Attending WIT Hospitality in Hong Kong last month, we kept coming across the same two issues when talking to hoteliers.
The first was one that we’ve all heard a thousand times: that hotels need to get better at tech. John Toomey, VP Sales & Distribution for Marriott’s APAC arm, proclaimed that ‘technology is going to be the key component for us to evolve as hoteliers.’ Hotels need to innovate, anticipate, get ahead of Airbnb and the OTAs - these have become go-to soundbites at many an industry event. The received wisdom is clearly that hoteliers need to be looking to the future, and embracing it.
But the second problem that we kept coming across at WIT was rooted much more in the day to day. Looming large on hoteliers’ minds in Asia is the issue of hiring - and retaining - qualified staff.
At first, the two problems might seem unrelated. But maybe they’re two sides of the same coin. And if they are, maybe it's possible to find a solution that solves both.
The hotelier's paradox
WIT’s ‘Imagining the Future’ panel revealed an interesting clash of priorities when the four hoteliers taking part - Jennifer Cronin of Marco Polo, Lim Boon Kwee of Dusit, Symon Bridle of Rosewood, and Markland Blaiklock of NH - were asked to suggest an industry ‘gamechanger’. Bridle and Blaiklock both suggested that the industry would be transformed when hotels get better at emulating their competitors. Bridle believes that hotels need to start "thinking like OTAs", while Blaiklock emphasised the need to anticipate consumer trends faster than Airbnb.
In contrast, Lim Boon Kwee suggested that hoteliers need to provide more - and better - service. "People are our biggest asset", he claimed. His emphasis on service was reiterated by Century City’s Colman Ho on another panel, who suggested that the hotel ‘experience’ is now eclipsing other factors in terms of what is important to guests. Though it wasn’t his ‘gamechanger’, Rosewood’s Symon Bridle agreed with the importance of great service:
"People don’t remember the chandelier, they remember the person who served them.’"
Margins are shrinking, competition is rising, but hotels need to provide world-class service - and also beat dedicated travel websites when it comes to digital innovation. Easy, right?
Herein lies the hotelier's paradox.
Let's get down to the detail
Jennifer Cronin admitted that she herself is still learning how to use technology in a hospitality context. We hear the same thing from the many hoteliers we work with every day. So when we hear that "hotels need to embrace tech", that "hoteliers can use technology to compete", that "hoteliers should be driving innovation", we want to know in more detail what that means.
Yes, hoteliers would, and do, absolutely benefit from introducing new technologies into their operations. But it’s a lot to ask that hotels should be at the forefront of innovation and digitalisation in the travel industry. That’s asking hoteliers, and especially small hoteliers, to do two very different jobs. It’s expecting them to provide amazing hospitality and service whilst also creating the most innovative software available.
Symon Bridle says that "there is no R&D in the hotel industry… we don’t allow ourselves to forward plan. We are caught in the day to day." It’s this day-to-day culture that makes it such a tall order for hotels to simply become industry-leading digital innovators. But it’s also this culture that targeted investments in time-saving technologies can help to change. It’s not about turning your hotel into a tech company. It’s about identifying where your hotel could do better, tracking what’s being innovated in that area, and adopting it fast and properly.
Markland Blaiklock of NH Hotels laid out the path he sees the group going down in the future. "We are a traditional business," he says. "We should acquire or partner with tech companies. Accor and HNA are doing that. Through that importation we can start building up a culture of innovation."
While not every hotel can afford to buy up a booking engine or ‘mood-matching’ software, they can afford to make targeted investments in time-saving technologies that, importantly, will allow them to learn from their own and others’ data. A major part of what we do at Triptease is provide small hotels, who may only have a few thousand web visitors a month, with the opportunity to learn from the millions of user sessions we’re tracking across the industry.
We can’t all be the next Airbnb or Accor - at least, not yet. But hoteliers can look to the trends those companies are setting when it comes to implementing their own tech solutions - in the right way, at the right price, and on the right scale.
The robots haven't taken over yet - so focus on your people
But no matter how much you invest in technology, it still won’t be enough on its own to deliver a great guest experience. Hotels still rely on excellent, motivated, and well-trained staff to deliver the service their guests deserve.
But with many of the hoteliers we spoke to at WIT raising concerns about staff retention, hiring and keeping great-quality staff is harder than it seems. The effects of recent changes in Singapore’s employment law are being felt strongly in the country’s hospitality industry, with new quotas limiting hoteliers’ access to hospitality professionals from other countries.
China, too, is experiencing staffing issues. Turnover rate can be as high as 60-70%. WIT’s Marissa Trew reminds us that "many hotel companies remain rooted in a hierarchical, legacy system… there is often too much resistance against finding ways to make work a rewarding experience, in favour of the simpler solution of sticking to the status quo and praying people stay interested."
While hotels are waking up to the importance of technological innovation, operational innovation is still lacking in some places. The two need to be hand in hand. If hotels are determined to be the fast-moving changemakers of the future, a stale corporate ladder just won’t cut it.
Innovation is not just going to be the thing that allows your hotel to adapt to an evolving customer base. It’s also going to be key to attracting a workforce who were raised on digital. A recent study by INSEAD, Universum, MIT and HEAD found that 60% of the young workforce in Singapore fear not finding a job that ‘fits’ their personality above any other work-related issue. A common worry was also about getting ‘stuck’. Workplace structures need flex and agility in order to retain driven, entrepreneurial staff.
Marissa Trew puts it nicely:
“The hospitality industry is arguably already the master when it comes to delivering memorable experiences to its guests. All it needs to do now is figure out how to deliver the same level of positive experience to its employees too.”