communicating with our guests, helping them with their needs—and now they’re just helping them through a different channel.”

However, the company is considering an automation tool for routing chats to the proper departments.

“Right now, what happens is if a hotel receives a chat message from a guest is that’s routed to the tele-operator who then routes it to the correct department to answer that,” Berman said. “So say it’s about in-room dining; it goes to the F&B department. We’re starting to think about how we can use machine learning to automate that routing system, with a possible override, just to alleviate the burden on our hotel employees, and also to enhance that response time.”

Because response time is just as important as a personable touch, Berman said Four Seasons set a hard target of 90 seconds, “because if we don’t respond within a certain amount of time, we’re just going to lose that guest; and we’re breaking that direct relationship we have with them.”

She added hitting that target response time “takes about a two-month learning curve for a hotel … but we’ve actually hit that target or below.”

Four Seasons’ human chat is also translated to more than 110 languages, Berman said.

Anderson said a key consideration for RLH Corporation is mitigating the frustration that consumers can feel when chatting with a computer that pretends to be a human.

“We’re playing with quite a bit of personality in (the chatbot),” he said. “From saying right out of the gate, ‘I’m not real; I’m brand-new, not great at this; it’s my first day, do you want to chat with me?’ to maybe not acknowledging that and maybe halfway through if it gets the same question twice, just have the bot be like, ‘er, confession: not real.’ … So when maybe it’s not getting done, at least it was sort of an adventurous, memorable experience (for the guest).”

It will also be important for the company to be able to get a real sense for how guests are responding to the chatbot feature, Anderson said.

“One thing we’ve played with is a button at the end (of the chat experience), where if you happen to be very frustrated, you would be able to express that,” he said. “We don’t like where we’re at; we’re trying to solve for a not-perfect world, but we’re trying to compromise by giving something else with a little bit of a quirky personality.”

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