Messaging is exploding as an engagement channel at hotels. Within the past year, hotel brands and technology suppliers big and small have made headlines for their experiments with various messaging channels, as well as for the development of their own messaging apps.
NB: This is a guest viewpoint from Alexander Shashou, founder and president of ALICE.
Despite of, or perhaps because of this growth in messaging, several crossroads have emerged in its adoption. There's still confusion on how brands are using it and why they’ve taken to it with such verve. Here's an overview of the trends.
A sonic boom throughout the hotel industry
“Messaging apps usage is creating a sonic boom throughout the hotel industry,” wrote Lodging Interactive’s DJ Vallauri last month. Indeed, within the past year, hotel brands big and small have made headlines for their adoption of various messaging channels, as well as for the development of their own messaging systems within existing apps or apps for the purpose of messaging.
Consumers have taken quickly to messaging platforms like Facebook Messenger, WeChat, Snapchat, WhatsApp, Viber and others, on top of their existing SMS abilities. Hotels are realizing a great opportunity to engage and provide service to their guests by following suit.
Both Hyatt and InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) use Facebook Messenger as part of their messaging strategies. Starwood EAME plans to add it as well.
Hyatt was also the first hotel chain to announce at the end of 2015 they are testing Facebook’s new “Businesses on Messenger” tool for guest service.
Hyatt has also been using Asian messaging app WeChat to connect with the Chinese market. Shangri-La uses WeChat for content marketing campaigns.
Starwood has experimented with WhatsApp, as well as with Blackberry Messenger.
Other brands have added messaging functionality to their existing apps. Marriott International is testing this out, and it’s something Hilton plans to add to its app next year.
With their Lucy app, Virgin hotels lets guests not only message hotel staff, but also communicate with other guests, too.
Even the online travel agencies have gotten into the messaging game, with Priceline launching Pulse and Expedia debuting Conversations, both messaging tools that let hotels talk with guests who have booked through these online agencies, via their partner backend.
Meanwhile Kayak has taken the approach of launching a chatbot on the Facebook Messenger Platform.
Why the sonic boom?
Research shows social messaging is the fastest-growing online behaviour within social media during the past five years. WhatsApp, WeChat and Facebook Messenger all individually have more monthly active users globally than Instagram, Snapchat and Pinterest combined.
Social messaging will account for 2.5 billion global users by 2018, versus a projected 2 billion general social media users.
WhatsApp leads the pack, when it comes to the popularity of individual channels. The platform hit the 1 billion users mark in January 2016. In April of this year, Facebook announced second place Messenger had grown to 900 million users, up from 700 million April the previous year.
WhatsApp and Messenger combined now see 3 times more daily messages than traditional SMS. The former see a combined 60 billion messages sent daily, versus 20 billion for SMS.
Hotels are starting to embrace these trends, realizing that messaging is increasingly how people prefer to communicate. And hotels are also capitalizing on our growing inclination to use messaging not just socially, but with businesses as well.
As venture capitalist and tech industry prognosticator Mary Meeker observes in her 2016 Internet Trends report, the medium is rapidly evolving from facilitating only social conversations to now also facilitating business to consumer conversations.
And messaging has clear advantages for hotels looking to engage with their guests.
Messaging is a particularly sticky engagement channel. About 90% of all text messages are read within 3 minutes of their delivery - and over 99% of all text messages are read by the recipient, according to data from MobileSquared.
The real-time, immediate and personal nature of messaging is part of what makes it such a compelling engagement channel for hotels. But messaging as a medium also has other characteristics that make it well suited to guest engagement. It’s conversational, much like traditional interaction between guests and staff.
It’s also threaded and tied to an identity, which means context is retained. Staff can scroll through previous exchanges with a guest to recall preferences and previous requests. And, unlike phone calls and in-person communication, conversations in the form of messages between the guest and a hotel represent data that can, for the first time, be analyzed individually and in aggregate.
Messaging can help hotels improve guest satisfaction, by giving hotel the opportunity to take advantage of every request, suggestion, concern or compliment from guests. Since implementing messaging, Hyatt has enjoyed improved customer service ratings and higher net promoter scores. It can also - for the time being - still serve as a valuable differentiator between hotels and their competitors.
Instead of having to make calls to the front desk, hotels can use messaging as a means to proactively communicate with their guests, instead of simply reacting. Messaging, says JD Power’s Rick Garlick, is like “having a personal concierge at your fingertips at all times. The new generation of guests is more comfortable with texting vs. calling. The mobile device represents convenience and a sense of connectedness to the hotel at all times, even before arrival.”
Messaging can help hotels with guest recovery, by reducing comps and improving loyalty through engaging guests and resolving their concerns during their stay.
Messaging can help hotels improve revenue by actively engaging more guests throughout their journey and by driving more revenue through mobile marketing, loyalty programs and up-sell and cross-sell opportunities. Starwood, for example, has seen clear ROI from its messaging service. Since launch, revenue is up thanks partly to a rise in spend at on-property services, the company says.
Messaging can improve staff efficiency and reduce wasted spend. Commune Hotels & Resorts (now Two Roads Hospitality, having merged with Destination Hotels & Resorts earlier this year) rolled out text messaging for guests in 2015.
Niki Leondakis, now Two Roads’ CEO, told the audience at the International Society of Hospitality Consultants annual conference that the service paid instant dividends. She added:
“The employees now were using a tool that they’re familiar with and that they like to use. We found that the opt-in rate from the customer was over 90%. The customers are choosing to text back, so now we’re finding out things that really we’ve never known. They’ll tell us that there’s a burned-out light bulb in the bathroom. … They will tell us their TV remote is slow to respond. They’ll tell us things that normally they would check out and never even say, so service recovery is now increased.”
One of the biggest benefits hotels have seen from adopting messaging is an improvement in their TripAdvisor reviews. By letting hotels privately resolve issues before they reach social media or review sites and by digitally prompting guests to leave positive reviews, hotels have seen immediate improvements in their online scores.
This is because many guests feel more comfortable complaining on the phone or messaging staff about issues instead of (awkwardly) addressing them in person.
Hotels that have adopted messaging have found guests are increasingly willing to complain to the hotel directly, instead of airing their grievances on TripAdvisor after the trip. Having messaging gives hotels the opportunity to respond to complaints that would otherwise have gone unnoticed.
JD Power data shows responding to social feedback with a problem resolution doubles the percentage of people who will recommend the hotel to others.
Loyalty is actually enhanced when messaging is used as a communication tool to solve a guest problem or issue, says Garlick. “Mobile messaging creates the impression the hotel is available and ready to respond at all times.”
The explosion in messaging has resulted in uneven adoption of platforms and processes across the industry.
As described above, channel adoption differs by brand, as do the ways in which staff monitor these channels and integrate messaging within their workflows and operations. SOPs, such as the Forbes Service Standards, while well defined in the analog or offline arenas of hospitality, are less well defined or missing entirely when it comes to staff behavior and expectations around messaging..
How should we message our guests? When should we message our guests? How long will a guest afford us in waiting for a response? How can we message guests from Booking.com as well as from our direct booking channels? How can we send these messages to the correct staff department? Can we automate some of the responses? Can we monetize these conversations?
These questions and conflicts challenge service delivery in the digital age, and present operations teams with new obstacles. The result is often an unpredictable experience for the guest and a compromised delivery of genuine hospitality. The industry is in for a wild ride.
NB: This is a guest viewpoint from Alexander Shashou, founder and president of ALICE, an operations platform that unites back of house service optimization with front of house guest messaging and mobile service delivery.
NB2: Image by Nito/BigStock