What is loyalty? The Collins Oxford dictionary gives me: steadfastness, dependability, fidelity, reliability, constancy, trustworthiness, allegiance, devotion, faithfulness, but what does it mean in hospitality in a world short on loyalty and big on value and experience? Should we be focusing on guests’ loyalty to a hotel brand (an optimistic ambition with such a rich pickings to select from) or is it a question of the hotel’s loyalty to their guests (arguably equally as ambitious in such a fast-changing and transient market)?
My own thoughts suggest loyalty is a more influential factor in upscale, luxury and lifestyle products, as functional 2-4 star business hotels with good access to airport or conference hubs will be selected through a combination of corporate accounts, VFM (value for money), and PON (point of need). However, take a brand like Autograph and things change. Here, there is an emotional buy-in to a culture, a tone of voice, and a tailored approach to property selection, not to mention the individuality of food & beverage venues and the way in which the interior design embraces the locale. This personal, site-specific approach shows that the brand cares about attracting a highly-targeted guest, and in turn means that such a visitor will likely feel at home within the brand’s stable, encouraging them to come back.
How is loyalty created? It starts, as all great hospitality with a simple show of respect for the guest. Not everyone is a seasoned traveller so understanding and supporting a certain vulnerability or lack of local knowledge in guests who are far from home is important. However, in such a fickle and competitive market, this is not enough. Major brands such as Marriott-Starwood, Hilton, and Accor have realised they need ‘cradle-to-grave’ products and services that suit their guests’ changing needs and personal evolution.
Another factor is the commercial lifespan of a hotel interior. It used to be 15 years, then 10, and in recent years, it has dwindled down to just five. Yet with culture changing so fast and the ceaseless introduction of newer and newer technologies, trends and products, even five years is now too long. Does this mean that hotel designers need to think about interchangeability in their solutions, allowing key features in a room to be transplanted every three years to keep things fresh? Or, as the cost of constant redesign and innovation is impractically high and time consuming, is there a way to circumvent the actual replacement of tangible items without appearing dated and out of touch with guests?
Enter Social Media. We all know that “Social” holds the power to promote a brand through advertising and links, or through social connectivity and associated recommendations. However, this is not what I’m talking about. Think bigger.
Take Facebook. It is now influencing voters in national elections. The advisors to the US Presidential candidates have spent inordinate amounts on Facebook data in order to create influence. What if a hotel brand were to buy this powerful SM data and use it to enhance loyalty?
Social Media can impact our hotel experience profoundly with no need for any change to fit-out lifespan. What if I check into my hotel and front desk already knows I love martini cocktails, arthouse movies, opera, Pilates classes; Indian food; and a freshly pressed shirt each day. Imagine what they could do with that: a small martini list card nestled gently against the desk lamp; a selection of great art-house movies preloaded onto my complimentary in-room tablet; a copy of TimeOut or the local equivalent with a marker on the Arts & Culture section; a link on the TV to a Pilates health channel or copy of the hotel gym’s class schedule; a personal email with weblinks to the best Indian restaurants in town; and a complimentary voucher for a freshly pressed shirt the next day.
Would I be bowled over, impressed with the effort, and get excited about the opportunities presented to me, or would I be unnerved? Would I suddenly feel this hotel brand was invading my privacy, something totally at odds with my expectation that any good hotel should always protect me through their discretion? Who is to say. Our Google searches, newsfeeds and the online ads we see are all already curated to us as individuals. Whilst some may find this irritating, many either don’t even notice, or have been known to click on a few ads that have struck their fancy.
With traditional values and loyalties irreparably eroded, I suspect Social Media will increasingly provide the new differential and leverage for particular brands, as without this information, many will struggle to create loyalty and hold onto guests. This new frontier would also give us as designers the chance to play with new interiors and layout, and would present us with exciting new challenges to overcome.
So, thinking ahead to the design of our next fabulous, luxury guestroom interior, we may well need to consider a special place for a beautiful porcelain bowl to hold a selection of a guest’s favourite fruit, or a specifically designed marble postcard holder positioned on the desk to accept a custom-printed card listing this month’s cocktails. Maybe we will include a shaker and martini glass above the minibar, or a wall shelf to hold the complimentary pre-loaded tablet. The possibilities are endless, meaning both ourselves and the operators will have to edit to keep things feasible for staff and budgets. However, this is an exciting new chapter in the world of loyalty and means that we can start creating truly bespoke experiences that cater to guests’ interests – although I’m not sure what we’ll do if you collect decoy ducks.