Noteworthy: Innovating for a Post-Pandemic Future
Dean Walsh, with tech and hotel leaders, explores the landscape of post-pandemic customer relations
On September 23, a panel of hotel industry leaders joined Kate Walsh, dean of the School of Hotel Administration and E. M. Statler Professor, for a webinar titled, Innovating for a Post-Pandemic Future: Challenges and Opportunities in the Hospitality Industry.
Produced by the Center for Hospitality Research and eCornell, the discussion included industry veteran Ian Schrager, founder and chairman of the Ian Schrager Company, Pasquale DeMaio, general manager of Amazon Web Services, and Bill Patterson, executive vice president and general manager of Salesforce. Evaluating recent events and the current landscape in terms of evolving customer desires, the group highlighted opportunities created by the crisis.
More than ever, customer trust will come from safety and comfort combined
Listing her own customer preferences, Walsh included enhanced sanitation protocols and customer-centered re-booking procedures. “The service-driven mindset will be the lasting brand appeal,” she declared, and all agreed that customer service is essentially about trust. Now, that trust will come from improved and enforced safety, security, and mental and physical comfort.
Patterson reflected on the primitive emotions that enter into customer service interactions. “After 9/11 we sacrificed convenience and (physical) comfort for safety,” he noted, adding that no one wants to stand in line, but all are willing. Providers will do well now, he stressed, to be transformational, to engineer more comfort into safety, and to remove friction from the experience. “Comfort is personalized; not one size fits all…what comes next might be more enjoyable than before.”
The pandemic incites the hospitality industry to fashion new guest-services solutions from other industries’ tools
DeMaio observed that increased focus on customer experience is well-met by many of the pandemic’s forced adaptations; practices like booking and working from home are actually benefits. Automation, for instance, is a great opportunity to add hyper-convenience, he asserted, and Schrager agreed. “Where in the past, automated check-in might have been unappealing to a high-end consumer,” he observed, “now it’s preferable.” DeMaio added that home-working booking agents are delivering more relaxed and engaged customer service, which allows the transaction to include a more connected relationship.
Tech-based data solutions provide real customization perks
DeMaio described how Amazon Contact Centers and the Cloud combine Salesforce and Amazon Connect, helping businesses to start running quickly with excellent outcomes, automating the simpler procedures and refining the rest over time. “Great customer service is often cheaper to provide, with fewer problems later because we have access and ability to react and predict.” Just as other retailers collect data on what customers want and need, so can hoteliers interpret changes in patterns as ways to engage customers. Schrager was enthusiastic about this development, “You own
that customer when you reach out to them and work out the problem.” DeMaio quoted Arthur C. Clarke, who said that “advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Data and privacy must be handled carefully, on a personalized basis
Walsh then inquired about the horizon for businesses sharing data, and the panelists considered this from a variety of angles.
Schrager characterized data as “dangerous,” asserting that company offers to install voice-activated tech in hotel guest rooms evoked thoughts of “Big Brother.” Patterson countered stating, “Data used in the right way becomes a superpower for brands that do it right,” although he was quick to allow that consolidated brands must let customers choose what they share and how. He also added, “While tech brings convenience, it also brings complexity: there’s a line being drawn around this stuff, and that’s about privacy. Where do businesses find the line and draw it successfully?” User privacy laws in Europe and California are harbingers of increased privacy regulation to come, he added. “Brands will benefit or suffer, based on their handling of consumer privacy.”
The customer journey: innovations and opportunities to bring new solutions to market
Walsh then asked the pros to tell her about innovative experiences “that would bring me back to an urban market.”
Patterson started by saying, “Reinvention comes in the curated experiences, not the transactional systems of yesterday; we’re managing experiences to be less about the physical and more about customer preferences. Working with DeMaio and team, we’re coming in to help companies rethink these processes and engagements to become more adaptable.” Schrager was enthusiastic about the contact centers being created, but expressed frustration that the same technology isn’t available to integrate functionality on site. “The companies don’t cooperate with each other, and it’s not usable by us. It’s kind of ridiculous: a property manager doesn’t talk to POS or marketing. Why doesn’t somebody come up with a system that’s integrated throughout the hotel?”
In closing, Walsh asked, “How is remote work going to fit into the urban hotel market?” Schrager didn’t miss a beat in describing a hotel where on the first floors there’s an accommodating workspace “for all the business support systems you’d want in your office,” with upper floors for full-time residents and visitors. He stressed again his firm belief that travelers will need lodgings, no matter what. “Changes create new opportunities, but paradigm shifts don’t happen that often. People will always want to travel.”
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