Since the start of the pandemic, we have all had to get used to social distancing regulations, masks and increased hand sanitising, among other safety measures. While few of us begrudge these requirements, many people have adopted them with a heavy heart. The everyday interactions we have with those around us – the cashier in the supermarket, the friend we bump into in the street – have lost something very human. This is a challenge for the hospitality sector, which prides itself on offering a personal touch. After all, the very notion of the word ‘hospitality’ derived from the Latin hospes, meaning host, guest or stranger, is built on a warmth and conviviality. Can guests truly feel looked after if you’re speaking to them through a Perspex screen? Is technology a true replacement for concierge services?

Hotels have had to work out how to create, and maintain, meaningful relationships with guests at a time when normal modes of connection just aren’t possible. Gonzalo Carpintero, vice-president of operations for EMEA and head of meeting and event transformation at Radisson Hotel Group (RHG), thinks the industry has a tendency to underestimate guests’ empathy when it comes to these unusual challenges.

“The customer reacts better than expected to an abnormal situation if you explain it correctly,” he says. “If you say that they will not be able to enjoy the minibar because it’s forbidden due to Covid standards, and that they will not find additional garments in the room – all things we do for their safety and security – they will understand. Explaining and anticipating is the best way to ensure the guest isn’t misled.”

That said, Carpintero doesn’t feel the human touch has been entirely mechanised. In fact, he feels that guests’ appetite for a personalised service has continued unabated. “The guest is still looking for a friendly face to deliver that welcoming experience, so our people are properly trained to offer our signature ‘yes I can’ service,” he says. “Yes, there is a mask and sometimes a screen, but there is a smiley face behind it offering all the support and service they need.”

Closeness, from afar

Whether the human side of the equation can really thrive at the moment is debatable. But there is another aspect of personalisation that the pandemic has not impacted. Over the past decade or so, hotels have been on a mission to harness the data at their disposal and use it to generate meaningful insights about their visitors. As the thinking goes – if you understand your guests’ behaviour and preferences, you can give them exactly the experience they’re looking for. Rohit Chadra, CMO of Netherlands-based hotel chain citizenM, thinks this aspect of personalisation has actually been enhanced by Covid-19. “Through the pandemic, the industry appears to finally have switched on to the fact that technology is an enabler, not a detractor, of improved service,” he says. “It has woken up to the need to develop deeper levels of automation in support of genuine human connections and explore how to reduce payroll without impacting service levels.”

For Chadra, personalisation means building genuine human connection – being able to touch people emotionally through a deeper understanding of their needs. “It’s also a question of how to do this with the multifaceted consumer,” he says. “What are their specific needs in any given time and place, and how can we deliver them? This can be done both in the digital and the physical world.”

Carpintero, however, believes the hotel industry has fallen behind other sectors in terms of its approach to analytics and automation. Often, back office systems work in silos and fail to communicate with each other – which might mean, for instance, that the system fails to identify you as the same person who booked a different reservation last month. “This looks trivial but it’s extremely difficult to get right, and all the hotel companies are investing a lot of money to make sure they can recognise you,” he says. “If we can do that, then we can offer a targeted service with exactly what guests are looking for.”

RHG is in the process of migrating its core IT infrastructure to a unified platform called EMMA (‘every moment matters’), which will eliminate the need for multiple parallel systems. This means it will know exactly who the guest is, even if they’re booking through a different channel or are coming to a hotel in different circumstances. The hotel group is also building a customer engagement platform – an AI-powered platform incorporating chatbot technology and machine learning – to identify the guest between one touchpoint and the next. The idea is to anticipate their needs and deliver them from an operational perspective.

“Yes, we can target a customer, but who’s going to be receiving that message in the hotel?” Carpintero asks. “How can we make sure the team knows you want to have a bottle of champagne ready when you travel with your wife? How can we ensure they are anticipating your arrival and can book you a taxi from the airport? In the past, colleagues at the hotel would simply approach you with a phone call, but this is no longer sustainable, so we need to use technology.”

Chadha agrees that personalisation starts with that simple act of recognising the guest, whether via digital means or in person. citizenM has been renowned as a tech-oriented company since it launched in the midst of the last financial crisis, and a tech-savvy approach to these problems is second nature. “We use technology to remove friction and manage processes that free our staff to be able to connect with guests,” says Chadha. “citizenM has doubled down on this in the pandemic to create a contactless experience where the hotel teams are still present and visible.”

Understanding the guest

At the start of the pandemic, citizenM adopted a fully flexible approach to all future reservations. Since then, its goal has been to ensure as much normality as possible, albeit while acknowledging guests’ natural concerns around wellbeing and personal safety.

“That might be as complex as a fully digital, contactless experience – optional to use – or as simple as reassuring the guest by respecting social distancing and demonstrating impeccable standards of cleanliness,” says Chadha.

In terms of the type of personalised services guests are actually looking for, it doesn’t have to be complicated. It can mean having a wide variety of food choices (including healthy options and those catering to specific dietary needs), or it can mean being able to connect your own devices to the TV screen. It could involve personalising your room settings through your hotel app or receiving appropriate offers and alerts via geotargeting. “Often we think that guests are asking for things that are difficult to get, but the first thing they are looking for is to cover the basics,” Carpintero points out. He remarks that there are two main types of guests: those who just want to arrive at the hotel and go straight to their room, and those who want to interact with someone. This divide, which is often typified as lying along generational lines, perhaps has more to do with personality type or circumstances, and it’s important to be able to engage with both preferences.

Beyond that, trying to understand the guest may boil down to understanding their demographic. It probably isn’t feasible to personalise every aspect of their experience, but it is possible to start by making some educated assumptions about what they might like.

“We try to understand the customer in archetypes. We know that a business traveller who stays for one night is likely to need certain services, and we’re going to put them at their disposal,” says Carpintero. “Even for a given customer, they won’t want the same things in a three-star hotel as in a Radisson Collection, and they won’t want the same things staying in the centre of London as they would in an airport hotel. So, let’s first understand where we are, then understand what the customer may be expecting and lastly be smart in designing our services in a way that can target a wide range of possibilities.”

Of course, this discussion may feel academic for now, as many would-be guests currently aren’t visiting hotels. No matter how much faith has been placed in predictive analytics and pre-empting the wants and needs of a certain ‘type of traveller, it’s still hard to build profiles on people who aren’t actually there. As a result, brands may be focused more on maintaining people’s interest than personalising services. “There are fewer people travelling to truly connect with,” Chadha points out. “People aren’t in the mode to travel quite yet, so there is little point in engaging them around travel when they can’t. Instead, we have to maintain the conversation on a different topic, keeping purpose and values top of mind.”

The idea is that once travel reopens, guests will know exactly which hotel company to choose – and the hotel will be ready and waiting to greet them.