Peer to peer profiling: Is it still possible?

As an ex revenue manager from a sales and marketing background, I was considered to be a weird mix early in my career. It was always thought of as strange to mix sales with controls and people always referred to the move from sales to revenue as “going to the dark side”, even the revenue managers.

My obsession with benchmarking and beating the market, driving market penetration and compulsively monitoring competitor strategies came from my ‘salesy’, need to win instinct; meanwhile my strategic attention to detail side, the focus on the market bit, was pure revenue management. You couldn’t possibly have both skill sets? At least that’s what I was told countless times in my early career. Pushing to be a general manager in my day with my background? Not a hope – only if you know F&B, but that’s a different story.

Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be a ‘smash the glass ceiling’ style article, but it is an opportunity to reflect on the radical shift in our industry, and the changing personal values we now require, to thrive.

My generation of middle management in hotels was the one that saw the shift from occupancy and average rate into REVPAR (revenue per available room), and then we had TREVPAR (total revenue per available room); a godsend when you revenue manage a leisure club and golf course, never mind F&B. Latterly, when I did become a GM, my attention was focussed on GOPPAR (gross operating profit per available room), then departmental profit metrics, payroll %, overheads and expenses.

The detail was phenomenal. From the daily stats in the marketplace to the monthly performance comparisons, HOTSTATS was king. Plus the optimal measure of success? Market penetration and whose fair share you had stolen.

Benchmarking then was almost entirely like-for-like and it was the only real measure of peer to peer success, usually measured against like-minded operators up the road, or even next door. You were competing for exactly the same pound over and over again, and although we all had our ‘USPs’ and marketing metrics, frankly, there was little to split between us.

Occasionally, we looked internally too, using employee satisfaction surveys, and even more progressive (10 years ago), we looked at net promoter scores and guest satisfaction indexes.

All of us group or corporate city GM’s were focussed on these measures of success, meanwhile the world was changing from analogue to digital. Yes we were current enough to use booking.com to check what rates our competitors were selling and we mastered the dark art of distribution (albeit in those days manually); what we forgot about were the times we had misled the public, only marketed our best rooms and only promoted the good about our properties and our services. How much we had over-inflated ourselves back then.

The rude awakening came with the user-generated feedback sites; TripAdvisor and the like. They made life so much more complicated, and we hated them. We finally had to face up to our deficiencies; no you can’t sell those un-refurbished rooms at the same rate as the ones that were done last year; yes you can’t gloss over the shortcomings in the dining experience, leisure club or event facilities.

Were the sites abused? Absolutely in my view. For the first time ever, we had customers threatening us with bad feedback, some justifiably but many not so much; we had competitors creating fake bad reviews; and we still had head office expectations to manage, the wage percentages to deliver and the same GOPPAR to achieve.

Life just became much harder. Did we manage? Yes, in a fashion and we even got used to it, to a point. The really progressive, mainly independent properties, probably with some cash behind them, even thrived; they responded to the pressure, improved their services, facilities, refurbished, rebuilt and became something unique and new.

The advent of these sites definitely brought some unique and frankly positive changes to the industry too. We were being transparent about our operations, but we were also given a platform where we could really start differentiating from our nearby neighbours. Our USPs began to gain independent credibility and whereas before that pokey room in the beams of a 16th Century attic was a limiter to our TREVPAR, now it became the ‘authentic’ experience that commanded its own attention.

The sites ultimately cleaned up the poor operators and helped the good ones to shine, but what we certainly failed to embrace at the time was the necessary shift in benchmarking – we were still focussing on our nearby neighbours and still measuring their prices and market-penetration. The sites had forced change, but we’d failed to fully adapt to the shifting insight that was suddenly open to us.

As hoteliers, what we missed, and to varying degrees continue to miss, whilst trying to be everything to every person, is all the other options available to the consumer now. There used to be very clear lines between the designators; B&B was usually cheaper and operating within the host’s home, while hotels had their own property and were usually considerable larger.

There were different buying processes, and different markets and it was much easier to keep track of your ‘competitors’. Now however, the competitor pool is huge; boutique hotels, B&B’s, inns, pubs with rooms, self-catering restaurants with rooms, serviced apartments, homestays, glamping – the list goes on, but it basically represents guest choice.

So benchmarking is nigh on impossible now?

Probably; at least in the traditional sense. Now, you have your traditional segmented competitor sets: what are they travelling for within destination – leisure, town events conferences, business etc., for which you then need to consider the type of properties and facilities available within a reasonable geographic radius. This alone could have doubled or even tripled your ‘competitor’ pool.

Next, you also have your destination competitors: what attracts a customer to one location as opposed to another particularly as leisure guests are pursuing experiences rather than destinations. Next up it’s the comparison sites: who’s the cheapest, who has the best leisure club, service, breakfast, cleanliness; traditional measures, PR and marketing, star ratings, even EHO scores on the doors. So how in the heck are you supposed to measure parity across all these different factors?

The answer is try to be practical, fair and focussed. Historically, as well as less ‘competition’ to measure against, there were also less metrics, and less channels to check. Modernisation of industry has given us access to hundreds more pieces of info, but what many operators don’t stop and consider is which are the most relevant.

Our assessors can quickly and easily split operators into three camps; those who benchmark everything and anything obsessively; those who basically don’t benchmark at all; and those who take the habitual approach, doing what they have always done. Very few have taken the innovative approach, revisiting what business they want and how they want to compete for it and therefore what metrics are required and against which businesses, in a way that extends beyond the traditional designations.

My advice to operators therefore is this. Take a step back and consider the internal, before looking at how that affects the external. Use the user-generated measures, plus team enterprise and guest feedback to highlight first what you are doing well and which market you support the best, and then what aspects you can improve on, and whether these are intrinsic or opportunistic for your offering. Once you have reviewed and oftentimes re-established your competitive field, it becomes much easier to evaluate who you should, and who you do compete with.

Quality in Tourism assess hundreds of accommodation providers globally. To find out more about their assessments, gradings and mystery shopping services, visit www.qualityintourism.com.

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How to handle a general manager

There are so many ways in which independent hotels differ from those in group ownership. Perhaps one of the most significant is in the relationship between owner and general manager because, without a large corporate structure, it is often a very personal one. I would go so far as to say that a good working rapport between owner(s) and GM is essential to the success of the business.

I do not pretend to be an expert in this area. After all, it is over 30 years since I managed a hotel myself. However I have been lucky enough to observe lots of independent operators at close range throughout my time at Pride of Britain and, before that, as a publisher for Johansens.

Here is what I’ve noticed. When a GM is regarded by his or her employers as merely a supervisor, someone who is paid to keep on top of the day to day functioning of the business but is not included in major decision-making, the rest of the team find it difficult to think of the GM as “the boss”. It is the worst of all worlds, bearing loads of responsibility but without sufficient authority to control events.

This I have seen frequently in smaller establishments where the owners are present much of the time, involving themselves in the detail and giving instructions to junior members of the team without first consulting the GM. This places the GM in an impossible situation and if they’re any good they will probably leave. Or worse, if they are second rate, they are going to stay, allowing resentment and mistrust to soak up energy that should instead be directed towards delighting customers and growing profits.

Conversely, where there is mutual trust and respect I have seen plenty of GMs thrive, sometimes for decades, in challenging roles. Knowing the owner is fully supportive of his or her methods can give a GM almost invincible power, enabling them to create a perfect working environment for the team and to command its loyalty.

It requires generosity on the owner’s part to allow someone else to behave in a ‘proprietorial’ fashion and, most likely, to take the credit for achievements such as guide recognition. Exactly the same logic applies to a football club manager or the star of a west end show – the chairman or the theatre producer being proud beneficiaries, usually behind the scenes.

So on the very few occasions when my advice has been sought about appointing a GM I have started by asking whether that person is really going to be in charge. If not, it would be far better to engage a brilliant deputy, perhaps with the title ‘Hotel Manager’, and make it plain that the GM is really the owner.

In this way everyone understands how the hierarchy is supposed to operate and who calls the shots. Appointing an experienced professional GM, I would argue, best suits owners who are happy to stand back from the management of the business although they will obviously still set strategy in private consultation with the GM.

For the sake of my own job security I dare not single out individuals here but suffice to say the most successful hoteliers I have come across, without exception, are people who understand that management and owners must be seen to work hand in glove, one’s power dependent on the other’s consent.

For some reason we have witnessed a spate of high profile movers in the UK over recent months. Every time this happens it is traumatic for the business concerned, of course, though it does present an opportunity for a fresh face to re-invigorate things. We’re all allowed to make a few mistakes in life; the trick is not to keep repeating the same ones!

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Why we need to engage men in the drive for gender parity

International Women’s Day is perhaps not the most obvious occasion for a man to voice his opinion on the all-important issue of gender diversity and inclusion. But as a man who has worked for three decades in the hospitality industry, I feel a responsibility to play my part in supporting the drive for gender parity in the sector.

The rationale for gender diversity is well-known. Other than primarily being the right thing to do, driving diversity and inclusion brings a host of benefits including increasing staff engagement and therefore performance; helping businesses be more representative of their customer base; and maximising the potential of their entire talent pool – not just half of it.

Why men need to be engaged

But this is not a battle that should be fought by women alone. Affecting cultural change in an organisation requires the engagement of as many people as possible behind a set of behaviours. For example, at Accor we are committed supporters and champions of HeForShe, the solidarity movement initiated by UN Women which aims to ensure that men also take a stand for gender equality. To help us deliver on this commitment, thousands of our male employees across the world have joined the movement as HeForShe champions.  Making a real cultural impact requires an inclusive approach, making sure all the people in an organisation are proactively encouraged to support the agenda.

Commitment from the top

I am lucky to work in a business that shares my commitment to this agenda. In 2015 Accor signed the Women’s Empowerment Principles, an initiative of UN Women and the United Nations Global Compact, asserting the company’s commitment to diversity and gender equality at an international level. We have an international network, RiiSE, to promote diversity and inclusion through a mentoring programme, communication campaigns, conferences and awareness-raising workshops. Globally, men currently represent 42% of the network’s 14,000+ members.

One of the key factors behind driving our engagement is the visible commitment from the very top of the organisation. Our Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Sébastien Bazin, has very publicly backed the drive for diversity and Accor’s commitment to it.  For example, he has spoken at the World Economic Forum in Davos alongside UN Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson and UN Women’s Elizabeth Nyamayaro about how companies can help drive gender equality.

Sharing knowledge and experience

As a senior executive, I feel my own responsibility to demonstrate this commitment. Over the course of three decades, I have worked as a general manager, in finance and in operations, and my career has taken me from France to China, Eastern Europe and the UK. I believe I have a responsibility to share the knowledge and experience I have built up over that time, and to actively try to develop those who want to learn, progress and develop their careers. 

As such, I take an active role in Accor’s Step Up programme, which is designed to help women in the business reach leadership positions.

 The initiative combines formal training with a mentoring programme that aims to help emerging female leaders take control of their careers.  It does this by building leadership attributes and establishing soft skills such as self-confidence and people’s ability to market themselves, which are vital for career development.

The programme matches mentors with mentees, who collaboratively define goals according to the mentee’s needs and aims, and who over a period of six months, work together to achieve those goals. By participating in this programme, I hope I am making a positive contribution to the more junior colleagues I am mentoring, but by doing so, I am also confident that we are improving the overall health and strength of the business, not least because I also learn something new from every mentoring relationship.

Inclusion fosters inclusion

For hotels, gender diversity is a hugely important issue. Hoteliers need to understand their female guests, corporate clients and partners if they are to thrive. Ensuring their women employees are empowered and encouraged to reach their potential is an essential part of doing so.

But gender diversity and inclusion should never be just about women standing up for women. From my experience, the vast majority of men are huge advocates of gender parity too. Ignoring what they can contribute would be folly.

By recognising the role men can have in supporting gender diversity, male employees are much more likely to feel recognised and included rather than marginalised. Engaging all employees behind the quest for parity will benefit everyone – men, women, and the business.

Inspiring leaders: three women leading the way at Accor

The Senior Executive: Karelle Lamouche, SVP sales & marketing, Distribution & Revenue Management Northern Europe

Karelle is in charge of the top line functions for Accor in Northern Europe. Working within the group since 2000, her key achievements include presiding over ibis’ vision to be the benchmark in the economy segment and a leader in customer service, by completely transforming the guest and employee journey through mobile technology.

Top tip for aspiring leaders: “Treat your colleagues with respect. Leaders can’t succeed without the support of their teams and to get that you need to earn their trust and respect.”

The Hotel Manager: Jacqui McMillan, general manager, Novotel Canary Wharf

After beginning her career with Accor as Rooms Division Manager at Novotel Glasgow, Jacqui has held GM positions in Glasgow, Bristol, Reading and London before landing the GM job at the flagship Novotel in Canary Wharf last year.

Top tip for aspiring leaders: “Don’t be afraid to go for promotions or roles outside your comfort zone – it’s only by having the confidence to extend yourself that you expand your abilities.”

The Emerging Leader: Apolline Lecocq, Assistant General Manager, ibis Liverpool Centre Albert Dock

Starting her career as a receptionist, Appoline broadened her experience by securing herself maternity cover experience in Conferences & Events before being promoted to Front Office Manager. Since participating in the Step Up mentoring programme she has landed her first Assistant GM position.

Top tip for aspiring leaders: “Find a mentor! I have learned so much that will be invaluable in my career just by being able to speak to and be guided by someone with masses of experience.”

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Why QIT has overhauled its ‘stars and standards’

You may have read the recent article in Hotel Owner, talking about the place for Star Gradings in a world saturated by online reviews, and whether the heyday of the Stars is over, when they have such little meaning for guests.

The article, which was written by The AA who are responsible for Star Gradings, ultimately concludes that it’s advisable to look at both Stars, which guarantee minimum standard levels and expectations, and online reviews which give you a first-hand insight into what you’re likely to experience. We however feel that the article misses a key point; the question shouldn’t be whether there is a need for Star Gradings, but whether the criteria used for Star Gradings are fit-for-purpose anymore?

At Quality in Tourism, we’ve been assessing hospitality businesses for 20 years, including running schemes in South Africa, The Channel Islands, England, and for our DMO partners including Cornwall, Kent, Isle of Wight and Yorkshire. In that time, we have seen the industry change from one where accountability came solely from annual assessments and repeat custom, to one where poor-quality operators are squeezed out by scathing public reviews. Neither is better or worse, but they are different, and it is right to consider the place and relevance of standards in this modern, ‘always on’ world.

The original star gradings had been around in one guise or another since 1912, before in 2006, a group of UK Tourist Boards, led by Visit England, came together to develop the ‘Common Quality Standards’; a set of criteria which outline exactly what is expected of an operator at every level. From listing the furniture in every bedroom, to the welcome at the front desk, for many years the Star Gradings were one of the only sources of independent information about operators, and were used by many guests to select their next place to stay.

At the time these standards were developed, we were delivering the quality assessments on behalf of Visit England, using these common standards to clearly define the level each operator was attaining. The problem was, as the industry grew and diversified, so too did the common standards and suddenly there were separate schemes for everything from B&B and Hotels to Glamping Pods, Self-Catering Cottages and home-stay properties. Each scheme came with its own criteria, but it didn’t come with its own grade and soon we had ‘three star’ hotels operating alongside ‘three star’ campsites.

Even worse, some places can score higher on ‘stars’ in their own category than hotels, so it can look like a glamping site is five star (pennant) but would actually come out at two or three star in a direct comparison with a hotel or guesthouse. How then, when you are reading the same terminology, are you supposed to understand the significant variance in facilities between these different schemes? The answer is that you aren’t, and the Star Ratings lost their penetration in the industry as a result.

So is there still a place for stars?

Yes, but it’s a new one. What’s become clear is that guests have access to reliable, informative information which does not come from quality assessments. What’s more, the common standards, and the criteria they impose upon hospitality operators don’t really account for the breadth and diversity of the industry in which we operate anymore. Nor are the stars filling a void for the operators either, providing advice or feedback that they can’t attain through other means. It is for exactly this reason that once Quality in Tourism was released from the Visit England contract, we set about overhauling the standards and our standards-setting system to give them relevance and purpose once more.

So what have we done?

Shifted from decision-maker to decision-validator: First and foremost what we have done is to get rid of ‘stars’ as a decision-maker for your potential guests. We know from endless stats that your guests are comfortable to make purchasing decisions based almost entirely on the reviews of previous guests, which means that the traditional star model has limited relevance. We have therefore taken the criteria back to their most basic form and created two new assessments types, with the sole purpose of validating guests’ decisions and acting as an independent assessment of guest safety. Our basic, entry-level grading – Safe, Clean & Legal – simply assures guests that all the necessary safety measures are in place to keep them safe during their stay (something which isn’t available through third-party reviews); meanwhile our full-blown annual assessment combines this with expert advice and guidance for your business from assessors with years of experience. Both provide a voluntary regulatory function for the industry while it remains unregulated, but which also form a process that has the potential in the long-term to become mandatory, if UK Government has their way.

Redesigned the criteria based on standards and not on operator: It is incredibly confusing that all the different types of operator are assessed using different criteria, but are awarded the same ‘star grading’ at the end. How are the general public supposed to understand the difference between these accolades? With great difficulty of course! What we asked ourselves is ‘what do guests actually care about?’ and the answer is quality, safety and ease of living. As a result, we have shifted our assessments away from the ‘facilities’ e.g. the number or type of pieces of furniture, and towards the things that actually matter, so now ALL our operators are assessed using the same criteria, making it simpler and easier for potential guests to understand. Yes, that does mean hotels, cottages, home stays and even campsites share the same assessment criteria.

Applied some common sense: The Common Standards are prescriptive because once upon a time they needed to be. They used to be the only way guests could be sure what facilities and furnishings to expect when they arrive. Unfortunately however, by their very nature, these common standards have applied unnecessary limiters on the diversity and uniqueness of the industry. We have countless examples of ridiculous assessments, where commercial decisions made by the hotel lead to them being downgraded, when not even their guests seem bothered by the choice. So, we’ve applied some common sense and created new standards which incorporate the things that matter to the guests, but allow flexibility for the hotel management to put their own stamp on things.

Emphasised communication and transparency: one of the core historic values of the gradings was to clearly communicate expectations with the guest, and act as a marketing tool for the operator.

On the plus side, it created transparency, but on the downside it also created assessments which graded for the exception and not the rule. For example, hotels which are created within the confines of Listed Buildings, could not always obtain a high grading, simply because the proportions of a few of their rooms were limited by the history of the property. In fact, in these cases, the operator would have achieved a better grading level, if they’d chosen not to convert these rooms for listing. Madness that these operators would have to weigh up commercial decisions with grading decisions. Instead, we’ve shifted the emphasis from consistency to transparency.

Using the same listed building example, we now expect operators to clearly and openly share information with their guests, but not limit their grading because of it. In our opinion, a five star grading does not solely consist of the size of the room, but also the experience of the guest when they arrive. As long as they know that a particular bedroom is smaller, or has less head room, or has period features and odd proportions, then why should this impact the grading for the overall property? Particularly in this experiential market period, when guests are seeking anything but the norm?

So, the upshot is that we now have a rigorous benchmarking process which provides assurance where it needs to, without limits that it doesn’t. This means operators are free to make commercial decisions without penalty, and we have many who have changed level under the new scheme and seen benefit for it. We have of course been asked how an inspector can possibly compare a yurt to an established large-scale hotel, but this question comes from the legacy of old criteria.

There’s no way you can compare a hotel with a yurt when your expectations are for two bedside tables and a bible; but when you’re assuring guests of objective factors such as safety and compliance, and objective factors such as hospitality and welcome, the physical space becomes less of a consideration and it becomes much easier to assess and evaluate.

The biggest hurdle we face is not how to inspect, but in the education of industry and consumer to understand the shift, and to stop evaluating experience on a linear scale (3 star, 4 star, 5 star), but on an overall assessment of quality. This education will happen naturally over time, and we are accelerating understanding through relevant partnerships and promotions.

Quality in Tourism offer an independent assessment scheme which focuses on true quality and guest experience and puts the needs of the operator on par with the needs of the consumer. They also have a Primary Authority Partnership with Cornwall Council, helping to provide operators across the country with practical advice and guidance on environmental health, trading standards and fire safety.

To enquire about being assessed by Quality in Tourism, visit www.qualityintourism.com

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Innovation key to meeting expectations of a diverse range of travellers

With more people travelling than ever before, the hospitality industry faces an increasingly diverse range of clients to cater for. For hospitality brands to attract and retain customers, offering different experiences to meet the different needs and expectations of guests will be key – whether that means time-saving technology for business travellers, human personalisation and bespoke service for luxury guests, or social experiences and new concepts for an upcoming generation of Millennials.

The Millennial quest for experiences

A study conducted by Harris Poll and Eventbrite found that 78% of Millennials prefer to spend their money on experiences rather than things; among Boomers, that figure drops to 59%. Within travel and tourism, the shift to experiences has given rise to disruptive business models as travellers seek the authenticity of local experiences instead of the accommodation and activities typically designed with tourists in mind.

Peer-to-peer accommodation platforms such as Airbnb and HomeAway are among the most well-known, while Airbnb has developed its Experiences offering, which connects travellers with local guides for activities ranging from the culinary and cultural to the adventurous and sporty. The peer-to-peer business travel market has not been overlooked either: Airbnb for Work offers self-check-in work-friendly properties for solo or group business travellers as well as team-building activities for company retreats.

But the sharing economy continues to evolve, giving rise to innovations such as Wingly, an online platform where passengers and pilots can share the costs of a private leisure flight. Thanks to a combination of technology, ingenuity and a DIY spirit, experiences once deemed exclusive are within reach for Millennial consumers.

Hotels woo young travellers with smart design and social spaces

To adapt to younger travellers’ tastes, innovative hotels are giving more priority to the social spaces and experiences they offer. Urban hotels like Mama Shelter, The Hoxton, CitizenM and 25hours hotels offer locations in vibrant neighbourhoods as well as spaces and activities that can appeal to locals and travellers alike. Rooftop bars, restaurants serving locally sourced ingredients, co-working hubs, yoga and Pilates classes, film screenings and dance parties are just some of the activities and spaces for travellers.

Such hotels represent a new kind of affordable luxury that resonates with Millennial values. Their approach also holds appeal for Gen Z travellers – putting high value on social experiences and design, this next generation of consumers is even more willing to accept smaller personal living spaces in exchange for aesthetics and vibrant shared spaces.

The success of micro-hotels such as Pod Hotels, The Jane Hotel and Arlo Hotels confirms this paradigm shift. Connectivity, both social and technological, is also key to catering to younger travellers, for whom online sharing is often a natural extension of offline experiences.

Socially responsible travellers search for like-minded businesses

If Millennials have played a key role in bringing issues of sustainability to the foreground, then Gen Z is likely to take the conversation even further. Cone Communications has reported that 94% of Gen Z consumers believe companies should address urgent social and environmental issues, compared to 87% of Millennials. As a result, businesses are facing growing pressure to support sustainable practices – particularly in the hospitality industry, where the social and environmental impacts of companies can be enormous.

Brands such as Six Senses and 1 Hotels are leading the way in making sustainability a core part of their identity. With these brands, the wastefulness that has sometimes been associated with luxury is replaced with eco-friendly measures and socially responsible policies. Environmental initiatives supported by Six Senses include growing organic produce for guests and bottling water in glass on site to eliminate the use of plastic. The brand also partners with local NGOs to sponsor community projects in areas like education, healthcare and disaster relief. At 1 Hotels, eco-friendly efficiency is complemented by nature-inspired design and the use of reclaimed materials, and the brand offers staff paid time off to volunteer in environmental advocacy and public education activities.

Meanwhile, locally-sourced food and beverage options and organic ingredients not only offer an authentic dining experience, but also appeal to young consumers’ sense of ethics. As public awareness of food waste, plastic pollution and other environmental problems grows, young consumers are more critical of wasteful and irresponsible practices – opening opportunities for businesses that can provide sustainable alternatives.

Technology, personalisation and experience 2.0

With tech-savvy Millennials closely followed by a generation of digital natives, technological innovation will continue to shape the hospitality industry. From chatbots and robots to internet-of-things connectivity, smart uses of technology will save time, offer greater personalisation and enable businesses to anticipate guest needs. The benefits of convenience and discretion are particularly relevant for business travellers, who value privacy and time-saving service. And although privacy concerns do exist, many customers are willing to entrust brands with some data in exchange for the benefits of convenience and personalised service.

Technology is also an opportunity for brands to flex their creativity, bridge online and offline channels and deliver a better customer experience. In China, leading ride-sharing app Didi has developed an augmented reality (AR) feature that helps passengers navigate their way through shopping centres and train stations to find their ride’s precise pick-up location.

Meanwhile, virtual reality (VR) can enable users to “travel” from home as they experience the sights and sounds of a faraway destination. Visitors to the iFly KLM 360° online platform can virtually visit a Thai jungle, Hawaii and other KLM destinations through a series of 360-degree videos using a smartphone, tablet or VR headset.

Yet despite the rise of new technologies, one trend that is unlikely to disappear is the value of the human touch in building customer relationships. From the hotel concierge who remembers a guest from a previous stay to the personal guide who reveals the secret corners of a city, human interaction remains core to the hospitality industry.

Dr Christine Demen Meier is Clinical Professor in Entrepreneurship at Glion Institute of Higher Educatio.

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2019 – The death of the corporate hotel?

Turn on the TV, check out the adverts at major transport hubs, scan the latest articles, and it’s pretty likely you’ll spot at least one advert from a longstanding stalwart of industry. I needn’t name them, but you know them – the big corporate engines with hotels across the globe and a particular signature that secures them the loyalty of their regulars, whatever the location.

We assess and mystery shop quite a few and there are those which are succeeding not only in staying on brand, but have also earned their top spots as global trademarks, delivering a consistent expectation and level of service to their guests and investing in prime locations to capture the attention of the transient traveller too. Yet, in the age of user-generated content, online reviews, third-party booking engines and hotel comparison sites, do the hotels even need their brands anymore and are they really delivering on their promises?

A recent business trip to Newcastle saw me stay at the best corporate hotel in the area. Or rather what used to be the best hotel. In the 90’s, the hotel was in its heyday; it was the best brand hotel in the region, a good four-star level, suited to most corporate budgets, had great customer service, fantastic facilities and was a sought-after provider for leisure and corporate travellers alike.

It was a little bit of an eyesore in its early 70’s building, but it was properly ‘sparkle washed’ i.e. they managed to get away with it. 30+ years on and frankly, it is just sad. The lobby smells of chlorine, the restaurant is a small segmented corner of a function room – how did they get away with that, with panache in the 90/00’s – the bar area is scruffy and the rooms, while comfortable, still have the same built in (but solid wood) desk/wardrobe combo and bed/bedside table set up. It even has the prerequisite two chairs and table to eat at – the common standards have a lot to answer for here in terms of creating soul and character-less product, but that’s a topic for another article.

Even setting aside the décor and building – I appreciate sometimes budgets and priorities are restricted – the soulless, poor quality theme continued. Practices were outdated, and I was pushed to pay for wifi or join the loyalty club; then when I did, the process didn’t even match up as I still had to wait at checkout for them to apply the loyalty club discount and reverse the charge. Anything but slick. Ultimately, it’s all very morose, particularly given its previous status, but it also got me thinking.

This hotel is one of many owned by the brand and the brand is deservedly well-respected and is actually great quality… most of the time. What’s happening though is that these brands are becoming behemoths that try, but fail to translate the ‘head office’ offering at an individual hotel level. It begs the question – is this the beginning of the end for corporate hotel models or will we see a resurgence and improvement as technology gets better and teams get savvier?

You might think I’m being harsh, but it’s far from an isolated case. I’m currently pursuing a complaint where the head office is telling me the claim is not valid because ‘I didn’t give them the opportunity to get it right’. An interesting approach to customer service – whatever happened to the customer’s always right – but in this case is also groundless as you’ll see from my experience. I entered my hotel in central London; a hotel which it turns out thrives almost entirely on its location and not on the realities of its staff or furnishings.

The lift was broken and the state of the walls demonstrated that repairs and renewals are clearly low priority, meanwhile the fried food menu and high drink prices are all designed to take as much money as possible off its guests. Not that I am averse to commerciality – in fact I encourage it heavily with our members – but when it affects customer service and seems to be a culture of the property, I take issue with it

I’ll forgive them for the lift not working – I can ‘understand’ that as this wasn’t a full service property; but I also think there is a basic need to compensate when something has gone wrong i.e. a porter for your luggage; whoops they don’t have porters; OK get the bar / maintenance/ reception team to help? No, just me? The room however was something else. Without being too graphic, a previous guest had clearly been unwell and had been ill by the bed and by the desk. Housekeeping had cleaned up the mess, and then they, or perhaps someone more senior, had decided to try and re-let the room without adequate deep cleaning.

The windows were open hoping to disguise the smell, the heating was on full blast to try and dry the carpet and it wasn’t immediately obvious there was a problem. I’d been there long enough to dump my suitcase, assume the smell was coming through the open window and decide the heating needed to be turned down, before departing for an event. Returning hours later, at just before midnight, I realised the carpet was wet, the smell was coming from inside the room and the windows had been open for a reason.

Suffice it to say, it was one of the worst experiences of my entire traveling life. The room wasn’t great anyway, cleanliness was an issue, the sink was very poor and had been for a long time, but never before have I had to put shoes on to cross the room from bed to the bathroom, because of wet, unclean carpet, nor could I use the tea and coffee tray or desk without having to hover over the smell and wonder if everything was really clean. Why did I not move then and there? Well they didn’t offer, although interestingly they now say they did, and the hotel was fully-booked.

They did offer to send someone to my room, which occurred to me as pointless, and I remain astounded that at least one of their staff members had left it that way in the first place? They also invited me down to the desk but again, the hotel is fully booked? Plus I ruled out moving hotels, because I was tired, I couldn’t be bothered to repack, I was really cross – a mistake I won’t ever make again.

In hindsight, I probably should have requested an alternative room – it would have been a test to see if this defensive money grabbing style permeated throughout. However, the hotel was apparently full and what hope did I have? Now, the head office team is saying I “didn’t give them the opportunity to make it right” and are declining to compensate. I shouldn’t be surprised by a property where the team deliberately leave a room in service when it is clearly unhygienic and frankly disgusting.

I shouldn’t be surprised by the flippant attitude towards inadequate provision of services, when the hotel pays so little attention to product both physical and what they ask guests to consume. Yes, this is a property that will be financially successful because of location full stop. So we can withdraw all aspects of customer service? The problem is they belong in a brand that is trying to change this reputation.

The reality in both cases is that the product has missed so much investment it should be knocked down and rebuilt, and the team need to be replaced so this imbedded anti-hospitality culture can be knocked on the head. I have seen innovative approaches to investment so I know it is possible, but sadly the best ones are mainly from property developers and not colleagues within our industry.

Everyone must remember the enormous town houses around London’s Earls Court, which housed a multitude of two and three-star tired properties, an embarrassment for the industry and to our visitors. Some bright sparks have been developing them into short lets studios, with business travellers and leisure guests in mind; a hotel but not fully serviced; one where the facilities are brand new and clean. Unlike other homestay providers, they are still mixed market but not mixed with residents in blocks, where there is still a minimum stay to avoid the impact on local communities. A brilliant concept.

The hotel in Newcastle I first wrote about, has taken another route, it has been sold to Brittania, where I suspect it will make up part of a very tired portfolio, and where the strategy is to dilute customer service to benefit only the P&L. A bit like my second example, where I am hoping some real change can be delivered, if the right people take the right steps.

It leaves me thinking; what place do these hotels have in the market in the future? I can stay for less money in a homestay or B&B and I can stay in places with a better customer service led offer.

Are they set to continue then? Or are the online booking engines and the declining service levels enough to push them under? As a former operator, and now with the privileged position overseeing the inspection of hundreds of properties each year, I see three major options for these corporate behemoths: To innovate and find a way to improve translation between the Head Office vision and the on-the-ground delivery. If brands can succeed in actually delivering on the promises their brand makes, then there is very definitely a place in the market for them. If they don’t, well I can see a very different landscape in five, ten and fifteen years.

To morph into something new and be the early adopters of technology and innovation. These brands have the advantage of size and scale, so early adoption can carve their niche in the market and support customers to overlook shortcomings in other areas. It’s not the cheapest route to success though and they’ll need to make the right choices.

Possibly, a new kind of model will emerge, which enables the power, marketing, scale and economy of the big brand, with the personal, customer-service led offering of the small. It’s clear that communication, buy-in and care are disconnected and are often at the root of brands failing to achieve their aspirations. So what about something different? A new framework which creates a broad stroke corporate image and permits scale, but which functions more like a craft or independent business, with ‘tenanted’ operators. A model we are familiar with, with pub landlords, and which could offer the opportunity to marry corporate appeal with small brand ideals and customer service to match. An interesting concept.

This is not something that can be established overnight, nor do my musings even scratch the surface of the issue, but it is one that will clearly need to be addressed. What remains to be seen is how fast the demise will happen; I fear it is innovate or cease to exist for many of these places, and I for one am looking forward to these innovations. It’s also worth a mention that a revolution has started, with the likes of AirBnB supporting a squeeze from the bottom, and review sites supporting a squeeze from the top, so hopefully it’s only a matter of time before we start to see the shift.

We’re also lending our support, by scrapping the so called ‘common standards’ and focussing instead on the customer service led offering, an emphasis which many other brands are also seeking to establish. Watch this space…and if you need our help, give me a shout.


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Why hotels should use good social media to attract millennial guests

The growth of social media has had a huge impact on people’s lives: from keeping in touch with friends and family to playing a key role in business development. It touches most of us daily and its influence shows no sign of slowing down.

According to We Are Social’s 2018 Global Digital report, social media users stood at 3.196 billion – up 13% year on year – while the number of mobile phone users rose 4% year on year to 5.135 billion. The number of internet users globally was more than four billion – with more than a quarter of a billion going online for the first time in 2017.

These numbers are only going one way, so it’s no surprise that businesses are clamouring to have an online presence, finding new and innovative ways to reach ever-increasing audiences across the world.

There is no doubt that investing in good social media is vital for the hospitality sector. Being able to communicate instantly with guests – and potential customers – via Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn is a powerful marketing tool. Especially for the millennial generation.

This is borne out by a survey carried out by furniture company Knightsbridge, which showed that 83% of millennials have booked a hotel because they have seen images from someone they follow on social media. Not only that – 73% admit they check out a hotel’s social media feed before booking and – just as importantly – a third is unlikely to follow through on a booking if the hotel has no social media presence.

Most of us in the hospitality sector would agree that word-of-mouth recommendations are a key driver for success and social media enhances this a thousand times – the Knightsbridge survey confirms why, with 76% of respondents in its survey saying they will share images of a hotel they are staying in with friends, family and followers.

Planning a social media strategy is crucial. It is important to agree consistent messaging and tone, to organise good quality images and innovative video that set you apart from your competitors.

It’s more than that, though; it’s about management reputation. While AI bots have their place online, consumers like the human touch – monitoring chats, entering into friendly discussions and managing any pinch points in a timely and professional way are all part of the customer experience.

Of course – all of this effort will be wasted if you don’t also take care of the basics. Posting fun social media posts and providing excellent WiFi so that your guests can upload stunning, Instagram photos of your interiors and dining options are all well and good – but the service you provide when your guests arrive at your hotel still has to be top notch. It gives them a reason to talk about you – and to keep coming back.

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The importance of good communication

In the words of Bananarama: “It ain’t what you say; it’s the way that you say it.” All right, so I’ve used a bit of artistic license with the lyrics, but the point I’m making is that it isn’t what you need to say, but how you say it that’s important.

Read the news on any given day and there’ll be at least one ‘crisis’ story where a business or individual is under fire and is defending their reputation, and in the following days or weeks, you’ll see some come up smelling of roses, while others emerge with their reputation in tatters. The difference; how the words were phrased and how the narrative was controlled.

This is the most extreme version of events, but the core advice can apply at all levels of hotel management. Most commonly, this advice is organically implemented at front of house customer service level; it’s also where hoteliers do it best too. As it is so obvious and visual, it is easy to train into staff and to monitor ongoing customer service. What’s more, it draws on the natural talents of your team, empathy with customers, building a rapport, and being able to see a customer’s reaction in real time. Naturally, people, and your training, will work to give the best possible answer, in the best possible way.

So, what I instead want to consider is what you and your property are saying beyond front of house; the bit where direct engagement isn’t happening and you can’t adjust your response by ‘reading’ your customer.

I’ve stayed in two places recently who work perfectly for a comparison. Both provided fluffy white bathrobes in their rooms, and both had clearly been suffering from guests ‘helping themselves’ and taking the robes home. The first had taken the direct approach, stitching a hotel label in like a school child’s name tag and putting up a sign that said: “Feel free to use these bathrobes while you are here, but leave them behind when you go. Missing robes will be charged to your card.”

Fair enough, a direct approach and there’s nothing particularly offensive about it, yet it somehow implies they expect me to steal – an affront to my character. Maybe I am being oversensitive, but the problem with written word is that it’s read in the tone in which your guest chooses to take it, so it’s best not to leave any room for interpretation. What’s more, the sign is only relevant to the guest who does take the robe, so it feels a bit rude to assume my guilt in advance; innocent until proven guilty and all that.

The second hotel took a similar approach, but their language was so much different and warmer and therefore my reaction was too. Their little card said “I’m snuggly and warm and here for your stay. If you find you love me so much that you can’t part with me, you can pop me in your suitcase for just £36.” The upshot is the same – take the robe, we’ll charge you for it – but one told me off while the other almost encouraged me to take it home. In fact, speaking to the owners of the latter hotel, they’d seen robes ‘disappearing’ more after they included the sign, but it had become an added-value for guests, made a small margin income for the hotel, and left both parties feeling positive. No one complained about being charged.

I appreciate the nuances are small, but we can probably all name at least one brand that leaves us with that welcome and valued feeling, with whom we want to build loyalty and rapport, and who we think just ‘get it right’. The problem is, these brands often have a big budget or team to spend time thinking these things through, and you don’t have the time or money, right? The answer is no. Not right. Actually, everyone has the time, but not everyone has the impetus.

Let’s start with a little exercise. Working with the condition “paid for WiFi”, try to find five different ways to let your customers know they need to pay to surf. Write them down, and make sure each one is different to the last. Done it? Now read them back to yourself and if you can, get someone else to read them too. I can guarantee at least one will have an ‘attitude’ attached to it – whether you intended it or not – and there’ll be a clear winner in the friendly stakes. It may not be perfect yet, but it’s a start and it’s from this clear leader that you need to build.

Practice makes perfect, so keep going until you think you’ve got a sentence which perfectly balances your guests and hotel style, but which has no room for attitude.Next, it’s time to go on a tour of your own hotel. Walk through the door and try to see it through the guests’ eyes. What signs are on the wall? What notices are on the reception desk?

What about their bedroom or the menus or the bar signs? What are those messages? Are they right? Are they literal or are they engaging? How can they be improved? The investment is worth it – it improves the overall culture or personality of your brand and property and it pays dividends in repeat custom too. What are you waiting for?

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How to be an insider

For those of us in business, the world may at first appear to divide into two groups: buyers and sellers. In some situations that’s exactly how it is, in a shop for instance or at a market. But a more sophisticated system is at work most of the time.

On two recent occasions I have attended conferences where the delegates were hoteliers and the exhibitors were tradespeople wishing to sell their goods and services to those hoteliers. Both groups had paid, either to attend or to exhibit, so were jointly supporting the organisations that staged the events.

Thanks to good planning in advance and good timekeeping on the day there were plenty of opportunities for the hoteliers and exhibitors to meet. It’s a system that can work very well indeed. What struck me, however, was a tendency on the part of sponsors to stay at their stands throughout the day, even when there were interesting sessions happening on the stage that absorbed the full attention of the delegates in between the breaks. Why didn’t they join them? Quite apart from learning something new, it would have given them extra chances to introduce themselves and perhaps to strike up new friendships with the very people they had paid to be exposed to.

The reason why I noticed this is thanks to the need for more frequent visits to the bathroom that beset us past a certain age. Hence slipping out of the conference to notice a wall of smart suited individuals staring into the middle distance, while their prey huddled together on the other side of the doors. It’s as if there was an invisible electric fence separating the hunter from the hunted.

I confess to having a foot in both camps, being responsible for a hotel consortium that charges hoteliers a fee for the services it provides while also being targeted by outside suppliers wishing to help us. In this role as in previous ones it has been my aim to become accepted as a member of the fraternity of owners and general managers so as not to be considered merely a seller of wares.

This has involved years of doing helpful things like hosting awards and chairing seminars, which I admit to enjoying very much, and getting to know lots of people beyond our own particular business circle. Little by little, hoteliers have started to accept me almost as one of their own kind, even though I have not managed an actual hotel in over 30 years.

The very best suppliers understand all this perfectly and have woven their way into the hearts of hoteliers through gaining reputations for honesty, efficiency and reliability. This applies especially where the hotel deals with a single person who they regard as the face of their company. I’ve witnessed examples from the wine trade, insurance, IT support and many other areas. But they’ve all had to find a way to make that first approach, which is why sponsorship is so important in opening doors.

There’s another reason why I believe exhibitors should always try to be more involved in the programme of events. It is a brilliant way to understand what their clients, the hoteliers, are up against. At the General Manager’s Conference, organised by the Master Innholders, for example, speakers addressed the challenges of employee engagement and of cyber-crime among many others. By taking part and sharing the educational experience with hoteliers, our suppliers can become even better equipped to provide the right solutions.

There’s much to be said for belonging to a community of like-minded business people, whatever it takes to get there. And if you’ll pardon a slight miss-quotation of J Edgar Hoover “it is always better to be inside the tent spitting out, than outside spitting in”.

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Hotel Concept of the Month: PentaPlayerPad

Boutique lifestyle hotel brand Pentahotels is known for its unique interior designs and neighbourhood feel, but the four-star brand is hoping to up the ante with its new bedroom concept aimed at the gaming community.

PentaPlayerPad, which according to the company has been designed to feel like the “chill out area of a cool club”, features Sony Playstation 4, pinball machines, table football and free wi-fi. Guests looking to undertake an all-night gaming session will even be able to order pizzas, burgers and club sandwiches to their rooms 24/7.

PentaPlayerPad features:

  • Table football
  • Sony Playstation 4
  • Pinball machine
  • 24/7 room service
  • Free wi-fi

Keys to the room will be handed out in a design-led bar, which will also be aimed towards the gaming community. The lounge has been designed to feel different to a conventional hotel reception with features such as design furniture, billiard table, pinball machine, Playstation 4.

With a relaxed atmosphere and various gaming machines, the Pentalounge is the hallmark of the hotel chain and has been designed to become a “hotspot” for gamers both during the day and at night.

Pentalounge features:

  • Design furniture
  • Bar
  • Billiard table
  • Pinball machine
  • Sony Playstation 4
  • Free Wi-Fi
  • Cafe
  • Reception

Alastair Thomann, managing director of Pentahotels, said: “With the PentaPlayerPad we are looking to further expand our position as a key trendsetter in the innovative hotel segment and to strengthen our brand positioning.

“The feedback from our customers has been extremely positive and thus, we are working on equipping more of our 5,086 rooms worldwide with gamer consoles and similar gadgets. The goal is to have all Pentahotels equipped with the new pads by 2017.”

The concept has so far been launched in the company’s Brussels, Liège and Paris properties, but will be rolled out to hotels worldwide by 2017. It is expected that this will also include the company’s six UK properties in Birmingham, Derby, Inverness, Ipswich, Reading and Warrington.  

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A recent survey from hotel solutions provider HRS has found that the demand for innovative technology in hotels is on the rise


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