The emergence of tech-forward guest apps
This is an idea whose time has come. Modern-day apps go beyond basic check-ins to help hotels understand their guest's preferences, needs and desires
Apps. And more apps. Your attitude to them may well depend on the generation you belong to. For hotels, however, the choice may not quite exist. Their dependence on apps to attract future guests has increased over the years. Modern wisdom suggests hotels with apps that go beyond bookings and look at the guest experience holistically, are leading the pack in the hospitality industry. Data to this effect is being gathered as you read this. Anecdotal evidence is still divided on the human-behind-the-counter versus no human interaction. Given that the young prefer the latter, apps will be an integral part of the hospitality business in the future.
“Having a versatile application is the need of the hour,” says Arif Patel, Regional Vice President – Sales & Marketing, Hyatt India. “Strong features in the application can create a wholesome guest experience, and help bridge any gap between the user and the hotel. Apps with such features build customer loyalty, which leads to increased referrals and improved reviews on the portal — which ultimately positively impacts growth.”
“Mobile apps help provide relevant information to customers, saving them the hassle of calling or visiting different hotels to inquire about preferred room availability, products and services,” says Simran Dhaliwal, Director - Digital Marketing, Accor India and South Asia. “Guests can simply input or search their requirements such as the date, location, price, amenities and services into the app, and select from the list of hotels that best suit their needs. The experience of booking a hotel room or availing its services has never been easier.” According to Travelport Digital, 53 per cent of the millennial in 2018 said they use mobile applications to search for accommodation.
Why hotels need apps
Mobile apps can facilitate a self-service model for guests who prefer a non-dependent type of interaction, adds Vinod Kumar, Director of Rooms, Bengaluru Marriott Hotel Whitefield. “At Bengaluru Marriott Whitefield, like other Marriott hotels, we do have an exclusive mobile application specially designed for our guests who can chat directly with a hotel’s representative to accommodate their requests. The GXP app gives guests the option to self-check-in and checkout, request for a room upgrade, order in-room dining, make reservations for dinner, make spa appointments or avail special services such as laundry, dry cleaning or valets.”
Sumit Kumar, General Manager, Hyatt Pune Kalyani Nagar, contends, “On one hand there are apps connecting guests with various aspects of hotel services. On the other, apps are supporting the hotel management to run their business more efficiently. In both instances, the apps help enhance the guest experience and improve customer service.” If executed well, an app can track the in-house behaviour of guests and their booking habits. Have they booked a spa appointment, for instance, or made a dining reservation or even ordered any room service? Rajesh Radhakrishnan, Director of F&B, Radisson Blu Goa, stresses, “This way, you can anticipate the needs of the guests for their future stay and make it more memorable.”
Mobile check-in and check-out, mobile key and online chat facility enable prompt service and interaction. Roopa Singh, Director of Rooms, JW Marriott Mussoorie Walnut Grove Resort & Spa, claims, “It establishes communication on a personal level with privacy being the utmost concern. The apps help in tracking the preferences and interests of travellers, allowing the hotel to provide them with personalized services.”
With the world transforming into a global village, India is adapting to the international standards at a prompt speed. This change is opening new doors to the country for every sector. Brijesh Joshi, Front Office Manager, Sheraton Grand Chennai Resort & Spa, says, “It has become easier to reach to the keyboard jockeys and disseminate information on a larger scale. The app helps to communicate easier and faster. We try to be as active as possible through our app to understand customer queries and help them as fast as possible.”
Is the desk still needed?
This is where hoteliers seem most divided in their opinion. Many are convinced about the app managing the entire check-in process. “There isn’t any real data that can determine this shift, but the apps provide an alternative guest experience, which is both easy and convenient, and many opt for them,” points out Hyatt Pune’s Kumar. Vikas Mittal, Director of Sales, Courtyard by Marriott Pune, Chakan contends that while guests still prefer the human touch, many are opting for convenience. “Like in many airports, it’s no longer necessary to stand in a queue to check-in and people expect the same kind of easy, technology-driven check-ins at hotels.”
At Bengaluru Marriott Hotel Whitefield, around 50 per cent of the guests are Indians and “they value time the most and are drifting towards a self-service model that saves their precious time”, says Kumar. Not all hoteliers are convinced, though. Some are midway there. “It is our experience that guests prefer using both the facilities — an app that offers them efficient and quick responses on basic information and someone at the hotel who can help them with more specific requests,” points out Sharad Datta, General Manager, The
Westin Mumbai Garden City.
“Guest apps are highly resourceful and encourage one-on-one communication between the guest and hotel, which makes guest service more personal. Feedback and requests equip the hotel to offer a more personalised experience that is customised according to each guest’s needs and likes.”
Statistics reveal that around 60 per cent guests prefers speaking to the person at the desk rather than using the app features, believes Sagar Gaonkar, Director of Rooms, DoubleTree by Hilton Pune Chinchwad. “Also, as per the law, it is mandatory to produce the government-approved identification at the time of arrival.
This law requires guests to stop by at the desk, which, in turn, dilutes the concept of express check-in through an app.” Devidyuti Ghosh, Director of Rooms at JW Marriott Kolkata, adds, “Technology, though convenient, cannot replace the kind of personalisation that human interaction or a guest relations expert can provide. Also, the loss of opportunity of human interaction may impact a guest experience adversely, especially within luxury hotels.”
Also, many guests may not yet be as comfortable with technology. As Singh says, “Mobile apps are mostly used by millennials while others prefer calling the desk with requests and queries. While making a hotel booking, the preferences of the visitors vary; some choose to call the hotel or a third-party agent for the reservation process instead of a mobile app.” Joshi says Indians still prefer speaking to someone at the desk out of sheer force of habit. “Although the millennials entering the workforce in the current economy has increased, the use of apps and the tech-savvy travellers have made communication easier with the new tools.”
“Over 80 per cent of hotels offer mobile reservations, but the majority are underperforming. A far lower percentage of hotels are offering the mobile advance features that guests expect, like digital check-in/check-out, room selection options and the keyless check-in option,” points out Gaonkar. Business travellers prefer using the app and are found to be placing requests on them. “It is picking up pace; we still have a huge amount of human interaction for most transactions,” adds Ghosh.
The rate of adaptation to mobile apps in India is increasing and they are now vital to hotel operations.” Says Datta, “Travellers are increasingly opting to stay at hotels that facilitate guest apps as their prestay experience which allow easy access to all services. Hotels are slowly, but increasingly, introducing the guest apps to enhance their guest experiences.”
Internet penetration and speeds will, of course, be crucial to further adaptation and use of the apps. India has made significant progress in enabling internet access for its population; we represent the second-highest active internet users globally (390 million) and have seen the highest velocity of user addition (average 40 million added per year). About one in five people in the country currently own a smartphone. This number
has doubled since 2014 and is projected to cross 400 million (nearly 30 per cent of the population) over the next three to four years. Hilton Honors apps are by far the best and one of the most downloaded compared to those from any other brand, says Gaonkar. “They offer multiple options for the Hilton Honors guests via which they can choose the room, share the specific preferences if any, and opt for a keyless check-in. They even access their Hilton Honors statement and stay updated with the latest Hilton Honors promotions.”
The Hyatt app includes a chat box feature that can connect a guest to the experiences the group's hotels offer across the world, points out Patel. “Guests can search, select and book the different brand hotels of Hyatt as per their convenience and preference. Our regular guests can access their World of Hyatt loyalty program account to review member benefits, discover discount rates, and receive complimentary nights as bonus offers. Guests can also manage their stay through the app by using it to check-in or check out without visiting the front desk. Instead of waiting to view the bill while checking out, guests can keep track of room charges
through the app.”
Accor has launched ACDC, Accor customer Digital Card — a platform which has a globally shared database that helps us recognise guests, points out Dhaliwal. “The platform gives us access to our customer's information. In other words, once you stay with us, we get to know you better.” Datta summarises it succinctly, “Guest apps are an effortless option to check all details regarding a hotel stay with amenities and services at one’s fingertips.”
Launched in January 2018, Shangri-La’s intuitive mobile app allows guests to book rooms quickly and easily, access mobile check-in and check-out services, manage loyalty points and redeem rewards, says John Northern, Executive Vice President, Middle East, India and the Indian Ocean, Shangri-La Group. “Last year we also joined forces with Klook — a world-leading travel activities and services booking platform that provides our customers with direct access to engaging and memorable experiences around the world. We have also witnessed a sizable growth in bookings made by Indian travellers through our app in the past year.”
THE CONVERGENCE OF TECHNOLOGY AND WELLNESS
One of the first hotel groups to have experimented with a guest app is Niraamaya Retreats. In keeping with the times, they launched AyuRhythm, an app that tracks an individual’s health indicators and seeks underlying causes of a disease or an ailment. Niraamaya Retreats’ mobile-based app intricately blends technology and Ayurveda — an ancient healing and wellness system — to suggest solutions for the underlying causes of ailments and stress-related issues, and helps reduce chances of disease flare-ups in the future.
It is rather simple to use: Ten days before a guest checks into one of the Niraamaya Retreats' property, they can download the app on their mobile phone. AyuRhythm works on both the Android and iOS systems. Over the next 10 days, a few times a day, the guest will be requested to put their index finger on the mobile camera to capture the impression. The captured fingerprint will be analysed by the app on several health parameters. These results will be displayed on the dashboard of the app homepage.
Before the guest checks into the retreat, expert Ayurveda doctors receive the results and identify patterns that affect their mental and physical health and wellness. Health indicators can vary slightly on a day-to-day basis depending on the physical, emotional and geographical stimuli. Recording the parameters over a couple of days offers a far better insight into a guest’s physical and emotional state, leading to a more accurate diagnosis.
Based on the results shared by the AyuRhythm app, the doctors at the Niraamaya Spas across the properties are able to analyse the current constitution. Using the algorithm, they are able to gauge the extent of the imbalance and recommend ways to restore the balance and correct course.
The future of guest apps
If a hotelier wants to boost their sales they must start embracing guest apps on the mobile phone, says Rajesh Radhakrishnan, Director of F&B, Radisson Blu Goa. “However, the question most hotels get caught up on is whether a custom mobile app is necessary for them to stand out from their competitors, attract more bookings and redefine their guest experience. Mobile websites are readily accessible to anyone with a cell phone, which allows your hotel to reach more potential customers.” The cost of developing a hotel booking app depends on a number of parameters, including the Operating System (OS) such as Android, iOS or the cross-platform app. A bigger question relates to choosing between native and hybrid platforms. While an estimate for the US puts the cost at $28k to $35k, the figure for India is much lower, and ultimately depends on the levels of personalisation. Global travel industry intelligence gatherer Skift recently pointed out that apps are not a one-time investment — guest apps will need to be updated constantly. “34 per cent of apps haven’t been updated since 2016 and 20 per cent haven’t been updated since 2015 or earlier, which we call ‘left for dead,” Michael Silverman, a senior client strategist at L2 Inc said in late 2017, commenting on the US hotel apps.
Most of the hotel apps offer the basic feature of room reservation, but it essential to upgrade the features to a more digitized option to enhance guest experience, adds Gaonkar. Ultimately, it’s all about personalization, and anticipating the needs and experiences of the customers. That’s where the app can entice and make a crucial difference.