By Neil James, COO, ReviewPro

As global lockdown measures relax and the date for reopening approaches, the race to equip hotels and restaurants to be COVID-19-ready begins.

The recent uptake of hospitality technology has been swift and unprecedented, as brands make a bid to not only ‘survive today,’ but to ‘thrive tomorrow’.

The key to success in this tumultuous time will be strategic action and application: from contactless technology, to messaging platforms, mobile check-in, QR codes, and more, there are many tools that can be used to make guests feel both safe and enhance the guest experience. This is a unique opportunity for those with the right plan and execution to bring hotel technology usage firmly into the 21st century.

Reviews and Data

The unfortunate truth is that in a time when most of us could use more information and data, we have very little. Hotels have gone from having an unprecedented wealth of guest feedback to analyse and learn from, to having virtually no data as hotels underwent closure or a drastic reduction in business. This makes it difficult to identify trends on a local or global level.

Interestingly, based on the data we have collected at ReviewPro throughout the pandemic, online reviews have actually been more positive on average when compared to previous period in the years before. On the whole, guests were understanding of staff and aware that they were trying to keep them safe. Coming out on the other side of this first wave of the pandemic, I expect data from guest reviews to be very polarized. Guests will either be extremely happy that their expectations for safety and comfort were met or exceeded or extremely critical about their experience, especially when concerning cleanliness and social distancing.

For this reason, hoteliers must pay close attention to any online reviews or mentions related to COVID-19 and to deal with them as quickly as possible. Whether the review received is positive or negative, there is always opportunity to show what you are doing to improve or highlight what you have done well to future guests shopping for their next holiday. Responding to online reviews is important but it is also a great time to add additional questions to your post-stay surveys to understand the new guest experience at your property, and whether the measures you are taking were noticed and adequate. You can also use the opportunity to ask them what would have made them feel more comfortable during their stay. This is great prompted feedback that should increase the data at your fingertips providing the ability to drive actions quickly.

Contactless

One of the hot topics in hospitality tech post- COVID-19 is contactless technology. A contactless experience allows guests to avoid physical contact with people and surfaces and makes them feel safe. This goes beyond check-in to room service, the F&B experience, and to reducing queues and common space usage. Re-engineering the guest experience is a challenge when revenue is down, but is necessary in hopes of getting things back to normal, both in terms of guest experience and safety.

The important thing now is to prioritize key contactless features and technology, and expand as much possible. As guests become more used to it, they’ll be more open to it. In this day and age, technophobes are increasingly a rare breed.

And what about social distancing? How will hotels manage the soon-to-be common scenario of when guests get too close to each other? Many hotels now have markers on the floor for queues, or have rerouted one-way movement through the hotel. Lifts may need to be managed differently, perhaps becoming digitized and based on occupancy, or even voice controlled.

Fortunately contactless technology provides a safer experience, but it also is generally a more pleasurable one, allowing the guest to arrive, get their key, get the information they need, and get to their room, as efficiently as possible.

Messaging & Chatbots

Messaging and A.I. powered chatbots are another way to meet expectations of guests in this “new normal.” How you implement this strategy, however, will make or break its success. For example, most guests will not download your mobile app in order to chat unless they are already extremely loyal. Most prefer to chat over their preexisting messaging app of choice. This could be Facebook Messenger, or Whatsapp, or WeChat, Viber, et cetera. Hotels need to provide multiple channels so guests have the choice to communicate with staff in the most natural way. Some guests may prefer to not use messaging services at all and chat with you over your website, and this should be available, too.

The other thing to remember, obvious to most but nevertheless important, is to reply in a timely manner. Guests expect a quick response so if you’re available on the channel, make sure to keep up with it. This is where A.I. and chatbots are so useful.

At ReviewPro, we did a study with a chain of 30 hotels and found that 63% of guest queries to the front desk were the same 8 questions. And with another large chain of 800+ hotels, we found that 91% of guest queries were the same 18 questions. Think about the long queues at reception: They’re not there to check in or out, but want to ask when breakfast is, or what time the pool is open, or if you can call them a taxi. All of this can be automated and the service can be provided quickly and easily. Then if the guest has a question the bot can’t answer, your staff is there to help those guests that have specific needs unrelated to the ‘repeat’ questions.

ReviewPro’s Guest Experience Automation(TM) provides the ability to automate many of the usual queries such as booking a table in the restaurant, a housekeeping or maintenance request from the guest that requires action, and the ability to request room service items. All such queries get packaged into an automated case that is delivered automagically to the necessary department for further action…….and all of these queries, captured by an AI chatbot!

QR Codes Are Back

In the past, QR codes struggled to catch on (except for in China of course). Users needed a QR reader app in order to scan them and the learning curve was too steep for the average consumer. Today, tech has advanced to a level where most smartphone cameras will automatically read a QR code and take you to the intended link.

And now suddenly, with the pandemic, there is a need to provide people information digitally, in a contactless, low-friction manner. QR codes are perfect for this. There are all sorts of applications: A restaurant menu, a guest book or introductory leaflet, room service, links to messaging channels, even putting QR codes on room keys. In China, QR is already ubiquitous. This tech will be adopted more and more so the sooner you get to grips with it, the better.

Implementation & Communication

The COVID-19 pandemic is spurring major growth in hotel tech. This will make the market more competitive and yet tech providers will also need to be more collaborative so that hotels can use apps in tandem and build a workable tech ecosystem. The time is soon approaching when these new technologies will all need to be truly agile and flexible, for instance in having multiple APIs in order to provide what hotels will need in the near future and ensure their ability to inter-communicate with each other.

To say our industry’s situation has changed is a vast understatement. But the terms haven’t changed: guest experience is still key and those who use technology as part of a specific, goal-oriented strategy can succeed. If we apply a proactive mindset to solving for this new, unforeseen set of challenges that now face us , we may find ourselves in good standing in the longer term and if or when other crises arise.

Truth is, none of us know what is going to happen. But isn’t that the magic of hotels? Every day is different. One day you’re reception, the next you’re fire safety, the next you are a local expert. Now we add crowd control and health and safety into the mix alsoto that list. But if done right, we’ll bounce back as we always do, and guest experience and confidence will be even better than before.

Neil is COO of ReviewPro and is responsible for guiding the company to continually improve the guest experience at 60,000 hotels worldwide. He has worked at all levels of the industry and thanks to this range of experience in hospitality has exceptional insights into the specific needs and challenges faced by accommodation providers.

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