Mr. Ricketts


Bridging Today's Technologies to Customer Service Needs

By Mark Ricketts, President & Chief Operating Officer, McNeill Hotels

One is tempted to call them our phantom guests. With today's technologies, a guest can make a reservation, sign in and, perhaps, check out without talking to or being seen by someone at the front desk. Timed right, a guest may not even interact with maintenance or housekeeping.

We are starting to confront realities like this in an industry grounded on deep human interaction and the personal touch. We pride ourselves on being good listeners, both verbal and nonverbal. We are rewarded for anticipating and responding to the needs of others. The "guest we don't see" is just one example of how modern communications, our own human resources systems, marketing or transaction technologies continue to transform what it means to be a hotelier.

The challenges abound. They include how to interact with that guest that we never see on check-in. How do we know that their needs are being met? How do we satisfy our own human needs, as hoteliers, to interact with others? At the same time, our brand partners, ownership and the competition are pressing us to deploy ever-more complex technology. How do we avoid getting "lost in the numbers" with the steady streams of data we receive daily? Whether it's room pricing, housekeeping inventory and preventive maintenance, or property reviews on social media or OTA web sites, we are expected to master and make positive use of these information and communication technologies.

Thinking more about technology. In some cases, technology has been transformational, creating functionality that did not previously exist. Examples include computer-controlled climate and security systems, entertainment-on-demand streaming, Internet-based reservation systems or the modern revenue management systems with access to tremendous amounts of occupancy and pricing data. These are clearly game-changers.

However, in other cases, technology is revising and possibly improving activities that have always been part of our hotel DNA. We always have welcomed guests and chatted them up, particularly at the front desk. "Thanks for staying here." "How long do you plan on staying?" "Will you be visiting any special attractions?" "How can we make your visit more enjoyable?" Today, we are doing the same things, although it may be in the form of an email or text to confirm a reservation; mark guest arrival; or check in with the guest during the stay. Instead of tracking the preferences of frequent guests (loyalty program) with pencil and paper, in a notebook in a drawer at the front desk, we have a digital version.

The modes may have changed, but the functions are the same. Our task is to master these newer modes of interaction so that they are efficient, yet cordial and personal. We are also being scored by how well we respond to exchanges that can be tracked and quantified, including by brand partners, which increases the stakes. This means we must be patient and sensible even as we are being graded for our technology performance. At the same time, we must guard against overstepping common sense and formal guidelines with respect to guest privacy. Just because we can "look something up," doesn't mean we should; or we don't have to say everything we know. While a younger generation might not be alarmed with how much we know about them, older guests might not be as appreciative of our guest intelligence. We must exercise caution in our zeal to help out. Examples include matching up a guest against their Facebook or LinkedIn page or looking up where they stayed previously.

Creating Experiences

In a turn-about is fair-play mode, these advances in technology promise to not just make us more efficient, accurate and profitable, but, also, provide us with the motivation and time needed to develop our people skills. We hear more and more these days about "creating experiences" for our guests. Originally associated with Millennials, the concept has spread throughout all demographics. The traveler wants and expects more than just a hotel room, an airplane ticket or a standard meal. If they are going to travel, they want something memorable and out of the ordinary.

Accessing a hotel room has a lot in common with other travel-related industries like rental cars or airlines. However, in many respects, those industries have stagnated in terms of creating experiences for their customers. Yes, at the highest ends, we can probably rent a Maserati or Range Rover, chauffeur optional, and, in air travel, there are exotic flight arrangements that feature an on-the-ground, pre-flight spa or gourmet meal and mini-luxury apartment in the air. But for the bulk of customers these services have become commodities.

In contrast, our industry is striving, even in the midst of a technological onslaught, to be more people-friendly, mindful of our role in the guest's experience. This can be done simply and naturally. Examples include offering to help set-up a fun selfie upon arrival or at breakfast time, increasingly popular manager's meetings in the evening, or using one's own experience of the area to offer up a favorite restaurant (not the one we get a referral bonus from!) or tourist attraction.

Or think about hearing guests talk about a birthday or anniversary they are celebrating during their stay and we might respond by placing a card and some flowers or treat in their room. Here is gentle, reasonable use of guest intelligence.

The best experiences are never planned - the guest is not expecting it, yet the impact could be significant. It is not about the value, but the virtue of these gestures. If we can make guests feel important and appreciated they are more likely to return our property and share the positive experience with others. Simple and genuine can win the day here.

We're always on stage; in the present. As noted, our guests crave experiences. They want more than just a hotel room or a free breakfast. They want to make memories. We can help our guests achieve that goal by being ready, thinking and feeling in the present. However, as technology continues to drive more and more innovation, our normal "touch-points" not only have changed, but, also, may be minimized. In adjusting to these changing paradigms and finding creative ways to interact with our guests, we must be ready to bring our "A" game to the fore. Think of it as a football running back whose number is called on less plays each game. This only magnifies the importance of each play; each opportunity; each performance.

Additionally, the guest doesn't know what a staff member's day has been like or what issues they may be confronting off the job. Similarly, we don't always know what our guest is going through. Are they in town for a funeral or a nerve-wracking business deal? Was the guest's recent flight or drive in simply exhausting?

It is our responsibility and privilege as an hotelier to bridge these gaps in understanding and make sure we perform to expectations. Most importantly, guests, our staff, vendors or strategic partners will, more often than not, reciprocate a good performance. This is the fragile, but potentially wonderful, aspect of human relations, when hospitality can bring out the best in our guests and ourselves.

Training - The Great Equalizer

The broad manner in which guests can comment on our performance has only raised the interaction stakes. We are being scored constantly on review sites like Yelp or TripAdvisor, on reservation sites like Expedia or Booking.com and on independent social media like Facebook or Twitter; and the brands are scoring our responses - to the responses. As a result, we must always "pause and think" before hitting that send button, whether it's in posting our answer to a property review on an Internet site or an in-house text from a guest. Digital ink is not easy to erase.

Thus, technology will continue to test us and expand our potential to make mistakes. There is simply no rulebook that can cover all the possibilities these days. As soon as we learn one new reporting or evaluation system or web site, another one seems to pop up instantly. The remedy or solution is in how we train staff. They must not only be well-versed in all the new technology we work with each day, but, also, have the confidence and authority to think for themselves as a representative of our organization. This institutional quality doesn't come from a single reading of a training manual. It must be reinforced through our total personnel effort and philosophy - to mentor staff continually; to genuinely value the contributions of all team members.

The reality of this is evidenced when looking at the reviews left on major hotel-related web sites. It is extremely interesting to note how often guests grade or comment on their interactions not just with managers or front desk people, but, also, housekeeping and maintenance staff, or the server at breakfast. Yes, technology does change the rules of society and the terms of engagement with our guests. We can prosper in this environment when we provide our people with world-class training and acknowledge and encourage their roles as brand ambassadors for our organization and its properties.

Mark Ricketts serves as President and COO of McNeill Hotels. Prior to joining McNeill Hotel Company, he spent seven years as Vice President of Hotel Asset Management in the Realty Management Division for Goldman Sachs in Irving, TX. He provided hotel asset management oversight for over 300 properties, spanning 10 brands and 27 flags while working with nearly twenty management companies. Mr. Ricketts has 35 years of experience in the hotel industry, starting as a Hotel General Manager when he was 23. He previously worked as Vice President of Asset Management for Equity Inns, Inc., a publicly traded Hotel REIT based in Germantown, TN. Mr. Ricketts can be contacted at 901-322-4806 or mark.ricketts@mcneillhotels.com Please visit http://www.mcneillhotels.com for more information. Extended Bio...

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OCTOBER: Revenue Management: Technology and Big Data

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