The Great Tech Sweepstake Reviewed by Momizat on . Leading IT veterans share their insights about technologies that are likely to shape the hospitality industry’s future By Vinita Bhatia At a time when the hospi Leading IT veterans share their insights about technologies that are likely to shape the hospitality industry’s future By Vinita Bhatia At a time when the hospi Rating: 0
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The Great Tech Sweepstake

Leading IT veterans share their insights about technologies that are likely to shape the hospitality industry’s future

By Vinita Bhatia

At a time when the hospitality industry is in the midst of a digital transformation, they are the people tasked with ring-fencing their company’s IT network to secure it from external and internal threats. They are also responsible for helping brands better understand customer behaviour so that they can further improve the guest experience.
Meet the new-age technocrats. You can call them chief technology officers or chief information managers; these titles have ceased to matter. What matters is that they are no longer just in charge of the IT framework, but instead don the hat of business managers; often interacting with guests to understand their requirements, so that they can create proactive technology solutions. As innovation officers for their brands, they also work closely with all departments to offer competitive digital offerings for their respective hotels.
We speak to four tech veterans in the industry – Nilesh Patel, director of IT at Accor Hotels India and South Asia, Harish Chandra, director, IT at Sarovar Hotels and Resorts, Dr Vijay Choudhary, CTO of HRH Hotel Group and Shree Bhandari, CTO of Panchshil Realty – to understand about the silos that still exist in the digital framework, limiting the adoption of the latest technological processes and how they are working on overcoming it.

What are the top strategic tech goals for hospitality companies?
Nilesh Patel: Improving and exploring the digital customer engagement and loyalty is the key strategic goal for many hospitality operators currently. ImpAct is the global transformation strategy for AccorHotels. It is technological and cultural, as it aims to create more value for our hotels and our guests, so that they choose us for the long term.
Shree Bhandari: Enabling and improving digital customer engagement, driving more direct reservations, improving guest analytics and continual focus on payment and data security are few important tech strategies for hotel operators. Cloud is computing and computing is cloud, therefore, moving to cloud will be critical for every operator. Centralised IT infrastructure means better manageability, improved energy/man power/cost savings, operational synergies and centralised policy enforcement as well as easy growth by enabling systems to be agile.
Harish Chandra: Data is everywhere but making use of data will define the winners for tomorrow. Also loyalty comes from giving the customer what they need. For example, we recently revamped our website with Simplotel and they have been funnelling us with reports of what customers are looking for on the website. We have used the data to open up higher occupancy rates on several hotels where we could to meet the customer’s needs.
Dr Vijay Choudhary: Some of the important technology strategies for hotel operators will include adopting agile platforms like cloud, utilising data analytics tools and leveraging social media to strengthen and align with their traditional marketing strategies.

As guests demand more customised experiences, how are hotels evolving their digital strategy to provide seamless and consistent experiences?
Harish Chandra: It starts with understanding the customer. As a business hotel chain, we have understood four promises that mean a lot to our customers – a) great breakfast, which is available to-go even if they are checking out early, b) awesome WiFi, c) early check-in, which is important for business customers and d) breakfast my way. We offer these customisations and they are a key part of our digital marketing and operational strategies.
Dr Vijay Choudhary: We have integrated processes for all guest services on a common platform. We are also creating more awareness about various digital platforms among the entire operation team and keep a watch for updates on these social media networks to respond to it quicker.
Shree Bhandari: To create a seamless omni-channel experience means that irrespective if a guest is online or offline, they see the same branding, structure, values, and tone. Hence, it is important to adopt some strategy pointers. The customer comes first; they become your sales force, touting the benefits of your company to individuals they come in contact with. So, deliver right and every time.
It is important to understand your target customer and buyer journey (Discovery) – the why, what and how? Next, comes analysing the trend of buying online and offline – when and where it is happening? This is where CRM become the main source of data collection.
Nilesh Patel: Our guests expect a smoother and simpler experience at every stage, whatever the booking channel — website, mobile app, or call center. We are, therefore, going to focus on improving every dimension of the user experience, starting with the online experience. Notably, we have an initiative called ‘Reborn’ that is already being rolled out and aims to make our booking experiences simpler and more appealing. We will also focus on personalising the in-hotel experience, which is key to creating knowledge, acknowledgement and attachment.
The worldwide deployment of Accor Customer Digital Card (ACDC), a database that allows us to share our guests’ preferences with our hotels, will be one of the key advances of 2018. This qualitative leap will boost employee satisfaction, since our employees will be pleased to share data that allows them to offer a better service thanks to the digital technology. With the same objective in mind, we will reorganise our Le Club AccorHotels loyalty program benefits with an ImpAct initiative called ‘Revamp Loyalty’.

What are some best practices for hotels to use business intelligence (BI) to better understand their guests that will ultimately engender loyalty?
Dr Vijay Choudhary: BI should become part of the entire operations team’s daily check as a collaborative tool as it brings critical insights for taking quick decisions as far as the guest expectation is concerned. It can be used effectively to deliver values and bridge this gap for continuous improvements. Analytical tools can help in extracting meaningful information from a guest loyalty’s depositories.
Nilesh Patel: We are focusing on capturing customer preferences through our platform which would feed information to our chatbot (named Phil), who in the future would recommend hotels, services like restaurant, spa and many other travel related features to our customers based on what they like or prefer. This AI-based platform will help redefine personalisation and drive loyalty to another level, which is getting richer every day from the thousands of preferences captured as shared by our guests during their stay.

How can hotels leverage predictive analytics and big data to incentivise regular guests with promotions and other offers?
Nilesh Patel: AccorHotels recently revamped its entire pricing architecture based on historical trends on booking lead time, average length of stay and price elasticity combined with predictive analysis to offer the exact product offerings and price attractiveness that our guests and members seek while booking online. A guest booking on now will be able to easily view his exact requirements whether he is booking for business or any packages/offers for leisure. He is even rewarded more if he books earlier and longer. It reduces the journey from ‘look to book’ while reducing dropouts.
Harish Chandra: We look at data very closely from every aspect. It gives us information on which cities and locations are becoming popular and what are guests looking for. We use this data to customise offers and packages for our customers.

What are some new technologies driving customer engagement online and directly?
Shree Bhandari: The digital space is getting increasingly crowded with new competitors and disruptive technologies driving customer engagement online and offline. Therefore, it is easy to get lost and confused on what is right and wrong for customers. Operators need to make sure they do not overdo, and at the same time do not miss on the right engagement tools. The first thing to do is understand the potential of smart devices. Smartphone penetration means that a service interaction will be transacted on smart devices, so it’s essential that service providers ensure their customer journeys feature clear links to live service via an effective contact centre interface.
It is important to harness social media networks, which have their own messaging platforms open to commercial brands who recognise the potential and seek to leverage its power. Additionally, embed service within web browsers. Increasingly, customers go online before engaging with a contact centre, so it makes sense to embed friendly and intuitive service options within web pages.
Leverage AI and Virtual Assistants like Alexa, Siri and Google assistant. Rather than typing, clicking, and scrolling, customers will increasingly have conversations with the hotel’s website to get what they want. At the same time, merging digital islands to reduce the gap between digital and contact centre strategies.
Harish Chandra: We believe in mobile first. We also believe that the answer to mobile may not necessarily lie in apps. Apps are like desktop clients that we used to have about a decade ago. Today on the desktop we hardly download any software; it is all on the browser. We believe that mobile browsers are now just as good to deliver an app like experience to our customers. Therefore, we have implemented a solution from Simplotel to create an app like experience for our customers on the mobile phone without requiring an app download. We also are looking out for the voice channel. With the popularity of Amazon Echo and Google Home, we are constantly evaluating what these mean for our customers.

What are some of the biggest barriers to success in delivering best-in-class mobile experiences?
Harish Chandra: It is understanding the customers. The way people use mobile is and the capabilities of a mobile phone are fundamentally different than a desktop. To give an example, while it makes sense to show the location of a property on the desktop on Google Maps, on mobile you are better off integrating with Google Maps App so that guests can get directions to the hotel directly. This is what we have implemented on our mobile site. We are similarly evaluating servicing our customer using Whats App. Once we are clear about what the customer wants, implementation is usually simple.
Dr Vijay Choudhary: The biggest hurdle is lack of robust infrastructure and its continuity.
Shree Bhandari: Government regulations on identifying, authenticating and maintain user records, for e.g. In India a guest can checking online through a mobile app but once he reaches the hotel he still has to go to front desk and give his ID and physical credit card to get his key. This is because there is no digital system for ID authentication and also offline payment on credit card is not allowed. In this case it is a half done solution and does not delivery a complete mobile experience.
Additionally, the other barriers include ROI, which is a never-ending debate between cost of upgradation and the resultant returns. Also, most customers who are not digital native feels that they will get better service in person or on call. Hence, a well-defined digital strategy is needed to reach out to customer.
Nilesh Patel: Some barriers include bad user design of mobile apps where there is always a gap in terms of what a guest would like to see on the app and the services that are finally delivered. Moreover, lack of proper communication channels like Wi-Fi/Service provider signals or speed of internet and security issues – the fear about personal information or payment transactions or data leaks.

Will integration of CRM and mobile apps help IT heads to better personalise and customised guest experiences?
Dr Vijay Choudhary: Yes, it will help as they will be able to get a common, single view of all the guest data on one screen.
Shree Bhandari: Actually this is the need of the hour. The only thing that can connect guest with the business 24×7 is a mobile phone and if we provide CRM on their mobile it will encourage them to use it and also ease the communication. By providing CRM on the mobile, a guest is connected to us all the time.
Nilesh Patel: Certainly, we aim to extend an extremely personalised experience while giving only relevant information to our guests throughout the engagement journey. Our guests today, can experience multiple services through our mobile app, thereby, saving valuable time and effort while booking our hotels.
Harish Chandra: Even before we think of mobile apps and CRM, there is a ton of data that can be used even with current technology that we have. For example, at Sarovar, we remember a repeat guest on the website; we remember his preferences and greet him back. This is not through a CRM or mobile app, but through a simpler technology that Simplotel helped us build. This way, we can personalise the experience for each guest on the website and it is showing great results in terms of bookings and room nights. We will continue to invest in the customer experience, including CRM.

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