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Proactive Service Recovery: The Revenue Strategy You Can't Ignore

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June 10, 2015

No Need to Call the Front Desk, Just Send a Text

NEW YORK TIMES – As a well-traveled businessman, James Linn felt silly during a trip this month, when he forget to pack dress socks.

In the past, Mr. Linn, a managing director at the American Gas Association who was in New Orleans for an energy conference, would have rushed to a clothing store near his hotel, a Hyatt Regency, to buy an extra pair.

Instead, he texted the hotel. The front desk texted back within minutes, saying it would have socks waiting for him in the lobby.

“What used to be just a personal communication method has become business mainstream,” Mr. Linn said.
Today, having a concierge ready at the tap of a thumb is an amenity offered mostly at luxury-line hotels. But more hotels of all types are beginning to accommodate guests unwilling or unable to fumble with a room phone to call a concierge — increasingly relying on text messages to keep smartphone-wielding guests happy and spending money.

At the beginning of last year, Zingle, one of a handful of start-ups running the technology to connect hotel customers to concierge by text, ran a pilot program at a handful of Four Seasons and Loews hotels. Today, it works with about 300 individual hotels, including Hyatt Regency. Kipsu, another start-up that works with Starwood Hotels and Menin Hospitality, is at 150 individual hotels — five times more than the year before.

“Typically, the conversations are usually transactional in nature,” said Chris Smith, co-founder and chief executive of Kipsu. “What happens over time that’s really interesting is that a relationship grows.”

Hotels hope to encourage guests accustomed to ordering from Seamless and GrubHub, even when on the road, to purchase more room service, where business has slid nationwide. In 2010, American hotels made $2.33 per occupied room from room service requests for food and beverage, according to a survey done by PKF Hospitality Research, a hospitality consulting firm. By 2014, that average fell to $1.61.

But even more important, hospitality managers and analysts say, is saving a hotel from a bad review on TripAdvisor or Expedia, the powerful travel sites. For picky travelers, little things like a broken light or a leaky faucet can shave a star or two off an online review. But if guests can air grievances more easily and hotels respond quickly, the thinking goes, it could lead to more positive reviews.

When a guest sends a text to one of the hotels that use either the Kipsu or Zingle apps, the message is delivered to the phones, tablets and desktops of dozens of hotel employees. When a staff member begins to type a reply, the apps let the others know someone else is on it, so the guests do not receive more than one response. Hotel staff members say the system helps them keep requests organized and respond quickly. Some hotels aim to answer all texts within three minutes.

“If you take a phone call and get distracted by something else when you hang up, you might forget which room to send the razor to,” said Lauren Gilmore, a sales assistant at the Hyatt Regency in Sacramento, Calif., which uses Zingle. Hyatt is testing concierge-by-text at a handful of its Regency-line hotels.

When Lynn Guthridge walked into her room at the SLS Hotel Beverly Hills last September, she smelled cigarette smoke. Ms. Guthridge, a human resources assistant at a Walgreens in Orange County, Calif., mulled calling the front desk about the odor.

But before she could, the front desk sent her a text. “How is your experience at our property thus far?” read the text, sent by a hotel staff member through Kipsu.

When she told the hotel about the smell, a staff member at the front desk offered to move her and her daughter to another room.

“Nowadays, it seems like people text too much and they don’t have enough personal interaction. But for just something like that, I think it’s pretty convenient,” Ms. Guthridge said. She added that she often keeps in touch with her three grown children through text.

As they turn to texting with customers, though, hotels have found they must learn to avoid some easy missteps.

“One thing that’s critical is making sure that the hotel does not text too frequently,” said Reneta H. McCarthy, a senior lecturer on hotel operations at the Cornell School of Hotel Administration in New York. “How many texts is appropriate? And should the first text that is sent to someone ask that person if they are O.K. with the business texting them?”

Another pitfall — and opportunity — for harried hotelkeepers is the use of automated messages. Zingle, for example, can be programmed to automatically answer queries about where the gym is, or the time of checkout.

“If there’s a common question where there’s a really simple answer, the hotels can automate it,” said Erik Suhonen, vice president of marketing and product at Zingle. Some hotels, like the Hyatt Regency in Sacramento, have those responses preloaded for front desk computers, rather than sent automatically, in order to prevent errant texts while still saving the staff a few keystrokes.

Marriott Hotels & Resorts is poised to take the automation even further. In May, Marriott added a chat function to its app that lets the hotel keep a record of all requests for future reference “without guests having to explain it twice,” said John Wolf, vice president of consumer public relations at Marriott. Efforts to anticipate guests’ needs, Mr. Wolf said, help keep members of its loyalty program coming back.

For the hoteliers in Beverly Hills, texting has kept at least one customer loyal. Ms. Guthridge declined to be transferred from her smoky room, but she took the hotel’s loyalty points and gave it five out of five stars on TripAdvisor. She has stayed there two more times since then.

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