Expedia has been doing roadshows at industry events for marketing and sales hotel professionals to introduce its tool for direct communication between guests (who book through the online travel company's many brands) and staff at hotels.
As of this week, the Conversations tool is now live with a majority of hotels in the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand. By the end of March, it will roll out to Latin America and Continental Europe, and by the end of April will reach most of Asia-Pacific.
The Conversations tool lets hotel staff email with guests, pro-actively or reactively -- before, during, or even after a stay. Topics can include welcome messages, check-in arrangements, or details about a hotel's amenities.
The tool provides something hoteliers didn't have before -- a way to talk with guests who book through Expedia's array of brands: Expedia, Hotels.com, Travelocity, and Wotif -- with Orbitz next on the list.
So far, use of the tool by hoteliers and guests has exceeded the company's own goals, a spokesperson said, while declining to reveal specifics.
Expedia's tool is not an industry-first. Last summer, Booking.com launched the Pulse for Accommodation Owners communication tool as a downloadable app, with a similar purpose for hoteliers to interact with guests.
Expedia's Conversations tool is nested in its extranet, Expedia PartnerCentral (EPC). The extranet is mobile-responsive as a browser-based site, so you can conduct conversations on the go. Benoit Jolin, VP global product, told us:
"We’re also investing in development work to provide native app format experiences for dedicated aspects of EPC products."
In this first version of the tool, email is the communication method that underlies the conversation. But Jolin said it's looking at other possible delivery methods, such as SMS-style texting, for future editions.
So far, the most common way conversations have gotten started are when a guest clicks a link included in a confirmation email for a booking. (The link invites a guest to communicate with the hotel.)
For their part, hotels have been using the tool to initiate conversations by sending welcome messages, such as basic HTML snippets like an illustration of the upcoming weather forecast.
Hotels can say what they want, but there are limits to the flexibility of the tool. For instance, hotels can't send attachments the size of documents, such as for expense reports.
Staff can see a history of communications around the particular booking. But it's a per-booking system. If the same traveler books a follow-up trip to the same hotel via Expedia, the conversation starts afresh, even if Expedia has loyalty profile information on the customer elsewhere in its databases. Group messages for group bookings aren't supported yet either.
Expedia and Booking.com have now each added another communication channel for hotel front desks to use.
But hotels already have plenty of other ways of communicating with guests including, depending on the property, a hotel's own native apps, SMS, and so forth ... not to forget messages via a hotel's direct website, email, phone, Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger, travel agents, ... plus, third-party service providers like Alice, Checkmate, GuestDriven, Zingle, and Revinate.
In other words, everyone want to say "Hello." But fragmentation among channels risks overwhelming hotel front desks.
In light of vendor fatigue, Expedia's first version of its Communications tool may be a temporary halfway measure.
Perhaps Expedia is working on a single dashboard -- a kind of Mission Control -- to centralize all of this hotel/guest communication.
It could, at least in theory, build a central system that a hotel could use to assign and dispatch responses to every staff member.
Jolin acknowledged the broader challenge facing the industry. He said:
"We are exploring how we could leverage existing messaging platforms to power our communications product in a way that expands or augments the options down the line....
There are many platforms we could explore -- Facebook Messenger may be one of the biggest -- to let a hotelier snap among the various tools guests already use to communicate on a daily basis."
Of possible related interest, Expedia Inc has invested in Alice, a startup that has created an early version of a "mission control" communications for hoteliers. It has also invested in Checkmate, a startup that has built an early communications dashboard for hoteliers that is also platform agnostic.
That said, the EPC Conversations tool was built entirely in-house.
Looking ahead, tools like EPC Conversations many prove popular with hotels that have a philosophy that increasing engagement with guests will spike the hotel's perceived value of service in the mind of the guest. Conversations could help boost the chance of converting guests to booking direct with the property next time around.
One more reason to title the next book about this industry as "Frenemies: A Love Story."
NB: Images courtesy Expedia and Lionel Richie's and Adele's videos.