The Secrets of Guest-Satisfying Hotel Brands

If Chip Bell could have any job, it would be a hotel concierge. “Hotels, to me, are the most exciting business on the planet,” says Bell, a customer service guru and best-selling author who has served as a consultant to some of the biggest brands in lodging. “The opportunities that exist to wow customers are limitless, and being able to cultivate and choreograph an unexpectedly excellent experience is truly what working in hospitality is about.”

In 2015, however, the typical hotel guest presents a challenge for hoteliers. Bell explains that social media and online reviews, combined with exceptional customer service experiences in other sectors of the marketplace, make customers uniquely hard to please. “The ability to read reviews of a property online has elevated customer expectations and forced the lodging industry to stay ahead of that curve,” Bell adds. However, there are several hotel brands meeting this challenge head on, and reports from data analytics firm ClickFox and from J.D. Power and Associates show that guests are more satisfied with hotels than they’ve ever been before.

So how can hoteliers continue to raise their game to meet the expectations of increasingly picky guests? Bell says that the best way to make sure guest satisfaction scores remain high is by offering “value-unique” services. “In this industry, there is a place to be generous, but eventually, that value-added system will have an effect on profit margins, limiting our options. When taking a value-unique approach, we have unlimited ways to be ingenious. That ingenuity and creativity are both very powerful ways to build guest loyalty.”

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The hotel brands with highest guest satisfaction rates tend to maintain this position year after year, which is reflected in industry data. The 2014 J.D. Power guest satisfaction surveys, a benchmark for customer service, showcased many of the same hospitality brands that won top honors in previous years. Consistently high-scoring brands like Holiday Inn, Microtel Inn & Suites, and Homewood Suites all have their own approach to mastering guest satisfaction and customer service and have developed methods that not only put them at the top but keep them there.

In Holiday Inn’s case, the brand has earned top honors from J.D. Power in the midscale, full-service segment for four years running. Maurice Cooper, vice president of Americas, Holiday Inn, acknowledges that even though customer satisfaction keeps rising, the brand can stay on top by getting to know its guests even better. “Part of making sure you deliver satisfaction to a group of people is making sure that the right people know about the experience you deliver,” says Cooper. “That is where Holiday Inn excels.”

According to Cooper, this approach is especially imperative for a full-service brand since guests expect more from the hotel. “Whether it’s a weekday rush or a relaxing vacation, our guests want to be given options that can personalize their stay.” He says Holiday Inn has tailored its approach to guest satisfaction to meet the needs of its typical guest and even anticipate them. This has lead to a more efficient check-in and checkout experience, more consistent Wi-Fi, and better communication of costs and fees. “We want our guests to know that when they come to a Holiday Inn, they’re not going to be treated like a number,” says Cooper. “They’re going to be treated like old friends.”

Wyndham’s Microtel Inn & Suites is another brand with an outstanding track record for customer service, winning a J.D. Power guest satisfaction award in 12 of the last 13 years. According Aly El-Bassuni, vice president of operations for Microtel Inn & Suites, being a new build brand makes Microtel unique in the economy segment and allows it to go beyond what guests might typically expect from a budget experience. “It’s a great recipe for consistency for us,” he says, pointing to owners and operators as the biggest differentiating factor. “These folks build these properties from the ground up.”

El-Bassuni cites amenities such as free in-room Wi-Fi and a complimentary breakfast as major influences on guest satisfaction, though Microtel’s streamlined check-in and checkout process was a particular high point in the J.D. Power surveys. “We put a lot of emphasis on taking feedback to heart,” says El-Bassuni. Using Wyndham software to aggregate third-party reviews, owners can keep costs and fees—as well as overall experience—in line with their comp set. “It also helps us nail down what we’re doing well and improve in areas where customers feel we can do better.”

While amenities play a big role in Microtel’s guest satisfaction scores, brands in different sectors of the marketplace may focus on different factors that can affect the quality of a guest’s stay. A repeat winner of the J.D. Power award for best upscale, extended-stay hotel brand, Hilton’s Homewood Suites has been at the top of its segment for the past four years. Bill Duncan, Homewood Suites’s extended-stay brand head, attributes the awards to the brand’s efforts to create a second home for guests. Bedroom ceiling fans epitomize this approach. “People like air circulation while they’re sleeping and have ceiling fans in their homes,” he says. “So it makes sense to have them in our rooms if we want them to feel at home.”

Like other extended-stay hotel brands, Homewood benefits from having most guests stay for more than a few days. This gives the staff the ability to conduct mid-stay surveys and quickly respond to feedback. Duncan says that this practice serves a dual purpose. The first is getting customer comments in a way that lets guests know that hotel staff is thinking of them and knows they’re there—very important in an extended-stay environment. The second is that it gives hotel staff a chance to course-correct if something is not up to the guest’s satisfaction. “While we never want to hear that a guest is having a problem, finding a way to fix an issue leads to higher guest satisfaction and stronger guest loyalty,” says Duncan.

One thing that all of these brands have in common is a clear understanding of their target guests and how to cater to their needs. According to Bell, this is the real differentiating factor in today’s market. “Guests are looking for more than just good service—they want signature service that plays on their location and makes them feel special,” he says. “Hotels that can provide that will achieve the highest level of customer satisfaction.”

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Kate Hughes, Editor, LODGING Magazine