Seamlessly collecting, analyzing and distributing data to better serve and personalize guest stays continues to be imperative, and achieving that level of personalization requires including IT executives in the decision-making process.
PALMA DE MALLORCA, Spain—With so much data available in the hotel industry, the ultimate goal of personalizing marketing, selling and the guest stay is too large a task for it to be solely an information technology problem.
Personalization is an organizational problem, but for the right strategy to work, IT needs a seat at the big table, according to a roundtable of experts at last week’s Hospitality Sales & Marketing Association International.
“For too long we’ve allowed our (IT) systems to guide our thinking,” said Bryan Hammer, VP of information technology at Belmond. “Mapping the process to reach the goal of personalization is a very different exercise.”
At the top of the list of IT concerns on personalization are:
- finding the correct in-house structure and architecture to secure full personalization;
- recruiting the necessary hotelier talent to have personalization processes run seamlessly and pinpoint the right data; and
- continuing the search for the right personalization for any guest, with the notion that any individual traveler might travel for several different reasons throughout the year.
The amount of data is getting larger with every year, but with guests’ desire for personalized experiences coupled with the fears and legal requirements concerning how data is collected and stored, defining the appropriate amount of personalization is as clear as mud, said attendees at the roundtable, which was organized by HSMAI in partnership with association Hospitality Financial & Technology Professionals.
But the argument in support of personalization is this: If data is used to craft a truly unique experience to each guest, that guest will see the worth in handing over preferences and likes.
“This is the first step in encouraging guests to give us (their) data, as in doing so we will do something meaningful with it,” said Timo Kettern, director of information technology at Event Hotels.
Panelists acknowledged that guests now realize their data has value. Emotion, trust and customer happiness will increasingly be the drivers that allow guests to want to share data.
But old-fashioned solutions still have a place, according to Gil Mulders, head of learning, Europe, at InterContinental Hotels Group.
“There still is a wealth of data from loyalty programs,” Mulders said. “Kimpton is our brand that has gone the furthest with using loyalty data, with guest preference on drinks, greetings, et cetera, but it creates a lot of expectations.”
Jan Marks, managing partner at IT consultancy Multiplica Travel, said storing that amount of data on guests requires a technology component.
“All this can create a promise that humans often cannot satisfy,” Marks said.
Attempts at improving the personalization of the entire guest journey is fraught with barriers that include organizational limitations, staff numbers and guest concerns.
Panelists noted some enhancements such as facial-recognition software, in-hotel VIP credit cards and short- and long-range radio frequency identification cards, some of which have had better success than others in any individual hotel or chain.
The world of travel and guest desire has morphed in recent years, including the rise of bleisure travel, or business travelers extending their work trips to include family members, which might even include travelers jumping from budget airlines and economy hotels to boutique stays or trading in convention hotel bookings for select-service accommodations.
IT executives might be able to see the data, but unless they have full buy-in from other departments and a voice at the top table, the fear remains that front-desk staff might still ask frequent guests, “Have you stayed with us before?”
That front-desk staff often are judged on check-in times does not encourage them to get to know the guest any better, panelists agreed.
“We need to understand every moment. We need dynamic personalization,” said Cordula Laemmermann, group SVP of commercial strategy, Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group.
Belmond’s Hammer said the hotel industry is too often reactive instead of proactive.
“At the moment it seems we are reacting to what (guests have) been, not what they are now,” Hammer said.
Too often personalization efforts simply don’t work, Multiplica’s Marks said.
“And we have to stop showing T-bone steaks to vegetarians,” Marks said.
A step in the right direction is assimilating marketing and IT, Hammer said.
“Pre-stay is considered a marketing thing, in-house IT, but they should be one and the same,” he said.
Barry Thomas, corporate director of information technology at Rosewood Hotels & Resorts, said tongue-in-cheek that the usual thinking was that IT creates costs, while marketing creates value.
Bu this long-standing problem is not restricted to company structure, sources said.
“We have silos in our systems, but also in our minds,” said Rafael Rubí, commercial director, Europe, at Palladium Hotel Group.
Laemmermann said this comes down to organizational structure, which changes from company to company and does not help the industry collectively ascertain best practices.
IT executives, likewise, must get to know the concerns and challenges in other departments.
Thomas added that one problem might be that GMs on their career path through the hierarchy will have worked in sales and marketing, F&B and at the front desk, but rarely if ever in IT.
“Make IT full partners so that we can become enablers, and if it is seen we are enablers, we’ll get a seat at the table much quicker,” Thomas said.
Moderator Robyn Pratt, managing director of Impact Consulting, suggested hotel companies are too worried about change.
“(The industry is) afraid to change the paradigms, and if it does not we’ll never be able to move the needle,” Pratt said.
“A change of behavior is needed,” Laemmermann said. “After all, consumer behavior has changed. Is changing.”
And this comes back around to finding and recruiting the right talent, Event Hotels’ Kettern added.