The digital hotel guest journey is interrupted – what can we learn from airlines to fix it?

An opinion piece by Moritz von Petersdorff-Campen, co-founder and CEO of SuitePad.

I know how hard many hotel groups work with their guest experience teams and technology providers to deliver a seamless digital guest journey. Driven by the pandemic, the focus has shifted to digitizing customer engagement. This is a big development and I think it is more than the result of staff shortages in our industry: even conservative hoteliers have realized that digitalization can improve the guest experience before, during and after the stay.

But now that we are finally exploring the world again and experiencing both a digital traveler journey in hotels and on airplanes, it becomes clear: we – the hospitality industry – can still learn a lot from the airlines.

To be fair, creating a digital customer journey is easier for airlines than for hotels. Airlines have millions of passengers and therefore better economies of scale when creating digital solutions, product offering is more streamlined (1st class, business, economy vs. many different and diverse room types other Spa and F&B outlets) and while most airlines use the same software globally, hotels often struggle with an on-premise technology stack that makes innovation difficult.

But enough of the excuses: what can hotels learn from airlines in terms of digital guest experiences before, during and after the stay?

Pre-stay: offer multiple ways to check in and start your trip

A frequent flyer will use the airline’s app to book, check in, walk through the gate, and collect/manage their points. That sounds good, but one of the problems airlines face is that apps are typically downloaded by a small number of travelers. Nonetheless, airlines like Lufthansa with 145 million travelers in 2019 will still see decent use of their apps given the large number of customers.

But I would say that only a fraction of their recordings go through their apps. The majority of passengers use online check-in on the airline’s website. And even if it doesn’t work for some passengers, they don’t need to queue and talk to airline ground staff to get their boarding pass: several check-in kiosks are available in the departure at most airports.

Application, online check-in, kiosks or check-in counter with human assistance: these are the options available to an air traveler. Three of the four are digital, whereas in most hotels only one option is available (and it’s usually not digital).

A digital check-in may not be suitable for all hotels, but if you think it’s in high demand among your customers, don’t create an app and pray for customers to use it. You should offer several options and let the guests choose the one they prefer. If you can only choose one or two, start with the most used ones (usually online check-in and terminal).

During the stay: Bring-Your-Own-Device (BYOD) and specially designed hardware go hand in hand

I took this featured photo in February 2022 which for many travelers including myself was the first intercontinental flight since COVID hit. More than 80% of passengers used their in-seat touchscreens to entertain themselves, get directions, explore duty-free shopping options and get destination recommendations. Most of us like to use the free entertainment device provided by the airline. It’s just too simple: all content is preloaded and flight information is at your fingertips. Sometimes I’m surprised at how many hoteliers are strong supporters of BYOD or in-room tablets. Imagine asking an air traveler if they would prefer digital recording or in-flight entertainment: they want both!

Think about it, travelers bring their own tablets and smartphones with Netflix, Spotify or Youtube content already downloaded to enjoy during the flight. Still, most passengers end up using the in-flight entertainment provided anyway.

We see similar user behavior in hotels: 65-90% of guests (depending on property type) use in-room tablets for entertainment, learning about the hotel and its services, exploring the menu of the room service and get recommendations. on their destination while they were in their room.

On airplanes and hotels, it’s much easier for customers to access the provided device instead of scanning a QR code or downloading an app! That’s why tech-savvy travelers and paper boarding pass holders love using in-flight entertainment on planes and tablets in hotel rooms.

To sum up, it is natural for airlines to provide a BYOD solution and at the same time engage the customer with on-board hardware. Nor should hotels have to choose between the two. They can use the best of both worlds: in-room tablets which are widely used by guests during the stay and a mobile solution for the smartphone which can be used before arrival and when they are not in the room.

Post-Stay: Customers become loyal to you if you do what’s best for them – even if that means sending them to your competitor

Step into the shoes of an airline passenger for a moment: what does the ideal loyalty program look like?

How about having lots of leeway in how you use your points? Whether it’s getting benefits on flights, benefits with other mobility partners or buying the latest travel gear? And wouldn’t it be great if the status you’ve earned with your favorite airline can also be used in other airlines’ lounges and even earn extra points when you spend money with them? This is exactly what airlines are doing with organizations like Star Alliance or Oneworld Alliance. Airlines understand that they cannot afford to offer all the routes requested by their customers, nor to have a lounge in all the airports of the world. That’s why they need to make sure they find the right partners and together deliver a superior customer experience. This is what creates loyalty.

How does your hotel loyalty program compare? Probably not too well! Unless you have a massive global presence like Marriott or Hilton, you’ll struggle to serve your customers adequately in all the different places the world has to offer. The loyalty base of large chains is probably one of the biggest advantages they have over smaller groups and individual hotels. The main advantages are significantly lower distribution costs!

For hotels, this means thinking carefully about who would be a good partner for their loyalty program. There are many hotel co-ops and loyalty companies, but few have a large customer base and even fewer can tap into that base and drive long-term business.

If you can’t find a good loyalty partner for your hotel, you can join collaborations that support and promote direct booking initiatives. Starting your own loyalty program is usually not a good idea even if you have dozens of hotels. Customers will start comparing you to bigger loyalty programs that already operate at the same level as the airlines and if they do, they might be disappointed with your offer!

Hoteliers, let’s innovate

Overall, there is a lot to learn from other industries and there is a reason why the Harvard Business Review ranked the hospitality industry as the third least digitized business. But after seeing the change the pandemic has brought to the mindset of many hoteliers, I’m very optimistic that hotels will step up their game. The average hotel may not have a huge economies of scale like an airline, but the small size allows it to innovate much faster and that’s what we need to do as an industry to close the gap – so let’s get started!

SuitePad is a leading supplier of in-room tablets to the hospitality industry and an expert in digital guest communication. The Berlin-based company was founded in 2012 and today has more than 60 employees. In January 2022, SuitePad won first place at the “Hotel Tech Awards” in the “Guest Room Tablets” categories for the third time in a row.

The SuitePad, a tablet for the hotel room, replaces the traditional guest directory by taking digital communication between hoteliers and guests to a whole new level. In addition to general information about the hotel, the surrounding area, gastronomic offers and an entertainment menu, the SuitePad also serves as a booking tool for spa treatments and restaurant reservations and also combines the television remote control of hotel and hotel room phone in one device. SuitePad has equipped over 1,000 hotels in 30 countries and over 60,000 hotel rooms with its in-room tablets. The portfolio also includes a BYOD solution – Bring Your Own Device, for the use of guest devices – the lobby screen SuitePad and SuiteCast, a simple and flexible streaming solution for hotel television.

Philippe Wachenfeld
Marketing Vice President
SuitePad GmbH

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Kasandra J. Stone