Alexander Soderqvist, front office manager at Nobu Hotel London Shoreditch, shares his thoughts on how the guest experience can be improved when hotel doors open back up.
With the advancement of artificial intelligence at an all time high, it seems rather plausible to wonder if the time has come for human operators to play second fiddle to robots in the next wave of emerging hospitality trends – especially during a time when the dynamics of human contact is meant to be minimised to an extent that social constructs will inevitably undergo pivotal change. Having said this, any seasoned hotelier will argue that true hospitality can only prove to be maximised through genuine and authentic care which simply cannot be produced from an algorithm.
The hotels that will come out on top post-COVID-19 will be the establishments that have put together solid action plans, ones that have thought out their redefined guest journey, and have chosen to proactively act rather than react. The Chinese word for “crisis” is composed of two Chinese Pinyin characters of “danger” and “opportunity”. As important as it is to understand and identify your weaknesses during turbulent times, it is just as crucial to place an emphasis on your strengths to ensure that your operation is as bulletproof as possible and you stand in the best possible position to succeed.
This is a time for innovation. Trends will materialise overnight and hotels that have managed to re-gain the trust of their patrons through meaningful thought out initiatives will recruit new guests who are unsure of previous accommodation choices or have developed a new set of criteria for choosing accommodation. Three key areas that managers must reflect on are personalising the guest experience, providing “touchless” check-ins and check-outs, and optimising opportunity in crisis.
Personalising the guest experience
Many including myself would have argued that the simple trick in mastering the art of hospitality is to understand, empathise, charm, and anticipate guest needs to the point where they confide and trust in the team to make them feel like they are right at “home”. The essence of customer service is revolved around feelings, tangible and intangible. As humans, we consciously tend not to remember the exact words of what was said or even the specific actions of what was done, but we do remember how we were made to feel.
There are so many beautiful opera houses around the globe, but it is not the magnificent aesthetics that people remember, it is the breath-taking symphonies orchestrated inside them that takes the audience on a journey to be remembered.
The symphonies are synonymous with customer service just as the opera houses represent luxury hotels around the world. As hotels are forced to adapt to new social constructs, how can we continue to deliver such a high standard of customer service if we must minimise physical contact? Success will be waiting for managers and teams – those who optimise all areas of customer service that do not directly involve the guest.
It is ever so important for teams to place a great emphasis on retaining important and relevant guest profile information and utilising this information to the best of their abilities. Every meaningful interaction with a guest is an opportunity to learn what matters to them, it is just a matter of listening instead of hearing. Has the guest asked for lemon in their water? The next time the guest asks for water, you bet that it will come with a lemon! Has the guest previously requested for a room with more natural light? Offer or allocate a room with more natural light! Is the guest noise-sensitive? Allocate a room far away from the elevators! Does a single guest sleep on the left side of the bed? Then turndown should not be performed on the right! Whether the information has been relayed through a complaint or interpreted through a discussion, it is vital for this information to be stored and repeatedly used without fail. Standards are only repeated actions of a certain calibre therefore consistency is key.
The entire team must feel empowered to play a role in each guest journey whether it is recording important guest preferences or the implementation of such. The “little” details will matter more than ever and will have a direct result in improved guest retention and loyalty. We may not be able to welcome a guest back in the same warm and humble manner in which we are used to but we can definitely make sure that the finer details of their stay is tailored just for them.
Quick, efficient, contactless check-in and check-outs
The concept of lodging has been around since the beginning of mankind and distinguished in the fifteenth century. The need for accommodation certainly will not cease now but rather continue to prosper far into the future. Many companies are desperate to allow their colleagues to travel again and many leisure-oriented guests are just as eager to holiday again. Even though the show must eventually go on, previous familiarities as we know them must be altered, and one key change will be contactless check-ins and check-outs.
It is vital that moving forward, efforts to re-gain the trust of guests will be prioritised rather than initiatives solely focusing on streams of revenue. One campaign that successful hotels must immediately back will be one which supports increased hygiene practices between colleagues and guests alike. In a rather strange time where social distancing may be perceived as a precautionary hygiene measure, the option to provide online check-ins and express check-outs will be appreciated and utilised more than ever.
Organisations with a platform or PMS that can support online check-ins can expect a surge in usage of this feature. Properties should analyse how they can optimise this feature and allow for a seamless pre-arrival experience whilst reducing any necessary contact once the guest has arrived. Payments may be made prior to arrival through a virtual payment gateway link to reduce the handling of cash and credit cards upon arrival. Keys may be obtainable through mobile phone apps such as OpenKey which would serve as an eco-friendly alternative and perhaps even proving to be cost-efficient in the long-run. The future of our planet depends on paperless solutions and the avoidance of single use plastics when possible. All necessary information needed for the registration card should be completed prior to the guest arrival so the only necessity remaining would be a signature on the dotted line (unless this option too is chosen to be actioned virtually).
The same approach may be offered upon check-out to prevent queues in the reception area especially considering that most guests are expected to adhere to the same standard check-out time. Hotels may be required to use every other station to allow for more distancing between colleagues and guests. As a result, this may reduce the number of stations available in smaller properties and consequentially form longer lines and congested spaces.
Instead, Folio’s may be presented on compatible Smart TV’s or sent by e-mail the night prior to check-out, approved, and remotely settled with just a simple word of approval. The settled folio will be sent via e-mail, again which will serve eco-friendly interests. Rightly so, guests will be sceptical to the idea of public transportation which in turn will provide hotels the opportunity to further promote private limousine services.
Opportunity in crisis
Have you always wanted to take part in an exciting pre-opening of a hotel, but the opportunity had never presented itself? Well here is your chance! This is not a time to be stagnant or complacent but rather to develop or polish operational procedures such as standard operating procedures (SOP’s), job descriptions, checklists, experience guidelines, training matrix/plans.
Prior to the re-opening of hotels, teams will benefit greatly from team-building exercises to further strengthen bonds that have subsequently been formed through a shared life-changing experience. It will be important, now more than ever, to create a positive and safe team environment. Colleagues need to know that their health matters more than money and that they will continue to be the backbone of the company. Employees are hired for their unique personalities and skills and the only way to elevate this is by increasing their confidence. In this industry, there has never been a greater time for managers to fill the role of leaders and lead from the front.
With an ongoing pandemic, it may seem like a difficult period for many managers to navigate the present and future of their operation. Tomorrow, next week, or next month is filled with uncertainty although managers must continue to adopt a conscious train of thought that sheds a positive yet pragmatic light on what to expect. History will always serve as a lesson and history is what we are creating now. The past may be viewed as the future with the lights on, therefore, how we choose to react now may benefit us should there be, and there will be, a need for us to adjust our social constructs once again.
The hospitality industry is composed of the most altruistic, determined, and resilient individuals to ever grace this beautiful world we call home. As cliché as this may sound, it truly is not about how hard we fall but how hard we get back up and strive to succeed.