EyeforTravel Amsterdam 2019

November 2019, Amsterdam

Winning with travel tech in the age of the independent hotel

Not all that long ago independent hotels had no control over guest data or the customer experience but thanks to travel technology this is changing. Pamela Whitby finds out more

Not everybody is benefiting yet but travel technology is powering independent hotels into the future. “I believe wholeheartedly that this is the age of the independent hotel,” says Anthony Scotland, Director, Strategy and Special Projects at Hersha Hospitality Management (HHM), which operates a portfolio of US-based independent hotels.

According to Scotland, the best thing about working with independent hotels is the ability to experiment and pilot new technologies. “It’s like being in the lab with the properties,” he says.

Scotland, who was with Caesars Entertainment before joining HHM four years ago is focused closely on improving the guest experience, and influencing guest purchase behaviour. In his current role he also is involved in openings, re-launches and repositioning of the collection, which has grown from seven to 22 hotels since he joined.

“The technology has really caught up in independent space, and this means we now have the opportunity to own the guest data,” Scotland explains.

The technology has really caught up in independent space, and this means we now have the opportunity to own the guest data

Two of the group's biggest partners are Cendyn, a customer relationship management firm, and Travel Tripper, which recently merged with Pegasus, and delivers central reservation systems. Scotland is working with these two firms to build an integrated in-house solution that delivers some of the power previously wielded only by the bigger hotel brands.

Some of the benefits of the integrated solution include:

  • Stronger control over the guest experience, not only by better tracking guest preferences, but also giving loyal guests the ability to book personalised offers directly on Hersha hotel websites 
  • Owning the guest data, identifying core customers and building relationships not just at the property level but throughout the marketing, discovery, booking and post-trip phases
  • Understanding not just broad purchase trends but how consumers change by season, by room category and by different hotels
  • Tailoring marketing and messaging, as well as the offering to different consumers at different times and for different hotels.
  • Knowing exactly who the customer is is at any hotel during any season without having to rely on partners

“Years ago this was unheard of in the indie space and marketers should embrace that,” Scotland says.

Being realistic

When it comes to innovation, Scotland’s approach is simple – that the guest expectation is more important than anything else. But he is realistic too, and understands that it is important to communicate with on site operations teams to identify what is most actionable at any particular property.

Having come from a big brand where “so much already has been tested and understood, and it’s easier to scale,” the challenge and opportunity in the independent space is developing practices that are scalable and also unique to each property; in other words local.

It is about ensuring that “we have that differentiation across products. We have to find ways on the independent side to develop scalable practices while ensuring the offerings are unique at each property,” he says.

We have to find ways on the independent side to develop scalable practices while ensuring the offerings are unique at each property

Nevertheless, at Hersha there is a strong focus on developing tools that gather data at every stage of the journey, which can ultimately be centralised. The idea is to pull all guest information - from call centre discussions to ancillary revenue spend - into one profile. As one example of how this is being achieved, the group has integrated with OpenTable so that dining habits are now part of the guest profile. The idea is that whenever a guest is interacting with a hotel, some level of personalisation is being achieved.

Collaboration, another top priority for HHM, is key and the end goal is for data to be an accessible resource in every part of the organisation from revenue management to digital marketing and operations.

Top tips

  • Develop a comprehensive guest profile. Make this the core of what you do as it will help you tailor your messaging.
  • Recognise and be grateful. At a most basic level hotels should you should always recognise their guests and thank them for coming back.
  • Identify a core deliverable. At one hotel, for example, the ‘sleep experience’ might be the core offering and guests might be able to choose from six different types of pillow. At another, the restaurant, bar or spa might be the ticket. If you offer a free cocktail to a guest, he might even buy a couple more. 
  • Be nimble and realistic.  Be prepared to change approach based on the hotel type or offering. In an ideal world, every hotel would deliver on every aspect but that’s not realistic. Zero in on what really makes an impact on the guest based on the hotel type and hotel offering. For example, if a guest always books parking, why not offer this free for their next stay, as a token of appreciation.

Tangible and intangible benefits

There is, of course, a cost to investing in technology but Scotland argues that the investment has been well worth it and is easily quantifiable. In fact, some of the benefits are very simple to measure and include direct revenue contribution, conversion rates on sites and booking engines, the numbers of repeat consumers and so on.

Scotland puts it like this: “These are numbers that we look at every day but there are so many additional benefits that you can’t put a price tag on. Of course, you must be sure you are investing in the right technology but in the grand scheme of things the ROI is way higher than the tangible revenue benefits.”

You must be sure you are investing in the right technology but in the grand scheme of things the ROI is way higher than the tangible revenue benefits

Before investing in anything firms must, first and foremost, understand what they want to achieve. In HHM’s case, the priority was connectivity and the need for systems to be able to speak to each other easily.

For example, one growing trend is the fact that guests are increasingly using SMS services to communicate their needs. While progress is being made, connecting that data with other data points – such as when a guest stayed, how long they stayed, which rooms they loved and so on – is still not quite there yet.  “We still have not figured out how to connect the dots. We are not at a final destination yet,” he says, admitting that fragmentation of the travel industry remains a challenge.

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