By Kevin O’Rourke, EVP Global Sales, SiteMinder
Let’s face facts. We love to chat. And, believe it or not, there is little difference between men and women when it comes to the number of words we speak a day – 16,000 on average, according to a University of Arizona study a few years back.
Sadly, technology is often blamed for stifling human interaction and, in particular, the art of meaningful conversation.
So it’s no surprise, then, that some of the technology industry’s best-loved platforms have historically centred around chatting.
At its peak, MSN Messenger had 330 million users – three times greater than LinkedIn’s current database.
Another great example is AOL, which in 2006 had a 52% share of the instant messaging market in the US alone before a steady demise took hold, as users began taking more notice of the likes of Facebook.
And now it seems they’re making a comeback – well, kind of.
Chatterbots, a conversational robot agent designed to stimulate intelligent conversation with its human users, are fast-becoming the norm in the hotel industry.
They might not mean anything to you right now, but Viv, Lola, and M are rewriting the rulebook when it comes to instant service and all part of a new breed of chat-based concierge-style applications to help people manage their lives.
While Lola (pictured above) is specific to travel, and launched by a former Kayak executive, M has been developed by Facebook, and Viv by the creators of Apple’s Siri.
There are others – Pana for example – which is also specific to travel. Then, most recently Google announced its ‘Assistant’ service. Given Google’s existing presence in travel, as well as its recent launch of the Trips app, its assistant could arguably be the one to watch in this resurgence of messenger services.
If it all seems a bit far-fetched for the hospitality industry, then think again. There’s already a bit more to this trend than the figment of our techie imaginations.
Dutch airline KLM is using the Facebook Messenger chat service to send passengers booking confirmations, flight notifications, and even their boarding passes.
Translate this to the hotel industry and any property could keep up a dialogue with guests throughout the booking process, the stay, and post-stay.
Last month, Booking.com launched a chatbot to connect hotels and travellers with its service working in two ways. Guests can ask their host a question on any device from within their Booking.com account. The conversation is free from templates or automated scripted text making the service less robotic and more naturally conversational. Hosts can also start conversations with their guests. A notification is sent to users bringing them into a conversation via the Booking.com messenger.
And Edwardian Hotels London has created the aptly-named virtual host, Edward. He’s available at 12 properties across London and enables guests to request amenities such as fresh towels or room service via text message.
Edward can give guests information about local bars and restaurants and has been designed to respond within a few seconds. He can even facilitate complaints, and guests can ask for an immediate callback to engage with hotel staff the ‘old-fashioned’ way.
Again, natural conversational language is built-in to the app and backed up with ‘live assistance’ when needed. Significantly for hoteliers, this is a ready-made engagement channel that millions of people are already very comfortable using.
Edward is powered by Aspect Software and Joe Gagnon, SVP and chief customer strategy officer, says Edwardian Hotels London is simply tapping into the familiarity of everyday activities.
“Texting and messaging will very soon become the simple and central entry point for the entire customer service ecosystem since it’s quick, private and easy to use,” explains Gagnon. “It’s already a part of most smartphone owners’ everyday lives; it is much more convenient for us to order room service, or get recommendations from Edward on the local tourist hotspots – all with a simple text. Aspect’s self-service technology can be designed for one channel and then used across others, which will enable Edwardian Hotels London to provide consistency of service across interactions.”
WhatsApp and WeChat are also likely to make their presence felt in this space, with the latter being especially strong in Asia where it has some 700 million monthly active users.
A number of travel brands, airlines and hotels, are now experimenting with the above channels. WeChat already offers the ability to make flight reservations.
Starwood Hotels has, meanwhile, been using WhatsApp and other chat services to enable guests to make requests during their stay. Hyatt has been using Facebook Messenger and has said about 10% of customer service messages that come via social channels are now from Messenger.
With big names such as Facebook, Google and possibly soon Microsoft, with its own virtual assistant in development, travel-specific equivalents will have a hard job making themselves stand out.
The benefits of this new breed of services are clear, however. The customer engages with the hotel or other business in a live and contextual way.
The hotel knows who the customer is, what they have purchased before, and what their preferences are.
Google has said it will be using its knowledge graph to help its Assistant provide the best answers for travellers.
These apps can also remove some of the pain-points. They connect everything in a more seamless way enabling businesses to finally begin to bridge the gap between online and offline services.
This is an interesting development at a time when many independent hotels are still struggling with having an engaging website and responsive mobile presence. Technology such as SiteMinder’s website creator, Canvas, exists to give independent hoteliers the platform they need to compete. And Internet booking engines, such as TheBookingButton, also by SiteMinder, provides the mechanisms for hoteliers to engage with their guests at all stages of their customer journey.
If independent hoteliers are savvy enough to get on board with this technology and get ahead, then chat assistants can quickly become another way to engage with customers in a place where consumers are already present and comfortable.