by Duncan Wilson | for ehlite.com
The concept of personalisation is evolving at a phenomenal rate in the service industry. The industry recognises that at the heart of their business is a consumer of their service. There is also recognition that those consumers are changing. The “new tourists” have developed from inexperienced, homogeneous, predictable consumers who seek security in numbers, to mature, hybrid, spontaneous consumers who wish to be different. Personalisation is the key to enabling that differentiation.Drivers of change
A well cited mantra of the service industry is “the customer is always right”. If this customer centric focus has always existed then why is this current trend towards personalisation any different from what has come before? There are three main drivers of change that are emerging:
Information Communication Technology
The services we create are becoming increasingly segmented as we cater for niche markets. How many different hotel types can you name? This customisation at the mass scale is in response to the continual search for product differentiation. This tendency will persist as service providers continue to chase the market sector in response to consumer trends. Mass customisation is only limited by our ability to differentiate what people need or desire.
Deregulation has also changed the landscape of product offering by opening up markets that have previously been restricted. For example, the introduction of budget airlines created a new mode of travel, and as a consequence, a new model of tourism. It became more accessible for the consumer to customise the services they desired to complete a journey.
Mass customisation and deregulation provide more choice and increased self service, but since people are doing more (and incidentally probably have less time to do it) they are less tolerant of broken processes. Has a booking system ever failed you?
Whilst technology, such as a booking system, has the potential to create loss of custom and aggravation for your customers, the potential for it to provide them with joy is even greater. Technology that creates the emotion of joy may sound a little strong to some, in the same way that a piece of chocolate on a pillow creating the emotion of delight may sound bizarre to others.
The important point is that technology for personalisation is maturing. Many service industries now rely on their technology infrastructures as a key delivery mechanism. For example, as a First Direct customer in the UK your bank can send you a text message to say that your pay cheque has reached your bank account . This would not be possible without some form of automated process enabled by technology. Technology provides a means for business to capture, store, analyse and most importantly use information to provide a more specific level of service.
These drivers, along with others such as the aging population and their increasingly bespoke needs, the influence of the dream society where people desire to escape from their normality and live out “other” experiences, or even regulations such as accessibility guidelines, all indicate an increased opportunity for the hotel industry to provide services that cater for an individual’s needs as opposed to demographic generalisations.
People have more power to find what they want when planning a trip for business or pleasure. Whether their research is done through an agent, a friend, a colleague, a magazine, a book or the internet, the consumer is looking for a solution to their needs and desires.
The internet provides a fantastic medium for collaboration between buyer and seller. For example, not only can you browse and buy tickets for the cinema via the internet you can also choose the actual seat you want to sit in. Prototypes have also been developed that allow you to “test” a virtual view from your seat prior to purchase. Imagine being able to select the actual hotel room that you want to stay in before you make the reservation?
The data needed to implement this should already exist, assuming that operators know how many rooms they have and what is in them, and the tools for delivering such information to the consumer are readily available. The application amounts to no more than a catalogue of facilities available. Perhaps a more interesting application would be to extend the concept to create a more personalised service, for example:
Taking a lead from the loyalty schemes in the retail sector, your preferences could be stored and used to “suggest” rooms in a hotel that would be most suitable based upon your previous preferences.
A personal profile and an Amazon.com style recommender system based on other customer’s opinions of a hotel could be used to guide you to something that you would probably enjoy.
A fully customisable room could be created using an interface to design your hotel room. At the most basic level it would be great to specify that you don’t want feather pillows because they make you sneeze. At the other end of the spectrum you could specify the business facilities you desire in your room.
The enabler for the above scenarios is our ability to create a “Digital Me”; a profile of our needs and desires on a temporal basis; I am a father, a business man and a tourist at different times. We were expecting you Given that we can personalise our requirements in advance, how might that change our visit. At a very basic level the hotel could demonstrate their appreciation of your custom by simply saying “we were expecting you”. This might manifest itself in different forms:
Greeting you when you arrive from wherever you have travelled (note; this might be at a transport interchange).
Anticipating your arrival at reception.
Having prior knowledge that you are a “suitable guest” (no need to leave passports as a deposit, who trusts who most?).
Having your room ready for you, the way you want it.
Having some awareness of what you will be doing next (business meeting, food requirements, sleep requirements).
The hotel’s understanding of your plans and expectations (at all times controlled by how much you want to tell them) also allows the hotel to provide value added services. This might be through the provision of extra services such as business facilities, or through mediating contact with other guests.
Making theirs be mine
The aim of the personalisation process should be to facilitate the process of giving the feeling of ownership to the guest. The hotel room is an existential place that only exists for the person using it. It is unusual for people to tolerate traces of previous guests.
The space that is requisitioned should also remain under the control of the guest. There was an urban myth recently circulating the internet citing a traveller who had the soap in his bathroom changed 17 times over a 14 day period in response to what he thought was a simple request to housekeeping. Knowing he was there for two weeks he asked that his partially used soap was not replaced daily. He ended up having week’s worth of battling with various hotel staff. Why was there so much disconnect between the staff and the guest? Why could they not adapt their housekeeping processes?
Personalisation has implications for both front of house and back of house operations. There will be fundamental changes in the way staff interacts with guests. There will be more reliance on accessing and retrieving information to maintain the facade of personal service especially in environments of large guest numbers or high turn over of staff. This data should not just be accessible from the reception desk or main office, but by staff anywhere in the hotel.
This dissemination of information raises issues of balance between security and privacy. At one extreme guests are exposed to sharing private or privileged information about their daily habits which in turn could be abused by third parties to “force” propositions upon them. At the other extreme there is the potential to create “zones” with perceived safety since there is an implicit understanding of who is in the environment. The balance point is somewhere between the two with a system where the individual controls what information is released, but the community has some level of awareness of its participants.
Key to developing an open system that people would voluntarily participate in is the reliance on trust. Trust between parties is essential if any scheme established through shared information or open source protocols is to be successful in the marketplace. Open source software development has established a good model demonstrating the kind of symbiotic relationships that are required.
The fundamental principles behind personalisation support this idea of developing relationships with guests. The nature of pre-visit personalisation involves pre-planning and booking in advance. This provides the opportunity for developing longer term relationships with guests. This may be done at an individual hotel level or it may be implemented at a federation of hotels who agree to share information between them. The concept of the hotel then becomes more and more blurred. Is the hotel a single entity or is it part of a federation of businesses including restaurants, bars and local business?
A focus on personalisation could also provide a spotlight for addressing process design in the hotel sector. Profit margins in the sector are low, but there are crippling inefficiencies in the way processes are organised. The classic mode of operation is very reactive. The industry waits until something is required and then the service is provided (parking the car, moving luggage, waiting at check in, waiting at elevator, waiting for housekeeping, etc…) This stop start operation has crippled many manufacturing businesses, why should hotels not go the same way? Anticipating what the guest will want next creates a more fluid environment. These seamless activities require smarter work behind the scenes, but not necessarily more work, and have a much greater impact on the guest.