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EXECUTIVE ROUNDTABLE: The Digital Transformation of Customer Engagement


As consumers increasingly demand more engaging and customized experiences, restaurants and hotels are prioritizing digital guest engagement. HT’s research reveals that the majority of hotels (52%) and restaurants (61%) have identified improving digital engagement as a top strategic goal for technology. Modern customer engagement requires a nimble strategy that provides personalized, seamless and consistent experiences for guests that will ultimately engender loyalty. In this executive roundtable, hospitality technology experts identify how operators can leverage available innovation and deploy strategies to foster engagement and turn guests into loyal brand ambassadors.

Roundtable participants are:

Regan Yeldell, Senior Director, Enterprise Marketing, Comcast Business

Daniel Connolly, Ph.D., Dean, College, Business & Public Admin, Drake University

Michelle Tempesta, Head of Product, Paytronix Systems, Inc.


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Improving analytics is a top strategic goal for hospitality operators. What are some best practices for using business intelligence to help hotels and restaurants better understand customers to foster engagement and loyalty?

YELDELL: In addition to creating positive connected guest experiences, WiFi can play a vital role in collecting data that can be useful in developing offers and catering to personal guest preferences.  Hotel operators can incentivize guests to connect to property WiFi with offers that help drive business to hotel restaurants, spa services or other amenities.  In addition, understanding historic information about guest behaviors and preferences can help hoteliers tailor personalized offers during and after the stay. 

TEMPESTA: Understanding the data available from every aspect of a business is required to make informed decisions. For restaurant operators, there are three key factors in using customer data to boost available revenue: First, get to know customers within the 2nd to 50th spend percentiles. Second, since it is easier to improve the performance of a low-frequency guest than a high-frequency guest, use the data to discover who they are and create a strategy to act upon. Third, cannibalization is a big problem for high frequency guests – understand who they are and mitigate the issue with data and predictive analytic segmentation tools.

Customers are increasingly mobile. What would you recommend for a mobility strategy to help hospitality operators stand out from the crowd to win brand loyalists and perhaps more importantly advocates?

CONNOLLY: With technology becoming a focal point of guest-supplier interactions, hospitality companies need to think about how to incorporate the personal elements to recognize repeat guests and customize services to their needs and preferences.  To be effective and stand out in a crowded space, hospitality companies need to do the following. First, simplify mobile applications to ensure they do the basics well while providing convenience and value-add to guests. Secondly, maintain detailed guest profiles to address various travel personas to minimize data entry. Finally integrate CRM and mobile apps to provide personalization, guest recognition, and customized user experiences.

YELDELL: Bandwidth is the biggest barrier to success in delivering best-in-class mobile experiences.  Hotels that have more than enough Internet capacity will be able to deliver the best, most personalized guest experiences – in the form of video and audio streaming.  Consider SD-WAN plus high-speed broadband connections to supplement existing network capacity for growing guest preferences for binge-watching their favorite television shows, streaming their favorite audio set lists and being instantly in-touch with their social networks.

How can rewards best be used to foster engagement without operators falling into a “discount everything” trap? How do you recommend incentives become a strategic and dynamic part of customer engagement?

TEMPESTA: Embrace discounts. Treat it as an investment and get the most return you can from it. Discounts work well when used surgically to target those customers who need an extra incentive to pick your brand versus others. Discounts become dangerous when they are used without bounds by cannibalizing full-ticket sales. High frequency guests do not need a discount to motivate a visit. Instead, reward those guests with unique access to your brand and experiences that are not otherwise available to the general population. Leverage predictive analytics to remove high-frequency guests from promotions that include a discount offer.

CONNOLLY: From our research on Customer Engagement Technology, guests indicate that they are looking for deals to incentivize them to download and use mobile apps.  However, when we delve deeper, we see that what guests really seek is a strong price-value relationship, which is not the same as discounts.  While it is nice for hospitality operators to offer special deals, they should consider offering rewards that cost little to no extra money such as upgrades, recognition, and service benefits.

With the Internet of Things and connected devices becoming the norm, how must engagement adhere to an omni-channel strategy? 

CONNOLLY: As the Internet of Things become more pervasive, hospitality organizations will be expected to interact with guests in more ways and provide seamlessness across these different channels.  There will be more touchpoints resulting in more opportunities for hospitality companies to learn about, interact with, and serve guests.  Integrating data across each device and touchpoint will be critical to providing seamless, flawless, and friction-free services.  For many in the hospitality industry, there is still a long way to go to provide this level of integration, the ability to collect data on one channel and use it effectively on another. 

YELDELL: Once you’ve established a successful connection with your guests on-site, staying in touch via digital channels is a must. Create a strategy to remain top-of-mind with your returning and prospective guests via your social networks, email and targeted digital advertising. Make sure to curate big data analytics to create personal offers, and be sure to monitor and listen to conversations across social channels so you can be responsive and manage your brand reputation.

Emerging technology is reshaping customer engagement. What up-and-coming innovation do you think has the most potential for customer engagement and why?

TEMPESTA: Emerging technology will continue to enhance the customer experience by making the buying cycle more efficient for the marketer and more convenient for the guest. AI/voice control will inevitably make it easier for guests to purchase goods. Emerging payment technology, such as Apple Pay with single tap loyalty will also add a level of convenience for customers as well as throughput for restaurants. This will enable restaurants to produce more revenue from the same stores year over year while reducing costs and capturing valuable customer behavior data.  

YELDELL: AI and voice will play a growing role on industry websites and for in-room entertainment as more individuals expect to be able to “talk” to their devices and hear a response.  Whether using voice activated remote controls to select TV programming or completing forms on your website with voice activations, voice is becoming an important application in the connected guest experience.

What stumbling blocks do you still see hospitality companies falling prey to with customer engagement strategies? What solutions would you offer?

CONNOLLY: The big obstacles right now for customer engagement technologies relate to integration and data sharing across channels.  Without these, the flow of service will continue to be disjointed.  Additionally, hospitality firms must continue to look at service delivery processes.  Technology should not be added to the service mix without looking at process flow and the impact on operations.  It is important to design experiences that are carefully thought out to avoid unintended consequences, service bottlenecks, and customer complaints.

TEMPESTA: Operations and marketing are symbiotic. Introducing new technology and programs to the customer base has to be easy for the customer and the front-line staff. If not, the brand ends up either eroding the customer relationship or the program fails because operations avoid acting as ambassadors for it. As marketing teams become more technically savvy, selecting partners that focus on the guest and operational experience, the relationship between operations and marketing becomes a go-to force for brand growth.

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