Most of us are fluent in body language, but the pandemic has made us rusty. We now have to read the front of people’s heads, often on a small delay. A study undertaken by Harvard during the early lockdowns reported that the constant stare of Zoom was more stressful without the chance to gaze out of the window and having people’s faces so close made us fearful. You’re never usually that close to another unless you’re going to kiss them or punch them and neither of those are appropriate in a work context.
Our bodies are intrinsic to our identity and analysis of our relationship to them is the stuff of whole floors of bookshops. The hotel sector has been trying to work out its own relationship, forced into focus by the pandemic.
The question perplexing us in hotelland this week was the deployment of people against the deployment of technology, what it meant for our humanity and our hospitality. Weighty stuff, but then it’s dark and cold out, time to pull up a chair and chin stroke by the fire.
Accor is all about education, with Carla Milavanov, SVP global technology & customer services, Accor, telling the Unfold 2021 event, hosted by Mews: “We train people how to read body language, how to tell if someone wants to race through to their room or someone wants to stop and talk. We deploy technology to enable things, not to change things. That is never going to work.”
This enabling, Milavanov said, led to better stays. “It’s going beyond the room, we are focused on public space and experience”. She warned that hotels as a piece of real estate were a static product – “hospitality is super square, super traditional, super basic” – so, really, whatever improved that needed to be scooped up.
For Richard Valtr, Mews founder, ditching a front desk “removes anything for your employees to hide behind. It’s the first way to become warm in hospitality”. Hugging could follow. WHO rules allowing.
Over at Inspire 2021, the International Luxury Hotel Association’s event, the panel on digital deviance was considering much the same and the word that came up repeatedly was ‘empower’. Like so many Spice Girls.
Technology was there to give guests choice. To do what they want rather than, as Valtr noted at Unfold, “dictating what they should have”.
Kevin Edwards, business development director, Alliants, said: “Guests were growing more tech savvy before the pandemic and they want to be able to use technology at different points of the journey. Where we seem to have fallen behind from the hotel’s point of view is, actually are we enabling choice? What you find is that guests vote with their feet and decide to do what they want with somebody else. We saw it with the OTAs and we are seeing it again.”
Michael Mrini, director of information technology, Edwardian Hotels, commented: “In 2015, when we launched our online check in, we wanted to provide that choice. And we had about 10% take up. Prior to Covid. It was about 33%. During Covid, as you can imagine, that was about 97%.
“And now people will start seeking the ability to do everything on their mobile devices. Guests are evolving just like the rest of the population. However, in hospitality, people still want the human touch thing, they want employees at the hotel to be good hosts. So the approach we took is that the technology is there for both the guests to empower them and give them the choice and to assist our employees and free them up so that they spend more time with those guests who wants the human touch.”
David Orr, CEO, Resident Hotels, said: “I have personally always believed in making sure there are people in and around the very first moment of crossing the threshold in the hotels, I think it would really take away from the experience if you were reducing that human interaction right at the outset. And of course, right at the point of departure. We have used technology to inform the team to provide a more personal service, which creates a better connection.
“As we reopened, the feedback was very much about the human interaction. We are also seeing good responses to our new TV system, which for example, puts the TV controller into the hands of the guest, in their mobile device. It’s closer to what they have at home and it all goes to improve the experience.”
The temptation in these panels is to assume that everyone is reaching into their back pocket, about to invest and we’re all heading off into the digital sunset, to be greeted by happy huggers who already know our favourite cocktail and inside leg measurement. But is everybody ready?
Edwards said: “It’s quite interesting when you ask clients to show you their guest journey, and no-one has that documented. Nobody says: ‘Well, this is what they’re going to do going from one stage to the next. So my question is: ‘how well do you understand what your own guest’s journey is that you’re trying to deliver? Before you can consider the technology around it, it’s understanding how well you understand your business process. Right?”
Mark Forrester, chairman, 80 Days, had further warnings, in the form of everyone being different. Which is the last thing hotels want to hear. He said: “There’s a danger of one size fits all. It’s very important for hotels to look at the interaction of technology with their brand cornerstones. Don’t just jump into tech because everyone’s doing it. You need to understand your lifecycle and understand your audience.”
With understanding, after all, comes great knowledge.
And what next, after you’ve worked out what the customer’s up to and who they are? Steve Haag, managing director, Saco – Edyn, told the attendant at Unfold: “The next revolution in grabbing customers is the metaverse”. And if anyone wants to get stuck into that debate, we recommend Valtr’s LinkedIn page and plenty of snacks.