Engagement After The Fact: How Mobile Technology is Becoming a Hotel’s Best Post-Stay Emissary to Maintain the Guest Connection After Checkout

Aug 7, 2012

The following article by Vanessa Horwell, Chief Visibility Officer of ThinkInk, originally appeared on Hotel Executive.

“A good rule to remember is that a guest is always a guest once they have stayed with you and the services you provide.”
– Scott Nadel, Chief Operating Officer, DMC Hotels/Dhillon Management.

It may not seem like a profound statement or idea, but it’s surprising how so many hotel brands and hoteliers fail to remember and act on this simple piece of advice. At its heart is the optimistic, glass half full notion, that in a perfect scenario, the customer experience never truly ends – not if you’re trying to engage guests and keep them loyal. It just evolves into different stages and levels of outreach and engagement. For once a guest leaves your hotel, business and leisure travelers alike often begin planning for their next trip, eager to lock in competitive prices, air travel benefits and potential room upgrades. For guests, barring something unexpected or calamitous, another getaway is always around the corner. And once they turn that proverbial corner, your hotel should be the first one they think of and consider. But it isn’t unless you are creating some form of continued engagement after they’ve checked out of your property.

The Start of Something Beautiful

In the last few years, mobile technology in the form of feature phones, smartphones and tablets have gone far to reinvent and re-imagine the continuing customer experience. While much has been written about mobile’s pre-stay and in-stay possibilities, including mobile booking, mobile checkout and a host of in-room and on-site hotel amenities, the post-stay experience has been largely ignored or thrown in as a last-paragraph addendum. But connecting with a guest after the bellhop has delivered bags and the bill paid is equally important and should be considered not the last step in a transaction, but the first step in a future stay. Think of it is as the start of a long, meaningful relationship – if done properly.

Restaurants and Mom’n’ Pop stores are often fond of hanging from their doors vintage red and white signs that read, “Please come again soon” or “Thank you for your business.” But for hotels looking to maximize mobile, turning the medium into the ultimate post-stay emissary, “please come again soon” shouldn’t be a siloed request – it should be an expectation that is carefully and non-intrusively cultivated. In other words, mobile can (and should) be a privacy-respecting approach that entices, not enrages and can include follow-up emails, Twitter and Facebook interaction, digital surveys, future deals and discounts, as well as providing the transparency for open guest dialogue, and the granting of reviews, whether they’re positive or negative.

There’s no getting around the fact that we live in a what-have-you-done-for-me lately culture. Failure to connect with a guest via mobile following their stay is like saying a brand doesn’t care. In these still-uncertain economic times, hoteliers would be wise to avoid that perception at all costs.

Hitting “Send” at the End: Why Mobile’s a Must

But before delving head first into the specifics as to what mobile can do for improving the post-stay experience, it’s important to recognize why mobile has become such a dominant player in the hospitality industry to begin with. For starters, mobile has in only a few short years, grown to become the dominant everywhere and anywhere technology. Nearly half (46%) of all US adults own a smartphone, says the most recent Pew findings, and tablets enjoyed a significant 2011 holiday season uptick too, nearly doubling to a 19% percent adoption rate. Combined, the adoption rate for smartphone owners who also own a tablet is expected to grow by 40% by 2016, according to Javelin Strategy & Research. Already consumers use their mobile devices to “window shop,” purchase goods, price compare, book flights, arrange travel plans and discuss these transactions with their friends via social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and others. Mcommerce, while still only a fraction of overall commerce spending, has grown considerably and if current forecasts prove accurate, global transaction values could grow to $37 billion by 2016.

Airlines have been great examples of how to monetize the mobile experience and to weave its pocket-powered potential into their ancillary revenue profitability models – at least during pre-flight and in-flight. Air passengers not only expect but demand that their mobile devices keep them connected pre-flight and even pre-gate. In fact, a recent study by PC Housing, a temporary housing corporate provider, showed that business travelers are all-but addicted to their mobile devices. Most are between 25-50 years old, are workaholics and they carry three to four mobile devices – 95% own a smartphone and 64% own a tablet. Both percentages show a marked increase from 2011 with 44% and 33% adoptions rates respectively. And bringing it back to the hotel, fully 90% of these mostly male (60%) travelers expect WIFI connection at their place of lodging.

If travelers expect mobile to be a critical component to all aspects of their lives, there’s no reason why the same expectations wouldn’t apply at the end of their travel experience as they leave the hotel lobby.

Socializing the Digital Post-Stay Emissary

One of the most important post-stay tactics hoteliers should consider has garnered a good deal of press lately but it deserves constant restatement. Since the first lodgings opened their doors, guests have remained eager to discuss their travel and hotel experiences. Customers will discuss their bad experiences more than their good ones, and hotel guests are no different.

But that’s why mobile and social media can be such powerful teammates. Hotels that design their mobile websites and apps should consider letting guests have the freedom to write about their experience – no matter its positive or negative spin. Doing so instills a perceived sense of honesty, trust and transparency. And confronting negative reviews with follow-up emails or phone calls demonstrates earnestness in learning from past mistakes. Wyndham Hotel Group, for instance, is the latest hotel chain to make such an offer. In March 2012 Wyndham began displaying TripAdvisor ratings and customer reviews. The program began on the Wyndham Rewards loyalty program website, but the company plans to expand that offering. Whndham’s move was but the latest of a slew of hotels that have embraced this level of post-stay guest communication. Starwood initiated website-published customer reviews in October, along with Marriot and Four Seasons shortly thereafter. Meanwhile Hilton Worldwide said they would be adding customer reviews by the end of the year.

Together these steps reinforce what Kate Zabriskie, author of Customer Service Excellence: How to Deliver Value to Today’s Busy Customer has said about the customer experience: “The customer’s perception is your reality.” The bottom line is that with Facebook averaging around 500 million mobile users per month, and upward of 300 million photos were uploaded (many directly from high megapixel smartphone cameras) guests are already posting and sharing their travel experience. Hotels have an opportunity to get ahead of this communications bandwagon, not by controlling the online conversation per se, but encouraging its redirection back toward a hotel’s mobile website, app, or standard web landing page.

From the Soft Sell to the Harder Sell: Discounts, Deals and Follow-ups

If the possibility of continuing mobile dialogue and willingness to post even negative reviews is about “soft selling” a hotel brand – indirectly trumpeting it’s eagerness to please guests even after they’ve left, then the second post stay mobile benefit comes down to the “hard sell,” or more aggressive marketing tactics like discounts, package deals and the possibility of upgrades. Here, email and SMS can work just as effectively as social media. But if a hotel tries to attract repeat guests with rich media or augmented reality maps showcasing a hotels’ latest improvements or a promotional video, smartphones and better still, tablets (and laptops), are far more capable of delivering that content.

But if budgets are strained, simpler approaches may work best. Telluride Alpine Lodging, of Telluride Colorado, for instance, owner of several branded hotels, offers 10% discounts to: repeat guests, military veterans or AAA members. On the other side of the country, VillaDirect vacation homes, of Kissimmee, Florida, (specializing in rented vacation homes near Orland and Disney World) also offers returning guests discounts divided into three tiers: silver, gold and platinum with discount rates of 5% to 7.5%. A quick check on the company’s Facebook page reveals 48,289 “likes,” and as of this article’s writing, 412 people were talking about the company. In addition, the company’s Twitter page showed 155 followers. Increasingly, mobile will be the dominant way in which users access this information.

Much More Than a Digital Post Card

It’s hard to believe that it wasn’t too long ago that hotels corresponded with their guests via traditional post cards, follow up thank you notes, and the occasional six month phone call. While some hotels continue this tradition out of a sense of nostalgia, its purpose has lost much of its meaning – especially in view of the mobile and digital times we live in. The greatest difference between then and now: mobile allows the potential for a constant two-way dialogue through multiple communication channels (social media, email, SMS) all in a single device.

Too often mobile’s hotel progress has been consigned to a guest’s pre-trip planning and in-trip (and in-room) lodging amenities. But the reality is, when a customer checks out, their next check in could be only a matter of weeks or months away. Guests will always be guests as Nadel rightly points out, but whether or not they return, is what matters most. Sam Walton, the Founder of Wal-Mart, characterized a customers’ importance like this:

“There is only one boss. The customer. And he can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else.”

Mobile is increasingly the ideal way to prevent that from happening, interacting with guests, offering deals and discounts, and providing a medium for them to discuss their travel experience anywhere and everywhere – and long after they’ve left your hotel.

The following article by Vanessa Horwell, Chief Visibility Officer of ThinkInk, originally appeared on Hotel Executive.

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