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#GLF19 | "There is ONE touch point in the customer journey that the GAFAs will never have: it's the experience"

Hotel owner, manager, administrator, marketer, distributor, programmer, developer, entrepreneur, innovator... Hospitality professionals are at the crossroads of all these professions. Digital technology offers many opportunities to reach new targets, increase efficiency and increase profitability, but how to implement them, why and with whom? Discussion between Remy Merckx, Vice President Digital, Radisson Hotel Group and Vanessa Heydorff, Managing Director. France, Spain and Portugal, Booking.com.

There is a gap between how hoteliers appropriate the digital tool and how customers use it. Why do you think this gap exists?

Remy Merckx: There is a real gap. Hoteliers are beginning to notice this. It was about time and we have work to do. Our core business is hospitality. These are called "Brilliant Basics" at Radisson. If we can deliver "Brilliant Basics", part of the digital is found in the experience.

Hoteliers are not pure players. We have not invested in technology in the past and its development is not our core business. However, we take things very seriously to determine which touch points will help us complete the customer experience. Digital will continue to develop and help build this experience, but human interaction remains very important.

Vanessa Heydorff: The tourism sector is one of the most receptive to the digital economy. 53% of French people book their entire trip on the Internet and 80% will use the Internet for future trips. At Booking, there are 17,000 of us, including 2,000 developers, working to improve the customer experience. We have thousands of tests that allow us to improve our platforms. We are not on the same scales and priorities. We are 100% digital.

At Radisson, how do you help hoteliers make this tool their own?

R. Merckx: The first project was online direct sales. Compared to our main competitors, we had a huge gap in business production through our own booking channels. There is a real ability to bring all our brands under one platform.

This multi-million euro project will be launched on June 18 this year. We are launching a completely revised platform that will integrate the hotelier into the platform's management. There is a real interaction between what we will do in terms of acquisition and the commitment of our hoteliers to the customer experience.

We have identified 53 touch points to interact with the customer. We are also taking the opportunity to get started on going mobile. We have entered into several partnerships to expand the services we will offer clients.

How do you prepare for new competitors?

V. Heydorff: The value chain is changing. The actor who creates the best value will support the customer from start to finish. Amazon and Google have extensive customer databases and have developed payment methods. If these actors wish to play a more important role in the travel industry then this may indeed be a threat.

What is important to know is that we are no longer focused on hosting. We are developing the connected journey. We accompany the traveler from the door of his home to a restaurant in Brazil. We are working on the verticals: booking a transfer from home to the airport, buying tickets for public transport or even renting a car.

Two players have redesigned their loyalty programs: Accor with ALL and Marriott with Bonvoy. How does Radisson empower its loyalty program?

R. Merckx: Loyalty is a key element. There is ONE touch point in the customer journey that GAFAs will never have: it is the experience. That is our fundamental difference.

Each of us has our own job. They do their job very well and we need to do our job better. We didn't do it until today. For years, standardized hotels have been built. Even lifestyle brands lack soul. That's where we have to make a difference!

You have already seen customer posts on social networks saying: "My booking experience on Booking.com was fabulous!". It was. Probably. But usually they share an afternoon by the pool or the cocktail they drank at the bar. That's how hospitality and enhanced hospitality will help us make a difference. 

My challenge is to translate how to improve experiences through digital tools. There is work to be done upstream to acquire new customers. We need to change the way we invest in marketing and technology. We need to shift significant budgets.

At Radisson, we have 1,300 salespeople who are still reaching customers over the phone. I have to launch a platform with 25 people in development. We must re-qualify these staff as technological and digital sales forces.

V. Heydorff: Customer feedback on the experience is getting more and more important. Today, when a customer books on Booking, he looks at 5 to 8 customer comments before making his choice.

At Booking, do you implement AI tools?

V. Heydorff: We work a lot with the AI. Last year, we created a chatbot. In 2018, we had reached 30% of requests processed, today we are at 60%. We will develop it in more languages. However, we keep customer service with a human-to-human relationship for more complicated questions. Our call centre in Tourcoing employs 200 people this year and will employ 200 people next year as well.

R. Merckx: We are working with AI on pre-booking. We have reviewed our media buying policy. We no longer work with a traditional agency. We are regaining control. I have internalized programming in all e-commerce teams. AI helps us know what we pay, what we buy, when we need to buy and how much we earn. We will try to extend it to other elements of the digital journey.
One very important point in the hotel business is that new resources and new profiles must be brought in. We need people who know digital and who have been taught the hotel business. Teams need to be changed to find this knowledge and expertise.

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