Many articles in the hospitality industry tout the importance of customer engagement, hotel chains, airlines and especially retail, stress that the key to getting and keeping customers is to engage them. Everything from data mining products to loyalty providers to payment systems slant their offering to include giving the c
lient the ability to get a deeper understanding of their clients and guests. Loyalty programs are often the best vehicles for not only capturing client and guest information but for creating a lasting relationship between the company and their customers. That analysis and connection can translate into a reoccurring revenue stream. The repeat guest or customer is, after all, the holy grail of the service industry.
People like to feel that their favorite service provider ‘knows’ them and will give them services that are tailored to their individual tastes. Whether it’s airline miles and reward status or loyalty points from any one of the large hotel chains, recognition and rewards for frequent use do encourage loyalty and brand acceptance.
Social networks and individualized apps allow companies a great deal of visibility into the purchasing and preference habits of prospective and actual customers. I have been reading about new services that offer companies the ability to compile customer data across social and loyalty platforms to provide a full picture of the tastes, habits, travel patterns and preferences for almost anyone they have in their databases. Thoughts of what an Orwellian world we are moving toward aside, the benefit to a company to intimately engage with the customer is exciting. As companies seek to find a competitive edge, nothing would seem to work better than being armed with the full range of information about your client. It raises the bar for total hospitality to a whole new level. This ability places the small operator in a better position to compete with the larger players in the market.
For us in the small resort markets of the Caribbean however, the dream of benefitting from such power may be just a dream, costs aside, there are the limited resources internally to mount and maintain an effective engagement strategy. To make loyalty programs work they have to have two basic elements:
An expectation of frequency
A reward system that offers benefits based on frequency.
Frequency has to be on the part of the user; they must believe that they stand a chance of needing / using the service or making the visits, on a fairly regular basis. At a minimum it would need to be at least every few weeks or months to allow for a buildup of sufficient points to make the commitment worthwhile. On the part of the resort the frequency needs to be fairly steady to also allow for the necessary return to make the program viable. Here is where chain affiliations have an advantage over independents; the ability to spread frequent visits around many locations and still reap the benefits of membership. The overall benefits accrue to the chain but the resulting loyalty it breeds increases the likelihood that the guest will return to the originating property eventually and that others, prospective guests, will choose the local resort because of the membership it has in the program. Others wanting to share in the program benefits are also more likely to join.
Benefits are the other key element to a successful program. They have to be fairly easy to accrue and need to have some real material value in the mind of the member; upgrades, points that can be redeemed for air miles, discounts on food and beverage as part of the package of benefits, etc. To be an effective tool for continuous engagement the benefits also have to relate to the habits and lifestyle of the member, going back to the original premise that we need to have a greater understanding of who our member is. Here again, the chain is at an advantage as it can not only spread the benefits over a large number of properties but it also has the leverage through purchasing power and marketing presence to negotiate highly attractive benefit packages. Independent resorts are at a disadvantage as they are limited as what they can offer and the purchasing power they have is limited in its ability to cross market with other travel industry segments for redeemable point benefits.
So, does this mean that the independent resort is destined to not be able to create a deeper level of engagement with their guests, short of taking on an affiliation with one of the associations? To some extent the answer is yes but, independents can do more to engage with their guests and learn more about them. The benefits may not be as frequent and tangible as they would if you had a chain behind you but they can be real and help to promote repeat business and expand the brand presence. This is the new reality of hospitality marketing and the necessary adjunct to traditional channel management and other standard marketing and selling techniques and strategies.
The continuous engagement process is like an onion; it has many layers and works best if each layer overlays the other to create a total package of two way communication and relationship reinforcing activities. The goal has to be to win friends and converts to the brand rather than just generate sales. Sales will come as a result of the program. Much of what needs to be done is already in place in every resort, what is lacking is an overarching strategy that ties the sales and marketing activates together into a continuous engagement effort. This effort also has to consider both internal and external factors and elements to be successful. Just as our guests are multidimensional and have numerous touch points that define their physical and social persona so too does the resort. Continuous engagement is a program that seeks to harmonize the various internal and external efforts to make guest engagement an integral part of the operation. This raises the bar on guest satisfaction to new heights.
External processes, our public persona if you will, have to reflect a clear message as to what the hotel is, what it stands for and what it offers. This has to be sharply focused on the target market. People nowadays are as much a part of various communities as they are members of demographic segments. By aligning the resort with a cause or a specific community we can set the stage for expanded engagement. Technology and the low cost of entry for wide spread dissemination of our message levels the playing field somewhat. Facebook, Snapchat, LinkedIn and other social sites project our message and definition of who we want our target market to perceive us to be into the world. Sharply focused content that reflects not only our overarching message but the interests of the target market help to maintain the conversation and connection between the resort and the guest. Weaving our message and commitments into all of our marketing and selling tools provides consistency of our brand image. The audience is always twofold; the former guest, who we want to remind why they came to us and why they should come back to relive positive memories and, new friends that can find our sites and posts because they identify with the fundamental message of the resort and the larger community to which it belongs. The goal is to move interest in content to desire to participate and experience through a visit, sharing in the like minded principles of the community.
Special repeat guest sections of the website, frequently changing content, coordinated press releases, social activism, blog posts and photos and videos from the hotel all serve to engage. The goal of the website and the social presence has to be focused on the interest and the community and not selling. First we get people to discover us, then to identify with our business as part of their lifestyle and from that engagement arises sales.
Internally our greatest resources are our employees. To my mind, all employees are members of the larger marketing effort. They are the one segment of the business that truly interacts with the guests on a regular basis. Training has to include building skills on how to understand guest motivation, purpose for the stay and guest interests. Our employees have to have ‘buy in’ on the message and larger goal behind the message. Employee and guest interactions need to reflect how the resort actually lives up to the commitment it has made to the community it professes to support. Then there has to be a mechanism where the employee can quickly and easily record important guest information into a guest profile for later retrieval and analysis. Often the case is that we think we have a certain type of person in house and the reality is something quite different. If we can get to know even a small cross section of the guests that come through the doors, they can provide us with the information to tailor our message and align our services. The need is to go beyond the guest survey toward a continual and dynamic feedback model that allows the property to quickly adjust each guest stay to maximize overall satisfaction with the stay experience.
Technology is the enabler for this internal data gathering process if it is built around ease of use and quick access. Open and searchable databases from all contact and sale points help to paint a complete picture of the guest. Once mined the information can then be assessed for incorporation into content creation processes. It is also important to remember that guest types can be seasonal so the direction of the message may have to be multi-targeted and also be seasonally adjusted to maintain relevance. Care needs to be taken not to rely on technology to the exclusion of manual and interpersonal systems. People are what makes a hotel, resort, restaurant or any hospitality business have a heart and soul; all technology can do is provide the tools for expanded person to person interaction.
Finally the job is to continually provide fresh content through all channels to foster and maintain the sense community. Newsletters, pictures and other frequent postings allow our past guests to stay engaged and, hopefully, pass on the benefits of that engagement to others who will see the value of our offering and commitment to our community and want to be a part of our extended family of guests