Tips for Building Value for Online Customers
By Glenn Withiam, Director of Publications, Cornell Center for Hospitality Research
One of the major mantras for the hospitality industry is to make sure that a brand creates and delivers customer value. That value is often defined in such terms as appropriate service, meeting or exceeding expectations, and delivering an excellent experience. This implies that customer value is delivered in the hotel. That certainly is the case, but now hotels operate in a virtual world as well as the stick and brick version. What this means is that customers’ experiences, and the basis of customers’ satisfaction, starts whenever they interact with the brand — and that could include interactions through third parties anywhere on the Internet.
The key phrase that is bandied about in connection with new virtual developments is social media, and now mobile apps are gaining in popularity. In general, the industry has become accustomed to thinking in terms of websites and hotel firms have done a good job creating “Brand.com” sites. Until recently, information about and bookings for hotels were going through online travel agencies (OTAs) and search engines, as well as the hotels’ sites. That’s still happening, although one thing that Expedia’s analysts have noticed is that seasoned travelers may start at the search engines or OTAs, but then they often switch to Brand.com to book. This may be a function of their desire to pick up loyalty points, and it’s certainly promoted by the brands’ price parity policies.
Infrequent travelers are more likely to rely on the OTAs or the search engines to book. Here are two opportunities, then. For one set of customers, hotels can work more closely with the OTAs to offer packages that induce bookings, and for another set they can find ways to make the Brand.com experience even better.
Both of those strategies involve improving a hotel’s virtual customer value. Once it’s known what potential guests are looking for in terms of their search, value can be offered up front, either through a third-party partner or on the hotel’s website.
This raises another question -- How does one know what virtual customers are seeking? Good news and bad news on this question. The good news is that customers are talking about the hotel experience through social media. The bad news is that all that information is in a heap of unstructured data piled all over the web. Fortunately, it’s possible to organize that information and several companies exist to help do that.
Social media yields clues to what customers want
More to the point, however, social media and mobile applications have created yet another dimension in the virtual world, and now the job is to create virtual value there (wherever “there” might be). When someone is traveling and wants to make a change in their itinerary, chances are they’ll pull out a mobile phone or tablet and look for new arrangements. They may check with friends on Facebook for a recommendation. Hotels have to be in the midst of this process, not just with an appropriate price, but with an experience that creates value. How to create that value is totally up to the guests.
Creating a “blanket approach” to social media or to mobile apps is not the way to go. Instead, this is a personal thing. As time goes on, pay attention to specific guest behavior and guests will reveal what they’d like.
The bottom line is that it is important to listen and use every tool possible to find out what constitutes value for customers and how that can be delivered both virtually and on-property.