Johnston McCutcheon was only a couple months into his new role as front office manager when news of COVID-19 began leading the local news and soon after forcing many businesses to close as strict shelter-in-place restrictions spread across the country in early spring. The Hotel at Auburn University never closed, but the university did and business slowed to a crawl.
In his previous role as front-office supervisor, McCutcheon had been tasked with finding a way to use text messaging to improve hotel operations and guest engagement. Now he needed to act quickly to find a way to maintain both with a skeleton crew and increasing guest anxiety.
We recently chatted with McCutcheon about how the Hotel at Auburn University has responded to the ongoing pandemic and found a way to maintain high levels of service using text messaging for real-time and two-way communication.
How has COVID-19 affected your business?
We are right next to campus and the university is our main driver of business. When it closed, we went from a record-breaking first quarter to almost nothing. Our occupancy has hovered around 25% since March.
When it first began and through the worst of it, how were you able to alleviate guest concerns?
We obviously had to make concessions for the safety of our guests, but we didn’t want to make it about cutting guest experience. The keys have been setting expectations and clearly communicating with guests.
How were you able to do that?
At first we thought we really needed this information on our website and in confirmation emails, but how could we make sure we reach our guests? The best way is being right there in their pocket with a text message. It is so much more effective than an email.
It starts with the updated welcome text message we send. We outline everything we’re doing to keep guests safe. At the start, we had to suspend bell and valet service and that could have been a real negative, but by making guests aware of that before they got here it hasn’t been an issue at all. We’ve turned a negative into a positive and guests see we have a well thought out process. Our mantra through this all has been to create peace of mind for guests. There is so much apprehension and anxiety around travel, we want to make sure guests arrive fully relaxed knowing we’re doing everything we can.
How have guests responded to the increased use of text messaging?
Guest engagement post COVID-19 has been insane. From November through February when occupancy was 75%, we got 3,400 incoming text messages. Since the pandemic first hit, we got 3,800 messages from March through June, but with only 25% occupancy. That’s a 300% increase.
Have guests been upset at some of the reduced offerings or have you still been able to maintain a high level of service?
Yes we’ve limited our offerings, but they know we’re doing it for their sake, not cost savings. As a university hotel we do get a lot of repeat guests who are visiting their children or businesses and they have been understanding. We have been operating on a skeleton crew, but have been able to allocate resources when we need to. If someone texts and says they’re part of a wedding party and asks for help with 40 boxes of hydrangeas, we can help. Texting has helped us use our resources more efficiently and still take care of guest needs.
Has the check-in process changed as a result of COVID-19?
We’ve developed a no-contact check-in. We have our (keycard) encoders on the front desk with key dispensers and guests can pull out the keys and encode them on their own. Once we overcame that hurdle, we had to figure out how to keep it fully secure without any physical contact. We didn’t want to say the guest’s room number out loud, so we immediately thought of using Zingle to text them their room number. This enabled a 100% contact-free check-in.
It also ensures we have their correct phone numbers and if for some reason guests don’t get the welcome text message, they’re now engaged with the platform at check-in.
Are there other ways guest service has changed as a result of this?
The biggest thing is we’re not doing daily housekeeping service. We’re happy to service rooms, but want to make sure guests are comfortable with it. We had one of our first groups back in house recently. They were staying a week and I hadn’t gotten a lot of requests from them for housekeeping and they had been here for a couple days. Something must have lapsed. No one had even requested towels. I was able to send a text message to the entire 50-something rooms in less than two minutes and ask, ‘Hey, would you like your room serviced?’ I got an immediate response. What would have happened if we hadn’t done that and they left a week after and we never offered to service their rooms? This makes my job so much easier.
What advice would you give other hotels looking to use text messaging to keep guests informed, engaged and well served, even during a pandemic?
They need to dive into text messaging and personalize it as much as possible. That’s the great thing about Zingle and the way it is set up. With a Zing, you can automate so much and really serve a lot of different purposes. Spend time with the tool and make it fit your needs.