Ana Brant serves as a Director of Global Guest Experience and Innovation for the London-based Dorchester Collection. As a recognized thought leader in luxury brand management, her interest is both academic and applied. We interviewed her for our ebook, Technology and the Guest Experience, Views from Five Luxury Hoteliers.
LM: What is the best way for a luxury hotel to learn about a guest before their arrival? Can you describe the ideal process?
AB: Researching a guest is a serious and complex task. I believe hoteliers are not giving this topic enough attention as bespoke experience and thoughtful recognition can only happen if we know who we are designing it for. Let’s take a look in a different industry – luxury retail, especially the “haute couture” federation. One of the first and most important rules for a brand to earn the right to call itself a couture house and to use the term “haute couture” is to “design made to order for private clients, with one or more fittings.” They obviously know the person, they probably know their size, height, weight, the occasion the dress will be worn at, what their significant other will wear, who may see it, etc. They do a lot of research to make a perfect dress.
We have to do the same, but it may look a bit different. We have two major sources to consider: external and internal. External sources are Google, social media, travel agencies etc. Internal sources are all your systems, databases and institutional knowledge your employees have. Each source will produce a small clue about the guest and then it takes a very inquisitive and organized individual to connect them into a story.
I’d add that, while having a process helps, one of the key things is to hire for curiosity. Curious people naturally strive to learn and improve; they are excited by learning new facts and are often catalysts for change. They google, research, experiment with new things and read naturally. Only curiosity and human insight can connect digital and physical worlds, but technology certainly helps!
LM: Are you seeing any behavioural shifts in how guests prefer to communicate with hotels? For instance, are more guests preferring to self-serve where possible, or text message instead of call?
AB: While channels of communications continue to expand, in the world of luxury the customer is paying us to be ready to communicate via any channel. In a single day, we serve guests who communicate via texts, WhatsApp, e-mail, phone calls, social media, but also those who choose to do so by faxes or hand written letters. In terms of communication experience, it is less about self-service and more about having one key point of contact, a person who is empowered to do anything the guest needs, from making room reservations to recommending restaurants or arranging to get their laundry pressed.
"In terms of communication experience, it is less about self-service and more about having one key point of contact, a person who is empowered to do anything the guest needs"
LM: What technologies do your think have potential to make the most impact on the during-stay experience of a hotel guest?
AB: Technology is only an enabler, not the end goal. The best designed technology touches our humanity, where the insight we gain for our guests is powerful enough to create bespoke experiences and recognize the guest in a meaningful way. [Local Measure’s] technology is a great example, designed to give the user the best of what technology has to offer, but at the same time inspire creativity and human touch. There is nothing more meaningful than when we can have an insight into our guests via social media and then use what we learn to create meaningful recognition.
LM: What is your view on hotels using chatbots or Artificial Intelligence to predict the needs of guests? (How well do you think aggregated data can be relied upon?)
AB: We have been using AI and machine learning since 2014, but mostly to understand the wisdom of the crowds gathered through multiple review sites. Machine learning is an outstanding platform which sorts through the clutter of data and turns it into insight. But one still needs to instil a lot of human intelligence to turn that insight into knowledge and organizational wisdom.
As for Chatbots, I always lived by the phrase, "just because it exists, doesn’t mean it fits". While I believe that there are some brands which may find Chatbots useful, when you are in the luxury hotel business, the value of true human connection is what we are all about.
LM: Certain tech platforms have the ability to pull in customer data that might not otherwise be known to an individual hotel – such as data around their stays at other hotels. How much value do you place on customer insights that don’t come from previous stays at a particular property?
AB: From a customer experience perspective, data is only useful if we can turn them into meaningful connection points. The problem we face is turning those data points into insights. It requires a skill set traditional hotel organizations don’t usually appreciate or understand.
For marketers, collecting factual data may be a priority. In Customer Experience, we focus on data as signals and clues. We also look at the data that is missing and topics that don’t get much online conversation as that may represent a room for innovation.
Collecting data for the sake of collection is not productive, it is what one can do with that data that counts.
"The best designed technology touches our humanity, where the insight we gain for our guests is powerful enough to create bespoke experiences and recognize the guest in a meaningful way."
LM: What technologies or innovations do you think best help lessen travel anxiety for guests?
AB: If I could invent a technology to do that, I’d be a billionaire. In lieu of this breakthrough invention, I can speak about what I believe causes anxiety and stress for our guests – it is quite simple: loss of control.
Control is a funny and delicate human need. Control, by definition is the power to influence or direct sequences of events or people’s behavior. I believe it is a source of inspiration behind many successful technological innovations. One of the key reasons Uber is successful – it gives the user control over their time and environment. Airlines, on the other hand, are masters of taking control from individuals, hence creating enormous amount of stress and anxiety for users.
Traditional hotels who rely on the old school operating models and army-like structures tend to have inflexible and outdated policies which take the control from the user. Check in and check out times, limited menu offerings during certain times of the day or night, lack of accessible conveniences required for an overnight stay or inattentive staff can trigger unnecessary stress and anxiety for guests.
Clayton Christiansen would say, the job your customer is hiring you to do is not to give them a clean and beautiful room only, but to provide them with an environment where they can continue their comfortable routine without interruption.
LM: Do you think there is a responsibility for the luxury segment to be ahead of the curve when it comes to incorporating new technologies?
AB: We look at the technology as an enabler and not the end goal. Just because something exists, doesn’t mean it fits our brand, or that our organization is capable of adopting it or that our customer would value it. . Actually, very few can serve all three of the above goals simultaneously.
Any new technology introduced must be seamless and effortless. If we can’t make it seamless and effortless, we will not introduce it at all, no matter how attractive it may be -- because it will cause irritation and dissatisfaction to both our customers and our employees. Finally, I believe that luxury should be ahead of the curve when it comes to using technology that will get us closer to our customers (i.e. haute couture example). However I see luxury being less experimental with new solutions that hit the market and touch the customer directly.
Take Alexa for instance, yes she may be an amazing aide to have in your private residence, but does it really fit the luxury hotel environment? Instead of communicating with the hotels, customers are directed to form a relationship and loyalty with Amazon. I guess this is how you become a trillion dollar company!