To be competitive in the hospitality industry today, hotels must provide much more than a room, they must provide an experience. The guest experience is the driver that attracts travelers to book a property, creates lasting memories during their stay, and convinces them to come back.
In recent years, however, the guest experience has been a moving target. As traveler expectations and behavior change and evolve, lodging operators must adapt quickly or risk being left behind. With hotels, inns, hostels, B&Bs, and short-term rentals all vying for the same business, it’s the guest experience that sets a property apart.
“Companies that prioritize customer experience (CX) during a downturn stand to outperform their competition for years to come,” according to McKinsey & Company. “Indeed, wise investment in CX may be key to the industry’s survival and flourishing in a post-pandemic world.”
Here we explore guest experience fundamentals for any property type, the role of self-service technology in catering to modern travelers, and strategies for leveraging the guest experience to build customer loyalty, advocacy, and repeat business.
What is the hotel guest experience?
The hotel guest experience, also known as GX, is the sum total of a guest’s interactions with a property and its team members during their stay. While the bulk of the guest experience happens on property, beginning with arrival and ending with departure, it also includes pre-stay and post-stay experiences.
At each touchpoint in the customer journey, guests form an impression of their experience that helps them decide whether to recommend the hotel to others and return for future stays. It’s, therefore, a top priority for accommodation operators to ensure that all these interactions are pleasant, efficient, and seamless.
The concept of the “customer experience” was popularized over twenty years ago in the 1999 book, The Experience Economy, by B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmour. The authors argue that to connect with customers and secure their loyalty, businesses must move beyond offering mere products and services, which can quickly become commodities, to providing meaningful customer experiences. These experiences have value, particularly when transformational, that companies can then sell to customers at a premium.
The importance of guest experience in 2023 and beyond
During the pandemic, hotels reduced staffing and services to save costs and implemented safety protocols to give people the confidence to travel. As pandemic fears eased, some of these safety protocols have been rolled back, whereas other services appear to be here to stay. Contactless services, digital messaging, and self-service have all become an integral part of the modern guest experience.
Today, as travel gains momentum, travelers are booking longer trips and spending more, but expectations are higher than ever, according to Cloudbeds’ 2022 Travel Trends Report. Faced with ongoing labor shortages, hoteliers and hosts must find creative ways to meet expectations with reduced staffing and resources. It’s the properties that provide great guest experiences that stand to recover most quickly.
Stages of the guest experience
How do you ensure your guest experience stands out from competitors? Start by breaking it down into stages that touch different points in the guest journey. Whether you operate a rustic Airbnb in the countryside or a chic boutique hotel in the city center, the stages are more or less the same:
This is a critical time when guest expectations are set through the property’s marketing messaging and pre-stay communications. Pre-stay can even include the booking process when potential guests are still evaluating your property, which is why it’s so important to have an online booking engine on your website so you can own the booking experience from start to finish.
The moment of truth – when expectations meet reality. This stage includes the guest’s arrival right through to departure and everything in between. Here the experience can vary broadly by property type and services offered.
After departure, the guest experience continues with post-stay feedback and communications, special offers to return, and hotel management responses to reviews. This is also an opportunity to encourage guests to continue to engage with your property by joining your loyalty program or following your property on social media channels if they haven’t yet.
6 hotel guest experience fundamentals
Next, focus on the fundamentals. Throughout the stay, guests have basic needs and expectations that can be grouped into six key components of the guest experience:
- Convenience. For most travelers, convenience is about location and proximity to the places they will visit. But it can also mean in-room amenities such as Wi-Fi and entertainment and facilities such as a restaurant, bar, and function space.
- Comfort. Notions of comfort tend to vary by traveler, but everyone wants a comfortable bed and a good night’s sleep. Extras may include bathrobes and fluffy towels or a spa and hot tub. For many, comfort is also shaped by how the hotel and its staff make them feel. Do guests feel welcome and safe?
- Service. Service encompasses the helpfulness, efficiency, and attitude of employees and their availability to accommodate guest needs. With great service, hotels can overcome shortfalls in other areas, but it’s hard to overcome a negative service experience.
- Quality. Quality refers to the state of the room, facilities, furnishings, food, technology, and equipment. Is it well-maintained and functional or worn out and neglected? If quality is poor, overall impressions are likely to be negative.
- Cleanliness. All travelers expect a clean, tidy environment. During the pandemic, cleanliness became even more important because it was associated with sanitation and safety.
- Value. To assess value, guests weigh pricing against fundamentals like service, quality, and cleanliness. If guests think the property offers good value, they tend to view everything more favorably. If it feels overpriced, they are more critical.
How well a hotel delivers on these fundamentals has a direct bearing on customer satisfaction. If expectations are exceeded, first-time guests are more likely to return and write a positive review. If expectations are not met, guests are less likely to return and may recommend others to stay away too. Tripadvisor reviews can be especially helpful for evaluating performance in these areas because they allow guests to rate location, service, cleanliness, and value, as well as provide an overall rating of the property. Your reviews on well-known OTAs even affect your property’s ranking in their search results.
Which fundamentals are most important?
Price is the number one factor that influences travelers’ choice to stay in a hotel, according to a 2021 survey from the American Hotel & Lodging Association. Before the pandemic, location was the second most important factor, but in 2021 it was displaced by concerns about cleanliness and safety protocols. Ranking 4th to 6th in importance were room amenities, hotel brand, and property amenities.
Technology trends and the hotel guest experience
Technology is transforming the guest experience. “In the post-pandemic world, hotel operations are leaner, guests are more self-sufficient, and everyone is more tech-dependent,” reports the Cloudbeds’ e-book, More Reservations, Happier Guests: The Ultimate Guide for the Modern Hotelier.
Here are just a few new technology trends that are changing guest experience management:
- Automation. Automated features are built into most technology today, enabling software to handle tasks normally performed by employees. This helps ease the burden on hotel staff and improves efficiency and productivity, freeing up employees to handle more complex tasks and dedicate more time to guests.
- Self-service. During the pandemic, hotel guests became a lot more self-sufficient. At an increasing number of hotels, guests can now check themselves in, enter their room, and order a meal using just their smartphones. All without needing assistance from employees. Many guests now prefer to have self-service as an option.
- Contactless services. The pandemic also accelerated demand for contact-free services like remote check-in and checkout and contactless payments.
- Operational tools. Behind the scenes, hotel technology helps improve the guest experience by facilitating communications among front desk, housekeeping, and maintenance teams and replacing manual checklists with automated alerts.
- Guest messaging. Guest service has shifted from in-person and phone calls to digital channels like web chat, SMS, and mobile apps for messaging. Today, you can integrate a guest engagement platform and power your guest communications with AI and chatbots, providing guests with instant answers to frequent questions. Another benefit to using a guest messaging platform is you can use it to send upselling notifications such as upgrades or add-ons to increase your revenue opportunities – a win-win for your guests and your business!
- Cloud-based PMS systems. To connect all these applications, more hotels are turning to a cloud-based, integrated PMS platform that consolidates data and technology, empowering staff to provide a friction-free guest experience.
7 strategies to improve the guest experience
Here are seven ways to leverage the latest trends and technology to deliver excellence at every stage of the guest experience.
Send a pre-arrival message.
Get a head start on the guest experience by sending automated pre-stay emails inviting guests to start planning their stay and share their guest preferences.
Provide remarkable experiences.
It’s often the little details and personal touches that guests remember most. Train and empower hotel staff to go above and beyond to provide remarkable experiences, like paying attention to guests’ special requests or special occasions.
Perform quality checks.
Implement safeguards to ensure quality and consistency, whether it’s digital checklists, room inspections, spot checks, or silent shoppers.
Check in with guests.
Don’t wait to hear about guest disappointments in an online review. Check in during the guest’s stay with a text message or brief survey and ensure any concerns receive immediate attention.
Practice service recovery.
When things go wrong, the real test is how well you manage the situation. Listen to the guest, empathize, apologize, offer solutions, and follow up to ensure the matter is resolved to the guest’s satisfaction.
Guest sentiment in reviews and surveys will tell you exactly how guests feel about their hotel experience and what it will take to entice them back – and others like them. Respond promptly, if only to thank the guest for a fabulous review.
Invest in technology.
Stay current with hotel industry tools that enable you to provide the services travelers expect today, whether it’s online check-in, contactless payments, or self-service, and consolidate technology under one integrated platform.