How do hoteliers tap into the dreams and desires of travellers in a tech-driven world where bookings are made at the last minute, guests arrive late at night, transactions are conducted online, doors can be opened digitally, and communication takes place via various apps?
Travel has changed significantly in recent years. It’s often last-minute. It’s at travellers’ fingertips. It’s technology-driven. Payments and confirmations are concluded online at high speed. Chatbots offer tourist information. And, in some instances, robots mix cocktails or deliver food to guests, writes Jonathon Meyer, CEO of boutique hotel chain, Home Suite Hotels.
With 68% of all travel and tourism bookings made online in 2022 (Statista); more than 700 million people are expected to make bookings online globally in 2023 (Booking.com); and online sales are expected to generate 73% of revenue in the sector by 2026 (Statista) – finding the sweet spot between harnessing the convenience of technology and offering a human experience for guests is a challenge many hoteliers face.
This is in an industry that continues to undergo significant technological change. According to Booking.com, about 83% of digitally savvy travellers who book online use their mobile devices to do so, 20% of travellers book a mere 24 hours in advance of check-in, particularly when it comes to local travel, and almost 11.7% book two to five days in advance.
The most disruptive change on the cards for 2023 is the integration of all major channel managers (technology that facilitates the selling of rooms on several online booking sites – channels – at the same time) and the introduction of dynamic rates (rates that vary depending on when the booking is made).
On the positive side, this allows for greater reach, with hotels gaining access to global travellers they would not necessarily have had access to before. The downside is that fluctuating rates during lower demand times force hotels to compete on price.
While hoteliers are harnessing technology to offer more seamless experiences for their guests, a major learning from the pandemic is that people still want the human touch. This is particularly true in South Africa where travellers expect to get a taste of the warmth and hospitality for which the country and its people are renowned.
Here, personalisation is paramount. And, once again, technology can play a key role. Property management tools allow hoteliers to record guest profiles and preferences. This, in turn, allows them to gain a better understanding of their guests and provide them with more personalised services.
Home Suite Hotels, for example, has launched a sleep menu across all of its hotels to ensure a personalised and elevated sleep experience for guests. This includes a variety of pillow options (some with a gel lining that helps regulate temperature), and devices that control white noise to block out other sounds.
Another innovation, which is based on sleep science originally developed for athletes and high net worth individuals, involves mattress covers that incorporate a water-jet system linked to a computer which is, in turn, linked to a mobile app. The technology also helps users regulate temperature, and zones can be set up to accommodate the different needs of two people sharing a bed, which Home Suite Hotels is currently trialing at its Rosebank hotel.
For all its advantages, technology cannot replicate real human interaction and the benefits that come from one-on-one engagement. In this respect, Home Suite Hotels employs Dream Catchers, whose sole responsibility is to find out as much about its guests as possible: their preferences; what part of the world are they from; what food they like; and whether they are travelling with kids or pets, among others. This allows them to tailor-make experiences for those guests.
With this type of information gathering comes great responsibility. In addition to the legislative requirements, it is important to maintain people’s privacy. Storage of information has to be conducted responsibly and every precaution needs to be taken to protect it. Any system that is put into place must be designed with security in mind from the get-go.
There is much to be said for technological innovation. It leads to greater efficiencies, further reach, revenue opportunities and a reduction in repetitive tasks for employees, allowing them to place greater focus on enhancing the guest experience.
While some guests revel in the expedience offered by technology, others want to chat to someone at the front desk. The hotelier’s job is to know what each guest wants – whether it’s a completely contactless experience or face-to-face hospitality.
In an industry that is human-factor driven, hoteliers need to find the balance between introducing technology in a cool way that enhances the guest experience without erecting barriers, and knowing when to offer a more personalised touch. After all, there’s nothing quite like greeting someone who remembers the names of your children, how you like your coffee or what you’re dreaming of doing next.