The coronavirus pandemic and the resulting social distancing, sheltering-in-place and emphasis on sanitization has left the travel and hospitality industry scrambling with dramatic drops in customer demand and fundamental questions about how to prepare for the modified customer journey their guests will soon take. With airline travel down by a staggering 90+ percent between mid-March and now (compared to last year), and hotel occupancy rates hovering in the low-single digits, global travel industry experts forecast a $2.1 trillion dollar loss for 2020, and a slow recovery that could take years.
To remain viable while waiting for customers to fully emerge from quarantine, the hospitality industry is working to secure additional funding and cash on hand. Because the virus hit during a strong economy, there is money to lend. Hotels are aggressively pushing vendors and partners for concessions, deep cost reductions or payment relief through the remainder of the year.
For the longer-term, the pandemic has turned the traditional approach to digital transformation on its head. Restoring customer confidence in staying at a hotel won’t be a linear journey, and hospitality companies and their travel ecosystem partners will be judged by how well and how quickly they manage their customers’ safety and any new situations that arise.
In the past, businesses have proactively worked to reimagine their customer journey in order to differentiate themselves in the marketplace, meet customers’ needs, leverage technology advancements and stay ahead of their competitive environment.
Today’s new “norm” for user experience is the singular result of a worldwide health crisis that has already driven each and every travel and hospitality company into swift and decisive action, even as the timing and outcome of the pandemic remain uncertain, and will require thoughtful and meaningful investments in digital technologies to improve the customer experience.
Think about all the touchpoints for hotel guests, and the overarching implications for hotel operations, user experience and technology requirements. In the short-term, reservation and contact center demand is surging as guests look to cancel or re-book reservations. Hotels are looking for innovative ways to communicate with customers, meet unprecedented demand on call centers, or have contact center staff work from home.
Going forward, all guests – not just loyalty reward members – will likely use a mobile device for reservations, check in and get room keys, bypassing the front desk altogether. Hotels may choose, or may even be mandated to include, a “declaration of wellness” in each reservation and to collect guest details for contact tracing.
Hotel entrances may include thermal scanning at the entrance, and guest rooms and conference facilities will be sanitized between uses. Connected room technologies would allow guests to control the lights, temperature, curtains, television, entertainment and more in the room with their own smart device or contactless gesture control.
Enabling technology support will be critical for these operational changes. Hotels will need to constantly track customer feedback and social media response and manage inevitable setbacks and negative reviews with tweaks to their customer experience strategy.
Post-coronavirus, the commercial travel and hospitality environment will evolve to include:
- More pervasive use of digital labor to augment human staff or automation that takes into consideration trending customer needs and behaviors, and can interpret and execute more than just transactional, process-driven actions.
- Predictive analytics to make the most of customer data. Many in the industry are capitalizing and finding ways to monetize big data and use it in a timely fashion during a crisis - for example - through increased service personalization and flexibility.
- Even more relentless market competition, new disruptors and more mergers and acquisitions.
- A profusion of devices and wearables, equipped with geographic mobility technologies, that track and provide data anytime, on any device. Businesses are simplifying processes and further enabling mobile device functionality to make it even easier for guests to make or change a reservation or seamlessly check out of a hotel in a touchless fashion.
- Security measures that cover both personal safety as well as customer data, and fully comply with all local, federal and industry-driven regulations.
One bright spot is hotel companies’ extensive loyalty programs, which tell them a lot about their customers and provide opportunities to help disgruntled customers and proactively keep in touch. One way to keep customers engaged is to defer rewards point expiration and retain loyalty status tiers that would otherwise soon expire.
Travel and hospitality companies that manage the impacts of this crisis unambiguously and compassionately will generate increased value for their organizations and ultimately emerge even stronger than before.
Hotels can’t do all this alone - they will need to closely work with other travel partners to regenerate customer confidence in travelling. It’s crystal clear that customer experience has likely changed forever. Now is the time for hotels and travel partners to re-design how their customer journey should intentionally unfold, with no detail left to chance, so they can influence and optimize the experience, increase positive outcomes, maximize guest comfort and minimize customer inconvenience.
About the Author
John Westfield, based in Dallas, Texas, is Partner & Americas Industry Practice Leader for ISG’s Travel, Transportation, & Hospitality Business Unit – supporting the hospitality/gaming, cruise, rental car, travel agency/tourism, airline, shipping & transportation, rail, airport, and space travel market sectors. ISG (Information Services Group) (Nasdaq: III) is a leading global technology research and advisory firm. A trusted business partner to more than 700 clients, including 75 of the top 100 enterprises in the world, ISG is committed to helping corporations, public sector organizations, and service and technology providers achieve operational excellence and faster growth. The firm specializes in digital transformation services, including automation, cloud and data analytics; sourcing advisory; managed governance and risk services; network carrier services; technology strategy and operations design; change management; market intelligence and technology research and analysis. Founded in 2006, and based in Stamford, Conn., ISG employs more than 1,300 professionals operating in more than 20 countries—a global team known for its innovative thinking, market influence, deep industry and technology expertise, and world-class research and analytical capabilities based on the industry’s most comprehensive marketplace data.