Will Technology Replace Customer Service in Hotels?

By Daniel E. Craig, Founder, Reknown

On recent travels, I’ve noticed an increasing number of hotels using digital technology to interact with guests. Hotels have used technology for decades, of course, but the latest wave brings it out of the back-of-house and into the hands of guests.

The question is, do travelers want these options? And are they using them?

According to a Cognizant survey, over half of U.S. travelers want more automation in hotels. This includes using their mobile device to check in (54%), open their door (50%), communicate with staff (49%), and check out (57%). The numbers were significantly higher for frequent business travelers. (Phocuswright, 2016.)

But humans are strange creatures. Just because we say we want something doesn’t mean we will use it. And by many accounts adoption of guest-facing technology has been slow.

Digital Check-in
Take check-in kiosks, for example. Several years ago, big-box hotels began installing lobby kiosks at a frenzied rate, gleefully anticipating huge savings in labor costs. Then guests more or less ignored them.

A 2016 Market Force survey found that only 3 percent of U.S. consumers checked in online, 2 percent used an app, and a mere 1 percent used a self-service kiosk. The vast majority—93 percent—checked in with reception.

Why the resistance? No doubt our perception has been soured by airport kiosks, which may make check-in less labor-intensive for airlines but make it more onerous for passengers.

More than anything, however, I think that consumers are reluctant to give up one of the last bastions of good customer service: hotels.

While other businesses make it increasingly difficult to reach a human being in customer service, obliging us to wait in line or on hold, navigate voice systems, fill out online forms and converse with chatbots, hotels make it as easy as picking up the phone or walking up to the front desk. Hotel employees are so approachable they practically encourage complaints.

Now that so much of the trip-planning process is digital and self-directed, it’s no wonder that travelers rush into the arms of employees the moment they arrive at a hotel.

And yet so often, upon approaching hotel employees, I encounter not a smiling, eager face but a lowered head. Travelers may be resistant to technology in hotels, but employees can’t seem to unglue their eyes from their computers and electronic devices.

And what are the first words out of the front desk agent’s mouth? “Credit card and ID, please.”

I expect this type of greeting from a kiosk, not a hotel employee. If staff can’t deliver the fundamentals of hospitality—eye contact, a warm welcome, a smile, intuitive service, the ability to go off script—they might as well be replaced by computers and kiosks.  Read more »

So You Want to Be a Consultant

By Daniel E. Craig, Founder, Reknown

People often approach me looking for advice on becoming a consultant, and my first impulse is to cry, “Don’t give up your day job!”

Self-employment is not for the faint of heart or the needy. Many people get a dose of the spotty income and solitude, and run screaming back to a real job.

But if you’re self-motivated and content with your own company, the life of an independent consultant can offer tremendous flexibility and lucrative opportunities.

Having survived and thrived as a consultant for almost ten years, I’ve learned a few ins and outs. Here’s a summary of my top recommendations.

Do you have what it takes? Really?
Be aware that calling yourself a consultant can raise eyebrows. The consulting profession has a rather sketchy reputation because virtually anyone can claim to be a consultant. The title is often used as a euphemism for unemployed.

As a qualified consultant, you should have extensive experience and expertise in a given field. Companies or individuals must be willing to pay for your advice, analysis and problem solving, and you should be able to help them improve their business.

Excellent communication skills are critical too. You will need to convey information and ideas clearly and credibly, in writing, in visuals, and in front of groups.

Getting started
Creating a clever name and a slick website can be fun, but at the outset your priority should be finding paid work. Besides, your services are likely to evolve over time.

When I started out I used my name as my business and built a simple web page.  A few years later, after I had established a viable business, I created my company name, Reknown, and invested in a more elaborate (but still simple) website.

If possible, keep your day job until you have lined up enough work to pay the bills for six months or more. That means securing solid commitments and contracts. Those clients who promised to follow you when you break out on your own have a way of disappearing.  Read more »

High Rates, High Expectations: How to Maintain Guest Satisfaction During the Busy Season

During high season, as hotel rates and occupancy climb so do the expectations of guests. And yet with rooms running at full capacity and staff scrambling to accommodate the insatiable needs of leisure travelers, the guest experience often suffers.

The end result? Bad reviews about long waits, crowds, slow service and poor value.  And a drop in ratings and rankings on review sites that can take months or more to recover from.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. In the next installment of ReviewPro’s webinar series, we show you how to buck the trend by maintaining high guest satisfaction ratings even when rates soar and employees are taxed to the max.

Topics include:

  • Why do review scores go down when occupancy goes up?
  • Understanding the unique needs of peak-season travelers
  • How to exceed expectations and prevent bad reviews
  • Balancing financial needs with operational needs
  • Plus tips, examples and data for achieving your most successful busy season ever

Join me on May 31, 2017 for this free webinar from ReviewPro, with expert panelists Nicholas Gandossi, General Manager of Opus Hotel, and Neil James, VP of Account Management at ReviewPro.

Click here for more information.


Brand Storytelling in the Era of Fake News

Here Len Stein, president of Visibility Public Relations, recaps my presentation at HSMAI’s Digital Marketing Conference in New York last month. The article was originally published in Branding magazine. – DC

By Len Stein

Daniel E. Craig, who recently discussed the importance of strategic digital storytelling at the HSMAI Digital Marketing Strategy Conference 2017, New York City, first learned about the power of digital storytelling in 2006 as general manager of Opus Hotel, Vancouver, when he launched the hotel industry’s first blog.

“In our blog, we talked about issues most hotels would not discuss, like why we overbooked and sometimes relocated, how we dealt with difficult guests, and what it felt like to get a bad review,” said Craig, whose blog attracted a worldwide following and helped to put the hotel on the map.

He then moved on to his second career as a mystery writer whose lead character is a hotel manager who becomes a house detective in Murder at the Universe and two sequels.

Today Craig, founder of Reknown, is a marketing consultant to hotels, technology companies, and travel organizations, helping shape their brand stories, content and messaging.

People have been telling stories for millennia, and exaggeration has been a staple device. What’s new are the digital platforms for sharing stories, the unprecedented audiences, and the new formats, which present marketers new opportunities and challenges. With low barriers to entry, there are virtually no filters in social storytelling. Anyone can say or share whatever they wish, which has given rise to an era of fake news, misinformation, and so-called alternative facts. As citizens of this post-truth era, it’s hard to know whom to trust and what to believe.

In fact, Edelman’s 2017 “Trust Barometer” found that trust has eroded globally 30 percent across the board over 2016. Marketers must recognize they are dealing with a cynical and skeptical public, and they must accept part of the blame for this situation. As has long been the case, there’s still too much misinformation in marketing today, especially in the travel sector.

“I like to joke that the hotel industry can be credited with creating fake news because of its tradition of featuring fairytale descriptions and fantasy photos in marketing materials, in hopes that guests won’t notice the grimmer reality of the property when they arrive,” said Craig. “For instance, hotels regularly shorten their distance from airports and beaches and to downtown, exaggerate views, and liberally toss around words like ‘luxurious’ and ‘five star.’”

What’s the biggest fake news story in the hotel business today? “Book direct for the best deals.” While it’s sometimes true, consumers who take the time to search online often find better deals. “And travelers should beware of the phrase ‘best available rate,’ which might more accurately be called ‘bestish,’” said Craig. When consumers can find better deals elsewhere, trust in the hotel industry erodes.

It’s no wonder that travelers turn to social media to consult trip information and advice from the source they trust most – other travelers. But the social space poses problems too – from fake reviews to false information to bad advice. Many people turn to Facebook to crowdsource recommendations, but again not all our friends share the same tastes. The end result is that this skepticism is directed toward other consumers and even to people within our personal networks.

In this environment, how can marketers earn trust? Storytelling in marketing is basically about shaping brand messaging to resonate with one’s audience, said Craig. A good story, well told, captures attention, makes people sit up and listen, and compels them to share the story. With so much noise in the digital space, good storytelling is a way for hotels and brands to stand out. But to compel action (from likes to shares to bookings), marketers must build trust with consumers—in the products and services they promote and in the content they share.  Read more »

Disruption 2017: Three Major Trends in the Global Hotel Business

By Daniel E. Craig

We can certainly say that 2017 is poised to be a year of disruption in American politics. Does the same apply to the global hotel industry?

Disruption can be defined as a radical change in an industry, especially involving the introduction of a new product or service that creates a new market. It often brings disorder and confusion, and companies that don’t adapt risk becoming obsolete.

In my next webinar with ReviewPro, we explore three major disruptive forces in the hotel industry:

1. Rise of Megabrands
In recent years we have witnessed massive consolidation among hotel companies and online travel agencies, and in 2017 we’ll start to see the full impact of these changes.

According to Lodging Econometrics’ Q4 2015 report, the three biggest hotel conglomerates, Hilton, Marriott and IHG, accounted for 37 percent of worldwide hotel construction, with 11,130 development projects in the pipeline. Snapping at their heels is AccorHotels Group, with more than 4,000 hotels in its portfolio and ambitious plans to grow and diversify.

On the OTA front, Priceline Group and Expedia Inc. continue to grow at a much faster pace than hotel companies, commanding a virtual duopoly on an international scale. Yet Ctrip.com is proving to be a veritable force as it extends its reach beyond China.

“To stay competitive in a mega brand and OTA-driven world, it’s really a matter of personalized vs. one-size-fits-all,” says Simone Puorto, director of global accounts and quality manager at WIHP. “Hoteliers have a number of tools at their disposal, from opaque rates to metasearch advertising, and from tailor-made services to AI travel assistants.”

Puorto will be one of my co-presenters on the webinar, along with Fiona Gillen, vice president of marketing at ReviewPro.

2. Growth of Private Rentals Sector
As much as some hotel executives may be in denial, the rapidly-expanding private rentals sector represents another disruptive force in the hotel industry today. You can read more on this topic in my article, The Incredible Shrinking Hotel Industry.

3. Digital Customer Service
A third disruptive force that’s still in its infancy is the rise of digital customer service. Increasingly, travelers are turning to digital platforms to plan trips, make inquiries with businesses and share experiences.

Whether it’s online check-in, messaging apps, chatbots, voice-activated technology or even humanoid robots, an increasing number of tasks in the hospitality business that were previously performed by humans now have the potential to be performed by computers.

Join us on Tuesday, January 31 for this free one-hour webinar, when we’ll discuss what these trends mean and how hoteliers can adapt and stay competitive in 2017 and beyond.

If you miss the webinar, you can download it and all previous webinars and guides in ReviewPro’s Resource Hub.



The Incredible Shrinking Hotel Industry

By Daniel E. Craig, Founder, Reknown

The hotel industry isn’t known for being quick to adapt and evolve, and it often finds itself scrambling to catch up with changes in technology and traveler behavior.

Online travel agencies are a perfect example. Rather than impede the growth of OTAs by maintaining tighter controls on rates and inventory, hotels threw open their doors and continue to fuel their remarkable growth to this day.

The hotel industry is in a similar state of denial in regard to the latest threat to its well-being: the private rentals sector. And yet the threat is far greater. Whereas OTAs help to fill hotel rooms, private rentals lure travelers away from hotels entirely. And their growth is probably unstoppable.

Growth of Alternative Accommodations
Vacation rentals have been around for decades, but in recent years the sector has moved from niche market to mainstream, expanding into urban markets and attracting both business and leisure travelers. The great disrupter has been Airbnb, which launched in 2008 and now reports over two million listings in 191 countries worldwide.

A recent survey of 4,000 consumers in the U.S. and Europe from Morgan Stanley Research found that Airbnb is “almost double the threat” to hotels than previously believed, with 19 percent of leisure travelers and 18 percent of business travelers having used Airbnb in 2016. In 2017, those numbers are expected to increase to 25 percent and 23 percent respectively.

But we don’t need surveys to tell us that travelers are changing their habits. Simply ask friends, colleagues, family members – even hoteliers – where they stayed on their most recent trips, and an ever-increasing number will cite private rentals.

The growth has been precipitated by digital innovation and transparency. Airbnb alleviates many of the concerns travelers have about staying in a stranger’s home by allowing them to view photos of homes and maps of the local area, compare listings and pricing, check out host profiles and reviews, and book instantly.

Many of the concerns homeowners have about renting their homes to strangers have been alleviated, too. It’s easy to create a listing, and hosts can check out profiles and reviews of travelers before accepting them, implement strict cancellation policies, and take advantage of property damage protection.

Then there’s the user experience, from Airbnb’s sleek, uncluttered website, a breath of fresh air compared to OTAs and hotel websites, to the personalized communications from hosts, to the stay itself—the extra space, free Wi-Fi, kitchen and laundry facilities, and residential touches. All for less than the price of a typical hotel room.  Read more »

Online Reputation Management for Hotels: To 2017 and Beyond

By Daniel E. Craig, Founder, Reknown

After over a decade of social media in the mainstream, the online reputation management function has reached a maturity level in the hotel industry. As we look to 2017 and beyond, we can draw from past experience to develop our future strategies.

The online reputation management function grew out of the explosive popularity of social media, which connected consumers, gave them a voice, and facilitated the exchange of purchase information and advice at scale. Today, most travelers check out online reviews as part of trip planning, and a hotel’s reputation can significantly impact its ability to attract business.

Social media has elevated the travel experience by obliging hotels to be more transparent and accountable. The old “bait and switch” tradition so common in travel marketing in the past is much riskier today. Hotels that fail to meet the expectations they set for guests face a backlash in bad reviews. Today, it’s about reality marketing: setting realistic expectations.

All types of social media tend to be lumped together, but it’s important to distinguish between online reviews, as found on TripAdvisor, Google, online travel agencies and other travel sites, and content shared on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.

As a marketing channel, social networking sites are crowded and inefficient. On Twitter, it feels like everyone is talking and few people are listening. Facebook, having all but shut out brand posts from user news feeds, has become an advertising platform for hotels. Yet these channels can’t be ignored because they are used by travelers as a customer service channel to make inquiries with hotels and share feedback.

Hoteliers are easily distracted by the interactivity and instant gratification of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, whereas online reviews can be raw, bruising and disruptive. It’s easier to disregard or downplay online reviews as extreme, unfairly biased or fraudulent.

But online reviews must be the top priority, serving as both an operational tool for measuring guest satisfaction and guiding improvements and a marketing tool for building awareness and driving demand. Whereas people go to Facebook and Twitter to socialize and catch up on news, they go to Google, OTAs and TripAdvisor to plan trips, where reviews and ratings are listed alongside rates and booking options.  Read more »

Google Reviews: Ubiquitous, Powerful and Flawed

By Martin Soler and Daniel E. Craig

From TripAdvisor to Airbnb, the big players in online travel want to offer it all: booking capabilities, tours and activities, and traveler reviews. Google is no exception. But while Google has made significant moves to grow and improve its offerings in the travel sphere, it’s still finding its way in the realm of user reviews and ratings of local businesses.

Search a hotel on Google, and guest ratings from TripAdvisor, online travel agencies, Facebook and other review sources are populated in both paid and organic results. But as with its flights and hotels products, Google gives higher prominence to its own reviews, placing Google ratings just below paid results in mobile searches and at the top of the Knowledge Graph in desktop searches.

Earlier this year, Google confirmed that Google review count and score are factored into local search rankings. Google ratings are also populated throughout Maps, Trips and Destinations.

Given the ubiquity of Google reviews, their role in search rankings and their influence on consumer decisions, Google bears responsibility for ensuring the quality of its review product. But Google reviews are unsortable, inconsistent and unverified, and while the ratings of businesses are usually comparable to other review sources like TripAdvisor, Yelp and OTAs, a large proportion of Google reviews are anonymous, outdated and sparse in detail.

Google’s challenges with reviews started long ago. A few years ago, Google began scraping hotel reviews from TripAdvisor and Yelp without their consent and was hit with a lawsuit. Third-party reviews were pulled from business listings, but have since been reinstated for select businesses as “Reviews from the web.” Early this year, in an attempt to improve review volume and quality, Google began licensing reviews and review summaries for select hotels from TrustYou, which aggregates scores using reviews from across the web.

But Google, being Google, wants to own reviews. The value in reviews is unique to the search algorithm. In the early days of the internet, Google relied on backlinks as a measure of the importance of a website, among other factors. But as Google emerged as the unavoidable giant in the location business, backlinks were not enough. Reviews have become critical to the algorithm, indicating to Google the quality of the business and helping to ensure that it delivers optimal search results to users. And not only that, reviews are rich with keywords to feed the index.

Recent evolutions in Google’s applications suggest that Google is edging toward achieving its potential as a review behemoth. It is now easier than ever for users to write reviews. Thanks to GPS on mobile phones and Google Maps data, Google knows where users have been. Rather than require users to enter the business name and location, Google suggests places to review. Recently, Google started offering its Local Guides incentives to contribute reviews, including badges and Google Drive storage.  Read more »