For a moment, put yourself in the shoes of a typical smartphone user who happens to be searching for a hotel room. What kind of information do you want or need in your search? Do you want to see images of the bed, dresser, or bathroom, or do you want to get a feel for the neighborhood and see nearby restaurants and attractions?
If you’re like most travelers today, you probably want to see it all—and maybe even a virtual reality (VR) tour of the property and reviews of those local restaurants—all while earning points and rewards during your stay. For hotel operators, this means you’ll need to provide rich, fast-loading content and a seamless experience that guests have come to expect from the brands they do business with.
That’s a lot of “wants” and “must haves” to cram into the traditional booking engine. But by leveraging guests’ mobile devices for more self-service and optimizing booking engines for more personalization, hotels can be more proactive and forward-looking when preparing their guests’ digital expectations.
Guest Experience and User Experience
Hotel websites, apps, and booking engines are a hotel’s first point of contact with guests. These digital properties “set the stage” for the rest of the brand relationship, and a poor user experience (UX) can damage the hotel brand even more than rude desk agents. That’s one reason hotels must re-focus their digital strategies and optimize their booking engines, apps, and websites for each guest or user.
To do this, hotels need to integrate more customer data up-front in the booking process and earlier in the search process to curate and personalize content. This means users will have less information to enter, fewer decisions to make, and a faster path to purchase. But as hotels use more data for better content, it will require new technology to store, share, and distribute high-bandwidth content such as VR experiences.
In the airline industry, some carriers have already integrated augmented reality (AR) technology, allowing passengers to view and experience specific seats on a plane prior to making their flight selection. However, the hospitality sector has the greatest opportunity to leverage virtual and augmented reality into their booking process. Historically, hotels have been focused on selling inventory, but these new technologies will cause a shift in their approach, as they focus on selling the customer experience and differentiating their brand around rich content.
Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality for Hotels
Today, some forward-looking hotels are using AR to offer users virtual walkthroughs of their rooms as well as showcasing nearby restaurants and activities. In the context of resorts, the possibilities are endless. Not only will travelers be able to immerse themselves into the resort and see first-hand the amenities offered before booking, but some resorts are creating new experiences altogether. Internationally, we’re seeing a higher level of VR adoption to create unique excursions, where facts and figures pop up when you look through Oculus VR goggles.
As this type of technology becomes more widespread across the travel industry, there will likely be an even stronger alignment with loyalty programs, where offers and activities are closely tied to customer data and information is packaged to provide the best possible user experience. And it will be seamless across all channels.
As a result, more hotels are asking how they can offer more to customers, even if only incrementally, because failure to make changes in hotels’ IT infrastructure now will haunt their bottom lines—and customer relationships—in the years to come.
User Experience for the Connected Traveler
As hotels re-focus their digital and mobile strategies, two factors will be key: speed and content. Mobile apps must move fast and efficiently, but they also need relevant and robust content. Entering date and destination into a booking engine is becoming outdated. The mobile channel has made travel booking much more social ala Foursquare or Yelp.
The travel sector is evolving from data packaging (date and destination) to more dynamic packaging (personalization and curation). Whoever controls a customer’s phone (with the right content, through the right channel, at the right time, and with the right payment method) will win in travel.
When in doubt, just apply the “thumb test” for how much of a transaction can be completed with your thumb, or without pulling out a plastic card. The easier it is to make payments, the easier it will be to sell more ancillary merchandise and keep guests earning and burning their loyalty points across more transactions.
Guest Experience and the Connected Traveler
According to research by Gartner/L2, most hotels apps have been “left for dead” and not updated since 2016 or earlier. But hotels with a proactive mobile strategy tend to be industry leaders with features like keyless entry and social media engagement. These leaders in guest experience are incrementally making improvements to their booking engines because that’s where the guest experience begins and returns.
About the Author
Justin Steele has over 12 years of travel and technology experience. As vice president of product at Switchfly, he is responsible for identifying market opportunities and delivering innovative technical solutions. Prior to Switchfly, Justin was responsible for revenue management and operations at Hyatt Hotels and Resorts. More information on how emerging technologies will impact the travel industry in the coming years is available in the Future of Travel & Loyalty 2020 Outlook Report.